Feedback: how to handle exposing your songs to the public
While performing and publishing music can a great form of self-expression, exposing your most personal creative work to the general public, and dealing with the ensuing feedback, can be difficult. Here, we look at how to best handle the public’s opinions.
Guest post by Charlotte Yates of Soundfly’s Flypaper
Writing and playing songs is a fine means of self-expression. But if you want an audience larger than the familiar looking person in your bedroom mirror to hear them, at some point your songs need to leave your clutches behind. It’s not called a “release” for nothing!
Once you release your songs, your audience will have a reaction. If it’s a live performance, the initial reaction will be immediate — whether it’s the wildest applause or that awful, awkward silence with the odd embarrassed cough. But if it’s a recording, it might take a while for audience reactions to make it back to you.
Either way, it can be daunting. You never truly know if all or any of your songs will actually connect with an audience. You can’t always predict what the response will be or how it will be expressed. So, how do you deal with putting your stuff out there?
The answer is in the careful creation of, and control over your feedback loop. A healthy feedback loop is important whatever stage of your songwriting career you’re in. In fact, it’s a career booster. Let’s talk about it.
First, what even is feedback?
Feedback is different from praise, adulation, or even plain old encouragement. It isn’t hateful or derogatory comments on your social media feed either. Those non-selective responses are distracting at best; at worst, they eat up your emotional bandwidth.
Feedback is a reaction to your material that causes you to respond. Stimulus –> response (rinse and repeat). It comes in a loop. Feedback is given to you as requested information that tells you where your material is successful (positive) or where it hasn’t been (negative); what works and what does not.
The idea of feedback is an intention to modify. If the songwriter elects to receive feedback, it means she will make changes to her song or track on the basis of information received. So then feedback becomes future focused and thus, extremely helpful. It can drill down on part of a song — anything from the kick drum sound to the chorus lyric — or an entire mix, the whole album, live performance, a career direction, etc.
Your feedback loop can start super small, but wind up having important long-term outcomes. It can help you regularly determine what is the next step in my vision and how can I reach it?
Why Is Feedback Important?
1. An Unbiased View
Art is subjective. It’s virtually impossible to listen objectively to your own music when you’ve spent days/weeks/months in the studio slaving over a hot DAW. You can lose perspective so quickly.
Fresh ears means someone listening to a song they’ve never heard before. Their first impression will be relatively unbiased compared with your more familiar reactions.
2. New Input
Feedback gives you constructive input on ways to improve your work — things that you maybe hadn’t considered creatively, and ways to practically solve problems. This can include changing a bass synth to a real bass guitar, running a high pass filter over your vocal EQ, cutting out a verse completely, or anything else related to your material. It helps to mitigate your blind spots.
3. Builds Your Confidence
Your feedback loop will help identify pointers on how to improve small parts of your track toward a larger goal of connecting with the audience. If you’ve allocated time for implementing genuinely constructive feedback before release, you’ll be more confident in your music’s reception.
4. Opens Doors
How well you deal with feedback also contributes to your reputation as an artist. If you’re resistant or repeatedly dismissive, your feedback loop weakens. If you approach feedback constructively, it will open doors you may not have known were even there.
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Creating a Feedback Loop
How you create a feedback loop and how you employ it effectively depends on where you’re at in the industry. Here are some suggestions for eliciting and managing your feedback loop on the different rungs of the industry ladder.
If you’re just starting out, learning the songwriting ropes either in your home studio or gigging, you need all the support you can get. Hopefully your friends, loved ones, and family are on board. It’s likely they’ll be your first port of call of feedback.
But they may also feature as subjects in your songs, and in which case, their role in your feedback loop is compromised. Sometimes the people closest to you are fearful or dismissive about music as a valid career choice, so there’s a double-edged sword.
Look for feedback options that are unbiased, constructive, and as musically informed as possible; songwriter circles, independent musician networks, open mics can all play a part. So can interactive songwriting courses or coaching, where you receive specific feedback. Songwriting competitions may also be useful (just check that they actually offer feedback).
The goal is to learn as much as possible while building repertoire, skills, and reputation. You may also have to give feedback on other artists’ work, which will help you realize what actually contributes (or doesn’t) to someone’s work.
As you build your set, your network, and your creative workflow, you’ll want to level up your feedback loop. Rather than needing validation or support, you can be more selective and more specific with your feedback requests.
Approach artists you respect that are one rung up the ladder from you in your genre. Be polite and offer something in return (just giving someone your music isn’t quite the deal you may think it is).
By now you should realize the time it takes to listen to someone’s material and offer thoughtful feedback, beyond whether it’s amazing or it sucks!
Tip: Don’t do this after someone has just played a show.
Another Tip: One rung up the ladder is not ten rungs. There really is a hierarchy.
The goal here is to get a handful of folks more experienced than you who you trust to give you honest feedback, and who can help you make creative decisions about your music. If someone does this for you willingly and well, listen hard, implement what you can and let him or her know that you did. It could be a game changer for you.
Other members of your feedback loop “group” that would be good to engage with are ancillary music industry professionals — anyone from venue operators to music publicists to radio DJs. If they’re working in the biz, they will be hearing a great deal of music, be savvy to what’s getting traction currently, and able to judge how your material stacks up.
Lastly, if you’re considering applying for music funding, meet and get feedback directly from the advisors on how to submit the best application. It will save time and disappointment.
If you’ve been playing out and/or you’ve had a release or two, you will have experienced feedback by commerce and public critique. The number of streams, bums on seats, or merch items sold can be all the feedback you need.
You may also have had some significant music press (reviews in publications online or print, mentions in blogs, radio play, etc.). You may have connected with indie record labels, music conferences, and potential music management.
If things are cooking for your career establishment, it’s still vital to have your own feedback loop now that the impact of your music is wider. Involving music production folks who do not have a direct financial link to your success can be crucial. Aim to have in-depth conversations with someone of this ilk, who will listen impartially to works in progress, before you release.
Secondly, connecting and collaborating with other professional artists will also help you hone your skills and clarify your songwriting strengths.
If you’ve had positive reviews, great. Leverage that like crazy. If there are stingers among the zingers, don’t push back. Some reviewers write for eyeballs rather than trying to wound you personally. They may have a point that is worth considering. Not everyone will kiss your ass and not all your work will be stellar.
You can double check on tracks pre-release using paid critique services like Taxi, SubmitHub, and Audiu. You’ll get unbiased feedback on a variety of aspects of your songs that you can filter in a quiet moment.
Key figures in the music industry tend to seek feedback from a pretty closed circle. At the giddy heights, professional artists like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift are CEOs of their own business empires with significant staff and advisory teams.
There are plenty of senior artists with long-held, respected careers who have feedback loops dedicated to maintaining legacy product, acknowledgment of contribution to the canon and enhancing its relevance to new generations; for example, Stevie Nicks performing with Harry Styles.
Those seasoned artists that continue to write and release new material have an eagle eye on new production and songwriting techniques, and new directions. And many will mentor and advocate for younger artists and producers formally or personally.
The feedback loops are not always unidirectional; the emphasis for them is on continual renewal.
There you have it. Curating and developing a pre-release feedback loop for your music will be one of the best things you can do to support your progress.
There’ll be plenty of people who will offer unsolicited advice. And that’s a “thanks but no thanks” scenario. But when you control your feedback loop — those trusted people to whom you can really listen — you protect your artistic sensitivity and your peace of mind. Choose carefully!
Charlotte Yates is an independent New Zealand singer-songwriter with a growing catalogue of seven solo releases and thirteen collaborative projects. She composes music for TV, theatre, and short film, and provides a songwriting coaching service, Songdoctor.