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How to Deal With Criticism as an Artist

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Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Some people are perfectly happy to play music in the privacy of their rooms for the rest of their lives. More power to you! Playing music is good for the body, soul, and psyche on whatever level you do it. However, if you plan to play in front of people at any point in time — in person, online, or via recording — then you are opening yourself up to rejection and you’ll have to deal with criticism.

In Mel Brooks’s History of The World Part 1, he begins with The Stone Age and shows the first artist: a cave painter. Then the first art critic… who urinates on the cave painting. It’s a joke, but that encapsulates what rejection and criticism can feel like. It can be debilitating, devaluing, and lead a budding artist to want to quit. It feels like it spoils the joy of the act of creation.

You are not your art

It is perfectly natural to be hurt by rejection and criticism. That said, it’s possible to learn how to handle it, maintain your center, and have a psychic suit of armor to keep from taking the negative feedback too much to heart.

You are a divine being, worthy of love and respect no matter who you are or what you’ve gone through. Who you are is separate from the work you do and the art you create. It can be difficult to separate the two in your head! If you’re passionate about your music and work hard at being good at it, it feels extremely personal if someone doesn’t like it. It can feel like they are saying that you, at the essential core of your being, are worthless.

The thing is, criticism and rejection are usually not personal at all. Feelings aren’t facts; while it is entirely natural to feel hurt at a slight, those doing the criticizing aren’t usually trying to mortally wound you, even though it might seem that they are. Being able to separate your “being” from your “doing” is an important step in presenting yourself to the world. You are not your art. Art is something you do and make; “you” is something you just are. And “you” are always worthy, valid, and valuable.

Here are a few ways you can prepare yourself so you can be ready if and when rejection and criticism come your way.

1. Create distance

Many artists make the distinction between themselves and their artist persona by recording under a pseudonym. Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Elton John, Lady Gaga — the reasons for stage names are multi-faceted, but one thing it does is put a bit of space between the human being and the art. “They’re not criticizing me, they’re criticizing my stage persona” helps the brain bypass the amygdala (lizard brain) and engages the frontal cortex in rational processing.

Lizard brain just reacts — fight! flight! freeze! — the frontal cortex processes. If you can direct the criticism and rejection response there, it is much more manageable. The same is true if you record under a band name, even if it’s just you in the band.

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2. Take a break

Another way to create distance between yourself and your work is by taking breaks and creating literal distance. If the recording/mixing seems too overwhelming and you’ve lost perspective, take a walk or set it aside for a couple of days. Use time and space to your advantage. It’s easier to stay personally detached from the outcome of a song or album’s reception if you allow yourself a little breathing room between the completion of a creative work and the beginning of promotion.

Finding ways to put distance between yourself and the work will lead to less attachment to outcomes and can inspire more creativity and solutions to problems that eluded you previously. Einstein said he got his best ideas in the shower. Take more showers! The more you are able to detach your “self” from your art, the easier it will be to weather criticism of it and the better your art will most likely be. The legendary acting teacher Konstantin Stanislavski said, “Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art.”

3. Take what you need and leave the rest

Even if you are well-prepared for criticism and rejection, sometimes they can wound. Your suit of psychic armor may not be invincible; even Achilles had his heel. Sometimes rejection means a loss of status, income, or simply just pride. There is an old saying, “Take what you need and leave the rest,” meaning don’t get hung up on what doesn’t serve you. Siphon the positive parts of the criticism and throw the rest in the trash.

4. Consider the source

Is the criticizer someone who is jealous of you? Maybe it’s someone who has never been supportive in your creative life like a sour family member or a frenemy. It’s important to consider who is saying the hurtful thing. This can be tougher if the criticism is harsh and the source is someone you respect, like a well-known critic or an artist hero. But even those people can be petty, small-minded, and destructive for reasons that have nothing to do with you. Before you take anything to heart, fully vet the motives and credentials of the critic.

5. Fuel for the future

Sometimes criticism hurts the most when there is a kernel of truth contained within. It’s important to discern whether the critic is using a grain of truth to be hurtful (“this album sucks because the artist can’t sing”) or whether the criticism is more hurtful because it seems accurate to you (“the singer’s unconventional voice detracts from the overall presentation of the songs”).

If it is the latter, use that information to propel yourself forward into new and better work for the future. You could hire a singer or lean into the unconventionality of your voice and make that your USP (unique selling proposition). There are plenty of unconventional singers who have achieved great success.

6. Understand and move on

Some criticism is just plain wrong or unfair. Maybe you were rejected from an event you wanted to play or a contest you felt you really had a chance of winning. Life is often unfair. It’s up to you to discern whether there is anything to be learned from unfortunate events or hurtful words.

15 Music Promotions guideSometimes it’s best to just nurse your wounds and move on. Sometimes people are just hurtful for their own mysterious reasons or psychological issues. Sometimes people make mistakes or there are political reasons why one artist gets chosen over another for an event.

It’s good to be an understanding, compassionate person but you don’t have to be infinitely understanding at your own expense. One way to deal with criticism is to cut your losses, throw the garbage in the trash, be good to yourself, and move on.

7. Practice excellent self-care

Self-care can be a nebulous concept. Drinking wine, eating chocolate, and shopping can be therapeutic. And, of course, exercise, healthy eating, adequate sleep, and mental health care are even better in the long term for maintaining a positive attitude and overall physical and mental health and endurance.

It’s good to take care of yourself in any situation, but especially if you are a creative artist who will be showing your work to the world and receiving rejection and criticism. It’s vital to ground yourself in the fundamental worth of your own being. Minding your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health will pay off dividends in energy, resilience, and the ability to manage life’s curveballs. Of course, you can allow for some treats along the way.

One way to deal with criticism is to take care of yourself in all ways! Especially with the ubiquity of social media and the capacity for all haters to have a voice, no matter how misguided and uninformed, it’s challenging enough to avoid criticism and rejection these days without the additional target of putting your creative art out in the world.

As a musician, your art can be another avenue to attack, but with the advice I’ve laid out here, you should be better able to deal with criticism or rejection and keep your perspective and positive mindset.

Longevity as an artist is the goal; your music career is a marathon, not a sprint. Like the motivational speaker Les Brown says, “If you fall down, fall on your back, because if you can look up, you can get up.”

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Chris Huff

About Chris Huff

Chris Huff has been a professional singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer for over 25 years. He has worked as a sideman with Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul, and Mary), Echo and the Bunnymen, Chuck Hammer (David Bowie, Lou Reed), and Tom Kitt (Broadway composer of Next To Normal). Chris also wrote liner notes for David Bowie’s Live And Well CD, and his full-length album, 'bout Time is available on iTunes.

6 thoughts on “How to Deal With Criticism as an Artist

  1. Many years ago I made records and sent them out. Used the best musicians and singers I could find. Nobody was interested. One label director sent me the rudest most horrible letter you could ever wish to receive. I had not realized some have an agenda. He may have put his money on another group and seen me as competition. I tried to write songs of the day to blend in and discovered years later that my true north was what was in me and now I write songs I really like but they are not chart songs, just well crafted songs with great lyrics. As Pete Byrne said “I’m writing songs now that I like and if anyone else likes them that’s a bonus” Well said Pete!!

  2. I remember a ‘battle of bands’ that the group I was in at the time participated in. There was a panel of judges and all entries received written critiques from each.

    On the way home we, as a group, went through the critiques. I and the rest of the group were surprised by some of the comments that were made. One judge was critical of the way we configured our stage setup, having an issue with a long cord that was used to accommodate our needs concerning the bass guitar. Another comment was directed to the shirt our singer was wearing. Clearly these had nothing to do with our music and performance.

    As you mention, taking a close look and discerning the relevance to our music helped us to know which critique was worth our time to consider. Thanks for the article.

  3. As Long as you are true to the music being played being critical of it is all part of the game. this can only be taken with a grain of salt if you choose to listen to it. Then by all means hear it and move forward!

  4. Hi Chris Huff,
    It was very refreshing to read your article about how to handle criticism. I don’t read many articles about musicians and how they survive their various rejections. Your article finally got to the important point of being versus doing. A TV episode I saw a few months ago about a rock group that has been around a long time and their drug and drinking problems was a very clear example of performers who have no idea about the difference between doing and being. Since this behaviour has been around a long time and publicly seen, these performers didn’t want to have any interest or desire to understand. If they did make the effort to learn, they would have enjoyed their lives whether they were making money and giving concerts or not. Thank you for writing about something obvious that is rarely seen.

  5. Another thing that helps me quite a bit is to fully embrace the absolute reality of subjectivity. And the place I start is understanding how nuanced my own tastes are. Why do I like this song, but not that one? Why do I like this version of a song, but not that one? Why do I like the articulation of one singer over another? Most often the answer is basically … I just do. Further, I grant others the right to look at my work with the same subjectivity. As long as I’m true to myself and giving my music everything I have, I’m good with that.

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