I just received some feedback. Opening cue on a new project. At first I wasn’t sure about what I had done but after spending some time with it, tweaking a few things, I felt really good. I sent it off confident that I was going to tick this cue off the to do list. But no, it doesn’t work. Back to the drawing board. Time to find a new musical solution to this Intro.
When you are a working media composer your life is a constant feedback loop. Our job is to write client-based music. We are daily trying to figure out what kind of music our filmmakers want and how to create it, while also incorporating our own musical voice and adhering to our own standards of quality. It is extremely challenging to make that recipe work.
I have definitely had moments of extreme frustration with a filmmaker’s feedback. I feel insulted; the “this just doesn’t work for me” feels like a dig at my musical integrity. What can’t they just trust that I know what I am doing? However, I have found in most cases when I implement the feedback I receive, my music improves, and the result is absolutely better than the previous version. I have come to trust the feedback of my filmmakers. Maybe I don’t necessarily agree but it is as an opportunity to do better. Ultimately, if they feel it isn’t working, something needs to change. It is that simple. This music may feel good to me, but it doesn’t feel good to them, so there’s a solid chance it won’t feel good to the audience either.
So how do I feel right now, on the heels of this cue rejection? It is a combination of frustrated, nervous and curious. With feedback comes these precious nuggets of information which are so helpful. When you get feedback, even if it is a no, you then have more data about works for your client and I am always hungry for that information. To be a good media composer you have to be a sleuth, picking up clues on what your filmmaker is actually hearing in their mind. What works and what doesn’t. You are putting together a jigsaw puzzle and each piece of feedback helps you fill out that picture and move you forward.
Feedback also tends to push you to do more than maybe you originally planned on doing. On a recent project I interpreted a cue as something that was short, started mid-scene and was meditative and ambient. After sending it off the director let me know that they had actually envisioned something that was airy, had energy, used acoustic guitars and lasted for the entire scene. Totally not what I had done. So I busted out my guitars and started tracking. I had to do it first thing that day because the turn around was super tight. Turned out it was the best way to start the day! Tracking live instruments makes me feel like I am really connecting with my music – especially when I am the one doing the playing! (It also reminds me I need to practice more, but let’s leave that for another blog post). When I sent off the original cue, it was my least favorite cue of the film. By the time I had finished tracking and mixing the new version, it was one of my favorites. A lot more love had been put into that cue as a result of the feedback, and I was so glad that I had taken the time to do it.
For me, feedback from filmmakers is easier to swallow because it is not so much a statement about the quality of your music, but whether it serves the picture in the way they want and need it to. Feedback from fellow composers: SO much harder to take. I am the most nervous and therefore the most reluctant to receive feedback from my peers. This tells me one thing: I should receive it more often. Composers listen in a very specific way. They are judging the the actual composition along with the production, the midi programming or the mixing of live elements. They listen with a detailed ear, and hear so much more than the lay person. When was the last time you had a fellow composer, someone who you respect, really listen and critique your work? If you want to get better, this is the best way to do it. Ask someone to listen in return for buying them lunch. Maybe you have a peer who is also in need of feedback and you can help each other out. I am part of a small composer group, all dear and trusted friends, and we do what we call “Cue Club”. We all bring a cue we had composed recently and play it for feedback. We don’t do this enough but we’re trying to find time to make it happen again as it was so helpful for all of us.
People often ask me for feedback and I always follow up the request with this question: do you want real feedback? I ask because in my experience some people are not interested in hearing anything more than: cool work, man! But that won’t benefit you at all, just inflate your ego. Hearing someone pull your work to pieces will help you grow, even if you disagree with what is being said. We all have our specific preferences on how we produce our tracks, from reverb to compositional decisions to midi programming techniques. Even if they are negatively critiquing something you firmly stand behind, it is still important for you to know how your musical decisions are being received.
How you take feedback is so important, especially when interacting with a client. The thing I had to train myself to do is to not be defensive. When someone tells you they don’t like what you have done, everything in you want to explain and defend your decisions. But, in reality, the reasons behind your choices are of no consequence. It isn’t working! It doesn’t sound good!! So I just try and quietly take it all in. Listen, ask questions, glean all the information you can, and then go back and try again.
I had a feedback experience early in my film scoring career that was hugely beneficial but also completely terrifying. It was at ASCAP’s i Create Music expo. They had a Film and Music TV Panel where you could play one of your cues with picture and then a panel of established composers would critique. Right there. In a room full of your peers. I played a cue from Reversal. This was (according to IMDB) my second short I had scored (although there were two others I had done that didn’t make it to the database). The panel included Joey Newman and Ryan Shore – we had a mutual friend and I had spoken with them both on previous occasions. I remember sitting there while we all watched my cue and just shaking. Then the feedback started. So. Many. Notes. OMG. They had something to say about every single element in there. Why did you start the music there? Why didn’t you hit at this point? Why that choice of instrument? Why not change the percussion pattern up, it is has been the same thing for bars. I sat there, trying to take it all in while also trying not to cry. It wasn’t like I was upset or angry, it was just so intense getting this feedback in front of all these people! Why had I signed up for this again?!
Afterwards I went up and chatted with them. I’ll never forget: Joey said “Was that OK? I know it was a lot of feedback but I know you wanted to really hear what we had to say.” And it was true! It was such a hard experience but it was SO valuable. Afterwards a number of my fellow composers came up to me and said things along the lines of “Well, I thought it was a great cue.” And that was nice. Soothed my ego, which was a little ruffled. But what was the most helpful? The hardcore feedback, of course. I became a better composer in that moment. I am so grateful for that galvanizing experience.
Often we are in situations when we are not getting any feedback. When you submit for a gig there is rarely a response of “you didn’t get this gig because of these specific reasons.” Often there is no response, at all. Crickets. Tumbleweeds. You wonder if they even considered you to begin with! (If you use Reelcrafter at least you can see if they listened to any of your reel. This is why I Love Reelcrafter. (End of plug.)
If you are going through a period where you are not on an active project and therefore you are not receiving feedback on your work, I encourage you to actively pursue feedback. Creating in a vacuum can quietly become soul destroying. You may not even notice it for a while, but the frustration and depression as a result of the isolation will creep in. Feedback is an integral part of the creative process. If you are not receiving it, you are missing a valuable part of the experience. Just like how our diets sometimes don’t have an element our body needs so we use a supplement, so you need to actively pursue this important element if it is not naturally occurring in your workflow. Music needs to be shared, it wants to be heard and responded to. Connect with your community and find a way to make that happen.
Feedback is important for all areas of our life, not just our music. I just read this fantastic article by James Clear called Measure Backward Not forward. He talked about how looking back over the week or month and tracking what you have done is helpful feedback on the progress you are making in your career and generally in your life. What areas would be helpful for you to receive feedback on? I would encourage you to look at the following areas: how many minutes of music did you compose? How many projects did you pitch on? How many times did you go out and do deliberate networking? How many people did you then follow up with? If you are tracking this data you will be aware of what you are actually doing to progress your career. It is a great tool in helping you grow these fundamental areas of your life. Information is power.
When we write music we are really putting ourselves out there. It is vulnerable, heart-on-your-sleeve stuff, every single time. Then we can be told that it isn’t working, it isn’t good enough, and we have to start over. It’s not fun, for sure. But if we take feedback as an opportunity, instead of an insult, then I believe we will benefit and be able to refine our musical voice. Believe me, friends, the reason I chose to write this blog is because I need reminding and reassuring. This was my challenge this last week and still is, moving into the next one. I am not saying it is easy. I do not find this easy at all. But I want to be the best composer I can possibly be. While it hurts, I want to be stretched and pushed into exploring new ground.
Growth is painful. Submit to the process. It will do you good.
- Measure Backward Not forward, James Clear
- Feedback from your clients
- Feedback you actively pursue from a trusted peer or mentor