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.
Create a BHAG
Create a SMART goal or two for the short term
Don’t overthink it! Do what feels right
The Slumbers (my folk duo)
3. Be honest, but respectful
Creativity is a passionate emotional endeavor. Disagreements are expected and dare we say—encouraged. Dealing with criticism and being able to respond progressively will prevent a project from harboring tension in the relationship.
When giving feedback on an idea, keep your feedback focused on the idea itself, not on the person offering up the idea. Avoid phrases that could sound personal or absolute like “you never” or “that sucks.” If you’re unsure how to give constructive feedback, try the SBI Method or “Situation, Behavior, Impact.” Start by describing the situation that’s bothering you, then share your observations and their impact, keeping the focus on your view rather than their behavior. Then allow your bandmate to react and respond with their point of view and describe their own motivations. This level sets expectations on both sides and helps create a shared understanding.
Even if you want to run your project as the “creative lead,” delivering feedback to others is a delicate balance between getting your point across and making sure others feel heard and considered. No one wants to play a gig with an evil dictator that doesn’t listen. If you’ve gone through steps one and two of this article, hopefully you have enough of a rapport that discussion feels natural and constructive. If it doesn’t, revisit step one and get to know each other’s preferred way to work when it comes to sharing ideas. And if you’re the one receiving the feedback, try responding first with a “thank you.” It acknowledges that you’re listening.
Giving feedback isn’t easy and takes practice. As a general rule of thumb, try to remember that in most cases, everyone wants to make the best possible product.
Examples of vague, pointed feedback:
“How come we always play YOUR songs?”
“I don’t know I just don’t like it.”
“Can you do something different there?”
Examples of constructive, respectful feedback:
“I wrote a new song this weekend. I’d love to try working on it with you.”
“I’m not loving that synth sound. What if we tried a different patch or found something with less high-end?”
“I think that section needs something different to compliment the kick drum.”
Disagreements are okay and lead to great creative options
Not everyone likes to receive feedback the same way. If you run into trouble, ask what you should do next time to better deliver feedback
Try using the SBI Method if you’re unsure how to give constructive feedback
4. Know when to call it quits
Not everything is built to last. Humans grow and change, trends emerge and disappear, and sometimes, we just need something new. As time passes, you may find that “making it” with your band isn’t really what you want anymore. It’s perfectly okay to end, restart, or change a creative relationship if you’re not getting what you want out of it. Creativity is a choice we make and although at times it doesn’t seem like we have control, you’re more in control than you think.
If something isn’t working for you, revisit step one and have an open conversation with your co-creator(s) about your wants and needs. If there’s an obvious divergence, it may make sense to move on. Many creative projects build in band meetings or hangout time in a non-creative capacity to check in, take care of business items, and spend time together outside of the project. This is a perfect avenue to bring up any concerns you have about the project or feelings you might have about your involvement in it.
Remember that at the heart of all this, creativity should feel intuitive, fun, and fulfilling. Do what works for you. Chase the fun and if something doesn’t feel right, adjust.
Regular meetings or hang time can ease difficult discussion around leaving a project
It’s okay to end a creative relationship when it’s not working for you
We all know how hard creative relationships can be. There’s so much at stake when you’re making art. Our creativity gets wrapped up in our identity, passions, and experience and with so much at stake, it can be really hard to incorporate others into our projects. By taking the first step toward being more open, you can build a lasting creative relationship with (almost) anyone.
By getting to know each other, you help build a shared vision and understanding for what a project is and how it should work. Defining a common goal can help anchor expectations and prevent stalling. Being honest but respectful in communication can make your time far more progressive and productive. And knowing when to call it quits can help make sure you’re getting what you need out of your creativity.
We’d love to hear what has worked for you; what are your suggestions for building strong, lasting creative relationships?
Special thanks to our iZo veterans for their contributions to this article. Will Hunt, Product Marketing Specialist, Sean Greenhalgh, Community Manager, Geoff Manchester, Product Specialist, Brian Desmond, UX & UI Designer, Dan Gonzalez, Product Manager, Shahan Nercessian, Research Engineer, and Dave Godowsky, Artist Relations.