As a songwriter, learning to accept critique is one of the most challenging things you’ll need to do in order to improve your craft. Art can be deeply personal; it’s something you pull from the ether, a thing that you create from nothing. If you’re doing it right, your songs often feel like a part of you, an extension of your soul. It can be tough to hear someone say “That was cool; would you consider raising the first note in the melody of your bridge so that it lifts a little more?” My own songwriting process involves an absurd amount of workshopping with a fairly extensive network of friends; I was lucky enough to be introduced to this idea very early on. I have friends all over the world who have been roped into my circle. Is it hard to accept notes on songs that feel “done” to you? Absolutely. Do I think it’s worth it? Of course I do, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing a blog post entitled “Peer Reviews.”
Let me tell you how I got to this place and why I think it is so pivotal to find people who have opinions you trust who’ll share constructive criticism on your songs as they develop.
In the early stages of my life in music, long before The District or my solo project were even a twinkle in my eye, I was in a below average teenaged band. I wrote (very bad) songs and my band played (very bad) shows for (very small) local audiences. I didn’t know what the path towards being a professional musician looked like; I just played because my friends and I had too much time on our hands and it was too damn hot outside in the dog days of an endless Georgia summer for much else. We wrote our amateurish songs, played our little gigs, and rehearsed tirelessly in Marcus’s basement subsisting on day old bagels and Jersey Mike’s Subs with no marked improvement to show for our efforts.
Then, I transferred schools before my junior year of college and my entire life changed. When I got to NYU, I only knew two people (and one of them was studying abroad); I ate lunch alone at the same pizzeria every single day for the first few weeks. Then I saw a poster in an elevator that read “SAPS: Songwriters And Performers Society” advertising a meeting for a club where writers would hang out and workshop each other’s new songs. I went to their first meeting, gave notes on the songs that some other people played, and then played one of my own. People offered constructive criticism that I readily accepted (because, as I said, my songs were not very good and I was painfully aware of that fact). I went back week after week. I became obsessed with writing songs. Some weeks, no one else in the group had written any tunes and I’d come in with ten new ones. My new friends were generous; experienced songwriters with real talent offered me incredible insight and advice that I gobbled up. My writing improved week after week, semester after semester. The other writers in this group (especially students a few years ahead of me in school and light years ahead of me as songsmiths, like Marissa Levy and Julie Loyd) taught me all kinds of tricks that I still use to this day. I met some of my best friends and most frequent collaborators in that room (Zach Berkman and Paul Hammer who are both SAPS alums each have had co-writes on almost all of my albums over the years). The District was born in that room.
Members of that club who I really respected told me “You are good. Keep going. Keep writing; your songs are getting better and better!” And I did…
My friends and I have carried the notion that constructive, respectful criticism is valuable forever after (I workshopped a Mike Clifford song yesterday, actually; he’s another SAPS alum). Build yourself a circle; find your peers and ask them to review your songs and give concrete, constructive notes.
You can’t just say “I don’t like this,” you have to explain why.
“This chorus isn’t very good” feels very different than “Have you considered a different rhyme scheme? Perhaps rhyme the 1st line with the 3rd line and the 2nd line with the 4th line?” The people who you bring into your circle don’t have to be sitting in front of you, of course; Marty Shannon and I workshop each other’s songs from opposite sides of the country; Cam Nacson and I do the same thing from opposite sides of the world. Find some writers you admire and ask them if they’d be interested in workshopping your songs. I did it for my first album and God willing, assuming my friends don’t quit me, I’ll keep doing it until my last. (This is one of my favorite tricks. Trust me on this one; it pays dividends.)
Reasons To Ignore This Advice: You’re Billy Joel. He didn’t need any help.