I love him and I love his music but not his CD. Now what?
April 23, 2010 11:05 AM   Subscribe

He's talented. He's just finished his cd, poured his heart and soul into this thing. But -- he fell in love with the studio, all those toys, sucked the life right out of this record. I've had a copy two days, I need to call him and tell him I love the record. But I don't.

I'd rather have heard this thing recorded on an answering machine, a cell phone, anything. Inside a garbage truck, a grain elevator. Whatever. "Pretty" music is nice, yeah. In an elevator. But not here, not in his music -- pretty is in the life of it.

I was so happy to get my hands on it. I've listened three times, trying so hard to love it, giving it all I can. And he does shine through -- no way he could not; he's great. But...

Give me words, please. Or do I just lie -- I will, if I need to.

But he trusts me to tell it, we are all the time talking this band or that singer and whatever else, he's encyclopedic on music, I'm less so but know enough to talk to him.

I'm not asking you to tell me I'm presumptuous, that it isn't my record, blah blah blah -- I *know* all that. What I don't know is how to tell him I don't love his brand new baby. Or if I do tell him that.

Any words greatly appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (41 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm firmly in the camp that if you're friend has something stuck in their teeth then you better tell that friend that he looks goofy before he goes and meets his girlfriends parents. So yeah, be honest but break the news with feathers.
posted by pwally at 11:11 AM on April 23, 2010 [5 favorites]

I don’t think you really need to tell him at all you hate the production? Can’t you just praise his talent and music instead of the blasting the use of flange or whatever?
posted by thelastenglishmajor at 11:12 AM on April 23, 2010

"I don't think the production accurately captures your music."
posted by stet at 11:15 AM on April 23, 2010 [21 favorites]

"Man, you're playing great, but it seems a little overproduced to me."

What's the problem?
posted by cmoj at 11:15 AM on April 23, 2010 [15 favorites]

If he really trusts you for your honest opinion and respects what you have to say about his music, then it is your duty as a friend to tell him what you think. There will be plenty of fans and yes-men and -women to laud him for so much as farting into a microphone.

What you have to do is consider his temperament, which you have not told us about, and how honest you usually are. You've made it very, very clear how much you care about him and his music and hopefully he knows that. And if he does it, make it clear to him in a way you know will be unmistakable. Then tell him how you feel. Like I said, you didn't disclose his temperament so I don't know whether to suggest a light touch - "I love it, it's great, but I feel like there's not enough you in it" - or, on the other end, "Dude, you overproduced the crap outta this." It'll probably be somewhere in the middle.

And please don't expect him to change anything on account of your disliking it. You're one person and his music will soon belong to, well, the masses. Who aren't particularly known for refined tastes and a love of purity. His overproduced sound may very well be what rockets him to stardom, if that is what he is looking for.
posted by griphus at 11:16 AM on April 23, 2010

Has this person spent thousands of dollars getting copies of the CD printed? Has he started selling them yet? Has he sent them around to agents/labels/other important people? If the answer to all of these questions is "no," then definitely tell him ASAP what you really think. If some of these get a "yes," it's a lot stickier situation.

I guess you have to figure out what your motivations are in telling him that you don't like it. Are you trying to save him from looking bad in front of [the public / the industry / etc.], then only say something if your words have a chance of preventing that. If you just feel an overwhelming need to be honest even though it won't help him, maybe it would be worth holding back? You could always mention next time he wants to work on an album that you thought the studio environment didn't capture the life in his music as well as it could have last time, and make suggestions for a different approach.

If you do say something to him, you've done a really good job in your question above of phrasing it. You're not critical of him or his music. You just don't think this particular recording does him justice.
posted by vytae at 11:17 AM on April 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

And if he does it...

And if he doesn't.
posted by griphus at 11:18 AM on April 23, 2010

Well the record is done, right? He's not going to go back and change it now? Then criticism is not really helpful.

There's no need to lie. I was taught, you don't have to say you loved, or liked, something if you didn't. But nothing is so terrible you can't find one thing you honestly liked *about* it. Find the things you like, and tell him about those.

If he asks you honest opinion about the production than yeah, tell him your opinion, that it's not to your personal taste. Because music is subjective, and from the limited info I have, this sounds more like it's about your preference for lo-fi "reallness" than anything objectively wrong with the music.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:19 AM on April 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

The only time I ever got less-than-terrible results from a conversation like this (and I've had them; I used to work for a band) was when the musician was genuinely asking for my feedback. And I think in four years and three or four albums, that happened *once* on a demo she wasn't real sure was going in the right direction.

Every other time, she wanted to hear that I loved it. And generally it's not that hard to say "Man I love the lyrics here" or "your new bassist is stellar - who did he play for before?" or whatever.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:22 AM on April 23, 2010

It sounds like you don't want to hurt his feelings, but you still want to be someone who gives constructive criticism rather than pretending everything is great. So given that, I would say you should not give the impression like you did here that you didn't like it overall, but you should still mention the negative qualities.

What I normally do in these situations is purposely focus on the positive first. Not lies, but things you genuinely do like about it. Make that seem like the main focus, even if objectively you would have more bad things to say about it than good. Then, after you've established that you took the time to listen to it and enjoyed aspects of it, bring up your negative opinion on the production. That way the criticism seems like an afterthought, but you are still getting your message across. I've found that people will get a lot less defensive and take criticism in the way it was intended if I use that approach.

Also, gauge how much detail you should go into by his reaction. If he is adamant that this is the direction he wants to go in, then just drop it and realize that it's a difference of opinion. But if he also expresses doubts about how the production turned out, you can go into more detail about what you think worked and didn't work on the production side.
posted by burnmp3s at 11:23 AM on April 23, 2010

It sounds like you have a specific style of music that you do like, lo-fi or whatever they call it these days.. Can you objectively judge this album as something your not interested in, but is still viable as a music product?

Maybe he's going after a different market than you, one particular listener.
posted by lakerk at 11:26 AM on April 23, 2010

"I'm not sure this is capturing you at what I think is your best. I've heard you play better live."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:27 AM on April 23, 2010

You can tell him what it sounds like to you without value judgments and let him decide if his record is coming across the way he intended. So, maybe it sounds really polished? Tell him so, and maybe his inner voice will say, Hm, I don't know if I want to sound polished. If you can reference another record that it compares to (that isn't an obvious dis), that might help him understand how it's sounding to your ears without getting into whether it's good or bad.
posted by xo at 11:31 AM on April 23, 2010

Something along the lines of: "You know how much I love your music, but I wasn't expecting such a clean, produced sound. I think your music is better served by a more raw, less polished production, but that's just my preference and your talent shines through regardless." Be honest, but be gentle. Be knowledgeable, but allow for the possibility you might be missing something.
posted by katemcd at 11:32 AM on April 23, 2010 [15 favorites]

You gotta be honest, how you phrase it is the main thing, some good suggestions already.
posted by edgeways at 11:32 AM on April 23, 2010

Whatever you say, you can cut the drama. You act like making a mediocre cd is HORRIBLE TO BE EMBARRASSED ABOUT AND HE SHOULD BE ASHAMED. He shouldn't. We all fail, it's not a big deal. I don't know that he even failed, you just don't like it. So simmer down and be happy that he's in the position to do this, it's a pretty incredible opportunity even if he didn't get it right the first time.

Also, make sure you don't come off as jealous, that's the biggest tripwire here.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 11:33 AM on April 23, 2010 [7 favorites]

This is such a classic problem, the "be honest with your friends" situation.

The thing is, do you want to have friends that you don't tell the truth to? How great is that, really? If you lie in this situation, you're forever going to be digging yourself out of the hole with this guy. The little lies are a killer. He's going to turn into your "pie in the sky" musician friend and next thing you know he's going to come to you for advice on how to sell it or who to send it to and you're going to be giving him a big "err...". What if you turn out to be the only person that likes it? You'll be sitting on the couch with him talking about how "nobody else gets it." Lord. Shoot me in the fucking head.

I'd rather have heard this thing recorded on an answering machine, a cell phone, anything. Inside a garbage truck, a grain elevator. Whatever. "Pretty" music is nice, yeah. In an elevator. But not here, not in his music -- pretty is in the life of it.

The other part of the problem is you're sooo dramatic. Be thoughtful. There is good and bad in everything. Besides, all you really have is an opinion. You're an expert at how the music makes you feel and not much else. You would do him a great service to your friendship by being honest.
posted by phaedon at 11:39 AM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Be totally honest. Though lying and saying everything about it is great might be easier, you have an obligation to go beyond that if you're close friends (which I'm assuming you are by the tenor of your post). It might not be the most comfortable message for you to deliver, but it's the right thing to do and the best thing to help him. (I assume he's asked for your opinion and you can talk about it privately -- it's not like you'd be randomly humiliating him in front of other people at a party or something.)

Just be careful to divide up your overview into pros and cons and don't paint the entire project with a negative broad brush like "I don't like it" or "I'd give it 2 stars" (you don't need to give any overall assessment if you don't want -- specifics are more useful anyway). Tell him all about the songs and singing and playing that you like, and be specific (e.g. tell about the hook in one song that you couldn't get out of your head all day). Then, say, "But I don't think the production does it justice." Explain exactly what you mean as specifically as possible, e.g. "The flanger effect on the vocals in this chorus is distracting; I'd rather hear it without those effects so I can hear your natural voice more." This is an implicit compliment anyway. (And if you have other criticisms of the music aside from the production, you should go ahead and give those too -- just because there's a lot to work on with the production doesn't mean everything else is perfect.)

I've given this kind of pros-and-cons assessment to a band leader (not even a close friend, more of an old classmate from high school) and been told, "Thanks, this is really useful, this is some of the most honest feedback we've gotten," etc.

The trick is to have confidence that you're doing the right thing. Act like it's the most normal thing in the world to give your honest opinion. Hopefully, he'll mirror your demeanor and act like it's the most normal thing in the world to receive honest feedback.

You could easily do what many people would do in this kind of situation and give a bland "Nice job" assessment. The rarer, harder, and kinder thing to do is to give a full, honest, detailed assessment. It's his responsibility (if he's serious about his art) to handle this well and make good use of the feedback.

If you're still not convinced, here's one more thought: considering how serious your criticisms of the record are and how much this has been on your mind, even if you decide to lie and say it's all great ... he'll detect that you're not being entirely sincere. So you wouldn't even avoid coming across as blandly, uniformly positive. You might as well be honest and at least get credit for being forthright and helpful.
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:42 AM on April 23, 2010

Off the top of my head I can think of ten bands I love who produce mediocre studio recordings but sound fantastic live. And twenty bands who sound great in the studio and then fall apart when it comes to live performance. I'll take the ten over the twenty all day long.

So he's far from alone. Tell him you love the songs, can't wait to see them performed, but the production doesn't really do it for you.

This isn't hard if he genuinely wants critical feedback and not just a cheering section. Does he?
posted by BitterOldPunk at 11:42 AM on April 23, 2010

This is such a classic problem, the "be honest with your friends" situation.

No, I disagree - this isn't about telling someone his jeans make his butt look big. This is providing feedback to an artist. And the key here is figuring out what kind of feedback the artist is looking for - sometimes it's "what do you think I could do to make this better," sometimes it's "please tell me I'm not a failure," and sometimes it's "please tell me you still love me." Making the wrong call as to which one you're being asked to give can be incredibly hurtful and damaging to the relationship.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:43 AM on April 23, 2010 [9 favorites]

"So you wouldn't even avoid coming across as blandly, uniformly positive." --> Sorry, I meant "you wouldn't even accomplish the goal of coming across as..."
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:47 AM on April 23, 2010

If you've had the CD for two days and haven't said anything yet, he already knows what you think.

I agree with the above posters who says honesty is best. But if you're talking about music with him all the time, perhaps you can phrase it in those terms. Your CD is great, but it sounds like X, and I was hoping it would sound more like Y.
posted by FreezBoy at 11:59 AM on April 23, 2010

The thing is, do you want to have friends that you don't tell the truth to?

Yeah classic classic CLASSIC false dichotomy there. No one is suggesting being dishonest. But there's being honest like a caring friend, and being brutally honest at the wrong time, like a dick.

And timing is a huge deal. If he's been in the studio for months or even years on this, he is incredibly stressed out and vulnerable. NOW IS NOT THE TIME for any kind of negativity or criticism. If you really feel you must, maybe in a couple of months. NOT NOW.

I have directed live theatrical shows before, and when it didn't go great, I knew it. TRUST ME. But that didn't mean I wanted to hear that from my friends on the night. I was exhausted, vulnerable, and barely keeping it together. What I needed from people right then was either "yeah man that was great, I liked X" or to just keep quiet. Most artists are more aware of their own shortcomings than anyone. It's not that you can never be critical, but timing and sensitivity are a huge deal.
posted by drjimmy11 at 12:03 PM on April 23, 2010 [17 favorites]

Drjimmy has got it right. If there’s one thing that drives artists crazy, it’s friends who think they’re being helpful by being critics. It can be really undermining. “If only I’d gotten a chance to edit your book!"
posted by thelastenglishmajor at 12:10 PM on April 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Yeah classic classic CLASSIC false dichotomy there. No one is suggesting being dishonest.

I mean, really? The OP clearly asks if they should lie.
posted by phaedon at 12:15 PM on April 23, 2010

Did he make the record he wanted to make? That's the only thing that matters.
posted by uncleozzy at 12:15 PM on April 23, 2010

Yeah, I'm not sure if it's a spinach-in-the-teeth situation because it's not like he can actually do anything about it now. Kinda like people who tell me I married too young. OK, thanks for the info.

If he does later ask when it has actual practical application, tell him. As in, if he asks if he should work with this producer again, or maybe if he asks if he should invest money to record another CD in a similar way. Then there is a point to saying something. Otherwise, I don't really see how it benefits him.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 12:24 PM on April 23, 2010

Now, we don't know if he self-produced or had a producer, and so the over-production might not be his direct doing. We also don't know if you're biased against the produced versions because you heard the unproduced versions first (we tend to prefer the version of things we encounter first, regardless of relative merit.) Finally, we don't know if (no offense) your tastes align with his vision and the market he's attempting to reach with the CD.


If he doesn't ask what you think: tell him you love his songs, and you're glad he's finally taking the steps to professionally record and distribute it.

If he asks you what you think: tell him you love his songs, and you're glad he's finally taking the steps to professionally record and distribute it.

If he asks you specifically what you think of the production values: tell him you love his songs, and you're glad he's finally taking the steps to professionally record and distribute it, although the production values aren't really to your taste.

If he asks follow-up questions about why you think the production values aren't really to your taste: tell him you're no authority on such things, you only have your emotional reaction to the songs, and you react much more strongly to his live performances/scratch tracks/whatever you've heard before than you do to the polished, produced version -- but that he still shines through.

Now, you've been polite and tactful, but also honest, and if you're the outlier than he'll ignore your opinion (and it is that, just an opinion.) However, if five of his trusted friends give him similar opinions, he may just head back into the studio.
posted by davejay at 12:25 PM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

As a writer, there are two very different kinds of feedback I'd like. Both are invaluable, but I should know what I'm in for, and one should never, ever be substituted for the other.

There's "YAY! You finished something! Have a (metaphorical) cookie!" feedback. I get this from my wife.

Then there's actual criticism of the content. I get this from my writer's group.

So I see the real question here as being: which feedback would your friend like from you? You may want to simply ask him that.

(If I recall correctly, I'm stealing this description of two kinds of feedback from Ellen Kushner.)
posted by Zed at 12:30 PM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Oh, your album? You really shine through! I loved the lyrics in that last song!"

He's not asking for your criticism. You can provide your support. If you are truly curious, throw out some light questions about what he thought about such and such step in the record making process. Find the positives and talk about them. I would not tell a friend about any flaws (this is opinion!) in their artistic endeavors. I will be happy for them and celebrate a finished product with them, regardless of how I personally think the product ended up.
posted by amicamentis at 12:30 PM on April 23, 2010

OK, so he fell in love with the studio and the production came out differently from what you prefer. Is he happy with it? That's pretty much what matters most. As a singer/songwriter, my first goal is to be happy with my product, and the next thing is hoping others like it. If some people don't like it, even people I care about, well, at least I'm happy with it, and I figure if I like it, at least some other people will too. If he hates it, there isn't much to hope for.

So I'd approach it like that. You're free to tell him that you prefer his music with a more raw sound, but I'd be more concerned with how he feels about it as opposed to how you feel about it. He doesn't owe you this sound you want, you know?
posted by wondermouse at 12:30 PM on April 23, 2010

Oh, hey, here's a real-world example.

A friend of mine sunk a lot of time and energy (and money) into directing a short film, and I don't enjoy it. I really, truly, don't. In my opinion it isn't very good. However, the opening sequence is fantastic and terrific and well-directed, and (to me) stands out. I have no idea what other people think of the film, and frankly, for forming my opinion it doesn't matter.

So, when he screened it at parties and whatnot, and I spoke to him after, I praised the opening, truthfully and sincerely: "The way you directed the opening, and the graphics, really work; I love the opening, it is fantastic, and I hope you do more stuff like that." That sort of thing.

Fast forward several months, and he's just completed another short film, a music video -- and the entirety of it is similar to the opening of the short film (not in concept or content, but in the storytelling method used and the lack of having to direct speaking actors.) You know what? It's amazing. And now I have the pleasure of honestly telling him so. I truly hope he continues down the path of doing this type of work, because he's very good at it, much much moreso than at directing speaking actors.

Had he followed through on my short film comments to say "yes, but what about the rest?" I would have been honest and said something like "Honestly, I think the opening is a lot better than the rest, and I probably would have made some different choices if it were me, but then, if it were me the film never would have gotten made in the first place", and if he still pressed for honest feedback I would have talked to him about the dialog pacing, awkward blocking and expressionless faces -- which I would have contrasted with one scene in the middle (in which he had a professional actor, thankfully) that had none of those problems. But he didn't ask, and who the hell am I to volunteer negativity without being asked?

Hope this helps.
posted by davejay at 12:35 PM on April 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

As a singer/songwriter, my first goal is to be happy with my product, and the next thing is hoping others like it.

Many artists struggle to get to this place; our friends and family are our first line of defense against the huge shitpile of strangers who will savage our work, even as other strangers fall in love with it (because art is polarizing, 'natch.) Unless he's asking you to give him constructive criticism, picking the things you like and speaking to them truthfully will give him the emotional support he needs to weather the shitpile of (valid and not valid) criticism to grow as an artist long-term and become someone who can successfully rely exclusively on their internal barometer.
posted by davejay at 12:39 PM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here's my opinion as a musician.

Like other folks have said, what you should say to him depends on what he's asked of you and what your relationship with him is. If he's already mastered the thing and sent it somewhere for replication, "constructive criticism" isn't going to be useful. In that case, you could say something indicating that you're not sure yet and you're going to have to listen to it some more to let it sink in, which may be true. You can mention some specific moments that you do enjoy, and then you can say that it leaves you a little cold or you prefer his sound live or something. But specific criticisms or advice about what he should have done differently is probably not warranted.

If it's not finalized yet and he's thinking about going back and changing things, or if he's voiced specific doubts about the recording process and asked you for feedback, or especially if you're a musician and have experience making recordings of your own and that's why he's asking for your opinion, go ahead and tell him exactly what you don't like or what you would do differently or whatever. But that's probably the only situation in which I think you should do so. If not, it may not be your place to decide that his choices are wrong and that you know exactly why. For you to decide that "he fell in love with the studio, all those toys, sucked the life right out of this record" is quite presumptuous, unless you were there watching the process. In my experience it just doesn't work that way. Maybe this is the record he wanted to make and you just don't like it. That's ok, but that doesn't mean he made a mistake and that you need to point that out to him.
posted by ludwig_van at 12:42 PM on April 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Is this his first studio recording? It can be a real shock to hear a studio album from a musician you've only ever heard live, and vice versa: the way you heard it first registers in your mind as the "right" way, and subsequent versions sound different and wrong. It's possible that you might have really liked this CD if it was recorded by a fellow you'd never met or heard before. Maybe it's a matter of the production catching you off guard instead of outright sucking, and if so, that might be a good way to approach it.
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:00 PM on April 23, 2010

I know exactly what you're talking about. A friend of mine gave me the "scratch CD" for a record he was playing on as a background musician. I *loved* the sound of the scratch recording -- it was all so fresh and crisp. Once the actual commercial CD came out though... yuck. It was over-produced. You need to tell your friend. If he hasn't paid for thousands of copies yet, there may still be time to fix things.
posted by rhartong at 1:35 PM on April 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

"I wish you had included a live track from one of your shows!"
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 2:12 PM on April 23, 2010

"To be honest, I prefer listening to you live." Also what abc123 etc. said. It's not a question of "you suck" so much as a question of "I'm just into the live shows more, I guess. But this is good."
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:20 PM on April 23, 2010

This is a tough one because you're more familiar with hearing him live, which means your opinion of his recorded music is colored by what you've previously heard. A studio recording is a completely different animal. Unless you're talking about live recordings of his music... hearing him live also means seeing him live. It's an experience. Sight, sound, even the smell and feel of the room he played in. It's a completely different animal.

I guess what I'm wondering is...
...is the CD good, but it's just not what you like?
...or, is the CD crap?

If the CD is good, but it's just not how you like hearing him, then I'd agree with the comments above about finding something you do enjoy about the recorded material and compliment him on that.

On the other hand, if the CD is garbage... honestly, I wish I had advice for you on that one, but I don't. It's hard because you want to be supportive of your friend... Maybe say this?
posted by 2oh1 at 3:41 PM on April 23, 2010

I'm kinda in this situation, as a songwriter. Long story.

Was he the producer of this record?

If not-and I am guessing he wasn't-you tell him the production didn't bring out his essence, or however you want to phrase it.

FWIW, it seems to me that production polishes more turds and ruins more good stuff than most people would think.

Anyway, praise his work, praise him. You can do that without liking the production.

And believe it or not, a lot of people out there will love his polished work. Even if you know better.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:11 PM on April 23, 2010

As someone whose job it was to give a musician friend the actual review instead of the ass-kissing review, I will tell you: be honest. I would start with finding out if he actually wants a review or not. Talk about what you like, and why ("I love the way you played this part", "I love how subtle this bit is" whatever), and talk about what you don't like, and why ("I think the slick production here takes away from the real quality of your voice", "I think the bass is too low in the mix here, because that's the best part"). If he actually wants your opinion, he will appreciate your honesty. Just don't be mean, and keep in mind that the finished product, while not to your tastes, just might be exactly what he was going for. Music is very personal, and it takes a lot to put something out there for people to critique, be respectful of the effort and cojones, but be honest about what isn't working for you. And remember that it's just your opinion, not a statement of fact. You're a good friend for asking this question.
posted by biscotti at 5:55 AM on April 24, 2010

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