How To Deal with Constructive Criticism as an Artist
As an artist, you have to understand that just because you create something, does not mean the world is ready to love it. Would the world be a better place if everyone took the time to enjoy and appreciate everything everyone created? Of Course! However, this is something we are all guilty of, and I’m talking about not taking the time or even not having the understanding to appreciate what someone else has created. This article was sparked by some friends of mine in the music scene, that have been treated rudely by a member of their audience, the audience themselves, or even a manager of the venue they played. I’m hoping to share some insight on this matter, that I have learned over the years, and I’ve even talked to a few friends and colleagues from the music industry, including other artists, products, sound guys, and even promoters and venue managers. The idea here is to help you understand how to deal with this very ugly aspect of this profession, come out on top, confident and still looking very professional when the dust settles.
Constructive Criticism vs Someone Just Being a Douche Bag
Obviously, you need to be able to decipher the intentions behind the comment, or comments. I have a really easy rule of thumb, and the answer determines how I will react. It goes like this,
“Is this person looking out for me, or are they just being an asshole?”
This is really important! Just this weekend I had a gentleman say, “you’re really great, and I know you know that, what you really need is a critic.” Now, the old me, the guy from about 3 years ago would have immediately shut off because I knew criticism was on it’s way. However, I knew, from his approach, this was him sharing his thoughts on how I might improve. The man sat and listened to my show for two hours, intently, he obviously enjoyed himself, and had taken the time to think of ways I might improve. He had some really cool things to say. However, I have also been approached by (sorry to say but primarily older women, around my parent’s age) and they usually say “can you pick up a bit? (snap snap snap snap)” the snapping is them showing me what speeding things up meant, because I obviously don’t know what a tempo is…….Anyway, there are several different versions of that same story, and I’m sure if you’ve ever performed live you have a million of them as well. This last week, someone requested a really obscure song, and I did my best to accommodate the request, but since I am a human being and not a computer I didn’t know all of the song, so I cracked a joke in the middle. Some guy from the back shouts “Play the song right!”, to which I responded, “you’re a whore”. Ok, no I didn’t, but in my head I said much worse. I actually played the part I knew one more time in a way that sounded like I was intentionally ending the song and then said, “and that’s my first time ever playing that song, ever, hope you enjoyed my version”. What I did there, is I took control of the situation out of the asshole’s hands, and put control back into my hands. That is the key to performance. Do NOT allow your audience control of the show, you control it, always. This is the key that will separate the real killers from the jokers out there. Anyone can strum a guitar and sing pretty words, or plunk on the piano (not anybody, obviously you have to have musical talent) this is what will take you from a dime-a-dozen musician to someone who gets paid well and is well respected. Your ability to maintain control.
So what was the first step?
Determine whether this is Constructive Criticism, or just some asshole running his mouth.
What was the second step?
Do whatever you have too, in order to maintain control of the show Often, that means taking control out of the hands of the audience member that is causing the problem. Another thing I come across often is the morons that think shouting “freebird” is still funny. In case you weren’t aware, that hasn’t been funny since….Freebird was written, so there, settled. Now, how do you deal with someone shouting a song you most certainly don’t want to play, not too mention these people are directly taking the attention away from the show you’re trying to create. Make them look small, but do it carefully and elegantly. Here is what I do, “sure thing man…for $200”. “$200??!! Are you crazy?!” “you said you wanted freebird, right? That’s my price………. 😐 ……..” “pshsh whatever man, you’re crazy” “ok, so you don’t want freebird? ok then…moving on with MY show”. Once again, you take the power out of their hands. That is always the key to performance, you are in control, always.
The Ultimatum when dealing with Jerks
Do whatever you can to quietly and elegantly deflect the issue. However, if they are just completely a jerk, and can’t get the hint. “the doors over there”. Seriously, that one guy, or one woman, or even their entire group, is not going to make or break the establishment, or your career. And if they are making or breaking the establishment, you may want to consider playing somewhere else because they are going under soon. Another option is to get the attention of security or the manager on duty, and simply telling them, “hey, that person is harrassing me and making my job very difficult. Please do something about them.” If they are worth a dang, they will handle the situation.
How To Deal With ACTUAL Constructive Criticism
If someone is offering you a constructive opinion, they most likely do like you and are just offering advice on how you can improve. So the first step in this situation is to swallow your pride. Just because someone is offering an opinion doesn’t mean you have to agree. Furthermore, maybe their idea really would make your product or your art better, how would you know if you haven’t heard them out. Like it or not, music, art, is going to expose you to the world, all of you. It is going to get attention and people are going to see you, they are going to take you in along with your art. If you can’t deal with that, stop now, because it’s just a part of the gig. With that many people watching you, experiencing you and your art, people are going to have something to say. Go into the gig expecting that people are going to have things to say, but the decision of how much you agree or disagree with is still completely up to you. Personally, if I feel someone has something constructive to say, I hear them out, generally. If I agree I let them know, “I agree, that’s a great point. Thanks for sharing that with me”. If I don’t agree or don’t know if I agree, I say something like, “thanks for the suggestion, I’ll think about it”.
The important thing here is that I’m: Keeping the power in my hands
I’m maintaining control of the situation. It’s rule #1, the only rule, really. Living in a world where the audience, or anyone not directly connected to your art, has control, is a dangerous place to be. The reason, is that someone else could ruin your show, and who does it come down on? You! When the ticket sales plunge, or people get up and leave, you are who the manager, the workers, the owners…the fans…are looking at. So do not let go of control of the situation, at any cost.
Constructive Criticism Can Make You Better
Learn to use constructive criticism to your benefit. Take what works and throw away what doesn’t. Random guy thinks you need to sing more fast songs…look at it objectively and ask yourself, “could this make what I’m doing better? Would that improve my show, or my album?”. Random drunk lady says you suck and need to play more Neil Young? Maybe you hate Neil Young, I don’t know, but that doesn’t matter. Still roll it around in your brain, and see how you feel about it. If it doesn’t sit, don’t go with it. But at least instead of just shying away thinking, “that person is a jerk for saying that”, you’ve kept your cool, and kept the power in your hands. Ultimately, can that man force you to play more fast songs? Can that woman force you to play a Neil Young song? No way! It’s your decision, your call, you are the artist and you are in charge. I still say, take the time to consider what they are saying.
Don’t Let It Get You Down!!!!
I get it, I’m an artist and an entertainer and I GET IT, I do. You want people to like you, you like that positive energy of when people are responding to what your throwing out there and there is a synergy and it’s awesome and we live for those moments. Ready for it? Hold onto your hearts…..don’t expect it, ever. Learn to excel without it, because if you can do that, when it does happen it’s like you’ve just got a star on Super Mario and you’re about to tear some ish up. (I know, super old reference, I’m old, sue me). Seriously though, you can’t constantly search for the crowds approval. Most times, if you can show up and show them I don’t need your approval to be awesome, I’m just awesome, they are going to subliminally respond with (this person is really awesome). And usually you can create the energy and they will latch onto it. But the work is on your end my friend.
So Amazed Even Their Hands Don’t Know What To Say?
Learn to realize that just because a crowd isn’t super responsive, doesn’t mean that they aren’t into you. Sometimes they just don’t know how they are supposed to react. This is part of the reason that music is so dumbed down, nowadays. At least the music you hear on the radio. People are stupid, “the person is smart, people are stupid”. Seriously though, you get a bunch of people who for the most part don’t know each other into a room and ask them to act crazy and respond to music, they don’t know where to start. So literally hand them opportunities to respond. This is really the purpose of adding covers in your set, it gives them a point to not only unite with you, but one another, and realize, “hey, I can cut loose with these people”. If all else fails, just keep doing your thing and loving it.
This is once again an example of: Keeping the control in your hands!
By not allowing a lack of applause to affect the quality of your performance, it keeps the perspective that you are bigger and better than these people, and this situation. Because sweetheart, you’re special ;). Seriously though, no one clapping, doesn’t mean they aren’t liking it, it just means something in the atmosphere is not creating a situation where everyone is falling over themselves to clap for you. Move on, and have a blast getting paid to do what you love.
Some Additional Thoughts
I interviewed several people in the local music scene and beyond, about their thoughts on the issue. Here is what they had to say:
“I could go on for days about this subject, but ultimately I feel like criticism is a necessary part of growth. Learning to sift between the real feedback and the bullshit is a gift that takes a considerable amount of time to acquire. Even then, one has to make the choice to adhere to the opinions of others or to continue to forge a new path. Are you expressing yourself or are you trying to entertain others? That’s the real question!”
Nathan Elliott | Musician/Producer
“Well the best thing to keep in mind is that nobody can judge art. Art is personal, and everyone will have there own taste. What can be judged is your professionalism, business practice, moral fiber, and quality that you put in your work.”
Aaron Acker | Traditional Oil Painter
“I think it’s important that the artist also needs to be willing to hear out what is being said before they just get instantly offended. For instance, I once asked a lead guitarist to turn down his amp because the sound was simply just too loud. He got mad, turned it up more, to which most of the audience left because it hurt their ears. I was only trying to improve the show, but he got instantly offended and turned up, which in turn made the show worse.”
Devin Dean | Sound Engineer
“The comment that confuses me (and annoys me the most) is when a friend who has put off seeing my act for years finally shows up to a gig and proclaims after the show, “You guys are actually good!” My rational brain can understand that the person is trying to give us a complement, but somehow it always feels like a very backhanded complement at best. At worst, it feels like they were expecting us to suck endangered rhino ass. By saying we are “actually good” the “friend” has demonstrated a complete lack of faith in what I have spent my entire life doing as a musician. I always want to respond by saying, “Wow, that is actually almost a complement…” but I know better than to lash out. I just smile and say thanks and try to spend what is left of the aftershow aftergow surrounded by the fans who are appreciative of what we do night after night.”
Brian Travis | Singer/Songwriter “The Brian Travis Band”
“When you give constructive criticism your intentions are to lift up and guide an individual. Your word choice should consist of ‘instead, to make better, grow, should, and move forward’ And not words like ‘don’t, no, stop, shouldn’t’ etc etc. constructive criticism won’t make you feel like a rock star, but you shouldn’t feel put down. If you feel as if the criticism is hurtful and he/she is just trying to bring you down than take it with a grain of salt, listen, and move on. There will always be haters. You don’t need to try to please everybody and frankly, you can’t. Ultimately, ‘Be exactly who you want to be, do what you want to do, I am he and she is she but you’re the only you.’
Richard Crespin | Artist/Sound Engineer/Promoter
“Consider the situation from an objective view, step outside yourself and take a look at yourself and the person delivering the criticism. Sometimes you can learn a lot from an asshole. Which is much more valuable than getting offended. Verbally defending yourself against it is pointless. I guess whether the criticism was meant as constructive or destructive doesn’t matter, it’s how you take it that matters. And if it comes from a friend who has a lot of cash in the brotherly love bank and trust, then you can trust it as good advice. Use everything as fuel to push you to be a better person. Being nice, polite and kind is underrated. At some point people became jerks, maybe it was when they realized that their salvation didn’t depend on works. Treating people how you want to be treated is like 50% of life’s success. Don’t cast your pearls before swine in the first place… don’t give your best to people who will trash it. There are times then negative criticism is really saying “Hey man, I’m an unhappy jerk, so you really shouldn’t hang around me anymore, because I’m going to destroy the both of us.”
Kevin Decker | Artist/SoundEngineer/Musician
Just remember, keep your head about you and take the time to hear people out if their approach seems appropriate and you feel you might learn something from them. If someone is just being a jerk, don’t let it get to you and keep doing your thing. In either instance, don’t get offended, deal with the situation as needed and move on. The most important thing to remember is to keep the control in your hand and keep the show moving. The rest of the audience is most likely very much enjoying themselves. I will have more quotes added to this article as they come in. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section. Thanks for reading!