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The Invisibles

From running music festivals to managing artists, I’ve spent a fair amount of time behind the curtain. In the music industry, where the performer is usually a singular, public figure, it can be exciting to be a part of a team who create their success from the background. Author David Zweig calls these unseen superstars ‘Invisibles’; the people behind the scenes whose expertise is a vital part of pulling the show off without a hitch. While the term itself may conjure up negative connotations, it’s really just a description of the hidden workers, the people not in the limelight, the ‘un-visible’ expertise in the mix – Zweig also calls them the “quiet elite”. The Invisible is generous with their talent, they don’t feel the need to be the centre of attention, and their devotion to great art is at the fore.

I think one of the greatest Invisibles in the music scene is the producer. If you’ve ever wanted to dissect the formula to a major artists’ success, your best bet is to begin with them. They’re the champions of the song, taking the artist’s raw talent and adding a different perspective, new sonic boundaries, and often that crucial final 10% of a great tune. Over the last four years of building our creative hub at Parachute HQ, I’ve developed a whole new appreciation for the unsung heroes of the song – from songwriters to producers, it’s amazing how the synergy of a community can create something greater than the sum of its parts. In a lot of ways, it’s the Invisibles who make our community successful; if we’re doing our job right, any song that leaves our doors will be better than when it came in as a result of a myriad of unseen collaborations and encouragements.

Over the last few months I’ve seen first-hand the power of a community working behind the scenes. Working through our sister brand SMOKE, a crew of producers and artists we pieced together tackled the creation of 109 songs over 10 weeks for the seventh season of Dancing with the Stars New Zealand.

For a bunch of producers who pride themselves on a certain degree of perfectionism, often known to spend days on a single drum sound, the brief was at once ambitious and thrilling. With the costs of licensing the original tracks for the show prohibitive, our job was to record 90-second covers of chart-topping songs for the show’s contestants to perform to. Ever wondered how Swedish House Mafia’s ‘Don’t You Worry Child’ could fit a Pasodoble? Wonder no more.

The turnaround from brief to broadcast for these songs was just over a week. For many of our producers, this meant covering iconic songs like Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’, or Michael Jackson’s ‘Black or White’ in a matter of days. Each week each producer would tackle up to three songs, embarking on a whirlwind journey of covering a classic. The original song itself may have taken weeks if not months to perfect; our guys had just days.

As you can imagine, this was a project that saw our producers and the musicians they worked with having to enter an entirely different headspace, learning to work faster, more intuitively, and more collaboratively than ever before. Out of sheer necessity, the often isolated environments of our project studios had their doors blown open, as producers and musicians worked together to tackle last-minute problems, offer each other feedback, and collaborate for an optimum result.

By the end of a hectic but rewarding three months, over 75 of our country’s finest musicians and producers had come together to make a slice of TV history. Led by veteran producer Nic Manders, this incredible cadre of Invisibles showed the power of working as a community – they also taught us here at Parachute a few important lessons:

  • Limitations can be empowering. Sometimes, moving slowly can impede creativity. Da Vinci said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned” – there can often be a sense that, if given no deadline or restrictions, a project can go on forever; there are always things to be improved, new directions to try. Sometimes, quicker is better – don’t let indecision slow you down, trust your gut and make a call.
  • Community is key. We’re somewhat naïve if we think that our talent alone provides us with the full package. We learned very quickly that there is strength in numbers. In working together, our strengths were magnified, and our weaknesses diminished. Making music is also more enjoyable in community, where successes can be celebrated and frustrations offloaded.
  • Collaboration is the great unblocker. You are constantly surrounded by a raft of phenomenal vocalists, musicians and music-makers. If you’re finding your music hard going, or you’ve hit a writer’s block, your next breakthrough might be as simple as sitting down with a fellow musician.
  • You still have a lot to learn. A diverse project like Dancing with the Stars forced our producers to explore brand new genres and techniques. One week, they would find themselves recording an organic, one-take jazz session with a brass section, the next, they’d be sifting through endless patches to find the perfect drum and bass sound. There’s something powerful about that kind of rapid upskilling.

I’m immensely proud of what we’ve achieved these last few months. Mostly, I’m proud of the fact that it’s an achievement that can’t be hoarded by a single person – it’s been a true community project from day one, a team effort marked by partnership in a real sense. From our maverick producers who honed their rapid-fire instincts, to the artists who covered world-class riffs, it’s been our pleasure to be behind the scenes with you.

Mark de Jong