How listenable is your music? It’s a question some musicians don’t often bother to ask themselves, but it’s important. Most serious musicians aren’t angling to become the world’s next big superstar. Striving to make music that listeners genuinely connect with should be the goal, regardless of the style. But, the art we create and our plans/expectations we had before we made it are two very different things.
Would you listen to it?
Would you listen to your music if you weren’t the one who made it? There’s no way to answer this question in an objective way. Yet, it’s important to try when we take stock of new work and decide what to do with it. What’s musically fulfilling changes from person-to-person. There’s no set standard for what’s “good” or “bad” in music, but if you know you wouldn’t listen to your own work, it’s worth getting to the bottom of your feelings. For some musicians, apathy or negativity about their own work comes down to performance or technical issues. Others will find irreconcilable flaws in the way their songs are structured or a discernible lack of inspiration in their music.
Rather than feeling strangled creatively by this question, we’re better off as musicians of using it as an opportunity to learn how we can make better music. Before we share music that ultimately gets judged, ignored, or loved by the world, we’re the authority that first determines whether what we make is worth releasing or not.
The balance between “never good enough” and sharing everything
If you’re too critical of your music, you’ll never finish anything. But if you share each and every musical idea you create, you’ll risk losing your audience’s attention. Finding this balance is only getting trickier in a musical climate where artists are creating more work to satisfy listeners. How do you find a balance? The first and most important things to consider are your goals and identity as an artist.
Who you are and what you want to do can guide what kind of music you share and how often. The question of “would I actually listen to this?” is the second factor to consider, and it’s not easy. Again, since you can’t jump outside of your existence temporarily to judge your own music, this is a question you’ll never be able to give an accurate answer to. But the practice of judging the work we make by our own merits can steer us in the right direction by forcing us to decide if what we make is strong enough to share or not. Even if it fits within your identity and mission to create and share lots of music, you shouldn’t release everything. No matter how talented of a music-maker you are, not everything you create is going to be good enough to bolster your career in a meaningful way.
Having what it takes to try and fail over and over again
If you’re a serious songwriter, you’re familiar with the feeling of making music for months and hating everything you write. This is the space we get into when we ask whether we’d listen to our own work and say “no” repeatedly without an end in sight. Going through this can feel like songwriting hell, and there’s no getting around the fact that dry spells of creating inspiration can lead to an inner turmoil so discouraging that it causes some musicians to quit altogether. But if you can manage to make it through one of these challenging periods, your music will be better off. Rather than force ourselves into feeling excited over producing the same tired ideas over and over again, these periods can force us into uncharted creative territories where new, risk-taking work can happen.
We don’t talk about it a lot as musicians, but what we do takes bravery. Surviving the challenge of a tough songwriting period requires grit. If you’re tenacious enough, you’ll be able to create music that you and your fans will want to listen to.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.