Love Thy Hater: How to Learn and Profit from “Bad” Feedback
Posted by Justin Boland on May 27, 2010 | 11 comments
This is about how to take criticism and profit from it. When I think about what separates successful music entrepreneurs from the rest of us, this is one of the most important differences. They don’t catch feelings, they just listen and learn. Pretty much once a week, I deal with artists who cannot take criticism without being insulted. It’s a widespread and common problem that’s way bigger than hip hop. This is about making the change to an open, successful mindset and turning your haters into a business asset.
First, though, a couple basic points:
1. This is a business, not a talent show. That’s real simple but 90% of rappers will still complain about their skills getting slept on. There are seven billion human beings on this planet and every single one of us is going to die. Getting over yourself is the best business investment you can make…and it’s not easy.
2. Life is not fair because there are no rules. The main test of character you face in life is what you decide to do after you finally realize that. Is that an opportunity or a tragedy? Your call. Nobody is there to referee the game. You will have triumphs, you will have setbacks, but the game itself is never over.
3. If you really thought you were the shit, you wouldn’t need to prove it. Arrogance is actually not confidence, it’s insecurity.
Humility doesn’t come naturally, especially if you were born with one or more testicles. It’s a learned skill, and like any other skill from playing drums to evading police, you learn it through practice. I also know for a fact that anyone can do this, and I know this because of Louis Mackey.
Now, Lou is not a calm person. In fact, he has rage issues that bring his mental health into question, and that’s exactly why I’m bringing him up here. You see, Louis Mackey has thrived by embracing critical feedback, and no matter how much furniture gets broken in the process on his end, he still pretends to handle it well online. I hit him up for an explanation, and…well, this is Lou in a nutshell:
“I want the harshest, most brutal feedback that can be given. Coherency is one of the most fundamental questions I want answered; not just lyrically, but sonically. Everyone thinks they’re an audio engineer these days but getting feedback on ambience, loudness and fullness from a few well trained ears goes a long way. Some of the smallest nuggets I’ve ever received from professionals have been the most essential building blocks to my production game. In the realm of lyrics, I like to think I’ve kind’ve surpassed feedback structure-wise and stylistically but it’s always nice to hear a net-jester’s opinion.”
TAIS in Action: Fearless Gratitude
I came into contact with the West Coast one-man-business TAIS because I didn’t like one of his songs. I also left a comment explaining why on the Potholes blog, and I promptly got a follow-up directly from the artist himself. He was writing to express his obviously honest gratitude for me taking the time to listen to his music and give feedback. There was no sarcasm or anger at all, and I was surprised enough to check out some of his other tracks. As it turned out, I just hadn’t liked that particular track, and I wound up digging a lot of his material. I also wound up doing an Audible Hype interview with him that turned out awesome.
Right now, he’s working on music for a movie soundtrack and a new EP, ”Life Is Simple.” I caught up with him for the shortest interview he’s ever done:
What inspired your wide-open approach to feedback—did that come naturally or was it a process getting there?
TAIS: It was a long process getting to that point, but I think it was a natural progression as I’ve gotten older. When we are younger, most of us have that inexperienced “you can’t tell me nothing” mentality. It isn’t until we evolve/get older that we can set that aside and realize that everyone has thier own opinions, likes, and dislikes. So for me to be offended by the fact someone doesn’t like me or questions my art, only shows weakness on my part. I’m also a person that likes to talk and understand what makes people tick, so engaging with people who might hold a different perspective is an opportunity to learn. Lastly, I’m just glad to see people are at least listening. The least I can do is thank them for do so, because at the end of the day, it means my work hasn’t fallen on deaf ears.
TAIS is paying close attention to blog comments, and you should be, too. It’s essential to have Google Alerts set up for every keyword that matters to your operation: the name you perform under, every release and project you’ve got, and any brand names you’re doing business with. When you follow up with people’s comments, remember to focus on questions, which can be trickier than it sounds…after all, “What the fuck is your problem, man?” is technically a question.
Oddisee, Again: Critics are Business Assets
Another hip hop entrepreneur who takes criticism the right way: Oddisee. I’ve talked in detail about Oddisee’s vision and business model before, so it’s no surprise that he’s worth studying on this front, too. You see, it was actually Oddisee who first got me thinking about subject, six years ago. Back when I was still thinking in terms of getting signed to a label, I was already studying interviews with everyone in the industry. Printing ‘em out, taking notes…fuck yes, I’m an honest geek with piranha teeth. One of the best sites was Urban Smarts (RIP and thank you) and that’s exactly where I read this Oddisee interview back in 2004:
Urban Smarts: Now, you first got in touch with us to get more feedback on some criticism I wrote in a review. But you’ve done it very respectfully, while others often enough just curse me out. What does criticism mean to you?
Oddisee: Criticism is the opinion of one human and humans are pure emotion. So unless the critic has a uniform guideline to judge what ever he/she is critiquing, it’s simply another opinion. And opinions don’t matter cause everybody has one. So when I read critics saying: “it’s good, it’s bad, it’s wack, I’ve heard better”, etc. - these are opinions that the next critic to judge it will most likely disagree with.
So when I get this type of criticism, I ask for more detail: was it my mix, was the emcee wack, was the structure wrong, has it been done before, are the rhymes elementary, was the hook weak? I want to know these things. If enough people say them, I’ll learn from it. And overall it can help the listeners become better listener as well.
When I dug this quote up, I realized I’ve never once applied it to my own business. I’m always grateful for reviews, but I’ve never done what Oddisee did, and followed up privately with a reviewer to ask for further feedback. That’s a dedicated mammal, right there. Humility is endless, and every day is a new opportunity to step our game up…this particular Sunday is no different.
So far, we’ve covered only one avenue for getting feedback on your music: blogs. Reviews and comments. That’s not enough.
What you really need is a private feedback loop. When Dr. Quandary was working on his debut album, Beyond All Spheres of Force and Matter, he put at least three years of work into it that I’m aware of. That’s because I was part of a small group of producers who’ve been sharing their material for critical feedback for years now. Quandary remixed, re-thought, and completely destroyed that album over a dozen times before he was satisfied.
We’re not trying to make a brand out of this group, although we used to call ourselves Eastern Bloc. What separates us from an informal group is that there’s absolutely no sharing outside of that small circle. We always get back to one another with feedback and we never spread what we get until it’s actually released. Those are the only two rules because they’re important. I’m not saying you should stop what you’re doing now, by all means share whatever with family and friends, but still, it’s important to have a group of people who respect each other as professionals. That’s a different kind of environment and it helps us all keep our brains in the game.
Everyone wants to get on blogs, but here’s another neglected source of feedback in 2010: good old messageboards. From 2000 through 2005, they went from being a goldmine for simple and powerful DIY promo, to a nightmare circle jerk of rap spammers all advertising at one another. Once the scene was over-run with competing carbon copy clone forums, things fell apart. One forum that’s survived (in style) is the notoriously brutal Philaflava, and back when Alex Minor was called Godamus Rhyme, I was always amazed by how well he handled criticism. Even shit that was nowhere close to constructive and probably qualified as hate speech in a Federal court.
“Taking criticism is all about keeping things in perspective. At the end of the day it’s your art, but people are going to think and say what they want to. You’ve just got to be willing to sit on it for a few minutes before you react or respond. Ask yourself questions about what was said and what your immediate reaction is to hearing it. If you can get to the point where you can step away from the situation and really analyze folks’ reactions, you’ll really start to grow as an artist.”
Can you grow a thick skin, or at least learn to fake it? Will you make it a part of your daily routine to put your music at the mercy of total strangers?
Feedback: It’s Not Just For the Music
I work for World Around Records, but we’re not really a record label. My canned response to 99% of the submissions we get is “We have way less money and access than you think. Thanks for the music, but we’re not what you’re looking for.” World Around is a promotional platform, and our artists are truly independent. We encourage them to do business outside the “label” because we just don’t have the resources to compete with…well, anybody.
Hip hop is so over-saturated that we still get a steady stream of submissions and requests for feedback in our humble little inbox. Obviously, I wrote this because of how consistently artists will send me pissy emails in response to feedback—even very tame stuff, like mixing details or reverb levels on hooks. I mix and master tracks, too: I can understand why the thought of having to go back and fix shit would enrage you. I don’t understand what the fuck that has to do with me.
In the end, though: it really is on me. I’m the chimp who is dumb enough to keep on doing this, right? If I expect these cats to be grateful for my attention and time, that’s every bit as dumb as them…so yes, I bring it upon myself. I will continue to bring it upon myself, because the fact is, great music takes time and work and the world really needs great music right now.
AT LEAST, THAT’S MY OPINION. How about you?
Amen. Love the title and the concept of this post. Humility and gratitude is something artists can only learn over time. Having a thick skin isn't enough...you also need to be able to flip and bounce the constructive criticism into a positive. Not easy to do, but extremely necessary to success.
Posted at 11:51 a.m. on May 28, 2010
I recently released a new record and although it is selling well I am taking a stance that no matter how well it sells it won't change me as a performer. Of course compliments are fuel to continue moving forward but I have learned that the criticism is the only thing that widens my perspective as an artist. Until I am mesmerizing fans and critics alike I will not stop seeking free lessons and guidance.
Having been on both the producer and the performers side of the glass I have been able to grow from understanding what is needed from me as a performer. It is hard to hear things a lot of the time when we are in the studio but in this business you have to rely on objective opinion.
Alhtough I do not perform hip hop, this lesson applies to any musician and any genre.
If you care to share your thoughts on our new record you can find it at http://www.modelstranger.com/reverbnation
Posted at 3:48 p.m. on May 28, 2010
"Having a thick skin isn't enough...you also need to be able to flip and bounce the constructive criticism into a positive."
Damn...that makes me wish I'd tagged you in for a single question interview, too. I feel like I didn't really nail that point in this article, there was something missing here. Then again, iterative progress is what blogging is all about, right?
Glad you dig this article, you're a living example of taking feedback well and improving your product because of it, I've always been impressed by how open you are since the Myspace days...
Posted at 7:39 p.m. on May 28, 2010
I dug this article, too. It really does help to be able to check yourself and find out what you might need to revamp. I hate criticism only if it's not actually constructive--some people tend to think ALL criticism is, and that just isn't true. Some people just have to have bad shxt to say about people all the time, and that falls under the umbrella of "opinion for the sake of having one". That's not critiquing in a helpful manner. And usually, when you call that person on it (and sometimes when you don't!), they come back w/ "You can't take criticism. That's not gonna help you." Maybe if you told me what you thought was wrong and how I could improve it instead of how much you hated it or how you didn't get it? Gimme something I can use. It's funny how people can't take responsibility for the stuff they say.
As far as that tweet you quoted, I had one of my own:
"My response 2 that: you can't get taken on a "trip" w/o LETTING someone take you on 1, and nobody kidnapped you. #takepersonalaccountability"
Posted at 2:20 a.m. on May 29, 2010
This piece comes right on time. I recently had what may look to be a Twitter spat with a local young rapper in my community, who had the gall to announce that "hip hop was ran by senior citizens." When I tried to ask dude to reconsider his words, he told me where I could go. So I did.
This post reminds me of one by Amber Naslund. She reminds us to "Get Used to Being Ignored," which is another thing artist should get accustomed to as well. It all comes down to humility and patience, which Katie Morse so aptly discussed in her blog asking "what happened to it." You guys have written vital pieces that need to shared more than basic marketing tips, because these are the keys to true entrepreneurial success. Well, that is what I think.
Great stuff again, Justin.
Posted at 9:01 a.m. on May 29, 2010
I'm really feeling this article on so many levels. I started to take criticism with a positive twist, but I had to be willing to accept it and work on aspects that I actually had control over, whether it was my music or even blogging. Such a dope quote by TAIS
"So for me to be offended by the fact someone doesn't like me or questions my art, only shows weakness on my part."
I think you said it best in the beginning about getting over yourself being the best thing for you and your business. Taking those little bits of criticism can build a stronger mission, we all need to improve everyday.
I already know a few emcees that could use this article. I'm gonna give it to them and test them. No studio time until they can recite this!
Dope work, Justin.
Posted at 7:40 p.m. on June 2, 2010
Man, so many points to walk away with in this article. One thing that stands out is the part about focusing on the questions... That is soooo vital in music as well as life in general... I just finished a book called "The Art of Asking" and it basically touches on that fact... If you want better results, ask better questions... Just think if I would have asked, "What the fuck did you mean by that comment"? LOL! Things would be a lot different... LOL. I'm glad it went the way it did though fam!
Great read Justin!
Posted at 11:08 a.m. on June 3, 2010
10 Al-KhwÄrizmÄ« says...
I like your sharing approach and would like to contribute my personal rubric for assessment of criticism. We use a web service called Survey Monkey and more recently at your suggestion have converted our fan outreach to google forms.
Concept - Is this track even worth making? Is it original, is it important, would you play it again?
Lyrics - Are there "filler" bars of extraneous content, or rhymes that do not fit the concept? Is it technically impressive?
Delivery - Is each line clearly audible and enunciated? Does the energy fit the beat? Is the rapping on point rhythmically?
Production - Does the beat get too monotonous? Is it distracting from the lyrics at any point? Is the beat too familiar, too weird, too pop?
Mixing - Is there a "natural" balance between beat and vocals? Are the vocals strong or do they sound too hot? Do any instruments sound "too loud" to you?
Presentation - Is the song a satisfying experience? Do the visuals and written copy seem professional to you?
After several years of doing lots of fan feedback this is the list we have in our heads designing any surveys, or most especially, when interacting with fans at shows and online via instant messaging. Several of our group members make it a regular point to be available to fans via AIM, we have found it is a great way to be open to new people and "hook" them way more than a website could. Everyone has a website but few new artists are willing to put themselves "onstage" almost like office hours. If you notice one thing all social media music success stories have in common, it's high-bandwidth fan interaction from the actual artists. I myself am too shy and analytical and would far rather be reading so I put my time and talent to other business ends. Group dynamics are important.
We like what you are doing with World Around very much, you have a talented team and we will surely cross paths in the future.
Posted at 7:33 p.m. on June 8, 2010