Better together: What’s behind modern music’s obsession with collaboration?
26 February 2018
We take a closer look at the proliferation of team-ups on the music scene.
At the time of writing, over half of the Official UK Top 20 Singles are collaborations between two or more artists. These take many forms: producer featuring singer, singer featuring rapper, singer featuring singer, rapper featuring singer, and even producer featuring producer. The chart is all set to look like this throughout the rest of the year, with even more big name collabs lined up in the coming months.The Top 40 has been populated with collaborations for years now, so much so that it seems like the norm. But really, it’s more of a recent trend. Looking at the biggest selling single of each year dating from 1952-2017, only seven have been collaborations. Nine if you include Band Aid and Band Aid 20. And all of them appeared after 2001. Clearly, something has driven artists and labels to release an increasing number of collaborations, and something has driven the music-listening public to buy them. So what is it?
A feature can spice up a song
The obvious motivation for the rising number of musical collaborations is the creative spark that two or more artists coming together can generate. A great recent example of this is Top Dawg Entertainment’s Black Panther soundtrack album. Unlike a traditional soundtrack, nearly none of the tracks feature in the movie. Instead, it is a collection of 14 brand new collaborations between Kendrick Lamar, his TDE labelmates, and other artists. (Despite other solo artist credits on the tracklist, the only non-collaboration is the opening title track.)The album is endlessly inventive, proving that musicians do some of their best work when teaming up with their peers and inspirations. The listening experience is varied, but in a good way. It’s difficult to become bored by saminess with so many different voices and styles colliding.This underlying principle has inspired many other collaborations over the years, particularly the ever-present features from rappers. Initially, rappers would feature on each others’ hip-hop tracks, but it wasn’t long before pop singers started calling them up to provide their songs with welcome deviations from their melodic verse-chorus structures.Nicki Minaj has been one of the most ubiquitous feature artists on the scene, historically, proclaiming proudly on Kanye West’s ‘Monster’ (which features four collaborators in total) that she was making fifty thousand dollars for a guest verse before her debut album was even released. In 2017 she made a notable appearance on Katy Perry’s ‘Swish Swish’, which many noted was the high point of the song. Ahead of her fourth album this year, Minaj has collaborations with ZAYN and Post Malone.Whether providing respite from an overbearing pop song, or leading to creative chemistry, collaborations are proven to effectively enhance the quality of a song. But that’s not the only reason they are on the rise.
The way songs are credited is changing
Aficionados will note that collaboration has been common almost since the dawn of recorded music. Artists have always worked with each other, it’s just recently we’ve come to expect them to be credited. The Beatles roped in Eric Clapton for ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ in an appearance that would surely warrant an artist credit in today’s musical landscape. Today, even the smallest contribution can gain a musician an artist credit. Andre 3000 was credited for his appearance on Kanye West’s ‘30 Hours’, even though he sings barely audible backup vocals.Part of this change could be due to the increased popularity of electronic music. In dance, the DJs and producers are the stars, not necessarily the singers. Even if a single does have vocals, it will be the DJ who receives the lead (and sometimes the sole) artist credit. Early pioneers like Marshall Jefferson and Nicky Siano have become big names from behind the decks, directly influencing the rise of ‘superstar DJs’ like Steve Aoki and Calvin Harris, the latter of whom’s collaborations with Rihanna have become some of both artists’ biggest hits. This promotion of the producer role has shone a light on the effort that goes into a song behind the scenes, and had a huge impact on how artists are credited, and the perceived rise in collaborations. But there’s another advantage of crediting all parties involved in a song, and of bringing collaborators from different genres together.
Collabs bring two or more audiences to one song
A collaboration between two big name pop stars is a marketing department’s dream. Worried Ed Sheeran won’t sell enough copies of ‘Perfect’ on his own? Re-release the track as a duet with Beyonce. Suddenly the Bey-hive will be a lot more interested. This approach is epitomised when pop singers work with rappers to add an ‘urban’ edge to their songs. Future’s appearance on Taylor Swift’s ‘Endgame’ is a recent example. (That track also threw in a verse from Ed Sheeran for good measure.) In an industry where social media profiles can drive many of the big decisions (for better or worse), a combined following in the multi-millions can greenlight almost any collaboration, no matter how forced.Though social followings may have their impact, this practice actually dates back to at least the 1980s, and to one major hit in particular. ‘Walk This Way’ by Run DMC feat. Aerosmith has gone on to achieve legendary status. It cemented Run DMC’s mainstream appeal, whilst reinvigorating Aerosmith’s previously stale career. Whether cross-genre collaborations liked these are cooked up in a label’s office or driven by the desire to innovate, they can have huge positive effects on musicians’ careers, and on music history.