Handling Criticism And Advice As A Creative Artist

Some key factors to bear in mind when deciding whether or not to take heed of the advice or criticism you receive for your work as a musician.

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As someone who creates any kind of art, in our case music, you are going to receive comments and opinions about your work, from all kinds of people in all kinds of ways. Some of it can help you, some of it can hurt you, and some of it isn't worth listening to. This article isn't about how to insulate your ego against criticism, I'm not a psychologist and I'm assuming you're not a toddler. This is about how to interpret what kind of criticism you are receiving, and how much attention you should pay to it.

I have a friend who has a rule - "I never take unsolicited advice". This person, much as I like her, is an idiot. In many ways, unsolicited advice is the best advice. If you actively ask someone for their opinion, one of the following things may occur:

01. - They give you a useful, constructive critique

02. - Rather than admit that they're not qualified to comment, they'll talk a pile of uninformed rubbish

03. - They'll say the first thing that comes into their head to make you go away

04. - They'll flatter you to avoid offending you

05. - They'll insult you because they find it funny

Only result #1 is any use, and it's the least likely to happen out of all those options. However, when someone offers you an opinion that you have not asked for, it means one of two things:

01. - They are an opinionated jerk who enjoys criticizing other people just to watch them suffer, or to look knowledgeable for ego reasons.

02. - They have spotted something so important, so obvious, that you have clearly not seen, that they are prepared to take the risk of offending you in an effort to help you.

Advice or criticism in this second category is the best advice of all. It's also pretty easy to tell the difference between an opinionated jerk and someone who is willing to put themselves in the firing line to help you. If it's a stranger, it's probably the former. If it's someone you know, who likes you and respects you, and maybe has a vested interest in you succeeding, then it's the latter, and you really need to listen to such people. However, do bear in mind that "everyone's an expert", and it's amazing how many people will offer critiques of things they know nothing about. As a mentor of mine once told me: "only take advice on something from people who have actually done that thing". Only take advice from people who are qualified to give it, especially if it's technical.

Remember that it's much easier to see things from the outside; being uninvolved in something gives a critic a sense of perspective that someone who is deeply involved in something may lack, even if they lack detailed knowledge of what's happening on the ground. In fact, those details can work against you, as it's hard to grasp the big picture of something when, from day-to-day, you deal with the minutiae of a project. As an example, a few years back I went to a masterclass given by a virtuoso guitarist, one of the world's top shredders and teachers. I saw a guitarist desperately ask him for help on a very detailed, high-level aspect of sweep picking that he considered his biggest weakness. The virtuoso told him that this was irrelevant, this guy's vibrato sucked, at a serious beginner level, and that was his biggest weakness. The sweep-picking problem wasn't noticeable to 90% of even other shred guitarists, but his vibrato problem was noticeable even to the layman. This guy had got himself obsessed with sweep-picking to the exclusion of all else, and it took a neutral outsider to point out that he was expending effort in the wrong area.

That's not to say that asking for advice is a bad idea, far from it. Just make sure that the people you ask are informed and knowledgeable about the issue at hand, and that they like you enough to genuinely want to help. That's why asking random people on the internet is not such a great idea, because you have no idea who's behind the keyboard much of the time or why they are saying what they are saying. Far better to develop mutual trust with a smaller number of people, online or offline, who you know and who like you. The very best people to do this with are people who do what you do and whose skill level is about the same as your own. That way you can help them as well. That independence and neutrality I was talking about earlier, coming from someone who you like and trust, is more important than that person knowing more than you. Having two people at the same level who can bounce ideas off each other means that they can both benefit from the arrangement and have an incentive to work hard for each other that would not be the case if you were asking advice from someone who is much further ahead, because you will have nothing to offer them in return. I know a number of top-level producers and mixing engineers who will send each other their mixes just to get an independent set of ears and honest feedback, and if the pros, who are in theory in competition with each other, still do it that that's a sign that it's a really good idea.

Also, learn to distinguish between criticism of the overall professionalism of your output and specific criticism of the artistic merits of whatever it is you do. For me, as a composer, producer and studio engineer, examples of the former would be things such as:

"You really need to study how to mix guitars."

"The drums sound amateurish, you should do them in this way."

"This needs a lot of work before you submit it to professionals."

"The vocals keep popping all over the place, you need to edit that out."

You should really listen to and act upon opinions such as these, because they indicate that you are not yet at the level required for a pro recording. On the other hand, criticisms such as these -

"I'd have the keyboards louder, myself"

"I think you should sound more like this band that I like"

"I think the drums should "let go" with the double-kick more often"

"I think the solo is too long."

- are different, they deal with the specifics of your work on a personal, aesthetic level rather than the quality level of what you have produced. They're not saying you suck, they're saying that they'd prefer a different emphasis for the sound. For example, I love the album "Death Magnetic" by Metallica, but I hate the mastering. I think it's over-loud and over-compressed. I don't think it's amateurish, it's just that if I'd mastered it, I'd have done it differently to please my ear. I still bought it.

I'm not saying you should ignore such advice, you should definitely consider it, but this kind of advice is much more about subjective personal taste than about objective quality. Sometimes I have received this kind of criticism about my music, and I've thought "well, if I was making this album specifically for you then I'd do it your way, but I prefer my way of doing this" (though of course if I am mixing something for a client, I'll do it their way even if it's not how I'd do it personally). Don't be afraid to think that, even if the person offering the criticism is very well qualified - everyone has their preferences. As one of my big inspirations, "Dilbert" creator Scott Adams, once said:

"What isn't important is how many people *dislike* something. What is important is how many people *like* it."

And that is the last thing to bear in mind it's psychologically very easy to be knocked back by negative comments and pay too much attention to them. I read somewhere that 95% of Youtube videos have more "likes" than "dislikes", but people only remember the venom in the comments section. The most "disliked" video on Youtube, the music video for Justin Bieber's "Baby", still has over a million "likes" and has been viewed over 700 million times (netting millions of dollars for its creators). If a million people like something you do, then you must be doing something right. You can't please everyone, so just make sure you listen to the right people. ----

About the Author: James Scott is a London Music Producer, writer and audio engineer. He works with up-and-coming artists to help get them noticed in the industry.

10 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I wish there were more interesting articles like this, not those stupid stories with 83463804 parts.
    "What isn't important is how many people *dislike* something. What is important is how many people *like* it." It is impossible not to agree.
    Great work on this, another important note : if someone criticise you (like on an album review) and there is a comments section - NEVER EVER try to change their minds or fight their opinions about your music. It's their opinion, and you will look really stupid by trying to fight everyone who dislikes you, esp on internet
    Baby, baby, baby, oh Like baby, baby, baby, no Like baby, baby, baby, oh I thought you'd always be mine, mine...
    Bill Brown
    Death Magnetic was a good album! But I agree with you on the mastering. Nice article. Thank you.
    Wait, the only thing I really got from this is that you like Death Magnet? I HONESTLY thought that NO ONE liked that album. But I guess you learn something new every day.
    Brandon Bloom
    That Scott Adam's quote is brilliant! A lot of good things to keep in mind in this article.