So, Your Record Got a Bad Review…

Damn, sorry. That sucks.

It sucks because you really agonized over this thing. You spent months, years even, working on these songs. You sacrificed your time and mental energy and obsessed over the smallest details until they were exactly right. You blew a ton of money, pushed relationships off to the side, practiced for a ridiculous amount of time and after all that some prick takes a couple listens and says it’s boring. Or unoriginal. Or they go further and just shit all over the thing like it’s a big joke.

Yeah, that really, really sucks.

You put so much of yourself into this that of course you’re crushed when someone dismisses it. It’s the most human reaction. If you had a new baby you couldn’t fathom someone typing on Facebook that “Eh, it doesn’t really do anything interesting and that goo goo ga ga junk is derivative of other, much cuter babies.”

There can never be equity between artists and critics because the personal consequence of a review is so small. An album often requires great personal investment and planning, whereas a an album review is a few hundred words, written on deadline, grouped with other reviews given the same amount of attention. The risk to the critic is exceptionally low. It’s doubtful a review has ever been emailed with the same level of excitement and trepidation that occurs almost every time a record is sent off to a pressing plant or even just appears on Bandcamp.

And because of that imbalance, reviews which condemn a record aren’t written with a true comprehension of how significant that is for the artist. It’s incredibly demoralizing when music you endlessly scrutinized is given a few spins before being torn apart.

It sucks.

Frustration, disappointment and self-doubt are all pretty common responses. What is less common, though still notable, is when a musician gets a bad review and proceeds to think that the reviewer themselves are now the enemy. That this was not just a severe appraisal of music but instead something much more personal and spiteful. And to those musicians I must ask, “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Listen, if you got a crummy review and want to think the reviewer is big idiot for the rest of your life go for it, but when you start assuming that people are out there to maliciously impugn you and your precious music then it’s time to slow your roll. The advent of the internet has led to an explosion of people burping up their opinions and there are plenty of valid issues with critics who lack the ability to judge an album objectively or simply refuse to. But overwhelmingly, record reviews are coming from random people excited to spend their free time listening to music and seeing their scribbles in print. That doesn’t exactly deserve a medal but it shouldn’t single them out for contempt either.

Of course the bands who take this shit personally claim that they don’t care that it’s a bad review — they just want a fair review, one without an agenda, like they’ve been running for Congress and are getting smeared by the New York Times. But critics know that, whether or not they’re of any value, a review is not an earthmover. Maybe a perfect ten will shift a couple more units, but it’s a blip when sized up next to the efficiency of the PR machine and other strategies. And when a terrible review drops, it never makes it into a press release and only really thrives in the bruised memories of the musicians who got dunked on.

With very few exceptions, critics don’t have a malicious agenda. They don’t want to crush you. They don’t rub their hands together after sending off a bad review hoping to personally humiliate you. If something seems exceptionally harsh it’s probably because your music is exceptionally bad.

It’s not an easy thing to admit, but writing and recording music ain’t exactly splitting the atom. Thousands of bands do it every year. And unlike thousands of those bands, your record happened to fall into the hands of someone willing to spend time with it and offer their opinion. Whatever happens after that is beyond your control. And while a bad review may spark a temporary grieving process, think for a moment how absolutely silly it is to be furious at a stranger who didn’t like some songs you wrote.

So here are two takeaways: One, if your record has received a bad review you are in good company. It’s a painful reality for even legendary artists, an unfortunate side effect of releasing your art into the public sphere. And two, if bad reviews have led you to a place where you now harbor legitimate hatred for critics — if you consider them to be vindictive enemies deserving of your scorn — maybe you should spend less time concerned about the perceived credibility of your art and more time figuring out if you’re an asshole.