October 7


When To Ignore Feedback On Your Music

By Keith Livingston

October 7, 2016

feedback, spngwriting

So, I had this idea that I’d use AudioKite to help figure out how to market my music. AudioKite bills itself as “Market Research for Every Musician”. And that sounds like a great idea. I had been struggling with the old “Who do you sound like?” question, and I thought AudioKite might help.

You see, if you’re going to market your music (especially if you’re going to pay for ads), you don’t want to broadcast out to everyone. You’ll blow all your money that way. Your advertising needs to be pointed at people who stand a chance of liking the music.

Now if your music sounds like Bruce Springsteen, your Facebook ad buys can target people who belong to Bruce Springsteen fan pages on Facebook. You can start twitter conversations with folks that follow the boss. And this is the way a lot of online music marketing teachers tell you to do it. And it is good.

However, most musicians don’t think they sound like anybody else. I don’t either. “We’re unique, ” we cry, in unison. “We don’t sound like anybody”, we all say. And I’m in that same boat. However, I seem to use the same notes everybody else does. So, I must sound something like somebody else.

So, I turned to AudioKite.

About AudioKite (Now owned by ReverbNation)

AudioKite taps into Mechanical Turk, an Amazon service that lets people earn little bits of money for doing simple tasks, such as listening to a song and typing what they think about it. So, you submit your song, and the participants answer some stock questions, and then you have the chance to define some of your own questions (that might have been a paid upgrade, I don’t remember).

Another thing AudioKite does is give folks a chance to rate the song. The idea is that, if you get back a medium rating, you might need to go back and re-work things until more people get excited about it. So, here’s a chance for just a few bucks, to get a group of strangers (not your mom and your friends), to let you know what they think about a song. And it’s a chance to pick up testimonials too 🙂

Using AudioKite got me thinking about feedback in general, when it’s useful, and when it’s not.

Fonda Your Genre?

Some people don’t like NASCAR races. What might happen if you asked them what they don’t like? What if you did a focus group of NASCAR haters in an attempt to widen the appeal. “It’s too loud”, they might say. “And the cars go too fast, it’s scary!”

So, NASCAR decides to follow those suggestions. They make the cars quiet and they now go really slow. No good, right? Why? Because NASCAR fans like fast shit that goes VROOM!

So, why would you ever ask someone who doesn’t like the  style of music you play, about your music? It’s simply not relevant. You should ignore their opinion, even if they like your stuff. In fact, if they don’t like your style of music, but they like your music, maybe you should be concerned.

When To Listen

So, when should you listen to feedback on your songs? Well, as record company president, audio engineer and producer once told me, “Your gammy-gam can hear timing and tuning problems.”

So, when should you listen to feedback?

  • When 2 people (even non-musicians) tell you your singing is out of key, something’s out of tune, or the timing is off, listen.
  • When 4 or 5 people who follow your music have similar opinions about your stuff

When should you not listen to feedback on your songs?

  • When the person who is commenting is not in your target audience, or doesn’t like your genre
  • Whenever you don’t feel the fuck like listening to other people’s opinions
  • When you have a vision, and know you’ve nailed it

Keep in mind, there’s a balance between listening to others, and following your own inner voice. Most of the great innovators in music, art, or even science, would have not been so great if they listened to too many people’s opinions. If you’ve got something inside you that you just feel is absolutely the way things should be, do it that way.

The other side is that we sometimes fool ourselves, or overlook things that people with outside perspectives can easily see. And IMO, that’s far more common that the ‘misunderstood genius’ thing. The vast majority of people that think they’re misunderstood geniuses, just can’t sing, write, or play.

When Is The Best Time To Ask For Feedback?


It’s not that you shouldn’t take feedback, it’s just better when it occurs naturally, and not when you ask for it directly. You see, when you ask for feedback, people put their critic hats on, and try to figure out what they don’t like. And you know what? Most people don’t even know why they like, or don’t like something! They just know that they like it, or don’t like it.

Let me give you an example. For a long time, I said I didn’t like Chris Cornell. Then, somebody gave me an iTunes gift certificate. I sat down and picked our my favorite songs of all time, and Mr. Cornell was on that list as a singer, more than any other singer. Apparently, I did like him. I thought about it and realized that he looks like somebody I don’t like.

If you would have asked what I thought about him, I would have made up some reason. But the truth was, my actions spoke much louder than my words ever could. I love Chris Cornell’s voice!

Ask for feedback directly, and you’ll get all the conscious, bullshit rationalizations. You’ll get people trying to impress you with their musical knowledge. You’ll get people writing what they think they should think, rather than what they think. I, for one, would never admit to liking Celine Dion. I’d lose what little street cred I have. Ask me to write a review and I’d have to dog her to stay cool.

I know, I said I liked both Celine Dion, and Chris Cornell. Get over it. The point is, ask for feedback in a certain way, and you’ll get bupkis.

Facebook Feedback

I once asked for feedback on Facebook, for a song I was mostly done with. One guy, (who was a musician), suggested all kinds of stuff. “Maybe it could have more of a reggae feel. And I think you should change the tempo.” They were all things that were completely impractical, and would have resulted in starting the song over, from scratch, and throwing 40 hours work out the window.

So, I asked him for more specifics about what he was going for, and he said he didn’t really know, they were just thoughts. The problem is, I’d put him in the wrong frame of mind. I’d asked what he thought, and he took it to mean throwing random ideas out. And that’s the crux of the problem. When you ask people to critique your music, lyrics, or recordings, they are not in the same mode as they are when they just listen to music. Often, they start listening for something wrong, or things to change. That’s not how you typically listen to music!

But if he was listening to the music in the frame if mind in which he usually listens to music, he’d like it or not. And that’s what you want. You want someone’s natural reaction to music, and you don’t want them to be aware that’s what you want!

You Want Immediate, Natural Responses

Now, I got another piece of feedback on another song. “Busy”, one person said. And that’s all she said — one word. Natural responses are more likely to be like that. “Busy.” They’re instant, short, and to the point. As soon as somebody starts saying “I think…”, you’re not getting an honest, visceral reaction from them.

However, that word “Busy” caused me to take a different look at what was going on in that section of the song. I realized there was a lot going on, and it was too much. I elected to lay out on some parts early in the song, adding them in as the song went on. It did get busy at the end, but it was much easier to grasp, as the parts had been introduced one-by-one.

I also paid more attention to that part of the mix, making sure each element was well separated, and clearly audible.

Back To My AudioKite Experience

So, I submitted a fairly unusual song called Little Jane, to AudioKite. It’s dark, but it rocks in places (IMO). The lyrics are a bit in the vein of a horror movie, and it’s got unusual instrumentation and chords (drums de-tuned to the point they don’t sound like drums, and a few atonal chords). It’s creepy, to tell you the truth.

I really love the song, and I think it’s one of my strongest, but I have never known how to categorize it. To me, I haven’t heard anything else like it. I figured these folks could give me some good feedback on the style, and which artists I sound like.

So, I submitted a rough mix of Little Jane and asked, “When you listen to this song, what other artists come to mind?” Here’s what happened, and what I think about it.

First of all, people don’t always follow instructions. Many people didn’t answer that question. I got little useful information about who I sounded like. Aerosmith, Nickleback, They Might Be Giants, and Better Than Ezra, were all mentioned, by those who followed instructions. What am I supposed to make of that?

Secondly, AudioKite had me choose a genre, and I choose the indie/alternative category. I didn’t really know what genre to choose — there wasn’t one that seemed like a fit, but I settled on that one. One guy said, “The song seemed far too intense and grimdark to bill itself as indie/alternative.” That seemed to be the main focus of his review. I just looked it up, and ‘grimdark’ has to do with gore or horror. So, spot on. But there wasn’t a ‘grimdark’ category.

Thirdly, I got kind of a mediocre rating for the song, overall. Frankly, I expected that. “But wait, Keith. I thought you said this was one of your stronger songs.” Yes, and I also said it was an unusual song. I expect the people who liked it, really liked it, and the people who didn’t, really didn’t like it. If you do something unusual, or have a unique style, this is going to happen to you. Some people are not going to dig it. That’s perfectly fine. They are not your target audience.

Extreme Ratings May Be Good

But in these cases, you want to look for extremes in your song ratings. If have the people rate your song as a 9, and half rate it as a 2, your overall rating will be mediocre, but I’d guess you’re on the right track.

Here are excerpts from the reviews. . .

  • “This is a very good song. It has an interesting creepy element thanks to the bass and the unique voice of the singer. The lyrics are well-written, too. It all fits together to make an intriguing song that I find pleasant to listen to.”
  • “Catchy, guy’s got a very nice voice.”
  • “The vocals are average at best…”
  • “Audio levels were really soft”
  • “Excellent vocals.”
  • “Great vocals”
  • “…not a fan of the vocals.”
  • “…vocals are a bit soft, and forgettable”
  • “I can’t say that I liked any of it. “
  • “The song is a bit slow at times and boring to listen to”

So, what I’m getting from this is that the song is very good, intriguing, catchy, pleasant, boring, and unlikable, with great, excellent, average, weak, forgettable vocals. I didn’t find much of that useful. People’s opinions about music, are largely useless. However, their reactions are priceless. More later. . .

Now, I did have some 9 ratings, and some 2 ratings, and that’s a good sign. To get serious fans, I just need to sift through and find the nines!

But I don’t feel I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish with this AudioKite submission. Now, they don’t bill themselves as “Come over here and find out what other artists you are similar to”, so perhaps it was unfair to expect that. I think AudioKite might be good if you’re trying to appeal to a large demographic, or have a song that needs to go in a mainstream movie, or maybe a commercial. But the niches might be a little too broad for honing in on whether your target audience will like it, or not.

I think there are drawbacks to asking the general public what they think of your music. As music critics, they are unqualified. As a barometer for your potential audience, they’re not targeted enough. As just people, you’re not getting their real reaction. Their real reaction would be if they were not asked what they think.

Getting Quality Feedback With The Sales Letter Trick

I’ll tell you a little trick a guy who writes advertising copy uses. When he writes a sales letter, he asks his friends for their opinion on some aspect of the letter (but not whether they think it’s an effective sales letter). Maybe it’s how one section flows into the next, or if it’s too long, or too short. It doesn’t matter what he asks, as long as it gets them to read the letter. They give him feedback, but that’s not what he’s interested in. How does he know when he’s got a good letter? Why, when they start asking if they can buy it, of course!

“Gary, I think this section is a little too long, and you should change the font on this section. By the way, is the anal plumber 2000 for sale yet, and do you know if it comes in black?”

So, use the sales letter trick. Ask some fans to listen and tell you where the song should go on the CD. Should you lead off with it, or should it be in the middle somewhere? If you get some, “Wow, cool song” comments in there, along with advice about song order, you’re probably on the right track.

Stick the song in your set. Don’t say much about it. Just watch people’s reactions. Do their toes tap? Does it have their attention? If not, back to the drawing board.

Show them some art work and ask them to listen to the song and tell you if it fits with the artwork. If you get nothing but comments about how the artwork and music go together, you’re in trouble.

Get them to listen to the song without telling them they’re listening to critique the song. Then their reactions will be much more natural, honest, valuable, and useful.


Keith Livingston

About the author

Keith Livingston started recording his own music in the late '70s, on a 4-track. He worked his way into live sound and studio work as an engineer -- mixing in arenas, working on projects in many major studios as a producer/engineer, and working in conjunction with an independent label.

He taught audio engineering at the Art Institute of Seattle, from 1990-1993, and in '96, contributing to authoring several college-level courses there.

He was General Manager of Радио один (Radio 1) in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Now he spends his time recording his own songs wherever he roams, and teaching others to do the same.

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