What playing in a rock band taught me about working in creative collaborative environments

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Just like football, I love music and I always will. I have been lucky enough to listen to it ever since I was born as both my parents are music fans. I love most styles of music (chamber classical music, jazz, folk, cuban, afro-beat, electro) but the one that resonates the most with me is indie-rock. A huge fan of Jimmy Page as a kid and then Johnny Marr as a teenager, I am fascinated by electric guitars and I started playing when I was twelve, more than 30 years ago. From 15 onwards, apart from the 10 years I have spent abroad (London and then Zürich), I have always been playing in a band.

Being part or leading software development teams for more than 15 years, I have noticed many common traits with the musical activity. Even if for some weird reasons, I may have not sold as many CDs as Radiohead or REM, I still believe there is some value in sharing what I have learnt through these hours of work and all the analogies we can draw with creative work in a collaborative environment.

A post in 8 measures, we are talking about rock’n’roll here …

There are two types of amateur rock bands : the ones writing songs and the ones doing covers. Even though I really have fun watching the latter, my thing is the former. I have written about a hundred songs and played with a dozen of musicians. My bands have released half a dozen self produced albums (most of them being tapes), and I worked thousands of hours on them : demoing, rehearsing, tuning the songs until they sound just fine (to my standards), recording, mixing, mixing and mixing again, mastering, working on the cover design etc …

1. Song first, technique second

This often happens during rehearsal sessions. As soon as there is some floating moment, the guitarist or the drummer starts a solo. So the rest of the band listens quietly and the lad is just wasting everyones time. It’s OK to do that when the session starts as most of us can’t practice at this fascinating volume at home. But once we start rehearsing song, it’s time to practice. No matter how bad they are, songs are the value we deliver. Some guitarists or drummer had a very hard time with me because of this. That’s why I don’t like to play with divas as if we want to progress as a band, we need to make most of the rehearsal time in practicing together as opposed to get fascinated by how good the guitar player or the drummer are.

It’s just about the same with developing IT products. Many technophiles I worked with are more interested in showing how fluent they are with technologies than building the right product. Product (or project) first, technique or technology second.

2. Playing music with people starts with listening

The best compliment that was made to me by a fellow musician was by Franck a keyboard player. At the end of a jam session he told me : “What I like in playing music with you is that you listen to other people and adjust to what they are playing. And it sounds good.” It’s not that I’m not interested in showing off (as Lemmy Kilmister sung in one of Mötörhead cult song “There’s no point in getting on stage if you don’t want to show off”) it’s just that I’m not interested in showing how good a guitar player I am (probably because I am not anyway). I am still interested in showing to the world how catchy our songs are, though.

So no matter how many things you know, if you want to bring value in a collaborative environment, start with listening and try to understand the team balance of forces. And try to find the sweet spot where your contribution will bring most value.

3. Practice your weak points

We sometimes get overexcited with some parts of the song losing sight that no matter how good a part of the song is, if there is a flaw in it later on, this is what the audience will remember. If you think the IT industry is a tough one, wait until you get to know music industry. They will always look at your work in a very challenging way. So you have to work the part that sounds bad (and that you like the least) until it smoothly flows.

Working contrasts and transitions are usually key. Before Dave Grohl arrival, Nirvana was just another punk band and this is what Dave brought to the band : fine arrangements and contrats. The quality of the transitions between two parts of the song are usually the difference between average and good bands. And there is no miracle : you had to work your ass off on these. As an example, Nirvana used to rehearse 4 hours a day.

The same with with your software product. You get excited by this exciting feature but what are the performance of the applications ? How easy is it for a user to achieve something valuable from her perspective ? Look at your product from your competitor point of view and try to silent him.

4. Make it easy for people to adopt your ideas

One of the most intimidating moment when you write song is when you first present it to the band. You have to understand by their expression and their body language if they are OK to spend few hours of their life learning and then playing it. Then you have to react accordingly to have them buying the song. Not comfortable with the drum pattern : how about if you would try this ? Oh this bass line is much better than the one I thought of, cool ! etc … This is just putting ego aside to have the song moving forward. Because the result is when the song is recorded or it is played on stage.

5. Accept when it is not a good idea

Some ideas just don’t work out. It is a hard pill to swallow when you write songs in your sofa thinking about how great it will be when you play it with your mates. But when it does not work, well, you need to call it a day. No matter how much work you put in it first. Rehearsal allows you to experiment and see if the song deserves to live. If it doesn’t, the world is already full of terrible songs, we don’t need to add more misery.

6. Use Patterns

I don’t believe in jam session spawning great songs. This is a myth. I’ve only witnessed it a few times in my amateur musician career. However, sometimes some riff or ideas may be good enough to make a decent song out of it. Problem is, most musicians I’ve played with have troubled to deploy an idea into a song. This is where I bring my know-how in songs arrangement, a know-how built on 20+ years experience writing songs.

The verse and chorus are Major ? A minor bridge will bring a delicious melancholic inflexion. The bass is the same as the guitar ? Try making it follow the vocal melody instead. The riff is complicated ? Make the vocal talk rather than sing. There are many arrangements in the song ? Make a minimalist gimmick in the middle of it. The voice sounds too light ? Double it. You want the song to groove and be obsessive : bring the bass forward, add many percussions and some strings for the tension. etc …

Just like in Software Development or story telling, there are patterns in song writing and in idea creation. There hardly is any creative value out of chaos where everyone is doing everything they have in mind. And if you think there is, it’s because you are stoned or too drunk. Listen to it the day after, you will feel embarassed.

7. Keeping the tempo is everybody’s responsibility

Keeping a steady tempo in a band is like a clean sheet in football : it is everybody responsibility, not only the drummer (band) or the defense and keeper (football). a statement I can’t emphasize enough as I tend to speed it up. Tempo is critical in a band : slowing it down loses the energy and make your songs sounds squidgy while speeding it up makes the band loosing the groove and the coherence.

Understanding what the right tempo is and have everyone to commit to it is a key while playing in a band. The equivalent in product or software development is quality : it is the job of everyone at every stage of the process to ensure for good quality, not only quality control team.

8. Know what is happening

A strong trend I have noticed with people listening to music is how conservative they get. Many people discover a band or a type of music in their teenage years or their early twenties and then stick to it forever, whinging new music is not as it used to be in the good old days.

Thanks to my teenage kids I don’t get too complacent and I have been listening to many new exciting bands or artists : Temples, Caribou, Foals, Vampire Week-end, Two Door Cinema Club, SBRKT, King Krul, … This not only opens my mind and keeps me connected to what is going on but it also helps me see music from many perspectives. I am quite fascinated with how pop music literate this new generation is. Thanks to internet they just know everything about it. Their vast knowledge transform their relationship to this art form. As a result the music is much more subtle, with a stronger opinion. We can non longer have the same posture as a band than we used to 20 years ago.

With the advent of social media and mobile apps, software products become more and more what Hugh McLeod calls social objects, instances of pop culture. Understand where your market is and where it is going is a key to develop new applications fast, applications which are in line with the current digitale culture.

Any artists around here ?

What are the converging traits you would identify related to your personal artist activity  I’d love to hear … In a mean time some promotion for my for my band, Supernormal …

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