Updated: Dec 14, 2020
In a creative career, criticism is the one big constant you'll always face. On the one hand, you'll have to follow your own gut feeling. On the other, you'll have to embrace the criticism, since in the end, it's the only thing that will make you better. But the million dollar question is... when they you do what? Let's dive in!
The creative conflict
Since storytelling is all about creating conflict, let's begin with throwing a nice big stone in the pond: one of the most destructive things a singer can do to their career is to sign up for The Voice. Sure, you'll become famous for a while. And people will discover that you have 'the voice'. But you'll be forced to compromise so heavily, that your own vision of music will basically disappear. Why? For a very simple reason: you'll be fulfilling the expectations of other people, and not your own.
That nightmare scenario - to lose your own sense of creation - may sound extreme, but it's actually closer than you'd think. It's indicative of what all creators face every single day: do I compromise to get an audience, or do I follow my own path with the risk of not being seen or heard? To get an answer we'll have to talk about criticism and projection. Allow me to begin with the latter.
The Voice, or similar shows and competitions, are the ultimate form of projection for an audience. The audience has a vision in their minds of what 'artists' are for them; people who are there for entertainment purposes. They want those artists to project what they, as the audience, want. The artist does not need his or her own style, they nearly function as a conduit for the projection of the audience's need. The public also don't want to see something new. The familiar is fine. It's like eating the same croissant everyday: you like the taste and don't want it to change.
I'm not judging the audience. That 'croissant' may be all they need. And maybe in a different context these people want to experiment with all kinds of weird and new music. But that's not why they are watching The Voice. They watch it to see and hear what they already know and love, and just need a 'vehicle' to project that. The vehicle in this case is an artist who is desperate enough for attention that they are willing to perform someone's else their work.
The audience is so familiar with the cover songs that are being performed, that they have, for the moment, forgotten those songs once originated from original thought. In the context of the show it is not relevant that there once was artistry involved in making the song in the first place. So as an artist on The Voice, you signed up to promote yourself. But you're performing someone else's song... the two don't gel. You've become merely a conduit of entertainment. You are no longer a creator.
Don't give in...
Of course, this scenario seems extreme. Some artists are okay performing someone else their work their whole life, so we shouldn't judge too harshly. And there are always exceptions to be noted of artists who were able to create some sort of career that involved original work. But come to think of it, those exceptions are few and far between. And regardless of the specifics of talent shows, I'm using the example mostly to make a bigger point about when you should listen to your audience. And when not.
There is a scale at work here: the more you cater to the expectations of an audience, the less criticism you'll receive. And without criticism, there can be no growth. In other words, while you may be performing for a jubilant audience whose projections you are satisfying, you are simultaneously decreasing your own creativity.
Also, you'll likely not be remembered as well as you thought you would be. The first rule of storytelling is that its about conflict, friction or change. As a result, people will remember the backstabbing, crying and gossip that happened on the show besides the song performances. But since your actual performance is not of original work, they will have largely forgotten it. There was simply too little story behind you performing someone else their work. It's the reason why the Voice works so brilliantly as a conflict-rich storytelling tool. It's a television marvel in all other aspects except for the music! It's about the drama. The tunes are merely the excuse.
So, why would any artist choose to go a route like that? Well, it's because of what's on the other end of the spectrum: the fear of not being recognized. And while 'selling yourself out' may be a horror story, so is never being recognized for your work.
It's true that an artist should not create for an audience, but only for him or herself. But the above sentence is an ideal, not a reality. Human beings are a social species after all. We have the need to be seen by others. And having no audience, no feedback whatsoever, always makes you wonder if you're on the right track. And here the age old dilemma sets in: do I follow my own gut feeling and keep making what I make? Or do I compromise, get more audience, but risk a slide into the 'familiar'?
The answer is: you do neither. It's a paradox: you follow your own gut feeling, yet, at the same time, you open yourself up to criticism, even if it's very harsh. Don't compromise. But do find feedback. The more uncomfortable that is, the better.
Why am I not recognized?
Roughly speaking, there are three reasons why an artist isn't picked up: 1) promotion failures, 2) uncontrollable audiences and 3) the work wasn't good enough.
The first question you should ask yourself is if you've done enough promoting the work. Artists often lean back and think that if something is good enough, it will be picked up automatically. The problem with this thinking is that an audience is not psychic. Sarcasm intended of course, but with an ounce of truth: people really aren't telepathic! They cannot know what you've released if you don't tell them. It's physically impossible.
The second big reason why you're not being picked up is that you don't control an audience their responses. Just a personal example to demonstrate: I worked for five years on the book The Outerweb, to much critical acclaim from the press. Great of course. Were it not for the fact that the damn thing didn't sell. Yet I worked for about six months on Mediastorm, a book I really like but that I'd hardly describe as a masterpiece (again, sarcasm intended...). But it was picked up, even paid for to be distributed to a mass audience.
From an artist point of view, that doesn't make sense. You're in it for the work. And here's the kicker: it doesn't make sense. The key is to accept that.
Neither reactions to either of the books I could have predicted. In this case, criticism is a strange thing. People can agree you've made something brilliant... and still not buy it. You can be romantic and apologetic about it and say things like it was 'ahead of its time' or something. But saying that to yourself is really unhelpful. If that really were the case, you should have promoted it as 'ahead of its time'. In other words, you should have done the damn work to make it a success. You should have been more critical to yourself.
Embracing all criticism
And that brings us to the third reason why you might not have been successful: the work could also simply be... not good enough. The hard truth about a lot of artistic work that fails, is that it really isn't strong enough to stand on its own. It's harsh maybe, but striving to become better at your craft is necessary to be successful. Without beating yourself up of course! Keep it in perspective, don't criticize yourself too heavily. Just remember that it's in the striving itself we become better.
The danger however is, that when that happens - when we know your output was not good enough - you do the one thing that could destroy your career: you compromise and start catering to the audience. That's where we reach full circle: you have to realize that your sudden urge to compromise comes from an insecurity, not from a reality. The most probable reasons that your work wasn't successful is are the three reasons we mentioned earlier: the work not being good enough, the audience being fickle or promotional glitches.
In neither of the three cases, there is a need to compromise. In other words, the compromise will not bring you more success. Because a lack of compromise was never the problem. You would be focusing on a problem that doesn't exist.
Your competition is only with yourself
So how do you get out of this conundrum? First you take it all in, especially the unflattering criticism, and then you start making decisions if you follow up on the criticism, or not. As Hungarian composer Bela Bartok once stated: "Competitions are for horses, not artists." You are never in competition with other artists. Only with yourself. And you cannot learn anything about yourself from a sheepish, projecting audience. Its in the most scathing criticism where you'll find the best lessons.
Being uncompromising works both ways. On the one hand you don't give in to an audience. Which means you will safeguard your own integrity. And on the other hand, the more uncompromising and harsh the criticism you embrace, the more you will open the door to success. It's a paradox. You don't have to act on criticism. But you do, at all times, need to take it in and understand it.
Do that and who knows, maybe one day, they'll be singing your original work on The Voice. That is of course, if by that time, you'd need that kind of confirmation at all.
Love, as always.
And plant trees people. Plant trees.