As a creative person, it’s inevitable that you’ll want to put your work out into the world and that at some point you’ll receive criticism. With any luck, you’ll receive praise too, and that can bring its own unique complications, but for most people, it’s negative feedback that’s the hardest to navigate.
The further your work travels, the more people it’ll reach, and the higher the chance of hearing negative feedback. As anyone with a social media account will be aware, it’s never been easier to receive people’s opinions thanks to myriad online communication channels (as we’ll discuss further in the next chapter on social media). Closing your apps won’t necessarily silence the noise because you’ll also hear thoughts from any number of industry execs, journalists, peers, friends, family members, taxi drivers, shop keepers… the list goes on. As a musician, you’ll likely feel that your work is an extension of yourself, so you’ll probably take criticism personally. But it’s also important to understand that negative feedback is not always a reflection of the quality of your work and may be more to do with that critic’s specific taste or limited vision.
Human beings are, to put it politely, a complex set of creatures with very individual experiences and tastes and it’s impossible to please them all. Indeed, you’ve probably seen or heard musicians who’ve tried to please everyone and you’ve probably noticed that such an approach isn’t exactly conducive to great art.
Here’s a story to illustrate that point. Before The 1975 became the worldwide sensation they are today, with three No.1 albums and BRIT Awards to their name, they got turned down by every major record label and were rather boldly declared the worst band in the world at the NME Awards in 2014. After honing their hybrid sound, which was like nothing else that was around at the time, the group and their manager, Jamie Oborne, were rebuffed at every door they knocked upon. According to frontman Matty Healy, the band were told by labels that they “were confused” because their songs didn’t have a uniform sound.
Naturally, Healy and the band were upset. As he explains: “Because our band wasn’t this frivolous, fun hobby of ours, it was very much our identity and who we were. So by the time we’d gotten to where all these grown-ups were who we’d been told held the key to our success, and they were telling us that we weren’t good enough, it really, really hurt. It was the fact that all of our songs sounded slightly different, which they probably thought came from some contrived concept of trying to sound like a million things. They thought that we were overthinking it... it was like, no you’re overthinking it, we’re just making music.” So they continued making their style of music, which was released through their manager’s record label, and ended up being the band that everyone wished they’d signed (and receiving a 5 star review and album of the year plaudit from their new fans at NME).
Equally though, we need to state that not all negative feedback should be ignored. For every band like The 1975 who’ve managed to make sense of a ‘confusing’ vision, there are dozens of bands whose work does need refining or whose ideas will benefit from further clarification. For those bands, negative feedback could actually provide them with the information they need to become more compelling artists.
Receiving criticism is especially likely if you’re offering something new or different — which is precisely what The 1975 were doing at a time when ‘guitar bands’ weren’t the flavour of the month. DJ, broadcaster and journalist Mary Anne Hobbs has observed that trend throughout her career, championing music that sits outside the mainstream. She explains:
“If you do anything progressive, modern and distinctive, you are going to divide opinion. I think that has happened historically all of the time. If you look at the history of classical composers, jazz musicians, hip hop MCs and the grime community, even if you look at people like [legendary BBC broadcaster] John Peel and [Glastonbury organiser] Emily Eavis — every time she announces, let’s say, Stormzy as a headliner over and above Oasis, she’ll get a barrage of criticism.”
Peel, who was a long-standing BBC Radio 1 DJ for nearly forty years until he passed away in 2004, often had to fight for what he believed in. Hobbs continues: “John went through many struggles at the BBC. They decided to ban punk at one point, and he continued to play it because he believed it would become culturally significant and of course history has recorded that he was right. He used to put a Sex Pistols single on and announce it as ‘The Pink Fairies’ on the radio!”
It’s not just left-field choices that are criticised and questioned. Ed Sheeran had to fight with his record label for his ode to an Irish flame “Galway Girl” to be included on his album Divide and it turned out to be one of the most popular songs on the record. As well as an army of critics on social media, James Blunt has been panned by Noel Gallagher, Damon Albarn, and Paul Weller, but has one of the biggest-selling albums in UK chart history. And in an audition for the BBC during his early career, David Bowie was declared an “amateur-sounding vocalist” who was “devoid of personality”.
Those stories don’t take away from the fact that getting panned feels mortifying in the moment but Hobbs urges creators to see it as something to identify with positively. “Generally it means that what you’re doing is moving forward,” she says. “Reflect upon the fact that it isn’t just you who’s subject to this experience, it’s generations of artists, thinkers, and musicians, and probably scientists as well.” The only thing you can do as a creator to keep that track moving is to drown out the noise and follow your instincts. She continues: “When you are inside the moment, you can’t really quantify the value of something, you just have to respond incredibly instinctively to it. It’s only over time that things develop historical significance and you and the rest of the world can reflect differently. You just have to do what you believe is the right thing.”
Again, however, it falls to us to suggest you’re pragmatic when dealing with feedback because some criticism really is constructive. It can be hard to accept that you might have made a mistake, but if every radio plugger tells you your song’s poorly mixed and isn’t ready for airplay, or if every publicist notes that calling your band Two Dimension might be unimaginative, or if your manager suggests a new song called “I Love You” might be a bit clichéd, take a moment to ask yourself if they might have a point.
If you have had some ‘challenging’ feedback, commentary or been on the receiving end of unflattering press coverage, untangling and improving the way you experience any negative thoughts that you have as a result might help you to navigate a crisis of confidence. The first step is to be honest about how you’re feeling. Psychotherapist Helen Brice, who specialises in working with performers and writers, explains: “The first thing is to be aware that this is what you’re experiencing, this lack of confidence. That’s the hard thing — the acceptance that things aren’t going as well as they could be. When you can accept it, and that doesn’t mean approving of it or being okay with it, then you’ve got a choice of staying like that or changing.”
Then, Brice says it’s important to limit how much you look at, how much you listen to, and to take control of how you experience your own thought patterns. “It’s about developing a filter for caring less about some of the critical stuff and getting over your own judgment of yourself,” she explains. “We all judge; the idea is to judge and get over it, [and] don’t keep beating yourself up with these harsh judgments.”
Mindfulness can help to develop that awareness and filter. Brice continues: “I would usually encourage people to [engage] with a practical mindfulness exercise, which is called the Awareness Continuum, a term coined by Professor Tom Lynch. I view mindfulness, which is a bit of a buzz word, as simply awareness. Not necessarily a meditation, and definitely not a relaxation exercise, but a description of what you’re sensing, feeling, thinking, or an image or memory that comes to mind. It seems counterintuitive, but naming the unwanted experience reduces its intensity by at least 20%.”
The Awareness Continuum uses short sentences to describe the experiences that are happening inside and outside of us, which can help to separate and avoid confusing our feelings with the reality of a situation. Brice explains what it might sound like:
This exercise is best practised in a neutral situation to hone your awareness so that when you require some distance from an adverse experience, the skill has become second nature. This can help you avoid giving a knee-jerk reaction that you might regret later, or from feeling paralysed and unable to respond in a careful and considered manner, and to be better able to ignore anything unhelpful and move on.
There’s a physical component to feeling less energy about criticism, too. “When we’re anxious or nervous or frightened, our face becomes very flat,” Brice says. “Our muscles become very tense and this intensifies our feeling of threat, so we have to get the muscles moving to turn our threat system off and our safety system on. There are various things to do like raising your eyebrows, having a closed mouth smile so that your smile lines are visible around your eyes, and leaning back in that rest and digest mode. So move your body, own more space, slouch a bit more, and breathe from the diaphragm and through your nose. That can be done daily or as often as possible to get used to it for when you need it, and you repeat it during an interaction. Whether it be in person with someone or if you’re looking at difficult stuff that you’re reading online, you switch your safety system on by changing your physiology in those ways.”
Diaphragmatic nasal breathing is a form of deep breathing that slows the heartbeat and can lower or stabilise blood pressure. Here’s how to practise it:
You can practise this alone, but Brice recommends that you also practise this during neutral interactions and build up to more difficult interactions where you might receive disconfirming feedback, criticism, or even intimidation. “Your stress will be reduced if you also do this before and during reading those unwanted comments,” she says.
Aside from resulting in a potentially unhealthy state of mind, it’s also helpful to remember that it’s bad business sense to spend time listening to and engaging with those who don’t know you and don’t love what you do. Singer, songwriter and performance artist Amanda Palmer realised this during a “come-to-Jesus” moment after taking her career into her own hands, splitting with her label and using Kickstarter to fund her second album. She says: “I found myself [thinking], if I spent my artistic time and energy defending myself on Twitter for six weeks, what am I not going to be doing? What am I not going to be making, and who do I want to give my time and energy? Do I want to give it to these music industry people who think I’m terrible, these trolly people who think I’m a bad feminist? Do I want to give it to these sexist people who think this is all happening just because I’m Neil Gaimon’s wife, or do I want to spend that time and energy on the community who gets me and make meaningful art for them, for me, for whoever is going to show up? It will be a net negative if I spend my life and artistic energy in defensive mode instead of in open-hearted mode. I’m just going to have to accept that it’s going to be hard and constantly tempting to go explain myself and defend myself, and I have to remind myself every day that is not your job. You’re an artist.”
You’ll quickly find that there are two types of criticism: one which centres on your art and one which centres on you as a human being. The latter can be particularly hard to accept. We’ve all heard horror stories about labels and managers telling their artists to lose weight, for instance, and we’ve all read people in the media (and on social media) being critical of an artist’s appearance and behaviour (which is often dramatised for effect). Lily Allen has borne the brunt of this unwelcome commentary since being used as frequent tabloid fodder in her early career and onwards. As she explains in her memoir My Thoughts Exactly, the ‘cartoon’ version of herself created by tabloids has even impacted her own sense of reality. “Public Lily, the Lily in the media, the Lily that most people saw or read about became so distorted that even I had trouble reconciling her with the original cast from whence she came. It was confusing. Who was in charge of who? Who was real? The quiet person who felt alone inside or the noisy one that everyone listened to, but who seemed unable to control what she was saying?”
The British tabloid newspapers and gossip magazines are particularly experienced in tearing down people who are in the public eye — we saw this when Amy Winehouse was clearly struggling with health and substance use issues. Pictures of her were splashed across the news alongside insensitive and sensationalist editorials. Similarly, Allen has been painted as a terrible mother with a severe drug and party problem. She explains: “Cartoon Lily was successful in terms of her career, but she was a mess as a person. She took too many drugs, got drunk, didn’t mind her manners, said what she thought, didn’t watch her back, and was loose with money and sex. Her weight fluctuated. Her hair changed colour. She wasn’t bad-looking and she could clean up all right, but you could get photos of her looking rough as shit. She was a tabloid editor’s dream.” Once the tabloids started reporting on Allen, the carousel didn’t seem to stop. “I’d do or say one thing, whether good or bad, and the tabloids would write whatever they wanted, create whatever story they had decided to run in order to perpetuate whatever narrative they’d decided to create.”
While the tabloids have this morally questionable reporting method finely honed, there’s lots of opportunity beyond that for commentary on who you are and the opinions you might put out into the world. Matty Healy from The 1975, for example, isn’t afraid to offer his perspective on as many subjects he can get his hands on. As a result, he’s been branded as both “a shamanic figure who stands apart from artists afraid to speak their mind” and “a preening pseudo-intellectual speaking from a soapbox carved out of privilege and narcissism.” As you can see, public opinions and those of the media can be extreme and don’t tend to allow much for the variety of traits (both good and bad) that generally make up one human being. So be mindful of that, and take time to consider the kind of person you’re comfortable putting out into the world before the decision’s made for you by someone else with a different agenda.
Be careful of what you’re saying to journalists, who may seem nice as pie in person but distort your words into a headline that shifts copies and gets clicks once they get back to the office. As Allen writes: “Basically, it doesn’t matter how a journalist gets their copy, as long as they’re not making something up, and what you’ve said is on record. There’s no point feeling hard done by. Instead, you learn that all that matters — for the little life of that little piece over which they have control — is what you’ve said. You learn not to say stuff or how to say it more carefully. You learn to be more guarded. It took me a long time to learn those lessons.” Those lessons can be learned with the help of a public relations person, and perhaps some media training too.
You could also take the lead of New Wave pioneer Gary Numan, who simply doesn’t read any sort of feedback, whatsoever. He explains: “If I do a Tweet and loads of people make a comment, I’ll never know what they say. I avoid it because it does bother you, you can read a thousand lovely things and one nasty one, and it’s the nasty one you’ll be thinking about when you go to sleep. Don’t look for praise because if you go looking for praise, you’re going to find the other stuff as well. The problem with the internet is that it’s given everyone a voice and it seems to me that so few people know how to be respectful of that voice. You’ve now got an opportunity to say what you think and so many of them come out with this vicious, vitriolic nonsense. I’m not going to read that, I’ve only got a few years left, I’m not going to waste it! I’m sure some people like what I do, some people don’t, and I’m all right with that.”
As we mentioned, not all criticism should be ignored, and as Darcus Beese says in the Business Basics chapter, feedback is one of the things that will help you improve. Everyone is pretty terrible at the beginning of whatever creative endeavour they have chosen to pursue and it takes lots of practice, time, and recalibration to reach full potential. But during that process, there is a difference between nasty feedback from people who don’t want you to succeed, and constructive critique from those who do.
Mary Anne Hobbs concludes: “We live in an environment at the moment which I suppose is unlike any other environment that we’ve ever lived in as human beings, where we are criticised almost constantly via social media, which can be incredibly destructive. So there is a real distinction between taking on incredibly valuable criticism and trying to switch off the barracking of trolls on social media. Those two things are entirely separate. If you listen to constructive criticism from people who love and care about you, even if that criticism is harsh, it’s probably really valuable because those people want you to succeed. The criticism of people who want you to be successful is really important, the criticism of people who want you to fail is not.”
When it comes to criticism from fans, that distinction between those who want you to win and those who don’t can be a tricky one to navigate. Because fans love you, right? Well, it’s not that simple. Going back to the example of David Bowie, one wonders what his career might have looked like if he’d only ever made music to please fans who’d bought early releases like The Laughing Gnome.
Equally, how many times has a band or artist been branded a “sell-out” by fans because they didn’t like the direction of their new music? Bring Me The Horizon’s sixth studio album Amo was less ‘heavy metal’ than their previous releases and the experimental sound was widely praised by reviewers. Some fans and peers who preferred the band’s heavier stuff weren’t so complimentary. Frontman Oli Sykes explains: “We’re not a band like Radiohead where, whatever they do, you’re already geared up to say ‘that’s cool’. People accept them as artists so they can do things without any fear. With rock and metal, I think a lot of people connect with the lyrics because they feel like they don’t fit in. Now, maybe the people who made fun of our early fans at school are also coming to our shows, and they don’t like that.” But with any fans BMTH might have lost, they will have gained a whole new set who really like the new music. Some fans do want you to win, whatever that might mean, but others want you to stay exactly where you are so they can continue to feel part of an exclusive world.
In short, fans can be fickle, and it’s important to understand the context from which their opinions are coming. Additionally, basing your life on other people’s expectations of who they think you should be is a fairly sure route to misery.
To conclude, it’s essential when taking on criticism to consider:
If none of the above is true, it’s probably best to ignore the criticism and move on. If any of it is, it might help to set aside your ego for a moment and consider whether there’s something useful you could take on board in order to reach your full potential.