Songwriter U: What’s Your Reference? A Guide to Asking for a Song Critique

Song critiques are one of the most important things you can do for your songs and your development, especially when it comes to wanting to do this professionally. That’s why I offer song critiques as an avenue to work with me directly.

These are personalized feedback sessions where we can either work on a few songs or continuously develop one until you’ve learned and made the changes you need to. It’s great. People end up with pitchable demos and broadcast-ready songs, and even more importantly, they have tools in their toolbox so that the next time they look to make a song, they don’t need to spend thousands and thousands of dollars on a producer . These sessions are all about application and implementing what you’re learning.

I started writing my thoughts down about this because I’ve been consistently asked to give feedback on songs, at random and without any previous connection or relationship built. But mostly, without context. It was just, ‘Here, listen to my song, tell me what you think.’ It shows me that you’re not really sure what you’re doing, and need direction but maybe not in the way that you think. Many people just want me to boil it down to one easy step or to show a few tricks, but I can’t, because you won’t really get anything out of that in the long run. As someone with a bird’s eye view of things, I’m here to help your overall goals. Not just one song gets a little better.

If you’re looking for real guidance, this isn’t going to be one or two simple things I can tell you and then it’s fixed … it will take some digging, some context and that will lead to even more questions.

These random ‘can I get feedback’ questions are strange because I don’t know how serious you are. A song that you’re preparing to play at an open mic will need a different way of feedback than a song that you’re getting ready to send to a publisher. I know many are serious about their craft, but they’re also going about it in a less than professional way. I really want to help you and your songs because I’m a strong believer in a rising tide lifts all boats, but the thing is I need so much more than, ‘can you take a listen, bro?’ I have no idea what you’re looking for, or where your musical journey is right now and I’d be doing you a disservice if I answered your question with a general, ‘sounds good, bring up the DB at 500 Hz on the guitars,” without knowing a few things.

Being open to song critique deserves big kudos for taking steps, and for being confident enough to receive negative feedback. The most unfortunate scenario is when someone doesn’t want to grow and is afraid to hear that they need to adjust more things.

And for that reason, when I’m asked to critique, I take it seriously. It’s why there are entire panels at conferences, hard-to-get meetings at record labels, and structured and time-consuming events because it matters. If someone does this professionally, it’s going to cost money in some way for their time and expertise.

Once you get your foot in the door, you’ll need to be prepared with some context. If you’re confused when I say context, think back to when you wrote the song, what did you have in mind? Did you have a style or reference you were thinking of? What influenced it? Was it a song on the radio that sparked your idea? You know that you’ve left breadcrumbs for yourself and clues to identify, even if you didn’t consciously draw inspiration from anywhere. And I want you to do the work of putting together those clues so we can communicate better.

  1. What is this song for? (Personal, Artist, Sync?)
  2. Why are you creating it? What’s your emotional intention?
  3. Who is listening to it? (Your audience, someone else’s audience, people watching a screen?)
  4. What’s this audience like?
  5. Is this a practice song where you want to get better and the craft of songwriting without worrying about production?
  6. or are you looking to do production?
  7. Have you done production already? What did you do on it?

There are so many questions going through my mind when someone asks me to critique a song. It’s wild.

My first question to you will always be, what’s your reference? This isn’t to be a broken record, but to bring a teaching moment into our conversation. A reference track is the easiest way for me to answer all those questions above and to take opportunities to teach. If you know a reference, you are already way ahead of the game!

Not everyone is on board with that at first or even understands why we’d have a reference. Take my word for it, it’s important to take your song to the next level.

If you think your music is too unique for that but you also want to get into the commercial space, trust me, there has been someone somewhere who has had similar qualities in their work, and recorded their song. It’s some tough love when I say, you’re not so unique in your craft that you can’t possibly find any song ever that might help me understand what you’re hearing in your head.

Five ways to ask for Feedback:

  1. Check to see if this is a service they offer and charge for. If so, ask their price and plan to budget for it. If you value their opinion and know it will help you to grow this shouldn’t be a problem.
  2. Ask yourself the questions above and be ready with your answers if asked.
  3. Have a link ready. Upload your song to a streaming platform. There are free sites, like Soundcloud, youtube, or Reverbnation where you can keep your music unlisted…and paid sites like Disco that a lot of musicians use. If you remember nothing else – ASL: Always Send a Link!
  4. Have a reference track in mind when making the song. It’s going to make everything from creation to mastering easier.
  5. Tell them your goal for this song
  6. Give concise context. If you find you’ve written more than a paragraph, delete, edit, delete. Only give what’s necessary. If you’re a songwriter you already know how to edit.
  7. Be ready with an open mind. Nothing is worse when you ask for an opinion and then let your ego get in the way and ignore the advice.

When you start to think, ‘Oh this song is coming together, I want feedback!’ do your due diligence first so the person you asked to listen knows you’re ready to take what they say with an open mind and willing to try it out. A lot of times people will tell you exactly what you need to hear, but often you’re not ready to hear it. Keep an open mind and remember we’re all learning.

This article is to encourage you to get personalized guidance and help. Seriously pay that investment cost to get a professional’s opinion…otherwise, you’ll be floating around in directionless limbo forever. Personalized sessions are the way to go. If you’re a course taker but never have done private coaching or personalized feedback and implemented what you’re learning, you’re missing the point.

Mike Meiers is an Emmy Award-Winning songwriter, producer, and guitar coach. Mike currently writes for indie artists, has had placements for MTV, VH1 NPR, FOX Sports, TNT, Oxygen, Showtime, and brands like Target. He’s also the founder and coach at Songwriting For Guitarhelping songwriters enhance their guitar skills so they can write better songs and get them out into the world!

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