Art is personal. Creativity comes from the soul and in-turn the creator gets very possessive of their ideas. Musical artists have intense ownership over their craft. Like a mother bear to its cub they go to great lengths to protect their work. This of course is understandable. The time it takes to develop ideas, write from the heart, and “get real” in your lyrics is emotionally, mentally, and at times physically draining. Something that takes that much out of a person would and should mean a great deal to them.
The owner of the art needs to step back and give themselves some breathing room. This being said, there is always room for improvement and criticism. One you have removed yourself from your creation, this space offers a healthier perspective of your craft. Criticism comes from the Greek word kritikos which means to judge or discern for the sake of improvement. So, getting criticism is actually a positive thing. Songwriting isn’t a blind, consistent formula: verse + chorus/bridge – outro = song. One can’t rely on a structural equation to equal success. Likewise, you can’t think just because everyone is saying a catchy phrase something in pop culture that it would in-turn make for a great hook in a song. If your lyrics rely on the hook of “three squeezes” sung fifteen times throughout the song, you may need to go back to the drawing board. No individual is the ultimate embodiment of all things lyrical and true; collaboration and second opinions should be welcomed when songwriting.
Who can a songwriter turn to when looking for legitimate criticism? If you send your songs home to Iowa and ask your Aunt Beth that loves country music to listen and she in fact does go gagga over it, you have the potential of being mislead. First of all, she is related to you. Most of the time, our relatives want to encourage our dream and tell us we sing like Martina McBride when we really sing like Martina McDoogle from the soprano section of an often-out-of-tune church choir. Going this close to home can get personal and your criticism may be clouded with love. Also, your aunt in Iowa is not connected to the music scene in the town you are trying to compete with (i.e. Nashville, L.A., New York, etc.). If you send home a song called Before He Cheats the same year Carrie Underwood is hitting number one with it and they say, “Man I don’t know why no one is picking up this song – it is great,” they obviously are out of touch with the current hits and artists. There is definitely room for popular opinion, just know that it can be very different from the criticism that comes from within the Nashville musical community.
Criticism is only productive when it is valid. Therefore you should start by finding respected, established mentors actively involved in the music industry. Sometimes the humanity of your peers, those who can get jealous or bitter, may foster false criticism. Stick with people who are not threatened by new ideas. The same is true with mentors that were involved with country music in the 70’s as a studio engineer for one year but they have been an accountant ever since. If you want your music to sound like it was from forty years ago, go for it. These types of mentors were in touch at one time and could teach you a few things about the business – but think twice about their perspective.
Look for people you trust, those that are well connected. Get the ears of a mixed group of people – song pluggers, producers, songwriters, etc. Always know what you wanted your song to do in the first place. Then take their criticism and see if it helps to tighten the screws holding together your lyrics and melody. Dave Fleet reminds us, “The fact that someone disagrees with you or suggests a different approach doesn’t mean they’re attacking you. Instead of reacting negatively, which is easy to do, try thinking about what you can take away from the criticism.” People aren’t out to put you down, they are out to bring the song up. The time spent laboring over word choice and melody changes leads to higher quality songs. Number one songs drive the music business, always serve the song.
“Criticism is information that will help you grow,” says Hendrie Weisinger, Ph.D., psychologist and author of The Power of Positive Criticism (Amacom 2000). The never ending conversation you begin when you write the first word of a song can involve many voices. You are the decider of who you allow into the conversation and who will have the last word. It is healthy to distance yourself from a song knowing that when someone corrects you, they are talking about the song – not you! Never lose your positive attitude and embrace kritikos!