How Do You Tell An Artist Their Music Sucks? Asking For A Friend...

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Welcome to “Asking For A Friend”, a new advice column I’m starting to help me and people like me in the music industry navigate the murky waters of industry politics, events, and relationships. I would like this short series to serve as a survival guide for new artists, journalists, DJs, publicists, etc.  

This article isn’t as negative as the title suggests but whether you’ve been in the music industry for five minutes or five years, a big part of your career’s future will be determined by the strength of your relationships. Landing a job in the music industry means you’re signing up for way more than a position, you’re signing up for a lifestyle. Since you’ll be out often at open bars, listening sessions, concerts, etc., you’re going to meet a lot of people and make friends. Artists, especially in the early stages of their career, are at a lot of these same events networking and meeting people who can help advance their music. So its very easy to meet and become friends with an artist you’re a fan of but these situations present an interesting dynamic.

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Picture this.

You’re in the studio for the first time with a talented artist friend who wants to play you some new stuff they’ve been working on. You’re expecting to hear some more of that signature fire from them but instead they played a song that’s the audio equivalent of the Aaliyah Lifetime movie. Now as they turn and give you the “so what do you think???” look, you begin your internal Frank Underwood monologue weighing your options on how to respond. You don’t like the song (actually you HAATTTEDD it) but it’s the first time they’re playing you music so you don’t want to discourage them or seem like a hater. In an industry full of yes men (and women. they lie too), it’s important to give honest feedback. Not only is it better for them to have accurate insight but it’s also better for you to establish yourself as a source of integrity in an overwhelmingly shady industry. On the other hand, it also sucks to potentially damage or lose a relationship because somebody gets offended by your honest feedback on their art. This could be a relationship killer for sure and could hurt you in an industry predicated on who you know and who likes you.

I’ve luckily only had to deal with this a few times and I’ve always chosen to be honest but it hasn’t always been easy. Since I ain’t got all the answers, I reached out to a couple industry people with more brains and finesse than me for their insight on how they handle these situations. Check their commentary below:

Joe Cap

Associate Director, Marketing, Complex

https://twitter.com/thekidcapo

I’m always delicate in my approach to giving honest criticism or feedback. I try to toe the line between being polite and respectful of the artists creative vision and being realistic and trusting my knowledge and experience with managing and consulting for artists and brands for several years.

I like to assume that if the artist is taking the time to seek out feedback from me, they are comfortable enough within themselves to receive some notes that they may not see eye to eye with, hopefully assisting them in improving their product.

I always respect the time and energy spent on creating and sharing something typically so personal with the world and know how protective artists can be but also like to think I’m a valuable resource for helping an artist improve and that they need to let their guard down for people they trust in order to grow and evolve as an artist.

Modi

Co-Founder, Trillectro Music Festival

https://twitter.com/DCtoBC

I have a handful of friends who make music, and I’m always down to listen and give my thoughts. Sometimes they dig it, sometimes they don’t, but it’s important to keep it as honest and constructive as possible. At the end of the day, art is subjective, and they can’t hate you for your opinion, just like I can’t hate them for not incorporating my feedback.

Amir Abbassy

Head of Music and Music Programming, All Def Digital

https://twitter.com/blamethelabel

The best way to give an artist especially a friend constructive criticism is to keep it all the way honest. Giving sincere and genuine advice is the only way to help anyone get better. No one ever gets better if you don’t keep it all the way real with them. There are too many yes men/women who have steered too many artists in the wrong direction because they were afraid they would hurt their feelings. Be a great friend and guide them by speaking the truth even if its bitter.

Latrell James

Artist/Producer

https://twitter.com/IamLatrellJames

Giving constructive criticism can be a double edge sword. You can be trying to help someone and losing a friendship at the same time. When I give feedback on music I will keep it honest as possible but also give ideas on how that track can improve. Changing the way something is said or the production completely are examples.

The most important thing that I always do, is not give criticism to music that I don’t understand. I pride myself on listening to everything but if I don’t get what the music is trying to convey then I’ll send it to a friend who would. That or give a disclaimer with my feedback.

Paul Francois

Founder & Co Resident DJ, CLLCTV BOSTON

https://twitter.com/YVNGPAVL

Art & Music will always be gauged or judged subjectively. What one person may regard as awesome, can be viewed by another person as complete shit. So when giving an artist friend (whether musical, visual, or any other type) feedback, I try to make them sell me on why their art is worth anyone’s attention. Simply shutting down someone’s art is wrong. But I think the best way to provide feedback or constructive criticism is to have the artist look at the musical or artistic landscape and model themselves after someone who has been successful and then find a way to put their own staple on that model.

OG Swaggerdick

Entertainer

https://twitter.com/OgSwaggerdick

Depending on who it is determines how honest I am. If you’re one of my closest friends, then I can tell you if I don’t like the song or not. If I know you, but we’re not really that cool and I just see you around from time to time, then I might tell you what things you can fix. If I don’t know you, and the song is trash I’ll just tell to go for it if you believe you can, and never give up, because someone who’s trash now, can possibly be the leader of the culture later as long as they work hard enough and strive to do great. If the person is a cocky asshole who doesn’t want advice with their trash music… I’ll let them cook, I ain’t gonna fight you over your trash music fam.

The survey says….honesty is always the best policy. Based on my experiences and the experiences of everyone else above, the best approach to giving feedback is to be honest and supportive. While saying an artist’s bad music is good can help your relationship in the short term, the artist will suffer eventually int he long term. Don’t be afraid to be honest at the risk of losing a relationship. It’s better to have a few substantial and honest relationships than a ton of shallow but cordial ones. 

Thanks for reading this first installment of “Asking For A Friend”. Hopefully you learned something. See you all next time. #StayWoke

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