by Jason Blume
I received a terribly disturbing email from a young woman who attended one of my seminars. She wrote to inform me that she is dying, leaving behind three small children—and that she blames her impending death … on me. She proceeded to state that following my critique of her song she felt so humiliated that she took actions (I’ll spare you the details) that caused irreversible bodily damage.
Although I have taught more than a thousand songwriters and artists in the sixteen months since she attended my workshop, both my assistant and I remember this woman vividly for two reasons: 1) she was exceptionally talented, and 2) her response to my critique of her song was utterly inappropriate.
I told her that her work was quite strong and showed potential—but that I believed there were a couple of very serious—but easy-to-fix—flaws. She argued and defended against every word I said. Her adamant refusal to accept even the possibility that her song might be less than perfect crossed the line to disruptive.
It’s one thing to believe in yourself and to stand up for your work—but when a professional has expressed his or her thoughts it’s unlikely that you will dissuade them. The most beneficial way to handle this is to say, “thank you for your feedback,” and say that you will consider it. Remember—you are trying to establish a business relationship beyond this one interaction.
At the point when this woman insisted I listen to an additional song—despite the fact that there was only time allotted for each participant to receive one critique—I had no choice but to take the reins and move on to the next attendee. In her email, this woman expressed that she doesn’t want anything from me—but wanted me to know about her situation—so that in the future I would be nice to others. And … to show that she forgives me, she wants me to have her songs. Hmmm…
I estimate that in the years that I’ve been teaching the BMI and NSAI (Nashville Songwriters Organization) workshops, as well as teaching at universities and festivals worldwide, I have critiqued at least seven thousand songs. I’m frequently told that when I do critiques I am kind, supportive, and encouraging. In the twenty years that I’ve been doing this I’ve only had one other negative experience.
I’ll tell you a secret. I believe my primary job when I teach and critique is to encourage—and therefore, I sometimes write the letter “E” on my lecture notes so that I remember to do so. But I’m not helping if I simply say, “Oh, you’re wonderful …” That’s your mother’s job—or your best friend’s. If I fail to provide the tools that might help you achieve your goals I’m doing a disservice.
When I provide feedback or suggestions on a song my goal is that something I say will resonate and the recipient of the critique has an “aha” moment along the lines of “Why didn’t I think of that?” But if instead, the response is more along the lines of, “He completely missed the point. If I implemented that change it would ruin what I love about the song …” then I suggest you seek additional input.
Those of us who do critiques do not meet in a private club where we all agree to make the same comments and suggestions. If multiple professionals have the same issue with your song – the problem just might be with your song. But ultimately, we have to please ourselves.
Not every critiquer is equally skilled—and songwriting is not an exact science. Get several critiques—and you will likely get several different suggestions. The key is to look for the recurring themes. If every critiquer has a problem remembering your chorus melody—or they all say that they don’t understand your second verse …
This reminds me of the time when a teacher asked me to explain my second verse. As I launched into my explanation he stopped me and asked me to write it out. I looked puzzled until he added, “And then you can write it out a million more times—because we’ll have to attach your explanation to every copy sold.” If the listener doesn’t “get it”—it won’t help to explain.
I was lucky enough to spend twelve years signed to a publisher who was an exceptionally skilled critiquer. By pointing out the weak spots in my work he pushed me to be the best songwriter I could be—and I attribute much of my success to him. But … each and every time he tore my songs apart it hurt. I wanted to hear that my song was destined to be the next Grammy winning “Song of the Year”—not that the concept wasn’t anything special; that a few lines of lyric were cliché; or that the melody wasn’t fresh or memorable. I hated going back to the drawing board—but each and every time I rewrote my songs, they became stronger—and I learned valuable lessons.
In order to persist through the countless disappointments and rejections that are all a part of the path we’ve chosen, I had to develop a tough skin. Songwriters are required to have the tender heart and soul of an artist—with the skin of an armadillo.
I hope there are lessons in this that will help you benefit from song critiques—because they are the best way I know to learn what is working—and what needs work.
Wishing you luck, perseverance, and thick skin on your songwriting journey.
Jason Blume’s songs are on albums that have sold more than 50,000,000 copies and have been recorded by artists including Britney Spears, Collin Raye, the Gipsy Kings, the Backstreet Boys, Jesse McCartney, and superstar international artists. He is one of only a handful of writers to ever have singles on Billboard’s Pop, Country, and R&B charts—all at the same time and he received a BMI “Million-Air Award” for more than one million radio airplays of John Berry’s version of “Change My Mind.” Blume is the author of three of the best selling songwriting books, 6 Steps to Songwriting Success, Inside Songwriting, and This Business of Songwriting—all published by Billboard Books and he teaches for BMI, NSAI, and at universities throughout the world.
For information about Jason Blume’s workshops, books, instructional CDs, and critique service visit www.jasonblume.com.
JASON BLUME CELEBRATES 10 YEARS OF WORKSHOPS WITH BMI
Pictured are (l to r): BMI’s Perry Howard, Lauren Holland and Jason Blume, with BMI’s Mark Mason and Bradley Collins.