Think you got it? You don’t! How to take criticism.

When Particles Collide (The band my blogmate Chris and I are in) were recently given an outright negative review of our first full length album.  The experience was surprising and certainly discouraging…but only for a moment. When you decide to put yourself out there, you’re going to be criticised.  Not only is it human nature, it’s part of the business of making music.  And, if you can get over the natural defensiveness, criticism can help you to improve your game. Assuming, of course, that any given critic knows what game you’re trying to play!

So let’s look at the type of criticism we often receive and either how it influences our decisions or how we ignore it with grace and only occasional fits of angry tirades.

  • Criticism: People walk out while we’re playing and are often covering their ears.
  • WPC Response: Assume that said folks were never angry teenagers, prefer country music and desperately need to get home for some hot and steamy love-making.

  • Criticism: Family member asks why we can’t do something differently.
  • WPC Response: Sometimes family members are the only ones who will give you honest criticism. They have nothing to lose and they don’t need you to come to their show the next week or to help them book a show somewhere down the line. Other people in bands often hold back criticism because we all need each other to keep performing and promoting. So listen to your family I say, but understand that they might not understand your “style.” For example my dad pretty much only listens to the blues. Needless to say he likes it when I play “riffs” which is a pretty infrequent thing. He’s not a power-chord-chugging, hey remember 1977 in NYC, kind of guy. But he has a point. People like to hear melody lines. It’s not bad criticism and I have been trying to write more guitar lines.  My mother on the other hand, wants to hear me sing with my growly, guttural, ballsy vocals all the time. She doesn’t like “the pretty stuff.”  My mom doesn’t like weakness, and I love her for that. I am often most comfortable in my more aggressive vocal moments and I think what she senses is that I’m not as comfortable in the quieter vocal deliveries. It doesn’t mean I’m going to sing the way she wants all the time, but I am going to work on my confidence in my softer voice. Chris’s mom wants him to record a vocal record of him covering classic crooner tunes. Keep tuned to see if he takes this advice or not!

  • Criticism: Instead of criticising songwriting or performance, other musicians will often offer you lots of advice about gear. People don’t take their gear choices as personally as their songwriting or performance choices, so this kind of criticism tends to flow a little more freely between musicians (And now that I have a decently sized pedal board, most guitarists can’t wait to talk gear with me.) Several of our musician friends have, in the past, specifically criticised my guitar tone and were concerned that it wasn’t “thick” enough.
  • WPC Response: I’ve been working on my tone for almost six months and I’m really thankful to my fellow musicians for helping to point me in the right direction. It took a good while for me to break down and let go of my D.I.Y.-all I need is a tuner and an overdrive pedal attitude, but I am most thankful that I’ve spent some time (and money!) getting a guitar sound that better suits our band. Listen to your fellow musicians and then listen to yourself playing and see if what they’re saying holds up. Also listen carefully to the artists you most want to emulate and figure out what’s going on with their “sound.”

  • Criticism: Someone will say something along the lines of: “You should write more songs like that third one you played.”
  • WPC Response: First and foremost, it’s really awesome to know that a particular song resonates with someone and that they would like to hear more songs like it.  But if you play enough shows, different people will like different songs. And for us, this variance in song preference is most definitely true. As a response to this phenomenon I like to think about why a particular person likes a particular song. Is it because it makes them feel a certain way? Because it reminds them of something they already like? Because it allows them to let go of self-consciousness and dance around like a crazy person? Because they can relate to the emotions of a song? This kind of analysis can then lead to more purposeful songwriting.

  • Criticism: Print Media. Here’s the doosey and the actual impetus for this post. Print media critics can write anything they want, for any reason they want. They can compare you to bands that you’ve never heard of, point out weak fashion choices, a lack of production quality on an album and of course they can criticise your songwriting and performance. And all reviews can’t be positive because that is not interesting to readers. Readers like controversy and some ruthlessness. With print media there’s no back and forth between you and the critic, there’s no conversation and they don’t owe you anything. They also did not sell their own car to make the album they just critiqued, take voice lessons for months in preparation for recording vocals or pour over lyrical choices and harmonies. Oh wait, I think this just got personal.
  • WPC Response: I do think it’s important to think about how your music is being perceived by an outside observer. Once the defensive talons retract, and you realize that this is only one other person’s opinion, you might want to ask yourself what the important kernel of truth within the criticism actually is. Once you uncover this truth, then you can use it to move forward and influence your future decisions. It’s very difficult to have a finished product, for which you are very proud, and know that you can’t use anyone’s advice to retroactively change something. You can however, move forward. And keep moving forward. Because, chances are, most bands and musicians will not move forward and you can improve and aspire to greatness both because of and in spite of criticism. And keep in mind that the folks who most often receive criticism are the ones putting themselves out there the most. You know the old adage, all press, good or bad is good press. It’s your name out there and it’s never a bad thing if people decide you’re worth talking about. So kids: chin up, guitar ready, hard work and self-confidence in abundance and keep on rockin’!

Affectionately and Relentlessly yours,