The Idea EnthusiastThe Idea Enthusiast

Tag : music

By Greg Roth

Collaboration and the Alchemy of Individuals

Team collaboration is a hot topic in business and leadership circles, for obvious reason. It’s the foundation of “workplace culture”, a sometimes ambiguous yet very real aspect of our professional lives. We can’t always define what culture is, but we know it when we see it. We feel it, good or bad. Even if it’s hard to measure or pin down, it’s there, everyday. Some organizations even hire someone to be in charge of it.

But, it’s not just for knowledge workers in cubicles or at tables in open office environments. Teams exist in every industry, and creative work, in all its forms, is a constant exercise in negotiation, both with new ideas and with the people all around those ideas. It’s an imperfect art getting a collection of individuals to bring their unique perspective and skill to a project, yet function, in some way, collectively as a coordinated, intentional entity.

Take, for example, rock bands.

Tucked away at the end of this American Songwriter profile of The National is a look into their creative process and how they attempt to engage and involve all five members of the band in creative dialogue. (Emphasis is mine).

With the National back in the studio together in Hudson without any immediate deadlines or time crunches, the band was able to experiment and create more freely, and more collaboratively, than they had in years.

Devendorf characterizes the band’s recording sessions as opportunities for each member of the band, “a five-headed monster,” as he puts it, to constantly give each other feedback and advice.

“There will be times when I think I’ve messed up a whole section on the drums and think it’s terrible, and Aaron will say, ‘That’s the best thing you’ve done on the whole record,’” says Bryan. “The band helps me see what’s working. Otherwise, I would just try to make things too complex.”

For their most recent sessions, Berninger introduced a few gags to help lighten the mood and foster directness. He instilled “Honesty Hour,” when the band would give unfiltered opinions about each other’s creative ideas. He also embroidered a knit cap with the word “Producer,” and whoever wore the literal “Producer’s Hat” would get to make production decisions at that moment. “Matt wore it a lot,” says Scott Devendorf. Indeed, Sleep Well Beast marks the first time Berninger receives an individual co-production credit on a National album.

Seven albums and 15-plus years into their career, the National are still finding ways to reinvent and fine-tune the way the band harnesses the talents of all of its individual members to write interesting songs and make lasting records.

“It’s kind of a cliché, but bands are all about the alchemy of individuals,” says Bryce Dessner. “There are fairly well-worn relationships that play out, and then we subtly challenge them. That’s part of keeping it interesting — we have to keep growing. How do you do that? Especially a band that becomes mildly successful, it’s easy to get overconfident. Part of it is that our self-deprecating personalities allow us to challenge ourselves. It’s like, ‘Actually, though, what we do is not that interesting, so let’s keep improving it.’” 

This is some straight-out-of-design-school thinking. Interestingly enough, all five members of the band met through the University of Cincinnati’s graphic design program in the early 90s.

Turns out, rock bands are just like companies. Some have of alot of turnover and end up being centered around 1 or 2 individuals. Others find a way to keep talented individuals together for years, offering them ways to explore and grow beyond job titles.

By Greg Roth

3 Creative Lessons from a Theme Song

As a sometimes musician and songwriter, I look to stories behind songs for inspiration and lessons in patience. Sometimes, we hear about hit songs that were written in 30 minutes, but often they take time to come together. Like writing of any kind, the quality is in the revision.

This NY Times article on the campy-yet-cool theme song commissioned by the team in the mid-70s serves as an interesting origin story for how the song came together and illustrates three lessons when making something.

Lesson #1: Work on a quality first draft, but remember it’s a draft.

At the time of the song’s creation, Childress was doing odd jobs for the 76ers while he finished his degree at Temple. He recalled that he once earned $500 for dressing up as a turkey at a game before Thanksgiving. A pair of female ushers, clad in pilgrim costumes, led him around.

“I did all sorts of stupid stuff,” he said.

As for the team itself, the 76ers were on the rise after years of yawn-inducing mediocrity. But Pat Williams, then the general manager, understood the 76ers needed to add some pep to the game-day experience if they were to draw larger crowds to the Spectrum, the team’s arena at the time.

“We were trying to create the kind of atmosphere where it was a fun place to come,” he said in a telephone interview.

So when Williams learned that Childress was in a rock band, he had an idea: Perhaps the 76ers needed their own theme song.

Armed with a new assignment, Childress invited Rocap and a third bandmate named Joe Sherwood to his small apartment, where he had a four-track machine. They hammered out a demo, the original beat set by the steady dribble of a basketball.

“Boink, boink, boink, boink,” Childress said.

In the Lean Startup world, this would be called minimum viable product. Also, as a side point, very clever using the pace of a bouncing basketball as both the tempo of the song and the foundation of the demo itself. You don’t need fancy tools. Work with what you have to finish the initial idea faithfully.

Lesson #2: Observe the “everyday world” around you for inspiration

One morning, after watching “Sesame Street” with his 7-year-old daughter, Rocap arrived with lyrics:

One, two, three-four-five, Sixers!

Ten, nine, eight, 76ers!

“And we’re going, ‘Oh, that’s great,’” Childress said. “So that’s where the initial burst came from, and then we built the whole song around it.”

You could also say that this is providing space for magic to happen. Or to be OK with not having all the answers initially. These guys were trying to write a catchy song. Along the way, they realized that kids music — insanely catchy and these days a huge market — provided a simple, demonstrable way to

Lesson #3: Work with people you trust and allow them the chance to make specific choices

The band, known as Fresh Aire, wrote the song in E major, a key at the top of the vocal range for most male tenors. By pushing that range, Sherwood said, the song created energy. And in hopes of protecting its shelf life, over the years the band kept the lyrics free of references to specific players on the team — even the illustrious Julius Erving.

On the track, the band harmonizes to an accompaniment that includes guitars, piano, bass and drums. Sherwood’s brother Richard gave the song some soul by jamming out on a Hohner Clavinet, a keyboard instrument at the height of cool in the 1970s thanks to Stevie Wonder.

“My brother added a little riff,” said Joe Sherwood, 70, who began singing:

“Here they come! Deedley deedley deeeee!”

The band made specific choice to the music in order to achieve its original goal — the be an upbeat theme song that everyone would enjoy. The point about resisting the urge to just start name-checking players is interesting. Through the idea-development process, there will be hundreds of choices and it’s difficult to know what the right choice is in many cases. This type of long-term thinking isn’t fool-proof, but the fact that it was something the writers considered means they were thinking critically about what they created.

Of course, I’m biased because the Sixers are my favorite team and, oh by the way, the song was the last one played at our wedding reception.

Collaboration and the Alchemy of Individuals
3 Creative Lessons from a Theme Song