I follow a lot of musicians on social media, and periodically, they'll share some amusing, or harsh, or unwarranted, or downright unkind feedback/comments they've received (such as on YouTube, SoundCloud, Facebook, etc). Depending on the individual, reactions to unsolicited, negative feedback vary from mild amusement to significant hurt.
I'm not one to get upset or offended by criticism. If it's good criticism, I listen to it and consider it next time I'm working on music. If it's ill-considered criticism, I just shrug it off. In all honesty, I think I'm just too lazy to think/care about thoughtless feedback. However, after recently witnessing a conversation on Twitter about this topic, I reflected on negative/cynical feedback that I've received in the past, both online and in person. I thought I'd share them and discuss ideas about processing and dealing (or not dealing) with such comments.
Below are a few things people have said to me, either in person or via comments on various Internet platforms. I'm not going to say who gave the critique and I'm going off memory, as it would be far too onerous to dig through over seven years of internet comments to find them and quote directly. Also, where the feedback was verbal, I'm largely paraphrasing as best as I can remember.
Unsolicited Comments & Critique
"I like it, but I think it would sound better without the synthesisers..."
(said about a song made entirely using synthesisers ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ )
Critic: "I hear you're working on a commission?"
Me: "Yeah, I'm currently composing a video game soundtrack"
Critic: "Oh! So not proper music?!"
"I still prefer this other track..."
(had not commented on the song before, wrote this comment and linked to a song by a different artist ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ )
"I don't understand? How do people listen to this? Do they just put it on their stereos, sit there and listen to it? Why would they do that?"
"But there's no singing!"
"Your song fades out at the end?! Do songs do that?!"
"Haha! It sounds like 80s music! That's hilarious! Why would anyone want to listen to music that sounds like it's from the 80s?!"
"It's clever, but with some changes you could make something that's actually good, like house music"
"...and people actually like this kind of "music"?"
(yep, air quotations were used when this was said to me)
"Do people actually pay money for this?!"
"I don't understand it"
"As if video game music wasn't annoying enough the first time 'round"
(commented upon listening to one of my covers of a video game tune)
The Lack of Context is All You Need
Every one of these critiques was unsolicited. I don't ask people if they like my music and rarely ask what they think of it. I prefer to say things like "I hope you enjoyed it" or "I hope this added a little something of interest to your day". However in all of the above cases, the critic acted entirely on their own volition.
What's therefore interesting to note, is that when read in isolation, without context, the above comments really don't mean anything (or don't make much sense), and some are actually quite amusing, for example, the one about "how do people listen to this...". I wasn't sure how to respond to this or even where to start. People listen to music however they choose; at home; in the car; on headphones whilst commuting... It's a strange topic to question in light of feedback and not at all related to the music in question. It arguably says more about the person offering the critique than it does about the music (the subject of the critique). FYI, that was said to my face; I just shrugged, smiled and said something along the lines of "I don't know how different people choose to listen to music".
On one hand these comments could be taken at face value as a little bit thoughtless or hurtful, but I've never taken offence by any of it. I find it more effective to always consider this kind of negative comments out of context. I've learned that when taken out of context, negative comments can read more like a comedy skit whereby the person giving the critique is actually the butt of the joke (a bit like the humour in The Office, for example).
Things to Remember About Comments & Critique
I guess, what's important to keep in mind is that critique and feedback is vital to any person looking to improve. Even if you're super proud of your accomplishments, you'll likely know and understand that there will still be things you can do in order to further improve your craft and therefore, objectively listening to intelligent critique with an open mind and honest view of yourself and your work is vital.
Furthermore, a good critic takes responsibility for their words and acts with composure and sensitivity towards the subject of their critique. Wording and phrasing within constructive critique should be honest, but empathetic; supportive and encouraging. Furthermore the critic must keep in mind that their thoughts are just an opinion and one point of view; the critique is typically not fact and should not be expressed as if it is.
Lastly, the person receiving critique needs to remain open minded, not just to the critique, but to the motives of the critic. It's important for creative people to learn when to differentiate between sincere, well intentioned feedback and people who simply wish to express an opinion for the sake of expressing an opinion. The latter can usually be ignored and definitely not taken to heart if it's crass or a hurtful.
Keep in mind that good critique will stand on the shoulders of your positive work and use the strengths of your work as a reference point to help build and improve the weaker elements of your craft. If the critique isn't doing that, it's not worth your time.
With all of the above in mind, over the years I've curated a small group of friends and musician confidants with whom I trust to give me supportive feedback. They're always willing to listen to my works-in-progress and offer frank and insightful advice. I rarely release anything without running it past at least some of these confidants, and this is very much a reciprocal relationship, in which they will regularly share works in progress with me for similar advice and feedback (yes, I'm imagining myself as the little kid, getting helpful and kind advice in the above meme).
As well as being very trust worthy friends, my confidants are musicians who are experienced in working in different styles of music, which enables me to understand and appreciate perspectives I may have otherwise not considered. I think this is part of what makes our critique-exchange work so well. Of course, it takes time to establish these sorts of friendships, but I can't recommend it highly enough.
If you work in a creative field and sometimes struggle to digest comments made about your work, reread the comments out of context; read them in the same way that you read the above comments (which were not directed at you or your work). Good feedback out of context should still read like well-meaning, supportive feedback (albeit perhaps not fully understandable without context). Unhelpful feedback taken out of context (like the examples above) will probably read like amusing (maybe hurtful) comments that lack any real sense of purpose or end-goal. I.e they will be unnecessary or unrelated to your personal growth and development as an artist.
When you read/hear unhelpful or unkind feedback out of context, you can better appreciate how meaningless it is and take comfort in knowing that no matter how blunt or frankly bizarre a comment or piece of feedback might be, it doesn't really mean anything and mustn't stop you being you. Take the good stuff, and let the rest exist out of context and wash off you, like water off a ducks back. You've got this ;-)