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[Editors Note: This article was written by Patrick McGuire.]


Thirty years ago, if you were an artist interested in learning about what strangers thought about your music you’d have to either ask for the opinion of someone at one of your shows or wait for a review to pop up in a newspaper or alt-weekly. But in 2018, release a song or album and you’re likely to get feedback from perfect strangers in the form of everything from YouTube comments to printed reviews.

At its best, music criticism can help us glean important insights about our music that we couldn’t have found on our own. At its worst, it can be cruel, discouraging and unhelpful.

If you’re a musician intent on sustaining a serious career in music, learning what opinions of your music you should be ignoring and what criticisms you should be paying attention to isn’t as much of an option as it is a means for artistic survival. Take all critics of your music seriously and you probably won’t be making music for very long. But ignoring all outside opinions of your music deprives you from feedback that could improve your work. How do you draw the line?

Music criticism in 2018

The pre-internet era had a vetting system when it came to deciding who got to be music critics and who didn’t. Generally, only people who could write thoughtfully about music could become music critics and publish their work. Now, literally anyone with an internet connection can be a music critic. As you probably know, the internet is doing wonderful and horrible things to our world simultaneously, and it’s impacting music on a level we probably won’t be able to fully understand for some time.

How music is produced, consumed, valued and criticized has been completely upended by the internet over the past two decades. It’s given everyone a public forum to voice their opinions about music, no matter their age, education level and ability to write thoughtfully about it. Everyone from your little brother to the staff at the New York Times can take to the internet and unleash their musical critiques on the world, albeit with widely varying degrees of readership.

What sort of criticism matters

Taking each and every opinion of your music to heart is a surefire way to get discouraged and stop writing songs. Since anyone can say anything about the music you make in 2018, every musician should be making an effort think critically about the voices they should be listening to when it comes music criticism. The voices you should be paying attention to and ignoring depend on how established you are in your career, your age and what sort of music you make––except when it comes to malicious criticism

It’s never worth paying attention to a critic they’re clearly trying to malign you while saying nothing valuable about your music. This goes for professional and amaetuer music critics alike.

The internet gives people anonymity and the ability to spew hate, garbage and nonsense with little to no consequence. These are the first voices you’ll need to ignore as an artist. New, young and unestablished musicians probably won’t have to deal with this issue as much as their more experienced counterparts, but no matter where you’re at in your music career, it’s never worth paying attention to hate-filled opinions about your art.

Yes, a Reddit thread isn’t the same as a review in Pitchfork, but that doesn’t mean that all amatuer opinions about your music aren’t worth caring about. In fact, if you’re just getting started making music, a place like Reddit can be a great place to share your tracks and ask for feedback.

But if you plan on doing this, you’ll need to weed out the unhelpful feedback and focus on the comments that can actually help you make better music. Conversely, some professional voices in music criticism aren’t worth caring about either if their criticisms aren’t helpful or thoughtful. Being a published music critic doesn’t make someone an absolute authority in music.

Established artists probably shouldn’t spend their time demoing new music and asking for feedback, but that doesn’t mean that they should be ignoring all criticisms of their music. When an artist puts their music out into the world, it means that what they’ve created doesn’t completely belong to them anymore.

Thoughtful criticism is a way to help a musician get an outside perspective about their strengths, weaknesses and context for their music. Yes, you can make music in a bubble and not care about what anyone else has to say about it, but that attitude could end up damaging your music.

Think for a second what it means to actually release a piece of music. Letting other people experience your work doesn’t mean that you’ll have control over what they think about it and whether they’ll like it or not. And while making an effort to listen to each and every opinion of your music is a horrible idea, listening to thoughtful criticism is important for artists of every level.

Patrick McGuire is a writer, composer, and experienced touring musician based in Philadelphia.


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