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I don’t read a lot of reviews. With few exceptions, I tend not to find them very helpful.

What I do read, though, are reviews of my own stuff. I’m not alone here. Today an extremely successful composer told me that there’s a critic he’d like to boil in oil because of a review written many years ago. He’s not the first to express such a sentiment.

Criticism is a touchy subject for artists. With this in mind, I suggest a few coping strategies:

1) Don’t obsess. If you want to know what it says, you have to read it. You have to draw a line, though, somewhere between skimming the thing and obsessing over it more than the writer did. The correct place for that line is after you have read it once. Read it slowly, read it carefully, but only read it once. Then put it down and get on with your life, just like everybody else did after reading it.*

2) Celebrate the stupid negatives. If you played the wrong notes, they could say that. If you played everything mezzo forte**, they could say that. Many reviewers don’t feel like they’ve written a balanced review unless they complain about something, though, and if that something is completely stupid, that means you won. They liked the music. Learn to take “yes” for an answer, and get on with your life.

3) Accept that the critic’s opinion is a possible interpretation. I often hear people say that critics are in no position to judge the ability of a performer to do something the critic cannot themselves do. This is a bad argument. I cannot, myself, lift a grand piano above my head, but if you try to do it in front of me, I’ll know if you succeeded. The critic may remember things differently to you: if you’re sure you juggled five Steinways and the critic says they never left the ground, you have to admit your performance may be too subtle for some audiences. Either throw those pianos higher, or accept that what you do isn’t for everybody, and get on with your life.

4) Don’t take this too seriously. From a commercial standpoint, I generally measure the success of a PR campaign in terms of the number of reviews it gets, not how positive they are. After all, things don’t get reviews because they’re good, they get reviews because they’re important, and because the publication will look silly if they don’t cover them. Who needs who here? Remember that you won the moment they decided to write about you, and get on with your life.

Then again, maybe getting on with our lives is the last thing we should do. Maybe the right response is to do something more like this…

* Except me. I am bad at following this advice. Very bad. Very bad indeed.

** Like this.

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  1. November 12, 2012

    Gosh! I have been writing reviews for nearly 20 years, and only one or two people have taken me to task. One because I mentioned something about a wrong note, and another because I made a factual mistake (and I’m extremely glad that he set me straight). I have noticed that many reviewers come to concerts with a great feeling of self importance. I also feel kind of important when I can get good seats to a concert that I didn’t have to pay for in exchange for my note-taking attention, and the four or five hours it takes to write something worthwhile about the concert. But I feel an obligation to the people who are at the concert to give an accurate report of the goings on so that they can feel a little less like they might be in some kind of a vacuum with their thoughts. For a record review it is important to let people know what happens to be inside the box (or the download) they are thinking about buying, and not how much I know about a given subject. It is really difficult to make total value judgements, particularly in “crossover” music like “Silfra.” Hahn is not a composer, and she doesn’t pretend to be one. She is trying her hand (Hahnd) at improvisatory “composition,” and she is a good enough violinist and a good enough musician to pull it off. She is in the professional position for DGG to expect some sort of return on the expense of producing and promoting this recording, and they also know that there is a market outside of the “classical” one for anything done by Hauschka. Heck, some people might even just buy the recording for the way the two musicians look.

    Back to concerts. When a reviewer puts aside preconceptions acquired from promotional material, I’m impressed. When a reviewer points out something that reflects actually knowing the score, I am impressed. When a reviewer spends an inordinate amount of time rehashing material from the program notes (or the liner notes), I am not impressed, unless the material at hand is truly unfamiliar and the program notes are really good program notes (another bone to pick at another time, I’m afraid).

  2. November 12, 2012

    I had a whole lot to say about performers & reviewers a couple of years back: http://irontongue.blogspot.com/2010/06/performers-and-reviewers.html

    The long comment thread, with one or two anonymous people, persuaded me to stop allowing anonymous comments, too.

  3. November 12, 2012

    And ponies.

  4. November 18, 2012

    Like so much in life, Half Man Half Biscuit provide the answer: http://www.chrisrand.com/hmhb/voyage-to-the-bottom-of-the-road/bad-review/

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