No Egos Required
Back when Michael Jackson was the indisputable King of Pop, he and fellow hit-maker Lionel Ritchie recruited an impressive list of pop music's royalty to help raise money for starving people in Africa. The instrumental tracks for what ended up being the iconic hit "We Are the World" were sent out ahead of time for pop/rock icons Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Bruce Springsteen, and many others to rehearse to, with a friendly reminder to "check their ego at the door."
To underscore that simple request, there was a piece of masking tape on the floor for each person to stand on—one piece no larger than the other. Following the American Music Awards in 1985, the artists entered the recording studio and were neatly arranged in a semi-circle around six microphones. The strategy apparently worked, or else there would have been some juicy media coverage on how the charitable collaboration generated a series of diva fits.
Imagine if Paul Simon had suddenly decided he wanted to changed the lyrics, or if Diana Ross wanted to sing a line in the first verse rather than save her entrance toward the end. If an opportunity for constructive criticism had been available, would that have changed the artistic camaraderie? I'm guessing so.
Which is precisely why the recent Compassionart retreat in Perthshire, Scotland was such a unique all-star collaboration. Sure, there were plenty of big names from Christian music involved, featuring Martin Smith and Stu Garrard of Delirious, Michael W. Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman, Israel Houghton, Darlene Zschech, Matt Redman, Tim Hughes, Paul Baloche, Graham Kendrick, and Andy Park. And much like the USA for Africa event, the artists came together for a greater cause than their own celebrity.
But the Compassionart effort had another interesting component. These artists were interested in true community—an experience where honesty was encouraged for the sake of the best possible songs. Egos weren't just checked at the door for an hour or two. They were forced to take a backseat for several days.
Instead of two benevolent co-dictators having artistic control over the final product, the fruits of the artists' labor at Compassionart were a true collaboration where every artist's opinion was considered. The results yielded the start of 22 songs, none of which any of the artists could claim sole credit for.
It All Started With …
Events like this usually start with a song, as the cliche goes, but Compassionart began when Martin Smith and his wife Anna came up with a whopper of an idea. One so ambitious, it almost seemed impossible to execute.
Inspired by Delirious' travels in recent years to poverty-ravaged locales like India, Cambodia and various African countries, Martin and Anna began brainstorming ways that the Christian music community could help. Ultimately, they knew they wanted it to be more than a one-time Band Aid-styled fundraiser concert. They wanted something that could help the poorest of the poor for many years to come.
After fleshing out their ideas and a year-and-a-half of careful planning and research, Compassionart was born. To pour resources into the causes that these artists cared about the most, they would raise the bulk of the funds through the collective songwriting efforts of a week-long retreat. And to ensure all the money was going where it needed to, contributing a portion of the proceeds simply wasn't going to cut it. In Martin Smith's mind, Compassionart's success depended on donating 100 percent. And it was equally vital that all the participating artists had an equal stake in the songwriting credits, rather than quibbling over who wrote which line.