Last week, we talked about getting feedback on your songs from a professional. Now, let's talk about getting feedback from "unprofessionals"... your family and friends.
There's an understandable tendency (particularly among younger/newer musicians) to want to go to those closest to you and ask them what they think of your music. I think that's a dangerous proposition, after all...
I don't know what music your parents listen to. Maybe they have great taste in music, or... maybe they're like many people over a certain age who get stuck in musical ruts and can't stand any of this "new-fangled dance shenanigans the kids are listening to these days." That kind of sentiment isn't limited to parents who grew up in a certain decade.
They all feel like that, no matter what their kids listen to. My grandmother was a rebel for listening to Swing. My parents were rebels for listening to Elvis. I was a rebel for listening to Nirvana. Parents these days are freaking out about Miley Cyrus or whoever. This dynamic isn't likely to change anytime soon. Don't believe me? Here's the science to prove it: How Our Taste in Music Changes Over a Lifetime
When I was starting out as a musician, my parents were listening to a classical music "best of" compilation albums, church hymns, and African children's choirs. So, their musical framework wasn't particularly helpful in guiding my attempts to merge the Gin Blossoms, Alison Krauss, and Ryan Adams. Their response to my music was, "why can't you sing about something happy?" ...even if the song was about something happy.
But hey, maybe the music gods bestowed you with cool parents (or brothers, sisters, friends, etc.) who listen to new stuff all the time. They know who's been rolled off the Disney, American Idol, Nashville, or X-Factor conveyor belt this week, or they listen to the "new" station on Pandora or Spotify. Maybe they keep a close eye on musical blogs and new release Tuesday.
Does that mean they can articulate differences in song structures? Can they express their feelings regarding a particular melodic choice, a mix, or an instrumental tone? Do they know what a rhythmic pocket is? ...How to chop frequencies to seat a voice in a crowded mix? ...About intros, outros, channels, and bridges?
I know lots of people who have GREAT taste in music. They put me to shame with their awareness of who's hot or a has-been, and can tell me who's going to explode this time next year. Some of these people are even hobbyist musicians. However, that doesn't mean they can articulate what they like or don't like, about what's working or isn't in a given song.
It's been my experience that they often interpret my songs in terms of what they know: "It sounds like ______ artist combined with ______ artist. I like it!" or "I don't know, I'm not feeling it... it's a little ...I don't know..." This kind of information is not particularly helpful.
On occasion, I've noticed that because these people have really strong preferences for what they like and don't like, they might (unknowingly) try to skew me in a strange direction. "Have you listened to ______ dance pop band? It might help you make your songs more dance-able." All fine and good... if you want to make dance songs. Not so much if you're an acoustic singer-songwriter.
Your cousin may be a plaid-shirted, bowtie-wearing ultra-hipster who has a diverse library of music, and is on top of every new release. They may be able to perfectly articulate their feelings on A A B C A structures as opposed to A B A B C B. However, they may look at you, their precious little cousin clutching her sweet little guitar, her puppy dog eyes as wide as they can be, head bursting with dreams of stardom, and they may not be able to find that delicate balance of objectivity and frankness. They may say, "hey that sounds really good" and send you on your way so they can protect their poor widdle cousin's feelings.
Or maybe your cousin is really good at giving concise, honest, informed, objective feedback. But maybe when they do, YOU remember how they used to throw rocks at your head when you were little, and you begin to let that experience color their advice. "I think you need to separate the chorus from the bridge," they tell you. "And try bringing the tempo down by 2 or 3 bpm to let the melody feel more natural." Great advice. But to you, these are just more rocks flying at your head. And the next thing you know, you're seeing red, and getting carted off to jail for assaulting your cousin with the shards of a shattered Takamine.
If you want feedback on your songs, try to find someone who doesn't have a stake in your personal life. Like, seriously, none. They don't know you, they don't date your sister. They don't mow your lawn. Someone who has good taste. Someone who can be clear and honest, and won't protect your feelings. Someone who knows something about how to play and write music, not just listen to it. Someone who knows your style, and what you're going for. If at all possible, it would be nice if these people play or have played music for people, and people like it.
You're not the first musician in your genre... these people are out there. Look on forums, go to open mics, go to smaller shows and introduce yourself to the band, talk to your musician friends who might know people higher up the music food chain. When you take their advice, put it through your filter. Only you can decide if their advice is worth taking.
Stop and think before you play your songs for your family and friends.
Each step of your musical career, no matter how insignificant, warrants thought and preparation. Stop and think before you play your songs for your family and friends. If and when they give you feedback, consider if you want to take it at face value.
Beyond that, think about ways you can get good, clean feedback from someone who knows what they're talking about. Plan your route, watch your steps, and keep an eye on your surroundings. It's a difficult balance, and there's plenty of musicians who can do one of those things, but not the others. The good ones do all three.
If you could take 5 seconds to share this article with other musicians and artists, I would appreciate it. Thank you for your time!