One recent morning, a good friend and colleague of mine woke up to find a nasty comment from a composer posted to a significant piece of his on YouTube. It was really vicious and even got personal. My friend went through various stages: he was shocked, then saddened, then angry, then made plans for “revenge,” but ultimately just deleted the offending comment and moved on.
Certainly in some cases deletion is a perfectly acceptable way to deal with venom that may at times find it’s way over to you. But for those who regularly attract a higher level of traffic and engagement on their social media accounts, it will be necessary to find ways to deal more directly with the problem before it spirals into an ugly public relations issue. And there’s even an upside to openly dealing with attacks, regardless of the size of your following.
Before uncovering these possibilities though, we need to differentiate between a “valid critique” and an “attack.”
- Tone – a valid critique is collegial, addresses facts (not the person), and is ultimately positive; an attack is rude, often personal in nature (or becomes that way), and is of no redeeming value to the recipient.
- Motive – a valid critique seeks not just to tear down but to build up again; an attack only seeks to destroy.
- Reasonability – a valid critique has points which can be debated and there is the possibility of either party being persuaded; an attack is almost entirely subjective and/or the attacker is unwilling to fairly consider other viewpoints.
It’s an important distinction because attacks are generally more concerning and require nuanced handling. And student composers especially sometimes have trouble distinguishing between a valid critique and a true attack. With a valid critique, it’s possible to engage that person in a reasonable way and have a productive, positive dialog. But when receiving attacks, many people make critical mistakes. When attacked, the gut instinct is to fight back or to do something in the public eye that is later regretted. If, however, one learns to handle such comments properly from the outset, the situation could actually turn into a net positive.
There are a couple of basic principles to keep in mind when dealing with attacks:
- Don’t get defensive
- Don’t validate the attack
- Don’t respond in kind
- Keep it concise
- Kill with kindness
You will never “win” if you get down into the mud with your attacker, even if you’re completely right. But if you follow these principles, you will actually come out looking better than you did before while effectively neutralizing the attack.
Let me illustrate. Let’s say you get a comment like this on a sonata for orchestra you composed:
Your sonata. It’s boring (there is no music in your work, no development, nothing) and the orchestration is simply amateurish. Please – never write another sonata.
Your first instinct might be to describe how you developed your themes and to plead in favor of your orchestration choices. Or you might get angry and decide to fire off a few insults of your own.
But this comment doesn’t meet our criteria for a valid critique. An attacker isn’t interested in a collegial discussion, they just want to tear others (like you) down. So trying to engage on facts or “getting down into the mud” will be unproductive and will only make you look worse for the wear. Your attacker will have accomplished his mission of dragging you down and getting under your skin.
The answer is to rise above it. Be the courteous professional he isn’t. Reply with a brief, kind message, even complementing his own music (it will make him look like an ass while making you look classy). Then you can stand out of the way and let your fans do the dirty work of disagreeing with him. You will have accomplished your mission without getting your hands dirty.
You might try this reply:
Thank you so much for listening to my piece and taking the time to leave a comment! How great is it that we can have such diverse aesthetic sensibilities yet still both belong to the same vibrant, global community of composers! I had a listen to some of your pieces on soundcloud and loved them! You are very talented! Once again, thanks for stopping by!
Do you see how that response doesn’t validate the attacks (in fact it pretty near ignores them) and makes you come off as tactful, positive, and professional? Of course readers will connect the dots for themselves and may even take up your cause. It could result in a snowballing of comments and your piece could actually get more play than it would have had without the attack. (Maybe it’s true that there’s no such thing as bad publicity…)
So don’t get mad or sad–blow off the attack with kindness and get back to doing your work!
For more on critics and composers, read my compilation of the critical reception of Beethoven’s symphonies. It might help put things into perspective.