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Unless you’re one of those rare human beings who somehow manages to not let criticism penetrate your ego, it can sting quite badly when people have not-so-nice things to say about your music; especially when you’ve put a ton of time, energy, and passion into it.
But as tempting as it is to throw your laptop out the window every time someone posts something harsh about your music, it can be a deeply helpful exercise to channel those critiques into positive learning experiences and sources of growth. Easier said than done, sure. But if you’re intent on sustaining a long and meaningful career doing anything creative, learning how to cope and learn from bad reviews, negative comments, and harsh opinions about your music is essential for your artistic survival.
We’ve seen time and time again, as we’ve developed our goal-oriented mentorship program, how powerful constructive criticism and growth-centric feedback can be to songwriters and artists when they welcome that support. The question is, how can you apply that same open-minded, objective outlook you have when you seek criticism out directly, to times when you get subjected to unsolicited feedback?
1) Design the filter: Which criticisms should you listen to, and which should you ignore?
A grammar-error-laden YouTube comment is not tantamount to a bad review from Stereogum. Let’s just get that right out of the way. If you’re seeing any sort of success in music, you’re bound to be getting a steady stream of positive and negative opinions about your work. In fact, I’d venture to say that the more popular you become, the more vitriolic and ignorable the comments will become as well.
One of the keys to getting the most out of other people’s criticism is learning which voices are worth listening to, and which are not worth your time at all. As much as it may hurt to read, if someone is presenting thoughtful critiques of your work, even in a negative tone, it may be worth thinking about their words critically. It doesn’t matter what platform their critique appears on; serious and helpful opinions can be found outside of published and peer-edited reviews. Social media posts will occasionally turn out to be thoughtful and informed commentary.
One helpful way to judge whether or not a particular critique is worth your time is to ask, does this person take themselves and their opinions seriously? If they’ve really spent time listening to your music, if they’ve edited their writing, if they’ve indicated that they’ve listened multiple times, you’ll know. You’ll also be able to tell pretty clearly if the “reviewer” didn’t bother to listen past the first few notes — which is a good indicator that it’s not really your music they’re shouting about, but something else entirely.
It’s wise and well-advised not to go down the rabbit hole of reading each and every tiny thing people have to say about your music. You may lose your sanity and never recover. The number of likes and shares will almost always outnumber comments — focus on those positive numbers and move on.
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2) Glean insight from the detached perspective that outside criticism provides.
Yes, your mom, boyfriend, and your boss all love your new album. But what do people who don’t know you think?
Thoughtful and objective critique is one of the only true ways to learn how the general public regards your music. They don’t see the hard work that goes into it, and they don’t know you personally enough to know whether your music is being truthful. They just hear the finished project. And that’s massively important.
The positive and the not-so-positive things that critics say don’t always represent what the casual listening population may think, but if someone feels strongly enough to say something, it usually means that your music has made an impression on them. And depending on who you are and what you’re trying to achieve through music, the sort of nuanced feedback you’ll get from people who don’t know you personally can often be extremely valuable.
3) Humility is key.
There are, of course, plenty of occasions where the critic just simply got it wrong — sometimes, completely wrong.
Even the most famous, widely-followed critics will miss the point sometimes. Taste is subjective, and it’s influenced by personal experience, and so it will always be flawed. Taste is also not immune to external stimuli, like the reviewer getting his or her car towed earlier that day. Keep this in mind should you ever read a review that tears your music apart, but focuses on all the wrong aspects of your sound or intention.
If there’s little constructive criticism to be gleaned from a negative review, try to keep in mind that a bad review is written by one person with a singular perspective. They might not get it, but they might also not be the target audience for your music, either. Not everyone is going to love your music, or understand it, and that’s okay. If you think they do or should, then you are certifiably crazy. A healthy dose of humility is essential for weathering bad reviews, and conversely, for not letting a single critic’s praise shape your creativity.
No matter what the world thinks of your music, if writing songs is something you absolutely live for, then you should consider yourself lucky. The world is filled with passionless people looking for ways to fill their time, and if you’re able to create music that’s solid enough to be considered for review, then you’re doing something right. Keep digging deep, and wrestling with your muses, and if you truly love the music you make, so will the critics.
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