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Why You Need Objective Feedback

As you may know, besides my work here at MIMO, I write a blog of my own called The Developing Artist. The following post, “Why You Need Objective Feedback,” is adapted from a post from that blog. Occasionally, I’ll be re-posting nuggets from The Developing Artist that I think will be helpful here; I felt that this post ties in well with my previous post on MIMO, “Flattery Will Get You Nowhere.” Enjoy!

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a local musician whose band is regrouping.  He was talking to me about the band’s new philosophy. “We used to be basically a studio band,” he said, “but now we aren’t going to record anything we haven’t tested out live first.”  I thought that was wisdom, because it adds a measure of objective feedback to their song selection process.

Say what you want about American Idol, but I have personally learned a lot about the industry by watching the show.  Every year, I am astounded by the number of people who genuinely thinkthey can sing.  I don’t mean the okay ones that just weren’t quite ready; I’m talking about the ones who really are bad, but somehow they’ve convinced themselves that they are a superstar waiting to happen, and when the judges tell them the truth, they cry and plead, or get mad and cuss and refuse to listen.  Yeah, we all know some of that is staged, but there are still lots of people nursing delusions about their talent or their skill level.  How do people get so self-deceived?

The answer probably hits closer to home than any of us want to admit.

To a lesser extreme, I know of musicians who actually have potential, but it’s apparent they don’t have a clear understanding of their weaknesses–whether it’s pitch problems, or lackluster songwriting, or what have you.  They are operating with blind spots.  As a result, they spend lots of time and money putting out mediocre music, and not understanding why it isn’t taking them anywhere.  After all–all their family and friends bought the record and come to their shows, and tell them how great they are!

See my point yet?

As musicians, we crave affirmation, and that’s natural. We want people to like our songs, and we looove for people to tell us our stuff is good.  We need affirmation, but if the only input we get about our music is from people who tell us what we want to hear, it’s only a matter of time before our perspective gets warped.  It’s like looking at a distorted mirror that makes you look twenty pounds thinner.

I know.  I wish I had one of those mirrors, too.

The truth is, as artists, we all need objective feedback.  We need some way to gauge the quality of a song, or our ability to perform it, that is not tainted with bias. Without it, we risk facing a serious wake-up call down the road–or worse, we’ll spend years in frustration, wrongly thinking that our lack of success must be someone else’s fault.

Like it or not, there is a business involved with music, and that business says we must put out the best product possible to compete on the market.  Other businesses test-market products before releasing them to the public. If the product doesn’t do well in testing, they don’t take it personally–they pull the product and try something else.  The same principle holds true with our “product”–namely, our songs and even our act.  We need to know how to improve our product, and for that, we need to hear from people who have no vested interest in our success.  If you think about it, nobody improves when all they hear is how great they are.  We need the affirmation, but we also need the truth if we are going to develop as artists.

So if you discover that you really don’t have a neutral voice, an objective viewpoint to bounce your stuff off, here are some ways you can add that perspective:

  1. Submit your music for critique.  It doesn’t have to be an American Idol audition; there are lots of workshops geared to help artists with songwriting and performance, many of whom are staffed with panels of professionals.  ASCAP and BMI do this sort of thing all the time for its members.  Get your music in front of professionals who will give you honest feedback, even if you have to pay for the privilege once in awhile.
  2. Do what my musician friend is doing: “test market” your material before you record it. A lot of serious musicians test out new songs at open stage nights at local bars and venues.  Try to get in front of an audience that doesn’t know you, and gauge their response to your music.
  3. Hire a musical coach.  This can be in the form of lessons, or life coaching, or a band consultant–just get someone in your circle whose job it is to identify your blind spots and give you objective feedback about what you’re doing.

Finally, here are some “dont’s” involved with this process:

  • DON’T let just anyone critique you. When I say “neutral voice”, that’s just what I mean.  People can be biasedagainst you, just as there are people biased in your favor. People biased against you are people who might have a reason to be jealous of you, or have some other motive for pushing you down.  These are voices you do NOT need in your life.  Don’t be quick to play the “you’re-just-jealous” card to silence something you don’t want to hear, but if you genuinely think someone doesn’t have your best interests at heart, find someone who is more neutral.
  • DON’T take constructive criticism personally.  When a legitimate voice of critique points out something that needs to change, it’s an attempt to help you.  When you get a tepid reaction from a test audience, that is precisely the information you need in order to improve.  Don’t get sucked into a pity-party; treat it like a business, and make the changes you need to make.

I don’t know about you, but as an artist I don’t just want to believe I’m good at what I do; I want to actually be good at it.  If something I’m doing sucks, I’d rather know about it, so I can change it.  I value the cheerleaders in my life, but I also strongly value objective feedback–and if you’re serious about being a serious artist, so should you.


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About the Author

on MUSIC IS MY OXYGEN WEEKLY.

Jeff McQ is a songwriter/composer/musician with a diverse resume that includes everything from directing music in church to scoring short films. In addition to his role as chief editor for Music Is My Oxygen (and writing our DIY Musician Channel), Jeff also covers the local music scene for Examiner.com in his hometown of Denver, Colorado, and maintains The Developing Artist [http://artistdevelopmentblog.com], a blog dedicated to offering advice and encouragement to indie musicians.

When he's not tinkering in his home studio or blogging for hours on his laptop at the local coffee shop (to the annoyance of the baristas), Jeff McQ enjoys taking in local shows, going on road trips, wandering aimlessly, and talking to himself.

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