The Scream Team
by Molly-Ann Leikin

I get at least ten telephone calls a day, plus an equal amount of e-mail, from writer/artists who have problems with collaborators. I'd like to give you my take on how to handle this in the most constructive, professional way.

First, if your writing/singing team is getting cuts, making deals and getting airplay, don't change the creative mix. If it's working on a business level, but personally it's a landmine, find a good success coach or therapist who is used to working with people in troubled, successful, creative partnerships. The rule I follow in these situations is do what's best for the song - not your ego. The song/project should always come first.

Apparently, after they were already enormously successful, Rogers and Hammerstein didn't speak to each other. But they kept on collaborating. Hammerstein typed up a lyric, and a messenger would slide it under Rogers' door. Rogers would write his tune, make up a lead sheet, and sent another messenger to slide it under Hammerstein's door. R & H never spoke. Period. But they were one of the most successful creative partnerships in musical history. To this day, their catalogue, Williamson Music, still earns more than any other. This was a business relationship worth saving.

However, if you're quicksand-bound and aren't getting anything except colitis from collaborating, you have the wrong songwriting partner. I'd suggest cutting loose immediately. All the negative energy going into wishing pimples, pestilence and Pepcid AC on your partner is killing any positive outcome that might result from your work. The quicker you get out of a bad situation, the better. Creative energy is extremely fragile. Lots of writers/singers have called me for help, saying they were hopelessly blocked. Their negative creative team was ultimately responsible.

You also want to make sure you don't sign on with someone whose agenda really is to fail. Like with a singer/writer from suburban Sanduskie. We'll call her Freddie the C. She had a great voice, wrote okay melodies and confusing lyrics. Freddie decided to collaborate with a lyricist I knew, who was well-established. They wrote six songs together - Freddie's tunes, Tom's lyrics. Freddie was in an abusive marriage. She was well over thirty, had just chopped off all her long, beautiful hair, and had messed up everything previous to this collaboration. Every deal she ever signed went sour. Every manager she ever had ripped her off. Every distributor headed south. Every gig was worse than the last, and she was down to singing in outhouses to toothless teamsters in CAT caps.

Tom tried to look beyond that, hoping Freddie's voice could break through with the right material. But their conversations became more and more negative and ultimately so abusive, Tom couldn't bear to speak to her. Apparently, he'd just undergone intestinal surgery and had to remain calm. Freddie's negative calls always upset him and sent the man straight back to Cedars.

They didn't speak for six months. Tom had moved on, sold a novel, started writing with other people, met a great lady. When nobody wanted the songs he and Freddie wrote together, since they couldn't speak to one another and had no "product" worth saving, Tom's lawyer wrote to Freddie and the copyright office, separating Tom's lyrics from the original copyrights, and re-copyrighting them on their own. I'm happy to report that Tom rewrote one of those lyrics for someone else's tune. These two writers respect each other, have great creative chemistry together, and just signed a major deal as a staffwriting team.

Freddie had no success genes. She was used to being a loser, and very comfortable with that. Success threatened her security system. Tom was a very successful person, and while he admired Freddie's voice, he sure didn't need to put up with her "emotional challenges". When he ended the collaboration, I felt he made the right choice. Life is short.

As for Freddie, sadly, she didn't really want to collaborate. She was doing what was best for her ego, not her songs, and resented Tom in her equation from the start. That, I think, was the source of all their collaboration problems. She couldn't see the value he was adding to her package, which was enormous. We'll probably see her on TV, but alas, on a "coulda woulda" segment of the Jerry Springer Show. Tom, on the other hand, will probably be on the Grammy's.

One of my clients was a fine writer working alone. Suddenly he decided he had to collaborate with an MIT student who was only home two weeks a year. So now, instead of having hit songs, he has partially finished songs, waiting for the MIT student's spring break. The way I see it, my client chose someone who was unavailable to make sure his songs would never be completed. It's like a single girl dating a married man. She knows deep down nothing is ever going to happen.

Some people collaborate because they are the only two or three or four people in their respective subdivisions who can hum. If the quality of what you write isn't up to the competitive level of the marketplace, don't keep a partnership going just because it's not a toll call. I'd rather your partner live in Belarus and be brilliant than just mediocre and holing up over the local hardware store.

Husbands and wives often write together, and unless you're the Bergman's, I feel that's dangerous. You can never do what's best for the song. You do what's best for your marriage, which is to say nothing, and let it slide. The quality of your work has to suffer. Writing with a spouse is precarious at best because you can't tell each other the truth. Therefore, I suggest you find other singing/songwriting partners.

With the internet and all the collaboration opportunities available through it, your options are limitless in finding the right creative team. One of those options is my Songwriter's Collaboration Network. Many incredible writer/artists are meeting daily through their listings on the SCN. If you feel there is a better creative songwriting partner for you out there somewhere, try it. You never know what magic will be waiting at the other end of an e-mail.

© 1999 Songwriting Consultants, Ltd. All rights reserved.

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Molly-Ann Leikin is an award-winning professional songwriter for hire offering song critiques.

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