Collaboration and credit

One of my regular pleasures is getting my copy of The Word magazine every month. I bought every copy from its launch in 2003 until I finally got round to subscribing about 18 months ago. I have never subscribed to a magazine before, which is clearly an indication of its success with me. When the magazine launched it was clearly aimed at “£50 man;” although it concentrates on music, it also covers books and films intelligently.

There are two things that mark The Word out as a paragon in its field. The first has been in place since day one. It is led by two doyens of British music journalism: David Hepworth and Mark Ellen. The second is the way that Hepworth and Ellen have engaged with non-traditional media. For some time, the magazine’s website was clearly a Web 1.0 production. Indeed, it might cruelly but accurately have been described as “brochureware.” Later on, the site was developed to include a discussion forum, and now boasts a blogging facility, in which Word editors and writers engage directly with their readership. (In fairness, David Hepworth is much more attuned to technology than Mark Ellen, so he is probably the main driver of these developments.) Alongside this, Hepworth and Ellen lead a regular and hugely entertaining podcast. This started irregularly, but is now a weekly feature and there is even a spin-off podcast focusing on extended interviews. There is even a Facebook group for fans of the podcast.

In last week’s podcast, Messrs Ellen and Hepworth had an interesting discussion about the way in which bands structure their remuneration. (This grew out of an exchange of memories of the late Richard Wright.)

Here is a rough transcript starting at 10:24:

Ellen: I’ve always thought that the most interesting examples of these groups that don’t argue are the ones that have had the sense, early on, to go in collectively. Presumably because they had some idea of… of course the three best examples are Blur, REM and U2. All of them have exactly the same structure. There’s three musicians and a kind of singer/lyricist, if you like (although Damon Albarn obviously plays a lot of instruments as well). And they had a structure (I’m pretty sure I’m right in saying) where they divide the royalties five ways, which is that the lyricist gets 20%, then the four of them (including obviously the lyricist in his musicianly capacity) divide up the remaining 80% in terms of arrangement and composititon.

I think that’s really important. If you listen to, I was listening to “Walk on the Wild Side” the other day: if Herbie Flowers hadn’t brought his double-bass with him, what kind of song would that have been?

Hepworth: There is no record without the double-bass.

Ellen: There is no record at all. …

Ellen: Like “Come Together” by the Beatles. I have never heard… I don’t think any demo versions of that song exist. It’s a great lyric, but it’s basically just a four-four, old blues riff, but if you put in the bass drum part it absolutely and totally a million per cent transforms the song…

It must be a very very difficult business, because … it didn’t resolve in The Smiths, did it? I mean, The Smiths rhythm section felt that their arrangement and the colour and the intonations they brought to the songs deserved more credit. It probably did.

Hepworth: It is interesting, isn’t it, that the old traditional way of assessing contribution in music is composing. That was an idea that was formed in the days when there were two guys who sat in a cell in the Brill Building, or whatever, and one of them sat at the piano and the other stood up and sang. And they were knocking out tunes for musicals, weren’t they? You know, that was the way you did it. And they produced a piece of sheet music which then was given to someone else to sing and was sold as sheet music. Whereas, what’s involved in a hit record is everything that goes into a hit record. The song is only one part of it. The song has been written for a particular set of musicians to play at a particular time. So if you go back and listen to “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones, well Brian Jones (who probably doesn’t have his name anywhere near it) probably contribuetd to that every bit as much as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. And Charlie Watts did also, and Bill Wyman. It was just a sound made by that bunch of musicians at that time.

Later on, describing how all contributions have some value (18:22):

Ellen: The Pet Shop Boys is a really good example of this. Neil Tennant is the main, I think, concept writer and chord-sequence writer, but recognises the fact that Chris Lowe is the guy who comes in at the end, often (as Neil once told me) having spent two days lying around the studio leafing through magazines, apparently not being completely engaged with the project, will suddenly go over to the keyboard and he’ll just play some tiny riff that could just go dah-dah, and that tiny signature completely transforms this whole thing into something that makes sense on the radio. I think that’s wonderful. It is just as crucial.

This music-focussed discussion prompted two thoughts about collaboration in a business context.

The first is that when engaging in new forms of collaboration and delivery, the existing mechanisms by which people get credit for their efforts may well not work any more. In extreme examples (like Pink Floyd or The Smiths), reliance on the wrong structures might be a trigger for failure. One of the features of so-called Enterprise 2.0 is that use of social software inside the firewall can have the effect of flattening the hierarchy. (Although there is an interesting counter-example of this effect in Wikipedia, where a new hierarchy appears to be developing, as Dave Snowden has pointed out.)

The second lesson is not linked to change. The Pet Shop Boys example underlines the fact that different people bring different skills and attributes to teams. It is impossible to say that either Neil Tennant or Chris Lowe embodies The Pet Shop Boys. The group only exists because of both of them. (Sporting teams would provide a wealth of similar examples.) Equally, a business needs a range of skills and talents in order to function at its highest, most profitable level. The challenge is to ensure that credit is given for people’s work in a way that properly values what they each do.

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