It’s taken me years and years – and I’m probably not even there yet, when it comes down to it – to fully appreciate the gulf between the two, and to celebrate the fact that my songs fall fairly squarely into the former. Once I am finally there, perhaps then I’ll also know that my own instinct about my songs is more solid and pertinent than the words of someone from the commercial world paid to find something – anything – to take a pop at in them. From there, it’ll be just a small jump to taking subjective criticism of my babies with a pinch of salt, instead of feeling like someone who purports to know more than me about the songwriting business has just rubbed salt into an open wound.
Just recently, I cut the second verse from my semi-autobiographical song ‘Trail of Goodbyes’ when someone in a song-critique group I was taking part in said that he’d been right there with me until the end of the bridge, but that as I started on Verse 2, I lost him – the song was too long. Just one opinion, when there has been so much positive feedback about the song. And yet I took his view fully on board and shortened the song to one verse, one bridge and three choruses. Now I had a song that met the ridiculously restrictive criterion for a radio-length commercial song – a little over three minutes! I was still fairly happy with it, if somewhat disappointed at having jettisoned the second verse that had fleshed out the song and given more insight into the protagonist’s nomadic lifestyle, so I then took it along to another song-critique session for what I hoped would be nothing but praise for my concise, upbeat creation. Well, there was, thankfully, praise – but – and there’s always a ‘but’ at these sessions – as I say, that’s what they’re paid to come up with, even when an ‘and’ would be more justified: ‘Incredible! Sung like you’d really lived those words – and that rugged Americana delivery – not at all what I’d expected from your clipped British speaking voice! BUT…’ I held my breath. ‘BUT – I really wanted a second verse, giving more examples of that wanderlust…’
I was beside myself with fury at having listened to that other lone voice, the shallow opinion of a chap who hadn’t been able to stick with more than a two-and-a-half-minute song! And I immediately went into my studio and reinstated the second verse – with a renewed conviction to stick with my gut instinct about my creations rather than flip and flop according to the whims and fancies of any passing ‘music industry professional’.
But as I made that resolution, I was forgetting another song I’d chopped and changed as a result of professional critiques, rewriting it to within an inch of its life to the point where I no longer sang it because I didn’t really like it any more. I had, however, uploaded the original version of that song, ‘Too Bad To Be True?’, on to a music industry website ages ago, where it lay forgotten until last night, when a DJ from a US radio station messaged me to say: ‘Hi, I came across the song “Too Bad To Be True” – it is so amazing. I absolutely love this song and I will be honored to have it in my rotation.’ I’ve no idea how widely listened to that radio station is, but that’s not really the point. I was going to write to him to say I’d rewritten the song since then and would he play the rewritten version instead, but I decided to listen to the original version once again before messaging him. And guess what? I immediately realised that it was far superior to the badly scanning, forced version I’d re-shaped it into on the basis of music industry professionals’ opinions about what I needed to do with my song. So that US radio DJ will be playing my song in its original version, and the newer version will be consigned to the recycle bin. And I’ll hope the lesson will permeate my grey matter just a little bit deeper, so that in future I’ll trust my own feelings about my creations far more than the shaky, and often conflicting, opinions of ‘industry professionals’.
All of this is not to say that there has never been any valid criticism of my songs – or, indeed, that there’s nothing wrong with any of them! My point is, rather, that it’s important to be able to sift the useful points that will benefit the song from the ones that will end up actually being detrimental. Often you can only tell the difference in hindsight. But it’s usually possible to go back and reinstate the earlier version when you’ve realised that it was better than the clunky thing you’ve ended up with in an effort to please all the critics, but actually pleasing no one – including yourself.