Family and friends are usually the initial sounding boards, but they usually aren’t going to be very critical. Performing the songs live at shows or open mics can also give you an idea of how well the song comes over, but again the response, ranging from enthusiastic ovations to polite applause from an audience, can be misleading.
In addition to those avenues, I’ve been sending my new songs to Nashville the last two decades for critiques. As a member of the Nashville Songwriters Associations International (NSAI) I have access to song evaluations that provide me with suggestions about improvements, as well as tips about making my music more appealing to publishers and other industry professionals.
Sometimes the evaluations are hard to take, but just like bad tasting medicine and Brussels sprouts I know they're good for me.
Unlike the stages of grief that you deal with and get through, persistence makes this a cycle that doesn’t end. Here’s how it usually goes when submitting a song:
- Euphoria. Writing a song is a great feeling. You play it over and over again, editing, tweaking, fine tuning, and then replaying the finished product. It’s got to be a hit, you think, because you can’t get the tune out of your mind. Surely it will have the same effect on other listeners, even the Music City pros.
- Anticipation. You submit the song for evaluation, envisioning how it will be received. This period while awaiting a critique is heady stuff. Like the proud new owner of a lottery ticket you feel the sky is the limit. You imagine that the evaluator will get it and be blown away, immediately recognizing that this rough guitar vocal is suitable to be pitched to a publisher. You anticipate a single-song contract offer. Maybe even superstars who have heard the buzz are already lining up to put the song on hold to be recorded for a future album.
- Anxiety. It builds as you receive your evaluation but are reluctant to open the file. That fragile euphoria balloon can easily be popped. If you never read the review all those dreams stay alive.
- Pain. The evaluation is not as flattering as you had hoped. Every criticism (the lyrics stray too far from the title, the chorus is not different enough from the verse, the bridge is too long, too short, or just isn’t working) stings like a jellyfish clinging to your chest and injecting its poison into your heart. It hurts.
- Despair. That may be one symptom at this point as you question why you even bother to write this crappy stuff and wonder whether you’ll ever be any good at it. These feelings can be followed or preceded by denial and/or anger.
- Argument. “What the hell do they know, anyway? My stuff is just as good, even better, than most of what’s already being recorded in Nashville and played on the radio.”
- Reconsideration. Later you go back and read the entire critique. The evaluator did include some encouraging comments, highlighting things you did well and explaining ways you can make the song stronger. There are also examples of how similar successful songs overcame those problems and references to additional helpful sources. Maybe he (or she) has got a point.
- Acceptance. This is where you hopefully wind up. Maybe you’re even inspired. After all, you’re playing in the big leagues and if writing great songs was easy everyone would be doing it. Now there's even more motivation to prove yourself.
Then you start writing or rewriting. And the cycle continues.