How you manage the asking for and receiving of feedback can be the difference between a happy, successful career and struggling to get off the ground.
Finding the right method to get criticism will benefit your work and maintain good emotional wellbeing.
As a songwriter, I’ve always written either alone or in a very small, consistent group of people (i.e. my band). There is far more to think about than just the music and the lyrics: creating a website, writing a good press release, developing visuals (which covers album artwork, press photos, music videos – even what clothes to wear and whether to have my hair long or very long), and a bunch of other things.
The truth is, there is very little here (if anything) on which I’m even close to being an expert, and so I’ve always needed a good methodology for going out and getting external feedback on these various work streams.
But asking for feedback can be daunting and receiving feedback can open you up to some big emotional and practical challenges. The main ones are:
1) How to manage contradictory feedback or advice
This was one of the hardest aspects of starting out in the music scene in London – there is no single correct way to do anything, and yet, all the pieces of advice online and from other musicians are said/written as if they are gospel truth… which one do you follow?
This problem can range from big decisions (“You should try to sign to a record label” vs “You should stay independent and keep all the money for yourself”) to the minutiae of recording (“Ned’s vocal harmony needs to be more prominent” vs “Why can I still hear Ned’s vocals there?!”)
2) How to receive negative feedback in a way that doesn’t damage your confidence
I cannot think of a single day in the last decade that I haven’t questioned some or all of the following: my singing voice, my normal voice, my ability to write lyrics, my ability to keep an audience interested, the value of writing music in a world descending into climate-change-induced chaos, my hair cut, why anyone would care about my music, and so on.
Even the smallest comments can risk derailing the finely balanced engine that is happy, creative musical me.
So, I have devised a way of seeking out feedback/advice in a controlled way, accounting for these challenges whilst maximising the utility of any information given, wherever it comes from.
Step 1 – Identify specific people for specific types of advice.
It is extremely tempting to rely on the same people for advice on all aspects of your work. Close friends, siblings, parents, your partner – especially your partner! – will be leant on for advice on all the topics described above.
This is illogical. If you can’t be an expert on fashion, graphics design, website copy, mixing and production and career planning, why expect your partner (or friend, relative, etc) to be!
In the same way that it ‘takes a village to raise a child’, it takes a village to raise a songwriter – that village just happens to be a carefully composed network of people who each have their area of expertise.
If you regularly need advice on how to manage your website, seek out a friend who has experience building good, successful websites and go to them for your second opinion on websites.
If you need fashion advice, find a friend whose eye for fashion you admire, and let them be your go-to on all questions of styling.
Writers, photographers, other songwriters and producers – they all have their areas of help.
This will help reduce noise (i.e. too much comment from people all over the place) and give you a more focused, informed set of opinions.
Step 2 – Ask for it, don’t just wait for it to come to you.
Once you work out which areas you want advice on, find the relevant people and actually ask them. This sounds obvious, but it’s surprisingly easy just to end up receiving feedback from those people who shout the loudest and give advice unprompted.
Some people love giving advice; pretty much everyone loves being asked for advice. If you have a friend who writes beautiful lyrics, ask them to look over your new song draft. By seeking them out specially, they will feel emotionally invested (and probably flattered) in giving you deeper, more useful feedback.
This could also be a great way to build contacts in your industry – if you have something specific you want help with, it shows you (a) think and care deeply about your work and (b) aren’t arrogant enough to think you know best.
It also helps you deal with the potential emotional challenges of receiving less-than-wonderful feedback if you were the one asking for it. It meant you were in control of the process and prepared possibly to hear something non-positive.
Step 3 – Remember that advice depends on the giver (them) as much as on the content (you).
This is a crucial element in managing the second challenge above. Some people are pickier by nature, or will quickly hone in on things they don’t like (and thus skip the things they do like). You have to remember that this isn’t a reflection of your work – you can ask three different people for feedback on the same song and get three totally different answers, even if they focus on the same aspects of the song. You might even get three different answers from the same person on three different days!
You start to learn what sort of advice different people give, and even ask a group of people for advice about the same thing knowing that you’ll get different types of feedback, all complementing each other.
For example, in August and After, whenever we collected feedback on mixes (just before the songs got mastered), it would come back like this:
Person A – gives really detailed feedback, showing all the little production details/errors that need ironing out
Person B – gives a really holistic opinion about whether the song flows nicely and questioning/affirming whether it captures the right feeling for us/our sound/the lyrics
Person C – gives a more general opinion on the sound and whether all the elements/instruments come out strongly enough
We also knew that Person A would be more critical (i.e. negative) than Person C, and factor that in when we received the feedback, lest it wreck our confidence.
Step 4 – Differentiate between the people from whom you want critical feedback VS emotional support, and TELL THEM which you want.
My mum, bless her, is a very intelligent woman. She has listened to a lot of music in her time (not a statement about her age) and also knows me better than I know myself.
However, when I show her a new song, a lot of the time I just want some encouragement that I’m not wasting my life and that I’m moving in the right direction, etc, etc, yes Ned and a nice pat on the head.
But if I don’t TELL her this, she is, totally reasonably, going to assume that I’m showing her a new song for her thoughts. Maybe she fancies herself a bit of a Rick Rubin mixed with Stevie Nicks and wants to tell me that the pre-chorus is too long and that I should speed it up to 126 BPM. Maybe that’s not what I want to hear, at least until I’ve had some nice encouragement or a statement of how the song made her feel.
[Note: the complicating factor is that, according to the longstanding rule that my mum always turns out to be right about everything, I basically have to write down everything she says anyway as it’s probably all gold dust.]
Which brings me to the fifth and final step…
Step 5 – Nothing that anyone says is a sign that you should quit.
This is such an important point and is surely so obvious, but in truth most people will forget this when it comes to the moment of criticism. There is no right way of doing anything and so even if someone tells you that they don’t like something or that you’re doing it wrong – even if, in hindsight, it appears that you were indeed doing it wrong – that doesn’t change the fact that you’ve done it and that’s something to be proud of in itself.
Criticism is inescapable; even when you don’t ask for it, people will give it. The more successful you get, the larger your audience gets, the more people will write hurtful, unhelpful things from behind the comfort of their own keyboard for no reason other than their own entertainment or to somehow boost their own self-esteem. Do not let it derail you.
There is an important distinction between listening to feedback and using feedback.
You are a wireless receiver, programmed to hear what people say – you can either store it for use in your work, or reject it as unnecessary.
Thanks for taking the time to read – please leave your feedback below and we will ignore all of it… (only joking!)