As a music artist, facing criticism is inevitable. Even the most successful, most talented artists will see “dislikes” on their videos and be met with less than stellar feedback from record execs, peers, fans and music critics at almost every point in their career. I’ve read surprisingly negative reviews of classic Led Zeppelin and Michael Jackson albums, and critics have mercilessly panned songs in recent years which have gone on to be huge hits. Now, you may be expecting a “criticism is good, embrace it” sort of message here, but in my experience as an artist and producer, I find that to be far too simplistic an explanation.
There are many potential reasons for and motivations behind harsh critique and negative feedback, and all critique is not necessarily valuable or beneficial to an artist. I believe there are at least 3 basic categories into which criticism falls, and failing to differentiate between these categories or levels of criticism could result in an artist taking poor advice, becoming confused, shutting down, or missing an opportunity altogether.
The first kind of criticism is criticism that SHOULD be taken into consideration and applied if possible. How would one identify such criticism? There are a few things to look for. We should keep in mind that as artists, we are much closer to our work than anyone else. For this reason, we sometimes are unable to look at our work with the sort of objectivity necessary to improve upon it. It is therefore important that we be open-minded when we first receive feedback on our work. Here are a few clues that might indicate we should listen carefully to a review or criticism and learn from it:
1. Is the feedback coming from more than one independent source? If the advice is coming from multiple people who likely have not had time to confer with one another, that is a good indicator that what’s being said about your work is based solely in the quality of the work itself rather than in any personal feelings toward you or individual expectations. Unfortunately for artists who see themselves as innovators, we live in a society where herd mentality abounds and people are often afraid to be ridiculed for holding opinions that are not popular even when it comes to musical preferences, so understand that if a lot of people are saying the same thing, there is a very high likelihood that many of those individuals have simply hopped on the bandwagon after waiting to hear what the crowd is chanting. That’s why I say numbers are only good evidence when you have several INDEPENDENT sources expressing similar opinions on some aspect of your work. Might be a good idea to have a group of people you trust who you can show your work to before it is released and share your music with each of them individually and privately.
2. Does the source of the criticism understand you as an artist? If I’m a jazz musician, and the source of the criticism only really likes metal and wishes you did metal and complains about the lack of face-melting electric guitar solos and keeps suggesting you listen to some Avenged Sevenfold, then you are encountering the 2nd kind of criticism. This is criticism based on personal preference rather than what is best for YOU as an artist. They are imposing things on a song that do not naturally flow from the song based on what they like to listen to. These sources of criticism are probably well-meaning, they don’t mean you any harm, but adjusting your music and style based on their critique will require you to impersonate some other artist, more specifically, their favorite artist. If their ear WANTS to hear Drake, but you’re not intending to create the kind of music Drake makes, you’ll have to take what they’re telling you with a grain of salt and remember that your goals are not the same as theirs. You need criticism from peers, experts and mentors who, one, understand what you’re going for and accept your vision for what it is, and two, want to see YOUR songs reach their greatest potential based on that vision. That does not require them to like your songs more than their own preferred style or genre of music. They are looking just at what your songs are trying to communicate both musically and lyrically and then giving suggestions on how to enhance the clarity and presentation of those unique songs without trying to turn your songs into something they simply aren’t based on personal taste.
Now… am I saying that if you suspect someone’s criticism of your work falls into this 2nd category that you should ignore everything they say? No way! Perhaps you’ll be surprised and find something in the music they like that speaks to you or inspires you, maybe just not in the way they intended. The key is understanding WHY they are giving you the feedback that they are giving you and not assuming your music is lacking something simply because it doesn’t fit into their playlist.
3. Does the source of the criticism have your best interest at heart? Do they stand to gain something from speaking negatively of your work? Did they pass up a chance to provide you with this feedback at a more opportune time like, say, before the music was released for example? The third category of criticism is criticism for the sake of criticism. Negative feedback seems to be significantly more entertaining to most audiences than positive or constructive commentary. There is a reason Simon Cowell HAD to be a part of the original American Idol panel. Be honest, were most of us tuning in to hear the two other judges point out the positive aspects of the performances and find the coolest, friendliest, nicest way to tell hopefuls they would not be advancing to the next round? Yeah, that’s gonna be a “no” from me, dawg. We were waiting to see how Cowell would rip them to shreds and how harsh his criticism would be. The fact is, critics have fans too, and negativity almost always draws more attention. Followers of a particular critic’s YouTube channel or magazine column tend to get most excited about the reviews and articles where the critic strongly disliked the song or movie or show etc. The audience wants their favorite critics to be as “savage” and “unfiltered” as possible, and as a result, critics will often generate negative reviews to appease their fan base or, at the very least, exaggerate the degree to which they disliked something. Take a look at the Rolling Stone article about past reviews that… didn’t stand the test of time to say the least. In this article, Andy Greene highlights examples of albums, now considered classics, some of which actually have a 5-star rating in Rolling Stone magazine, that received SCATCHING, and in hindsight, SHOCKINGLY negative reviews upon their release from, you guessed it, the very same Rolling Stone magazine. Negative reviews usually have more jokes in them, and for some it is more exciting to see how much somebody dislikes something than to see how much they like something. Those looking for attention stand to gain more of what they are looking for by writing a negative review than they do writing a positive one about something they thought was just great.
It is also unfortunately true that many may respond negatively to your art because of their own insecurities or jealously or competitive nature. Not everyone you encounter will necessarily want to see you succeed. Christ commands us to show love to those who mistreat us, and we mustn’t harbor bitterness or unforgiveness in our hearts. Even this third kind of criticism can be an opportunity, just maybe not one that has anything to do with music. With the help of the Holy Spirit, let’s strive to show understanding and compassion to those who present us with this third category of criticism. Perhaps the things they have gone through and the criticisms they have received hurt them in a way you or I couldn’t even imagine, and hurling insults back at them accomplishes nothing. If we slap back, we play right into our enemy’s hands, but if we turn the other cheek, we may see something far greater than a positive review in a magazine. You may not be able to change minds, but the love of Christ is known to change hearts.
Don’t allow this negativity to distract you either. We can’t allow ourselves to rise and fall with the praise or criticism of others. As difficult as it may be for us as artists who are very attached to and passionate about our work, we have to examine all these forms of criticism without emotion in order to best interpret, categorize, and if necessary, apply it. Emotion can cloud our judgment and keep us from completing any of these tasks. Criticism has its place in the journey of any great artist, but not all criticism belongs in the SAME place.