How To Deal With Criticism [Music Business Advice]
Since becoming a music blogger, I’ve had some amazing experiences. Nothing gets me buzzing like the discovery of a brand new band capable of blowing my mind into smithereens. Artists as diverse as Dorje, Signals, Princess Slayer, Shrine, In Dynamics, Mike Dawes, Project RnL, Inner Pieces, and Lunatrix all knocked me for six when I first came across them – and the knowledge that tomorrow it could happen all over again is what keeps me writing.
However, it’s not all been great. I love what I get to do via TMMP, but there is a dark side to music writing. I’m not just here to be nice; I also have to be harsh at times. When reviewing music, I’m a critic – and the word ‘criticism’ is, as we all know, associated more directly with negativity than anything else. Criticism is a part of life, something we all experience, and it’s hard – sometimes impossible – to not take it personally. Often this is because the person doing the criticising is just letting out their own frustrations and not considering us at all.
You can see evidence of this mindless approach to criticism by watching any YouTube video and scanning the comments. Try it with any music video. If the music is particularly technical and heavy on the shred guitar, there will be a comment along the lines of “GOD U SUCK DIS IZ NOISE QUIT NAU KTHANXBAI PEACE!!!1”; if it’s something more chilled out, expect “Boooooooooring! Nearly fell aslepp zzzzzzzzzz”. If the artist is female, the comments will focus on how she looks, and the comments will often span the whole range of offensive perspectives; she’ll be too fat according to one commenter, too thin in the view of another, ugly to the eyes one critic, and “SO HOT U SHUD BE IN PORN MARRY ME PLS!!!XX :D” or something similar will be in there as well. Sexism, racism, homophobia, and all the other forms of prejudice are still rife online; and in the music world segregation is the default thanks to genre boundaries.
Whatever a musician does, hate usually follows. This is something I’ve always been sensitive to; most of my friends are musicians and / or work in music, and I’ve seen them deal with some really ridiculous shit. As a reviewer / critic, then, I’ve always aimed to avoid the kind of mindless rubbish you read on YouTube. From time to time I will be harsh, but I take great pains to explain why I’m being critical and point out possible paths to future improvement. It’s a case of being harsh but fair – with absolute emphasis on fairness. In my opinion, if you can’t offer constructive criticism when it comes to voicing a negative opinion about music, you should either stick to the phrase “It’s not my thing,” or you should shut the fuck up.
Imagine if YouTube criticism worked that way!
It doesn’t, though. Much as we’d all like them to go away, belligerence, prejudice, and segregation are all still around, and people will keep on voicing stupid and uninformed opinions regardless. So if we accept that criticism in all its forms isn’t going to go away any time soon, the question becomes: How do you, as a creative person, deal with criticism?
When it comes to responding to criticism, some approaches work more effectively than others. First off, I’ll explain my side as a constructively minded music critic, and then I’ll give some examples of good and bad responses.
Until the day I changed TMMP’s submissions policy, my email inbox was crammed with a lot of submissions from musicians around the world. To be perfectly frank, the vast majority of them weren’t very good. Rather than publishing a huge number of negative reviews, I wrote a huge number of personally penned and customised rejection letters explaining precisely why I wasn’t going to publish a review of X artist’s work and how they could get to a level where I’d be willing to help promote them. Most of the time, these rejection letters ran longer than a review would – and that obviously did me no favours personally, because I was using up precious time and mental energy that could have been spent growing TMMP and providing support to the bands I was really into.
Doing things that way did not work well for me. I’ve been told to go fuck myself because I said a band’s vocalist was at least a quarter tone out of tune, and needed more practice; it was suggested that I have intercourse with various members of my immediate family because one band had their guitars, bass, and vocals obviously synced to a click while the drums gradually fell out of time as one track moved toward a car crash of an outro; and a band who plagiarised Neil Young’s Rockin’ In The Free World sent me an email that made YouTube trolls look like Gandhi when I pointed out that if they released that track and tried to pass it off as their own, they could risk getting sued. These are all textbook examples of how not to respond to constructively intended advice and criticism, and they led me to stop sending personal rejection letters and adjust TMMP’s submissions policy in order to scare off unprofessional musicians in the first place. But in amongst the insults, there were a few responses that broke the mould, and really made me sit up and take notice.
Here’s an email quote (used with permission) that sums up exactly how to deal with constructive criticism, from local-to-me rock band Fire At Night:
“What I greatly valued was your honesty. I can’t do shit with niceness. If I am going to improve as a songwriter, and us as a band, then what I need to be aware of is where I/we need to improve!“
If this isn’t your default response for dealing with constructively intended criticism, it should be. The above quote sets out a simple statement that forms the core of a true professional’s attitude. If you want a career as a professional musician, you’d better be willing to work on yourself and constantly improve; if all you want is an ego boost, and you can’t handle someone suggesting that what you do doesn’t make the grade in some way and needs improvement in this or that area, it’s going to be a long, hard slog. There are plenty of people in music – not just writers but label staff, live music promoters, publishers, managers, producers, and so on – who are going to offer you constructive criticism, and do so with the intention of helping you out. If you make the right moves, that is just going to happen; there’s no way to avoid it, so you’d best get prepared and adopt a mindset that will help you make the most of your experiences.
Unfortunately, not all feedback is going to be positive or constructively intended. If you’re doing anything positive in your life – and especially if you do it well – you’re going to come up against haters and online trolls and all the bile and crap they can spew in your direction. The more successful a musician is, the more hate they have to deal with. Jealousy is a real motivator for haters.
If or when you do come up against all that stuff, try the following options:
1) Remember that you’re not alone. Thousands and thousands of musicians across the world, creative people just like you, are all in the same boat. Individual trolls rarely reserve their hatred for just one musician; chances are they just vomit rubbish at others indiscriminately, trying and failing to make up for some deep-rooted sense of inadequacy, insecurity, and general self-loathing.
2) Use it as inspiration for your art. If you’re feeling really angry after reading a negative online comment, take it out on your instrument, and see what comes out. Cathartic creativity has spawned some brilliant musical moments; see if you can craft one of your own.
3) Ignore it, and focus on any positive comments to bolster your confidence. The problem with this choice is that bottling things up can cause damage later; if you’re lucky enough to have a creative talent, it’s probably best to use it to get your emotions out rather than let things fester in the back of your mind.
4) Use constructively critical comments to improve yourself. Watching yourself get better at a task is a great way to feel good and bolster your immunity to negativity in the future.
5) Take all that hate, and twist it around so it becomes funny. Here are two great examples of how to do this, courtesy of Australian legends Tim Minchin and Twelve Foot Ninja:
Finally, it’s worth noting that receiving criticism is rarely a bad thing. There are lessons to be learnt when we encounter challenges; we can find ways to make ourselves stronger, become more resilient, employ our creative abilities to discover solutions and entirely new paths to future progress, and generally become better than we were yesterday as a direct result of experiencing hardships. If you take on a creative project, everything can be seen as material for that project – positive, negative, or neutral, it doesn’t really matter. As Tim Minchin and Twelve Foot Ninja demonstrated, there are ways around even the most painful obstacles, ways to make them more bearable and inspirational and even funny.
If all else fails, just remember Frank Zappa’s advice to anyone looking to survive in music:
Don’t stop – and keep going!