February 3, 2009

Song Writing Workshops - Design by Committee

Last night I found myself in front of a small crowd, listening to 'feedback' regarding a song I wrote with my band, Fortune and Spirits. The feedback was legitimate and honest, and I want to say up front, that I appreciate the time and effort of the individuals involved.


I don't think I'll be acting on any of this feedback.

The fact of the matter is: song writing workshops are like design by committee. If I put together a song curtailed to the acceptability of all 25 of the people in the room the result is boring, lifeless, and sterile. Universally tolerable, but definately not something I'd want to listen to.

The effects of this type of song writing are hugely prolific though. It's all over top 40 radio stations, and some people even think they like it (those people don't listen to much music).

I'll quote jeff atwood, of coding horror and stack overflow fame,

well, if you're not pissing *someone* off, then you're not very
interesting. C'est la vie.
I intend to stick to my guns. I may use some of the advice they gave in future writing - the ideas themselves weren't necessarily bad - but I'll be maintaining my quirks, and you should too.

I'm not saying you shouldn't get feedback, just that you need to get it from the right people. The first people who give feedback from will have the most impact so choose them carefully. They should be...

  1. Someone who's writing you think is better than yours - If you want to get better, that is.
  2. Someone who is at least open to your style/genre - It's preferrable that they have experience writing in the genre too, but most important is that they will respect the choices you've already made and focus on helping you improve the song.
  3. Someone willing to put in a little time and effort - It takes time get get to know a song. The first impression is very important, but you want to find out how the song holds up to repeated listening as well... which means this 'someone' is going to have to listen to it quite a bit over a period of time.

Finding someone who will do number 3 is gonna take some searching, and it's definitely ok to have a small group of people who you rotate so that you don't have to ask one person to spend so much time on your music.

Get to work on those songs! Good luck!

**edit**: I found this post by derek sivers (of cdbaby) on where people go to get feedback. The comments are the part you care about ;)


Matt Record said...

There's a danger to only asking other people who WRITE music to critique your style, I know you're not wholesale advocating that but you said "preferably."

My preferred audience are actually people who's main concern is listening to music,be they musicians or not. Those are the people that are the stewards of the arts -- the informed electorate who know a good thing when they hear it.

The problem with running songs by other songwriters is inherently those pople are going to feel a sense of competition with you and may not give you the best feedback.

Anyway, My two cents.

georgesdelatour said...

I believe - unconditionally - in artists' right to write whatever they want, without censure. Absolutely. But I also believe this: that when the work is finished, all that exists in the song is what the audience finds in it. Nothing else counts. The writer's intentions are irrelevant. The writer may think he's written a song of achingly sublime heartbreak. But if every audience thinks it's a hilarious comedy song, like "I'm Too Sexy", who's to say they're wrong?

Christine said...

Now, imagine you've just spent the last four years of your life in one long, ongoing songwriting workshop. *headdesk*

Jim Robert said...

@Christine Ouch...

@Matt While I agree with you in general... I still think the *first* few people should be other song writers that fit the characteristics I named. The reason being that you just can't get the same quality of feedback from someone who doesn't know the language to tell you what they think.

You even said yourself that you would have loved feedback that was like "needs a little more around 250"

cbtoolkit said...

I understand the songwriting by committee. I am an author - published traditionally - and stopped attending writer's "critique groups" for a similar reason. I found too many people who felt the need to critique - because they felt obligated to critique. Then I would go back and try to see where I could work their suggestions into a piece that I'd already sold.

I have a few select songwriters and a few select first listeners who get my first run, nothing but the basics, version. I concentrate on the positive and then carefully assess any criticism.

Did multiple listeners comment/question the same thing, for instance?

Finally, if I like it as it, I may just play it live, see/gauge the reaction and maybe try it with a suggested change on another night.

FYI: I found your blog when looking into DI boxes and am glad I did.

grimtraveller said...

I agree with 90% of the piece. I have a slightly schizophrenic view of this. I write and record for fun and I'm interested in what people think of the music. I'll even take on board certain comments. Yet at the same time, I'm not going to be dictated to by someone's opinion because whatever I may write isn't being written by them. If there are quirks and idiosyncrasies then so be it. At the same time, I'm aware of the fact that much of art is communication, so on the one hand, I do want to be accessible {for the most part}, while at the same time being somewhat off the wall if that is where I'm headed. It's a hard balance so I don't try to balance it. As georgesdelatour pointed out, once the artist has released a piece, it is totally out of their hands what happens. Matt is also correct to state that songwriters don't necessarilly have a more valid opinion than ratcatchers, roadsweeps and vets. In fact, sometimes a songwriter critiquing a song with a songwriters hat on may actually be incapable of actually enjoying a song for that very reason. For me, at the end of the day, the song comes first. You either dig it or you don't. That's why so many "unlikely" songs that critics hate become hits.....

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