Out of the Ether
Generating collaborations in the digital space
This post was originally published in the Spring 2017 edition of Chamber Music Magazine, which is dedicated to the art and business of small ensemble music. Reprinted here with permission.
In 1999, a UK conductor put out a call to a listserv. He was looking to commission a new work, and was curious if there were others who were interested in co-commissioning with him. It was to be a piece by Richard Rodney Bennett.
A few people responded to the email, and the result was a substantial work that none could have afforded on their own: Bennett’s The Glory and the Dream. Fifteen organizations from around the world contributed to that effort, and in return they won the right to perform the piece.
For some, this collaboration took place entirely in the digital realm. Throughout the life of the project, Seattle-based co-commissioner Karen P. Thomas never met anyone involved — including Bennett, who was in New York. There was a lot of email. There was some talking on the phone. But that was it: an email, a response, a collaboration, a performance.
This story is not the only one of its kind. Collaborative work often emerges from relationships that begin in, or primarily occupy, digital space. But what may seem like just part of the work for some poses seemingly insurmountable barriers to others. How can artists get their work — and their voices — heard in the vast digital arena?
To learn the answer, I spoke with five composers and performers whose careers have been meaningfully impacted by online-first collaborations. Here is their five-step plan.
1. Create work samples and put them online. (Yes, they’re good enough. No, you don’t need a studio.)
“Beg, borrow, recruit your friends,” says violist Michael Hall, an internationally recognized soloist, teacher, and thought leader. “Get performers to rehearse your piece. Meet them, have some coaching with them–then put together a modest setup, even if it’s a Zoom recorder and a room that’s safe and quiet. Don’t just settle for MIDI. If it’s out of necessity — if you’ve just written a symphony and you can’t hire a symphony — then that’s the format you have to present your work in. But for chamber music and solo pieces, you have to work with people to try to get some of those recorded, even if it’s not something you’re going to release for the Grammy consideration.”
“Not everything you put out there is going to be amazing the first time,” says musician, writer, and teacher Megan Ihnen. “Work within your means, do what you can with what you have at this moment, and that will help bring more resources to you, whether that’s time, money, or taste level.”
If you’re still anxious about posting your work on the internet, you’re not alone. Megan suggests remembering the purpose of your work may help get past that.
“I have a lot of nervous energy around perfectionism,” Megan says. “I push myself to know that’s where it’s coming from… Singing is the goal. Perfectionism and nervousness get in the way of that.”
In many cases, recording quality matters less than you think.
“Lo-fi demos used to go to recording companies all the time,” says composer, librettist, and vocalist Ross Crean. “They weren’t listening for what kind of grain was in there or how much white noise, or whether the audience was being receptive if it was a live recording. They didn’t care. They wanted to hear the material. It’s the same for auditions. I told a tenor once, ‘Take an iPhone, place it five feet from you and your accompanist, perform the song, record it on your phone, and send it over to me.’ Yes, there was white noise. But it was a solid performance, I could hear exactly what they were doing, and he ended up on my recording.”
Context, however, does matter. Each type of recording sets different expectations. Recordings of live performances — especially when streamed — allow more room for error than studio recordings, while also having the added benefit of conveying the energy of the performance. A rehearsal snippet may be fine if you’ve been able to contextualize it so that any viewer or listener sees and understands immediately that they’re hearing a rehearsal. And an informally recorded performance video might also be more compelling than a studio recording.
“My duo partner and I were trying to record a couple of samples,” says Chrysanthe Tan, a composer, violinist, and writer who’s toured the world with pop star Ariana Grande. “We set up multiple mics, did sound checks, did a recording session for one or two pieces, edited it together, and made a recording. We listened to it, and I mean…. it was fine.” (Imagine a long, drawn-out fiiiiiine.)
“But we don’t use it at all, because I also had a video from one of our performances, and we both agreed that one was better — even though there were a couple of mistakes, which was our reason for setting up the recording session to begin with. We’ve never used those audio recordings.”
What set apart the video?
“The recording sounded sterile,” Chrysanthe says emphatically. “Also, I think people approach performance recordings with a different attitude. When they watch a performance, they’re more in it for the experience, and whether it’s conscious or not, they don’t expect the same level of technical precision.”
If all you’ve got are performance recordings, you’re in good company. Almost every sample on Michael’s website is an unedited live performance. And every track on composer and conductor Karen P. Thomas’s SoundCloud (Karen of the commissioning story that opened the piece) is a performance recording as well.
If you really need studio time, to cut costs Ross suggests finding a freelance studio tech whose work you like, putting together a group of friends who all need short recording sessions, and negotiating a deal for the day. He also recommends giving performers the material far in advance so they can prepare as much as is necessary. You might also consider augmenting your recordings with a score to provide additional context.
“If someone is listening, and they don’t necessarily have the score in front of them, then the recording is going to form their impression,” says Karen. “Scores are really important. A recording might capture your ear, but as a performer, you want to see what you’re dealing with, because you don’t know what that notation looks like, how difficult it might be to realize what you’re hearing.”
2. Articulate your passions.
“We want to know what makes you tick,” says Michael. “What is your vision? What kind of heartbeat are you giving your artwork? How are you articulating that? Composers have to learn how to articulate what they’re believing with their music, what they’re saying with their music, and practice doing that.”
Ross, who was a painfully shy kid, eventually decided he had to stop worrying about what people would think if he spoke his mind. “I use Facebook as a sounding board for my ideas, and people will tag other relevant people on there for me. It’s like putting out the call. It’s leaving the door open for anyone who wants to come in.”
Megan focuses on the message. “Know yourself. Know what it is you want to be putting out there and how that is helping you grow your audience. For me, that’s mainly composers and other performers. Some of the things that I’m thinking about are: How am I showing people what I want to do with my work? Am I making sure they see me doing the things that I purportedly want to do?
“If I want to be hired as a new-music singer, I need to be consistently putting out work that says, Hi! I’m a new music singer. You want to develop your online life — as your performer self — such that when people think of the thing, they think of you. I put things out there so that when people think of new music for the voice, they go: Oh, I should talk to Megan about that. Or, when people think about new music advocacy, they go: Megan. I’ve gotta talk to her.”
“People have to know you’re out there,” says Michael. “Let your voice come through — and not just in your music.”
3. Demonstrate your sincerity — again, and again, and again.
“Many of my collaborations have been the result of other people witnessing how sincere I am on the follow-through of projects,” says Michael. “The first part is the hardest: building some kind of experience that other people can witness, a body of evidence that we are willing to work as hard as we can for other people’s artwork and music and get it on the stage. That builds a portfolio of your sincerity, your work ethic, and then your artistic merits as well.”
Michael started by self-producing concerts, working with composers, and not just playing premieres of works, but performing the pieces again and again and again. “That demonstrated, I think, to many people, my sincerity in projects — that it wasn’t just about the glory of a premiere.” (Note: he’s played pieces written for him by Mara Gibson over 40 times in the last 4 years, and recently performed a piece by Marta Ptaszynska for the 58th time.) “Once they see that you’re willing to carry these pieces forward, that the initial premiere isn’t the end of the collaboration, I think there’s more merit in other people’s eyes to come seek you out.”
This sincerity also plays out in the way he chooses his projects. “A lot of my prioritization is dictated by how much a project will empower other people. Is this this just empowering myself, or is it helping a composer whose vision, voice, and energy I believe in? Is this helping entire communities share a message, like the Syrian Requiem that was written for me, or Mary Kouyoumdjian’s piece about the Serbian war? They help speak to not just a larger audience, but I also think they help activate some further engagement beyond just the listening of that piece.”
4. Make sure people know you want to collaborate… and then follow through.
If you have a website, look at it now. Don’t click on anything, and don’t scroll. Do you see a call for collaboration — something a stranger to your site would notice within ten seconds?
Chrysanthe’s homepage contains two big buttons — “Commission” and “Book” — and a sample of her work. Megan’s contact page has the following headline: “Let’s Work Together!” followed by two glowing testimonials from collaborators. Michael’s email is at the top of his site–on every page. His bio states that he “believes strongly in the expressive power of collaborating with diverse disciplines in the arts.” Karen’s website has a page dedicated entirely to the commissioning process and her passion for it. Ross’ website footer contains a sweet note for the reader and mentions that he is “always for hire.”
Now look at your other digital platforms. How are you communicating your desire to collaborate on Twitter? Facebook? SoundCloud? A monthly email?
Paring down a website to its bare essentials is an art of its own. “It was a journey to get there,” says Chrysanthe. “I had a little crisis: What am I doing, why am I not getting this kind of work, and why do I only get calls for this other type of thing? I looked at my website and realized it was entirely visual — pictures and visuals of me playing violin. It only portrayed one side of my career, and you could barely find my own music.”
It took external feedback to make the change. “I had a coach look over the site. It was hard — I do so many random things. And then I thought about it like this: What is essential? If I only have 6 seconds of someone’s initial time, what do I want them to see? And then I thought about my own habits. If I’m starting to research someone, and I’ve gotten past the 6-second barrier, and I’m digging around on their site, then I’ll do that digging myself. As long as the links are there, I don’t need to be spoon-fed every single thing at once. And so I tried to find the heartening aspect in that.”
Are you being asked to do work? What kind? Is it what you want to be doing? If you want to make a change in how others are collaborating with you, consider Chrysanthe’s approach. Better yet: make your desire to collaborate visible on every platform where you might encounter collaborators.
Says Megan: “When composers connect with me on social media about a collaboration, I’ll say ‘Great, let’s make that happen. Here’s my email address!’ Even at this point, when they have a green light from a potential collaborator, people sometimes stop themselves — and I have to show them I’m serious by asking for their email and reaching out to them.”
If you say yes — follow through. “Know your commitment level,” says Megan. “Understand the mutual terms and restrictions. If you have to say no because you don’t have the capacity, make it about taking the time to do it right. Let them know you want to work with them next year. The result: more room for good documentation, proper pay, and planning.”
5. Build & maintain relationships.
If you’re not sure how to form relationships on social media, consider how you form relationships in real life. Michael has worked with collaborators in China, Iran, Brazil, and Thailand — all of whom he communicated with digitally before meeting in person. These relationships began with a personal referral, and then the newly-paired collaborators developed their own connections, using Skype or email to talk about their lives and families. The relationships are often strengthened by a common professional or social thread.
“We have to get along in order to trust each other to shape a project,” Michael says. “It requires sensitivity, patience, and trust. I ask myself, ‘Is this somebody I would love to hang out with?’ And only then do I ask, ‘Is there some art we can create?’”
In Chicago, Ross spends his Saturdays meeting singers he has met online. He schedules a full day of these meetings once a week. “It lets us get to know each other, how we’d work together. It helps us find good matches,” he says.
Michael points out that not all relationships that start out this way result in a collaboration. “I can think of many people who have contacted me and we’re just really good friends now,” he says. “Things just didn’t line up… yet.”
The time for collaboration might be now, or later, but with the friendship in place, both collaborators have planted a seed for the future.
Putting art into the world can be daunting, and doing so digitally is no exception. We stare down our inner critic every time we post a track or a score online and say: This is my work. This is me.
The key to sparking collaborations online, and to engagement in general, is not perfection. The key is the spark itself: the human-to-human moment of connection in shared inspiration, commitment, and delight. Feed the spark, and the collaborations will find you.
“It’s like that mantra,” says Michael. “‘If you build it, they will come.’ Some people believe ‘it’ is the digital content that you then disseminate. I think it’s more the demonstration of how engaged you are in the creative field… It’s not a Facebook page, it’s not a web page. Those are only the byproducts of the hard work, sweat, and hours of dedication to your craft and personal relationships you build prior to that… That is the house you’re building for other people to be a part of.”
Shaya Lyon is the founder and executive director of the Live Music Project, a non-profit community calendar for classical and contemporary music in Seattle that builds visibility for local arts organizations while connecting new and returning listeners with live musical experiences. A software product manager by training, she is passionate about community, collaboration, and developing software that supports both.