Posted in Advice, How-to
March 28, 2018

“That’s not real music” How to deal with 5 types of criticism at your gig

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Over the years, I have had the privilege of hearing first-hand how much my music has meant to audiences. This encouragement has played a huge part in providing meaning for me and keeping me on task. But for some reason, the comments that stand out are the negative, unusual, and unwarranted criticisms I’ve encountered. It turns out that our brains have a negativity bias.

Research shows that we give more weight to negative words. In fact, we have a “greater sensitivity to unpleasant news.”[0]

I’ve performed in front of all kinds of audiences. Over time, I’ve encountered an enormous collection of interactions with people and tried to document them as carefully as possible. Of these, I have gathered 5 types of critics right out of the pages of my 29 years as a musician and assembled a few thoughts on how to deal with them.

“That’s not real music” —
How to deal with 5 types of criticism at your gig


The “Are You Retaining Water?” Critic:

Arnold Schwarzenegger said that he used to tell this to his competitors at the Mr. Universe competitions to unsettle them and watch them develop anxiety, just to give himself a little competitive edge. [1]

  • What it sounds like: “Did you just start learning?” “Is this a work in progress?” “Are you a little ‘off’ today?” “Are you retaining water?” “Are you really going to wear that?”
  • Their Motivation: to gain a competitive edge
  • Designed to: demoralize and unsettle you, reduce your confidence; make you self-conscious
  • How to deal with it: Recognize the motivation behind the comment and focus on your performance. Don’t start making changes just because Mr. Universe told you. And if he spoke the truth on some level, don’t allow him to witness the effect his snide remarks have on you, if any. Don’t give him the satisfaction.


The “That’s not Real Music” Critic:

I was once informed of this at a gig where it was obvious that the music I was performing was not matched to the audience.

  • What it sounds like: “That’s not real music. Santana, Hendrix … that’s REAL music.”[2]
  • Their Motivation: to dismiss anything that falls short of their infallible views;  inability to celebrate another; inability to give credit where credit is due; perhaps no motive other than just being drunk; old and senile; stuck in the 60s, 70s, etc.; the idealization of the past.
  • Designed to: put you on the defensive; create rifts between people; polarize groups of people into one camp over another. Perhaps set themselves up as an “expert.” See Critic #1
  • How to deal with it: Don’t bother engaging in an argument with those who think this argument will ever arrive at an objective truth.  It’s a setup.  It is difficult to argue without sounding like you think you’re better than the icons.


The “Well I Can Do that, Too” Critic:

I heard this once while stepping off stage — even as the audience was still clapping.

  • What it sounds like: “Yeah I can do that too.” or “I own a few of these guitars, too.”
  • Their Motivation: thoughtless disappointment in themselves that they haven’t followed their dreams or that anyone else besides them could deserve this.
  • Designed to: demoralize; prove that you’re not special; that all this applause is unwarranted. Critics like this seethe that someone else besides them is in the spotlight.
  • How to deal with it: Change the way you perceive this criticism by reminding yourself of the following: There is only one YOU. He can’t be you. And if he can, at best, he’ll be a poor carbon copy. People can buy the same guitar, dress the same, but no one will ever be you. Your only goal should be to remain authentic. What everyone else is doing is none of your business. [3]


The “Just Look at Him” Critic:

I’ve heard variations of this about myself and others and what’s funny, is that the critic is merely exposing their pettiness.

  • What it sounds like: Varies; Has nothing to do with your competence.
  • Their Motivation: Jealousy; Pettiness; Immaturity; Ignorant of what an actual critique should accomplish;
  • Designed to: attack personally rather than professionally; criticizes the way you carry yourself, your clothes, your choices, etc. and everything but what is important.
  • How to deal with it: All they can do is speak to the subjective or to some other aspect besides your competence. For example, actors often receive more controversy from what they are wearing than any performance on film.  In philosophy, attacking the person instead of the argument is a fallacy. It also reminds me of that time a reviewer criticized author Malcolm Gladwell’s afro. [4] If you were not that awesome, they wouldn’t even bother. If all they can come up with is a personal criticism, you are probably doing well.  


The “Rain On your Parade” Critic:

The first time my band’s song received radio play in Austin, one critic asked, “Yeah but wasn’t that a local station?”

  • What it sounds like: Any attempt to minimize the things for which you feel accomplished; any attempt to reduce your success or accomplishment down to near worthlessness.
  • Their Motivation: varies; inability to celebrate another; ignorance of the importance of community, support and encouragement; ill-will; “upset … that they could have stood where you are if they’d had a little more courage or perseverance.” [4]
  • Designed to: instill demoralization; bring you down.
  • How to deal with it: Take note of who is happy for you during the little successes. Those who are happy for you are your friends. Those who are not, pay attention, because they are not for you. Surround yourself with people who are happy for you every step of the way and don’t seem inconvenienced by your success. And learn to celebrate others the same way. It demonstrates goodwill and maturity.


Author Brené Brown often shares a quote from Theodore Roosevelt that is appropriate here. Listen to her 99U talk on YouTube:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.  — Theodore Roosevelt [5]

Frequentscene is written by Adam Zuñiga, guitarist for Austin-based Hours Quiet, Love Hate Affair and San Antonio-based Adam Zuniga Project. Adam recently graduated from the University of Texas at San Antonio, where he majored in Philosophy and minored in Religious Studies. Despite a number of personal attributes which seem consistent with the disposition of a typical musician, he prefers mornings.

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