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Frictionless creative experience

In college I spent two years with my friend and keyboardist Brian co-writing 60+ minutes of Progressive Rock music. The writing process was straightforward. Brian would play a chord progression and I'd come up with a guitar part to accompany it, or vice-versa. In a perfect world each of our first ideas (riffs, chords, arrangements) would fit perfectly together and eventually that would happen enough times to fill a song. I'd call that a frictionless creative experience.

Our creative process was more turbulent. Brian would play something and I may comment that it doesn't sound right. Or I may play something and he'd comment that it doesn't fit. And we'd go back and fourth until we had ideas we were both happy with. But we didn't always reach a place of harmony. Then whoever has the greatest conviction for their idea triumphs. The "surrendering" individual would trust the others conviction and accept their idea. Fight for a different idea another day. If this process sounds painless and structured, it was far from it.

Writing music (and really any creative endeavor) is emotional. You come up with an idea that you're excited about, proud of, and you're instantly invested in it. It's the best you can do at the moment, and to have someone reject your idea can be demoralizing. What's wrong with it? Why won't it work? Why did they use thattone? It's even trickier when the person giving feedback isn't capable of doing the work on the medium they are giving feedback on. Think developer giving feedback to a designer. Or in my case, giving Brian feedback on how he could modify his idea on the piano. I can't play the piano, so I can't play for him what I'm imagining. The best I could do was describe and guide him to play what I was imagining.  

So how do you navigate the emotions? Welcome them but not allow them to derail the project and relationship. Reflecting on this experience I've identified several traits that made our writing partnership a success.

The first was respect for each other as musicians. Both of us were classically trained and had music theory knowledge. We were also dedicated to our instruments and put in many hours of practice. This fueled respect for each others opinions because we both knew what we were talking about. Plus dedication to our crafts elevated the level of respect. Contrast this with a "business/idea" person telling a developer how they should build something. The developer will have less respect if the business person has no clue about development process (this example can also be flipped). 

As the producer for this record, I would have final say as to the musical direction of a song. It's important to have a person who is responsible for making those decisions. And to trust that they are making decisions for the good of the project, not for their own agenda. I was given this responsibility because I wanted it, I had a particular vision for the music, and I had expertise in the genre of music we were playing (progressive rock). I'd listened to many songs in the style, so I had a lot of knowledge about the genre. This allowed Brian to trust my vision and direction, because he trusted my expertise.

We also established a culture that was about the music, the product we were creating. If you come up with an idea and it get's discarded, it's not personal, it's for the good of the music. We weren't competing on who had more ideas that would be used. We had mutual interest for the best ideas to surface. And so it's critical to not take criticism personally. It saves time, and it allows you to focus on creating, instead of fighting drama.

And finally we were 50/50 partners in this. Establish the "business" breakdown prior to starting and make it a fair split. You want each person happy with their share so that it becomes a non-factor. You want to create an environment that fosters creativity and minimizes the things that generate friction. And when you run into friction, you have a mediator who is trusted with making the hard decision for resolution.

Although a frictionless creative experience does not exist, you can establish a culture that is conducive to an effective and pleasant creative experience.