Simon Cowell's distinctive voice and mannerisms made a memorable mark in the world of reality TV, as he would create the most fantastical phrases to describe his disapproval of contestants trying to audition on American Idol. There is even a popular meme floating around the internet stating that a child sang so badly in the shower that their parent walked by with a British accent stating, "It's a NO from me!".
Dealing with criticism in the music industry is often one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome. Not everyone will like what you create and that's a fact. The stress that often coincides with a rejection call or email, or even a less-than-supportive social media comment on your artist page can just derail your motivation. It's a byproduct of putting your creative work in the public eye, but one that can fuel even deeper pools of creative juices.
Since criticism can come from different sources, it sometimes helps to contextualize them for perspective. Then it is possible to work through the motivations of the critic in order to handle what was said in the best way. Obviously, life itself has its share of critics in all facets of daily experience, but when you're building a career in a highly-opinionated field of the arts, it can help to have the tools to deal with the scorn from time to time.
Here are my top 5 critic sources and how to handle them in the most positive way to keep you from derailing your train on the tracks of your artistic journey. Keep in mind these aren't in any particular order of importance or priority.
1. FRIENDS & FAMILY
Just as sure as moms and grandmas can whip out an attaboy or shed a tear of pride showing resounding approval, some family and friends can directly or indirectly criticize your journey into potential music stardom. In fact, the very reality that you could become famous for doing something artistic like writing songs and performing them can stir the pot of jealousy and envy among those closest to you. Sorting through comments from those dear ones in your life is a tall task. Parents of young artists can be overbearing critics and task masters to the point that the fun of being creative is lost. Friends who may be interested in the same path can also give disapproval simply by ignoring or not really commenting at all.
The ways in which you process criticism from friends and family can have a lot more to do with your relationship with them in general than it does with your talent or passion for music. So before you weigh too heavily on their feedback, try to separate the personal soul ties you have with them in every other area of your life and carefully consider their perspective and expertise in the field of music. If they are a general music fan like most humans, their words and views should be given basic tolerance and not mold your career decisions. Hear this clearly. DO NOT LET THEIR WORDS MOLD YOUR CAREER CHOICES. Rather, recognize that they have such close proximity to your overall life, they aren't a pure source of objectivity. After all, they've seen you operate outside your music life enough to be biased. Sometimes this taints the purity of their views about your musical abilities. Conversely, sometimes their insights may have some sobering truth that you should consider. Things like your lifestyle routines and habits may be helpful to receive critique about, while your lyric choice and chord progressions may not.
This is a two-edged sword. A music peer can be an amazing help to an emerging artist. In fact, established artists have testified publicly how much a fellow peer has helped them become better through criticisms they received along the way. However, when you're listening to a fellow emerging artist give you input or feedback, it's sometimes tainted with envy, jealousy or simple bitterness because their own career path is flawed and not working as they hoped.
Sometimes the spirit of charity is not present among peers in the music industry. It's such a highly competitive field that giving helpful advice can derail your own path to a degree if you're not careful. One of the worst kinds of criticism comes from peers who are either uber-talented or less-talented than you. From the ones who have amazing artistic talents, it can seem arrogant and condescending. From those who have less talent and experience, it can seem arrogant and condescending. Irony intended. It's simply difficult to hear criticism from someone who is on the same journey as you.
The hope is that you find passionate artist peers who understand that there are enough critics to deflate your motivation balloon, and it's better to encourage each other to higher heights. Still, when some peers can't resist throwing a jab, it's time to recognize them as sparring partners in a boxing ring. Regardless of their motivation, take their jabs in whatever light you want. Recognize that you need to practice dodging the hits that will always come your way and let their words or actions be your training partner. Aside from this, pay close attention to the journey they are on and you may just quickly recognize they are not having the level of success they desire either, and they're trying to comfort their own ego by diminishing your talent or efforts in some way.
It's hard to avoid negative comments from the press if you expect to be in the public eye with your artistic talent. Like any critic, there is always a place of motivation for their comment. Also, remember that the media are paid to write opinions that their readers will likely agree with or their readers will vehemently oppose, thus creating controversy and popularity for the writer. Motives behind media criticisms can be obvious if you look at it. Art is such a subjective topic to cover and some media are just not equipped to be objective to your goals and vision.
Media can also be your best friend with criticism simply because they have no direct relationship with you and your journey. Their only perspective is the product you put out. They may delve into your personal life outside the product, but in most cases the media will only critique the product you give. That's a pure help when you must accept consensus about your work. Let their views be what they are. Examine the views outside your ego and see if they have merit. Sometimes you discover weaknesses you can correct by allowing neutral third party critiques in your head space.
They can be the wind beneath your wings or pitchfork and torch-toting villagers trying to burn down your castle of creativity. Fans are fickle. Fans are fair weathered, for the most part. Fans come and go. Fans are bandwagoners in most cases. If you're the flavor of the day, their words can hyper-inflate your ego and confidence. If another artist creates a huge buzz, you're suddenly passe and just not cool anymore.
Social media has created a fanbase monster in many ways. It gives fans a direct platform to openly support or criticize artists. I remember early on Spencer's youtube days (Spencer Kane is my 18 year old artist and actor son) when fans would post hurtful and amazingly harsh comments on his videos. It rang through as cyber bullying in most cases because the comments were more geared toward his person than his artistry. In fact, we often left criticisms of his music and talent on the comment sections because it was a fair opinion that needed to be considered. We learned to separate bullying from objectivity about his music.
The best thing to do with fan feedback is to look for the unspoken comments. Things like record sales and concert attendance can be the more glaring reality of what fans really think about your artistry. That's probably the most telling criticism. Like any product or service in a commodity market, supply and demand will dictate fan (customer) feedback. When an artist is in high demand, fan feedback is typically more visible. When you're just starting out, fan comments aren't as prevalent and can seem more weighty when they do come around. However, it's sometimes best to just stop reading social media comments and let your marketing team sort through the feedback. Managers and A&Rs can use fan feedback to help mold an artist. It's usually best to have an artist avoid the negative criticisms from fans. It can quickly steal your creative mojo.
5. INDUSTRY EXECS & EXPERTS
Titles at big record labels and plaques and awards on a wall do not necessarily establish someone as an expert. If you're confused by that, read it again and again until it makes sense. There are very few people in the music industry who have weathered the storms of trends that come and go in the music business. I constantly am amazed at how many past award winners or who's who types try to inject criticism about what such and such artist is doing today. Some of these critics are living off accolades from a decade ago and have a hard time adjusting to life on the downhill side of their career.
Many emerging artists encounter former execs who are trying to find the next big thing to launch their careers again. These are people to be very careful about taking their criticisms to heart. They may not be on the pulse of the latest production trends or what's happening in the clubs. They may be chained to ideals from five or 10 years ago that just aren't relevant anymore. Their criticisms may be valid from that former era, but not today. Keep this in mind.
Then there are those who are currently in the thick of today's industry who have comments and critiques that should be considered. These people earn their living by navigating a lot of views and data. They are insiders of music that hasn't touched the ears of consumers and those who are sitting atop piles of money from top-of-chart hits today. They are the ones creating the next sensation as you're reading this. They are the ones who have the right to inject criticism.
Even so, many successful artists today can look back at the years and years of rejections from label after label and simply write it off as timing. So before you discard criticism from a respected industry person, consider if their words are timeless or should be kept within a window of timing. If they say you can't carry a tune, that is a timeless opinion. If they say your record isn't that great, that is more of a timing issue related to, perhaps, production. Above all, evaluate their current standing in the music industry and whether they are a valid voice to the public.
Each time I've received feedback regarding Spencer's career, I've had to temper it with context. I often try to evaluate the person's motivation and then file it away for reference. Sometimes I have my own criticisms of Spencer that I wrestle with. I often try to find third parties who are qualified to give input so I can validate if my opinion is far off or close to accurate before sharing it with Spencer. Sometimes when I hear enough of the same feedback, I consider it something to be used as fuel for improvement. Sometimes I have to let other people voice it directly to him for it to make sense and motivate him to get better. Either way, criticism is a tool to be used for increasing the artistic quality of an artist if you let it.
Finally, there is a strong balance to be learned about doing music because it's your passion and love, and doing it as a career that earns money. The latter requires the opinions of critics to affect your product creation. There is no escaping market demand if you're trying to sell your art and yourself. Positioning yourself to be desired as a product has more to do with understanding critical feedback and applying adjustments than it does creating in a vacuum where all that matters is your own view. Rarely will an emerging artist have the luxury of just creating music that is immediately accepted by masses. It is a process of refinement and understanding your passion versus practical critiques in the real world.
Ever hear of a starving artist? That phrase came about naturally and most likely because that artist ignored the critics along the way. The nirvana of being an artist is finding that delicate balance of creative freedom which is free from criticism and market penetration which is built around people's preferences, which is based in criticism of some sort.