Critiquing Someone’s Music

I’ve recently read an interesting discussion on the Nashville Music Pros forum that many music professionals deal with in one form or another. Bret Teegarden, a very accomplished and well-respected engineer/producer who I’ve met, had someone ask (via Facebook) to “listen to his music” and asked for advice. (The entire conversation can be read here)

As (current or future) industry professionals, we’ve all been approached with this sort of question in one form or another. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will be.

The way it went down is this: Bret was asked for his opinion, and in a nutshell, the music was not marketable. The singing ability was lacking, and the singer’s abilities were not on par with what is commercially available. Bret’s response was genuine and was intended to help this person, even though the truth was surely painful to hear.

Bret should be commended for handling the situation as he did… his honest appraisal was intended to help this person learn and improve. Unfortunately, we cannot win in this situation no matter what we say. If we are honest, they get pissed off… if not, then we are lying… and that will always come back to bite you in the butt.

I make it a point to ALWAYS be straight with people. There are times when it’s difficult, i.e., when someone in a hiring position asks you to work on a substandard concept. But it is an extremely rare situation where lying makes things better.

Personally, I am a bit less altruistic than Bret when I’m presented with this kind of situation. I can’t get involved in a big flame war with this kind of person… it just isn’t worth the time and emotional energy.  Many people aren’t honest with themselves about their abilities, they don’t want to do the work required to improve… they just want their magical daydream to be true, where you just step into a studio and become an instant hit. This myth makes a good story, and that’s why it’s so often repeated. But it almost never happens that way in real life… professional musicians spend years honing their craft and marketing their skills, and even then it requires a bit of luck to be successful in the music business.

I try to never give a professional opinion about someone’s music unless specifically asked (as Bret was), and then I preface that opinion by outlining our position in the industry… where stroking an ego does no one any good, and honest critique just pisses ’em off. I tell them that ANY critique is going to be hard to take, and if they cannot understand that my intent is to help them improve, then I’ll save us all a lot of pain and just keep my thoughts to myself. I also tell them to take what I say with a grain of salt, since it’s just one opinion after all… there are others out there as well, and performers MUST develop a thick skin to survive in the industry. (And to be honest, specific, detailed coaching is reserved for clients.) I think Bret did the right thing, but you often can’t win with these folks.

There were several good discussions in this particular forum exchange. One of the best tips was to never give this sort of advice and critique via email, only in person. There really is no substitute for face-to-face communication, and you just can’t read a person through an email. Your meanings are often misinterpreted as well.

A great quote from Jim Evans– “You are never closer to victory than when you fail… IF you learn WHY you failed.”

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