The unsatisfying job of satisfying critics

I really think that if I ever quit doing what I do, I would want to do something in the field of history. I love history.

I am also a fan of Dan Carlin, the online history podcast guy (Hardcore History). I just finished listening to his 25-hour podcast series on WWI and I found it fascinating. I have long thought that the WWI era was a critical turning point in the history of the world, because it was the moment in which common people began to question whether they really had to listen to their moronic leaders and go fight meaningless wars. There is little doubt that WWI was a relatively meaningless war in the scheme of things that wasted the lives of millions of meaningful people. However, by the end of that war, the people had caught on and that change in thinking became a big stepping stone in our modern era.

Now that I am back from that rabbit trail, let’s get back to Carlin. One day recently, I found myself wondering what the history critics thought of Carlin and I decided to find out. I suspected that I knew what I would find; and I was right. What I found was a lot of unknown, disgruntled historians who grudgingly gave Carlin props for helping to make history cool but took lots of shots at him in the process. They say that he is not a real historian (Carlin says that himself) and that he has some factual errors (as if they could record a 25-hour series on a controversial and sometimes poorly documented event without a few errors).

In short, I suspect that many of them are jealous and sore losers. Carlin is not part of their network and has done things in an unorthodox way. Yet he has influence and reach that they don’t have. They don’t get that or understand it. They are envious of it.

I don’t suspect Carlin cares very much about the scorn nor should he. He just continues to treat historians with respect in his podcasts and does what he does very successfully. He cares about pleasing people like me (a history amateur enthusiast) more than ornery tenured history professors who want to argue insignificant facts about the Battle of Verdun.

There is a lesson here for you musicians because the same thing happens in music. In many cases, you are going to need to decide who you want to please: the music critics with the pedigrees or the average people who don’t know a bass clef from a treble clef but just love music.

I strongly advise you to choose the latter…

If you chase the praise of critics, you probably won’t get it anyway unless you play their game and engage in their politics. And even if you get their praise, it will likely not impact your ability to expand your reach and influence.

Let them turn up their noses if they want; but you need to focus on average people. When you are performing, don’t think about how you are perceived by some music expert in the crowd; rather, focus on impacting the lady in the front row that never had a music lesson in her life. And don’t write music that will impress music PhDs. Write music that earns you compliments from the actual people that have to play it.

I know most of you are not music professionals but if you are, here is a side benefit: if you get your focus right, you will be more financially successful, too.

This is not to say that you should not respect the contributions of the highly-pedigreed musicians. You should. Learn from them. Borrow from them. Respect what they know. Don’t talk poorly about them regardless of what they say about you.

Just don’t go out of your way to impress them. That is fool’s gold.