Meet the musicians who make asynchronous creativity feel like a party
A few weeks ago, I came across a TikTok duet chain that builds off the question “Can we stop duetting videos when we have absolutely nothing to add to them?”
The TikTok community responded hilariously with a chain of clever, unexpectedly artful additions that dragged her in the most constructive, playful way. Instead of devolving into a barrage of insults and mockery, the other creators piled on to prove that even a snarky request to discourage random add-ons can become greater than the sum of its parts.
At first glance, this seems like the feel-good antidote to the toxic negativity that seems so pervasive in the comment sections of anything posted online. But this new wave does call into question who “owns” such creative collaborations—and does that even matter to the TikTok duet creators?
Recently, a young artist used an open verse challenge to create excitement about a new song by inviting others to contribute dozens of variations. The creator then released a finished version of the song. Though it doesn’t include the ideas added by her TikTok followers, she was able to “own” her version while still allowing the previous versions to exist simultaneously in the musical multiverse.
So what can creators and creative teams learn from this trend toward free-for-all asynchronous collaboration? If you’ve ever been part of a project where the exchange of ideas felt stifled from the get-go, it’s hard not to wonder how much more fun it would be to go with the flow. This is an approach anyone in a brainstorm can benefit from: When collaborators let go of their ego and invite others to “yes, and” their ideas, co-creation takes on a joyful momentum that feels more like a party than a work project.
When collaborators let go of their ego and invite others to “yes, and” their ideas, co-creation takes on a joyful momentum.
Of course, one of the biggest challenges is brainstorming over Zoom and Slack. Accurately reading reactions and body language over a screen is next to impossible. And it’s difficult to nurture the spark of an idea into a flame with people you may barely know. That’s why establishing trust and building rapport on video calls has become a whole new skill set.
As the founders of Thinking Outside The Blocks—an online education platform and community hub for songwriters that helps musicians break through their creative blocks—Allie Moss and Bess Rogers are full-time advocates of the idea that you can break out of a rut by sharing your raw ideas with your peers.
“Collaboration is one of the best ways to grow as a songwriter and musician,” says Moss. “It allows us to see how others work. It’s a chance to let go of control and become a better listener.”
And some creators are showing us how to do just that. They’re starting their creative process by casting a wide net into the unknown and coming up with remarkably strong co-creations.
Take Ellen Hinton (AKA @ellenonceagain), for example. At the start of lockdowns, this gifted Dallas-based singer/songwriter/music teacher began using TikTok duets as a way to invite other musicians to harmonize with her.
“A lot of the venues had temporarily closed, and everyone was just at home,” she recalls. “So TikTok was a great avenue to create duets. They were performances, but they were very natural, because you're at home in front of your keyboard. I just missed the connection that music brought and this was a way to continue to do that from the comfort of home.”
At a time when a lot of musicians were doing solo livestream shows on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, Hinton found that TikTok duets gave her a chance to send out musical invitations like little ships in a bottle. She discovered that they often sparked conversations that inspired her next idea for a duet.
“On TikTok, they also have a livestream available,” she explains. “A lot of times, before I make a video, I'll go on for about 30 minutes and talk to whoever's on. I'll have people say ‘Hey, can you check out this duet?’ I'm like, ‘Of course.’ I love it. I can be a part of the duet they created.”
Hinton says some of her more memorable duets happen when she provides a foundation for others to build upon. “Some of the duets I've created lately are ‘Sing the melody.’ I'll play the piano and do the harmony, then people add their own melodies. Some of them are directly from the song and some artists take a lot of creative license. They’re just absolutely beautiful. I love watching them.”
Though she hasn’t yet tried an open verse challenge, Hinton has started a series she calls “Vibe with me” where she plays an instrumental groove, then lets people freestyle their own song over the top. “I love that TikTok is so experimental,” she says. “There's a lot of things you can put out that don't have to be finished or perfect yet. You can just throw it out and see what people think of it.”
Hinton says these collaborative experiments have opened up an avenue to get to know people better, as well as more opportunities to collaborate with people who live far away.
“Before, if you were in different places, it was really hard,” she recalls. “Someone's touring, doing their own thing, and you're doing yours. Now I know more friends, more artists, more people online I can just reach out to.”
Sometimes, the people reach out to you—from across the globe—as happened with the international mashups created by David Scott (AKA @thekiffness). Whether he’s collaborating with a cat who makes “numnum” sounds while lapping up milk from a spoon, looping the soulful howl of a husky, or remixing riffs from other musicians, his videos are some of the most hilariously entertaining content I’ve seen come out of the pandemic.
Though the South African musician has been touring successfully for years, since becoming a father a few months ago, Scott has found an entirely new groove—and millions of fans—thanks to a major shift in the tone of his videos.
“The first video I made after receiving that news that I was going to be a dad was the Alugalug Cat,” he recalls. “It made such a profound impact on my psyche. It definitely sparked this new wave of creativity within me.”
After a period of making parodies and political satire, he says he attracted a completely new audience when he began collaborating with cats and dogs.
“Ever since I started doing the animal videos, most of the feedback I get is from parents,” he says. “They're often sending me videos of the kids watching the videos and enjoying them and just saying ‘Thank you—you’re the top requested YouTube channel in our household!’ It really does bring a warm feeling knowing that the energy that I'm putting out is being received by fellow parents and people that also want what's best for their kids.”
Like Hinton, Scott gets a lot of inspiration from fans who tag potential collaborators and suggest potential memes as a source to riff on. In fact, that’s how the original cat jam began.
“I wanted to just do something that was fun, something completely non-political,” he recalls. “[The Alugalug Cat] was the first remix I'd done, and that completely blew up. It was incredible to move from a place where people are so polarized in the comment section to something that was almost completely positive. A light bulb went off. I was like, ‘This is where I need to be.’
Then people started tagging him in videos of interesting people around the world requesting remixes and he decided to take a leap of faith to see what would happen. “It turned out way better than I ever expected. I surprised myself, which is quite hard to do.”
Before long, fans began adding instruments to Scott’s original video.
“It was an amazing thing to see a girl from Brazil playing the violin, a guy from the Czech Republic playing ukulele, a guy from Germany playing drums and guitar. They all just made their own videos.”
So Scott started to wonder—what would happen if he put them all together?
“When I put them together, it made this magic. I felt like I was part of something much bigger than myself, you know?”—David Scott
“I reached out to them individually and said, ‘I've seen your video. It's amazing. Would you be able to send me the video?’ Dropbox was very useful in that sense. A lot of the musicians sent me the videos via Dropbox and it all just kind of works out.”
“I had these moments of complete surprise, where I put the girl playing violin next to the girl playing flutes,” he recalls. “These girls have never met each other, but when I put them together, it made this magic. I felt like I was part of something much bigger than myself, you know?”
So if you’re a creator struggling to stay inspired right now, Hinton and Scott say: take heart and take chances.
“Do not give up. It is not too late,” says Hinton. “Before the pandemic, I wasn't expecting to create music this way. I just want to encourage other people to keep creating, keep going, keep thinking outside of the box. Even if it doesn't look like you initially thought it was going to look, just to keep going because it may be better than what you thought initially.”
“There's so many weird and wonderful opportunities out there,” says Scott. “It's just up to you to see them and take chances, The videos I’ve put out that have done really well are the ones where I actually have no idea how they're going to turn out. I just see something I know is intrinsically amazing and cool, then rework it in a way that has my own twist on it.”
Scott says a lot of what he tries doesn’t work, but that’s just part of the process. “You always learn from each video you put out and you're more well equipped to tackle the next one.”
In the end, it pays not to be shy about asking people to collaborate.
“Reach out to these people,” says Scott. “They obviously need to be compensated for their efforts. If the videos do make money, try and give back in some way, whether it's licensing the video or agreeing on a percentage splits. Make sure you have fair, solid contracts. It did just start out as me having fun, but it's a full-on business now. I have to make sure everything's in place, and everyone's getting what's fair.”