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Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond



Who Has The Right To Critique Your Work?

May 11th, 2018 | No Comments | Categories: Musing on Music · tips for musicians |

…This is a question that comes up for young artists all the time. The mechanisms for getting your work out there, in an economic setting where there’s a particular level of audience size that one needs to be able to make enough money to keep doing what you do, bring with them an avalanche of comment. Some of it comes from reviewers – gig reviewers, album reviewers, people who write about your particular field as their job and amateurs who just have a blog they keep for the love-or-spite of it. You’ll also get feedback from people who love what you do and feedback from people who are all too eager to tell you how you’re doing it wrong. Social media may give everyone a voice, but it doesn’t in any way mean we are obliged to absorb or even listen to their opinions…

So, while acknowledging that in some way resourcing and encouraging that kind of commentary is necessary to audience growth, how do we as artists maintain a sense of who we are and what we do aside from that, and how do we gauge which of the feedback might actually be useful to us? After all, I’ve had utterly glowing OTT reviews that I thought were WAY off the mark, and some critical reviews that I thought were completely fair. And I’ve had a very small number of reviews that actually taught me something about my own work. So how do we discern the difference? How do we decide who to let in and who to ignore? And as things progress, how (if we even should) do we build a team of people around who we invite to reflect on our work in ways that we listen to with a view to actually acting on their advice?

It is – not to put too fine a point on it – an absolute minefield. All the moreso if you’re in any way insecure about your work already. Anyone who’s had anything posted on YouTube that’s had more than a handful of views will know what a cesspool of vindictive and spiteful misinformation it is. I’ve seen friends of mine insulted in all manner of ways on there, and have had a ton of ‘why the fuck are you wearing nail varnish???’ comments as well as the ‘that’s not what you’re supposed to do with a bass!’ comments…

That end of things is irritating, but fairly easily recognised as not useful in terms of defining what you’re up to in your own work. Nothing useful comes of trying to salve the bile of a disgruntled YouTube dickhead… So who gets let in? Whose words get to be considered as useful?

I don’t think there’s one answer to this, but my own rule has always been that I listen to people who have previously demonstrated to me that they understand what I’m trying to do. Whether a review itself seems knowledgeable is not the thing I’m looking for. What I need from someone who is going to comment on my work in a way I can be bothered to acknowledge is the recognition that they have me being the best version of me as the focus of their comments. So anything that says ‘what you’re doing doesn’t sound enough like artist A, therefor it’s bad’ is out. Not useful. Anyone who says ‘this is amazing because it doesn’t sound like anything that anyone has ever done before’ is equally out. That’s not a useful or accurate assessment of where the value lies in what I’m trying to do.

This notion of ‘what you’re trying to do’ stems from a belief that the only meaningful way to measure the true value of an artist’s work is whether they’ve achieved what they set out to do. Whether you like it or not is useful in terms of you deciding what to do with your time, and what to lend your ears to, but a commentary on my work based on whether or not someone else would have done it differently is not useful to me. As my usual response goes when someone tells me that I should be doing an all-ambient record, or a funk record, or should work in such and such a way, I say ‘no, you should! It’s clearly you that wants to hear music in that way. If there’s something in what I do that you think fits there, you can either take that inspiration and make the music yourself, or hire me to help you get there and bring my musicianship and ideas to your project’. But they don’t get to tell me what to do with my own music.

So how does someone demonstrate an understanding?

Firstly, they ask questions. Anyone who truly cares about what you’re doing is going to ask you about it before making a bunch of observations and statements. They’re going to inquire into why you’re making the choices you’re making, what the things are that you’re working on, what your influences are and what you’re trying to do with those influences… There are a ton of different questions to be asked, and angles to be explored…

Secondly, they’re going to take the time to get to know what you’ve already done. This gives anyone who subscribes to me on Bandcamp a massive advantage over anyone who doesn’t, because I know they’ve got at least 35-40 albums by me in their collection. Now, they might not have listened to them all, but if they’re working through them with an open mind, they may well start to form a useful frame of reference for what it is I’m trying to do – I can test that through the kinds of questions they bother to ask. They’re probably going to have a better grasp on the improvised nature of the work, and the breadth of things that I’m exploring at anyone time, as well as the general trajectory of my solo work.

Thirdly, their comments are going to specifically relate their criticism to the framing of your work. It’s OK for someone not to like or understand how you frame what it is you’re trying to do – not everyone needs to like or understand what you’re up to – but if you’re thinking of inviting them to influence it, it’d help a lot of they at least had a respect for what you were attempting. Sometimes, that framing can be an obvious thing, but it’s normally pretty dangerous to assume what a particular musician is trying to do from hearing a track or two and guessing based on who you think it sounds like.

The people whose commentary you allow into your own thought process are acting as de facto producers of your work. It’s WAY more important that they understand it than that they like it. I’ve had a mixture of people over the years give me useful feedback and encouragement – some who loved it, some how just cared about me, and took the time to work out what I was up to, without really being massively invested in the music itself. Sometimes the most useful input is just a well-timed ‘dude, just keep doing what you’re doing’, sometimes it’s in the form of a question I really should have been asking myself for a while. Other times its a suggestion for some new inspiration to check out that they see may well help take me in a new direction.

None of it arrives in the form of insult, none of it is trying to put me down, and none of it is about me meeting someone else’s idea for what music ought to be.

Finding those people can take a lot of time. When you do find them hold onto them, value them and keep them close. A huge amount of the advice that you’re going to hear will be about people’s perception of the commercial potential in what you’re doing, and how to maximise that (it’s baffling to me that I get that bullshit even as a solo bass player – as if playing bass on your own isn’t enough of a statement about your lack of focus on commercial motives already?)  – if commercial potential is your frame for your work, and they are people with a track record of making those judgements in useful ways, by all means let them in – it’s not a bad thing to want to make great pop music! But if that’s not what you care about, you need to find a way of blocking out those voices, because they’ll almost always pull you back towards the consensus.

And in the meantime, don’t feed the trolls, or listen to their bullshit. It’s not going to help you find your path.

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