The Unoriginals (my band)
It’s Thursday night. You’ve been excited all day because tonight is band practice with your buds, and you’ve been working on a new song all week. You roll up to practice, guitar in hand, excited to play. You jovially toss around some ideas about that song you’re writing and suddenly, out of nowhere, your bandmate tears into you.
“How come we always play YOUR songs?” he snaps.
You didn’t even know Jimmy wrote songs.
And like that, just when you think your band is a safe haven from dealing with all the other relationships in your life—band drama.
It happens to all of us. Whether you’re a songwriter, musician, producer, performer, artist, or creative: relationships are hard.
Every creative project is different, but with a few communication tricks and some good old fashioned expectation setting, you can mitigate almost any creative difference, but it takes work. (And yes, unfortunately, about the same amount of work you’d put into any relationship.)
In this post, we offer advice for cultivating trust in a creative relationship to avoid common creative differences like stalling, ghosting, arguments, and egos.
1. Get to know each other
Understanding common interests, work styles, and backgrounds is essential at the start of any creative endeavor. Start by discussing openly what influences inspire you to help guide the project. It can help to make a shared playlist or mood board to help develop a sense of shared identity for what you’d like to create. When you’re further along in the relationship, you can even go back and reference it, continue to shape it, or just use it as a reminder of where you came from.
At this stage, it’s also a good idea to talk through how someone would like to work on the project. It’s no fun for anyone involved if you expect to work as a democracy and someone else wants to call the shots. Make sure you have a sense of how you’d like to relationship to work in addition to what each player’s strengths and interests are. Sure, you may want Jimmy to be your bass player, but Jimmy might be playing more guitar nowadays and writing songs of his own. It’s a headache if you find this out down the road. There’s no right answer to how you should work, but you should at least have some alignment on this before marching ahead.
Lastly in the realm of getting to know each other, it’s important to be as open as possible to ideas and discussion. Try using the “Yes, and…” improv method to promote new ideas and further discovery, rather than narrowing your focus too soon. This may shut down ideas too soon in the project at time when you should still be exploring. Even if you’ve been friends for years, you’re still getting to know each other in the context of the project at this stage. Everything should be on the table.
Make a shared playlist of musical influences and a mood board of images that inspire you
Use the “Yes, and…” method to open the table for new ideas
Ask about how someone would like to work, what they like to do, and what their strengths are
2. Define a common goal
Once you feel comfortable with your prospective co-creators, it’s time to talk about where you want to go. Deciding on a common short term goal is a good place to start while the relationship is new. Setting benchmark in the future allows you to get to a defined point, inspect, and change your approach if something doesn’t feel right. It can also help focus the project in times of uncertainty and prevent project stall. Plenty of projects lose themselves without even a tiny bit of focus. Some of the best bands in the world never leave their practice rooms but complain about a lack of gigs or recognition. Imagine if those bands had a goal.
A good rule of thumb for setting short term goals is to make them SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timebound. For a new band, this might be something like playing three shows before the end of the year, recording four songs to release in December, or writing one new song per practice.
Once the project is more established, start to think more long-term by setting a BHAG, or “Big Hairy Audacious Goal.” Pick something you like to accomplish that’s very aspirational, 5-10 years in the future. This is especially important for bands that want to “make it” or do something really big. Understanding your BHAG helps align and focus the project when egos, life commitments, and other distractions get in the way. It also helps align short term goals so you’re not playing the bar down the street for free on a Monday night when you’re real desire is to be licensing recorded songs for television and film.
If this sounds clinical—don’t worry! Goals are just about checking in with your creative project. The important thing is to be on the same page with your co-creators whether you’re informally chatting over a few beers or you’re formally putting your goals to parchment with a quill pen.