This is an excerpt of the book Processing Creativity: The Tools, Practices And Habits Used To Make Music You’re Happy With. If you would like to download an excerpt or buy a copy you can do so here.
Hearing criticism is a skill that's learned slowly. All too often criticism is met with defensive statements like "well that's just your opinion" or "you're hating" in order to dismiss someone's opinion. Instead of evaluating what’s actually behind the criticism, it’s blocked and never considered for how it can help a creator to grow. By firing back reactionary retorts to criticism, the ability to grow from even the most negative of criticisms is shut down.
Instead of blindly defending yourself against every criticism, it's important to weigh the criticism against your intent to consider what can be learned from the critique. With practice, you can consider this criticism, gaining a healthy check on your intent to give you perspective so you can make the right decisions for your work.
It's easy to get flustered when hearing criticism, so getting some distance to evaluate what was critiqued is often necessary. Evaluating criticism brings you self-awareness as well as gives you strength to handle the consideration that's needed to create. Taking every critique you receive as a chance to grow by gaining further objectivity not only builds your strength as a human, but it's one of the best devices for growth in your mind.
The Toxicity Of Blaming The Haters
One of the worst reactions an artist can have is to dismiss all critics as "haters" when there's a lot you can learn from your critics. Today, if you want to hear criticism from the world, it's easier than ever with critique websites, blogs and social media comments. If you allow the comments to affect your creative decisions in some way, these critics are your collaborators. While that can be off-putting to some artists, it can be empowering if you put the right attitude towards this criticism.
Hearing criticism is usually met with resistance since it's a far easier path than measured analysis. All too often we assume anyone who doesn't like what we do is trying to bring us down, no longer supports us or being maliciously hurtful. While all of those traits can occur in criticism, they're misdiagnosed far too regularly. It's become easier for fragile egos to protect themselves from all criticism by categorically calling all negative critiques "haters" whose only motivation is to bring down their targets. Whether criticism is educated or worthwhile isn't even considered since it has to be brushed off entirely.
This approach to criticism is usually to protect ego out of fear of what would happen if you had to accept flaws that may be pointed out. While many criticisms are invalid or uneducated it's important to evaluate them in order to grow your self-awareness. Often in life, we hit a frustrating place where we're looking for answers on how to grow to make our lives better so we can further ourselves. Most of the time these answers lie in hearing a truth about ourselves we've yet to face. When you put your music out into the world, you open up an opportunity to hear about both your strengths and weaknesses. But this is only an opportunity if you allow yourself to give the comments on your music consideration.
Since I work on so many records every year, there are constant tweets, album reviews and social media comments about the work I've done. When I see a criticism of the production, I take it in while trying to consider what I can learn from it. Every project I do has intent, so I'm able to judge each criticism by whether that intent translates to outside ears. While we've exhaustively discussed making music for yourself first, others can advise you if your standards are translating properly. If someone called a production raw when I was going for a more polished production, I might have to rethink if I've lost touch with production standards.
Sometimes, a criticism may be intended to deride a song, but it’s actually a compliment. It's always hilarious when I produce a record and someone says it is “too poppy" when that was exactly the plan ― to make a record that was unashamed of how poppy it is. But hearing your record is sloppy or out of tune when you were going for a record that was meant to be precise and polished is helpful criticism that should lead you to reevaluate whether your standards are high enough.
If you get bad reviews, you should consider the reviewer's agendas. Usually a criticism is a reflection of how a reviewer wants to look to others, meaning if they say they like your music and you have a more mainstream sound, they could lose credibility in their world. If you're getting criticism from someone who doesn't even appreciate your style of music, the criticism may be purely out of a posture they need to take, making it worthy of dismissal.
Self-awareness is probably one of the most important qualities any of us can achieve, and hearing that we're "trying too hard" or our standards aren't on base can help us learn what we can gain more perspective on. With my last book, Get More Fans, I was told that the book's name was off-putting since it sounded like a self-help book, even though I thought it was a perfect title, which I labored over for months. But once readers cracked into the book they sensed its authenticity. Criticism can help us see the blind spots we all have. It's said we all have a note on our back that everyone else can see but we cannot see it ourselves. Being judged by the internet can help us become aware of what this note says to then consider and apply to our work.
It’s hard to hear criticism at first as it's another muscle you need to build. Some artists need a filter at first by having a friend read them reviews to find what's useful and not malicious. In time they can grow to hear that not all of this criticism is valid. But calling everyone haters is the opposite of growth. Instead, take it in to begin building a muscle towards how to process it.
Advice From The Suits
Once you gain some success building a fanbase, suits will inevitably come knocking. These suits cannot help but comment on your music, so knowing when to take their comments to heart and when they're overstepping their bounds can be treacherous since keeping relations with them is an important part of growing a fanbase.
Suits often get a bad rap. No one ever pats them on the back when they tell an artist they can do better and that criticism leads to a successful record. Throughout my time engaging with suits (and even being one), the best practice I've seen is giving an objective opinion about how the artist can be the best they can be. Instead of forcing their creative direction on the musician, they give them feedback on how they can be the best version of who the creator wants to be.
Since musicians won't make good music if it's not what's emotionally resonant to them, suits’ worst behavior is telling a musician to go in a direction they're not passionate towards. Telling an emo band they need to sound more like Massive Attack when they don't like their music, wastes time for both the suit and the artists when they make terrible music. It's good to offer advice like, "take a listen to Massive Attack to see if it influences what you do," but it's detrimental to their music to force an artistic agenda on a musician. A common trope of suits giving advice is to follow the latest trend, but if the musician doesn't like that trend, it always comes off as derivative, often leading to the death of that trend instead of helping the band. Nothing kills a trend faster than when 1,000 inauthentic imitators rush in with generic drivel.
While we've all heard the trials of art being shut down by suits that "don't hear a hit," there are cases where this has yielded great results as well as the oft-referenced utter failures. This advice has motivated many lazy musicians to exceed their artistic limits to craft a better song. But this advice has also come from a conformist-know-nothing-suit that's chasing trends instead of making trends that wouldn't know innovation if a sentient robot smacked them in the face. There's no better evidence of this than the debacle Wilco went through in their movie I Am Trying To Break Your Heart when the same company which rejected the record, later released it under a different imprint to much success.
When you read stories of the great artist developers, they impart influences along with standards upon artists. They tell stories of successful examples, but they don't exert their tastes on the artists. Telling a musician they can push their boundaries more or that they haven't found the right collection of songs is an opinion that allows an artist to analyze against their intent. If a musician is confident in their creative direction and knows what they want to express isn't aligned with a suit, it'll rarely end well in compromise. But often when a musician is less confident, they know that they can do better, so they'll take the comment to heart.
Just as the head and the heart are very different struggles, the suit and the artist are two different beasts that must coexist. Just like the head, a suit often overthinks concepts that ruin an artist's vision. But the artist can have too much heart, resulting in a loss of objectivity as they overly emote into a panic. Sadly, discussions of this struggle tend to be too black and white, where they either dismiss all of the advice from the suit or they trust the suit without sufficient consideration. There’s utility in suits’ feedback if it avoids imposing inauthentic influence on artists.
Who Do You Trust?
Throughout your creative existence, you'll be constantly inundated with unsolicited advice on how you could improve your music. It can be troubling to sort through, leaving artists enraged at some of the ridiculous unsolicited comments made on the internet. Figuring out whether this criticism is someone pursuing an agenda makes it even tougher to figure out. There are a few rules I've learned to figure out how I consider criticism:
How Does This Person Benefit? - Figuring out if someone's agenda is to pursue their own benefit can clue you into why they're giving this feedback. Consider if this feedback is only there to fuel a selfish gain for the critic, which should be taken with a grain of salt.
Is This Person Proficient In This Subject? - Producers and well-trained musicians are able to dissect small parts of sounds to tell you exactly why an element isn't working. They can also zoom too hard, getting too far into their own tastes to give you helpful advice for your intent. With that said if you're looking for feedback from a respected expert you admire, it can be helpful to process their criticism to weigh against your intent.
Uneducated Ears - Non-musician input is commonly written off when critiquing music. But I find the way non-musicians listen to music can be much more emotional than those who are constantly dissecting it from the bias of musical proficiency. Hearing emotional feedback or when an element sounds off from those who are uneducated can be a great alert to a problem. With that said, these uneducated ears can try too hard to find errors resulting in the silliest feedback you've ever heard. Just because someone has no music education doesn't mean they cannot feel emotion or tell you if your song feels as powerful as another song.
Confirmation Bias - When I get lots of feedback on a subject, I try to make sure I'm not suffering from confirmation bias. All too often when we hear criticism, we try to use it to find whatever is easiest or most convenient for our present state. I try to ask myself what's the hardest truth I'd have to consider from the criticism I receive about a song. This truth may be that I need to rewrite a whole section of a song or start a mix from scratch. Usually, the hardest truth is the one you have to face, since our minds try to convince us the easiest truth to execute will work.
The Public Has No Imagination And Will Rob You Of What Makes You Special
The majority of listeners have a limited vision of musical potential and only know how to imitate others. Anyone who has graduated kindergarten gets that there are psychological profiles of those who are leaders and followers. You'll hear tons of advice on how to make you more "commercial" or "accessible." Most of this advice comes from those who don't get that simply imitating what has already been done will get you nowhere. The world wants artists who have a unique character to their work, not another copy of a copy, but the advice you get is usually a coded message on how you can be a clone of a successful artist.
Finance blogger Ramit Sethi puts it like this: “The world wants you to be vanilla. They want you to be the same as everyone else. But the minute you are, they abandon you.” This sentiment has been echoed by countless artists including Grimes. Most people are only able to tell you to imitate something else they enjoy or has received success. While this is great advice for athletes and those looking to figure out practices to get more successful, when it comes to your creative choices, this advice is largely useless.
Even worse, some advisers have intricate knowledge of one discipline but almost none of another. When it comes to how a painter can improve their work, I have nearly no vision on what to do with a finished painting, but with a half-done demo, I’ll have hundreds of ideas. All of my advice comes from my experience in music and business, but is neglectful of the nuance of how you communicate art as a visual format.
If your critics are telling you to get rid of an aspect of your intent since it'll “help you get famous,” you cannot give up on it. The character and quirks you like about yourself are what others will criticize before you’re successful and what they'll celebrate when you're successful.