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Wish You Were Here: Creatives get Cloud Collaboration

As we noted in this space last month, the number of Americans working from home is increasing significantly. (One can imagine an inverse relationship for loads of laundry, as fewer workers bother to put on proper clothes.) A recent report from the Telework Research Network notes that current trends indicate regular telecommuters will total 4.9 million by 2016, a 69 percent increase from the current level. Forty-five percent of the US workforce holds a job that is compatible with at least part-time telework.

Such positions are no longer limited to data entry and telemarketing. The entire knowledge economy has opened up to telecommuting. Graphic artists, public relations consultants and freelance writers are the most prominent examples. But even musicians—already the most leisurely members of the creative class—can now work entirely from their parents’ garage. Web sites like Indaba Music, Kompoz, Tune Rooms and Virtual Recording Studio allow artists to collaborate on tracks together online, recording and mixing an entire song from separate locations.

The above video by Plink Flojd is a great example of this. The band is an audio/visual collective started by three art project veterans from very different scenes —São Paulo based arts curator David Quiles Guillo, Japanese multimedia artist Yoshi Sodeoka and Portland, Oregon-based electronic musician Eric “E*Rock” Mast. Rather than limiting the remote collaboration to three far flung locations, the founders reached out to artists from all over the globe to contribute. The result is a psychedelic series of Pink Floyd-inspired videos and recordings set to display at the NOVA arts festival in São Paulo, Brazil, this spring.

Mast described the group effort as a multistage process with little direct contact between participants outside of the occasional email. The artists take samples from (you guessed it!) Pink Floyd, and construct strikingly original compositions, complete with accompanying videos.

“We picked some initial songs to work from and created tracks separately,” he said. “Each person works on audio solo, pass[es] it on to a video person, and then come together with whatever we have from there.”

Mast noted that many of the participants were using different audio and video tools and software. And sometimes there were just too many ideas going at once.

“Whenever multiple people try to work on one song, it gets too convoluted when working remotely,” Mast explained. He thought it was important for someone on such a large collaboration to step forward as “project leader,” noting that Sodeoka had taken on that role for Plink Flojd.

Mast was excited about the result of the collaboration. Quiles Guillo is overseeing the current screening in Brazil and Spain, but Sodeoka plans to follow with a show in New York, and Mast wants to set up the installation in Portland.

Such remote collaborations aren’t limited to the art world. Big-name pop stars may never even meet the production teams and songwriters behind their hits. A recent New Yorker profile of Rihanna noted that the vocals for her single “Talk That Talk” were recorded on “the Bus” in Birmingham, Alabama, in Room 538 of the Sofitel Paris Le Faubourg and in Room 526 of the Savoy in London. Files from the recording would go back and forth to producers and songwriters working in New York and Los Angeles.

Remote collaborations are nothing new in the publishing world. Editors have long employed writers from datelines across the globe. But although new technology makes correspondence and deadlines easier, it also presents particular problems.

Brian Boone, an associate editor at Portable Press, said that it can be tricky talking to graphic designers exclusively by digital communication, especially when attempting to convey a particular concept for layout and design.

“It’s hard to describe in an email, alone at your desk, the ‘look’ you’re looking for,” he said. “I think this is still the kind of thing that requires face-to-face brainstorming, and a good, rapid-fire back and forth.”

Still, he notes that overall remote collaboration is a huge net gain for publishing companies.

“[It] allows for so much more possibility,” he said. “There aren’t many writers in my town. But because of remote collaboration I can use pretty much any writer I want, provided they are easy to get in touch with. Scheduling, deadlines, and momentum are rarely a problem because with remote collaboration, it’s understood that you work those details out early on, and explicitly.”

Like Mast, Boone emphasized the need for a project leader to make sure collaborators stayed on the same page.

“[The manager] needs to be proactive and take the lead with remote collaborations,” he said. “As a writer working on remote projects for others, I always feel totally on my own, which is good, because it’s nice to feel trusted and responsible, but there’s also always at least a hint of being in the dark. It’s nice to have managers check in.”

The spillover advantages of this arrangement are numerous. The average American spends roughly 50 minutes of each workday commuting. The Telework Research Network report emphasizes that the existing 2.9 million American telecommuters save 390 million gallons of gas and prevent the release of 3.6 million tons of greenhouse gases yearly. Remote workers are generally able to find a better work / life balance.

But for the creative class, the lack of interaction with other artists does diminish some of of the collaborative magic (and reduce the likelihood of an impromptu game of hacky sack).

“I find that being in the same room creates the best results,” said Mast. “Even if one person is reading a magazine and the other is on the computer, you can be on the same wavelength, and lots of the ideas come from jokes we’ll make while drinking coffee in the morning. There’s a certain unpredictability that I think is hard to recreate by yourself.”

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