I’ve mentioned this briefly before, but I wanted to share my experience yesterday and hopefully help you embrace feedback more openly. It’s one of those things that can be hard to receive emotionally, but extremely beneficial in the long run.
I mentioned this in my last article, but I recently took a short term job as a producer of a short/feature film that was originally intended to be a festival film. During the post-production, there were some disagreements between the production staff and the director, so we decided to bring the film to a closed feedback session with a few general consumers and a few notable directors in the area to get their thoughts.
Luckily, one of my good friends is very well connected in the film industry, so a few calls and we had a session set up with a director, a first AD, and a director of photography (all with their share of festival awards) within 24 hours of that discussion. That was last night, and I think it was worth every minute.
So, what’s the big deal? Why should I put time and effort into getting a general feedback session?
Well, I find music and film to be very similar. Most of the things you are trying to accomplish are the same, though you use different mediums to accomplish them. I think most of this advice, while tailored to film, is pretty much identical to what you’re looking for in the music industry.
That said, there are really only a few things you’re looking for in the session. But you have to identify what you’re looking for before starting the session.
First, at least for me, is “did the message I wanted to communicate to the audience come through?”. I usually try and find this out by saying something like, “From your perspective, what was the intent of this film/song? What was your takeaway?”. Keep in mind, you have to stay away from biased questions if you want to get good, reliable information. Don’t ask questions like, “did this film/song make you feel X emotion or appeal to X feeling?”. At that point you’re just fishing for self-justification and you won’t get any useful information. Stick to generic, but open-ended questions. Let the people giving feedback “fill in the blanks”.
The second is identifying the emotional journey, if there was one. This is a little more important in film, but I still think this applies to music, especially if you’re getting feedback on an entire album. For this, the question is pretty simple, “Describe to me your emotional journey throughout the film (album, song, etc). What were you feeling at each scene (song, section of a song, chorus, etc)?”. This question usually yields more than just “what they were feeling” at each point, because most people are usually happy to tell you why. “At this section, I didn’t really feel connected because of A, B, and C, and you could probably fix that by changing X, Y, or Z.” Especially in my session last night, most of the really useful critical feedback came when asking this question.
The last one, which I didn’t end up asking last night because we ran out of time, is “Sum up the film (song, album, etc) in one sentence.” The purpose of this question is to identify what their key takeaways from the experience were. Everybody is going to take away something different, but usually, as an artist, you want them all to be at least within the ballpark of what you were trying to communicate to them. If you’re getting uncorrelated answers that have nothing to do with the original intentions, you might have to get back to the drawing board and make some big changes.
Ask any other questions as you see fit, depending on what you’re looking for. For the purposes of the big decisions we needed to make in the film, those questions were the big ones. I also asked for general feedback, just because I knew it would help the director in his future projects. General feedback is usually the hardest part, because these are usually specific issues that bothered the consumer. In our case, there was a ton of feedback about one of the characters who they all had a hard time connecting with. At this stage, there’s nothing we can do to remedy that, unless the film was literally rewritten and filmed again. Receiving this feedback can be very difficult because a lot of it is pointing out personal mistakes and failures. Ask for this feedback at your own risk.
Here’s a few tips to make your feedback sessions more productive.
First, those with personal stake in the project (songwriter, producer, mix engineers, etc) probably shouldn’t be present. Instead, let a manager or close friend hold the session and ask the questions and record it, then deliver it to everyone later. If you know an involved party receives critical feedback well, you may consider letting them be present, but probably let them know beforehand that they need to be silent while the questions are being asked. The last thing you want in a session is the writer or producer getting offended by some feedback and get defensive. Then your feedback reviewer will never want to come and review any of your stuff ever again. The session has to be a safe space for those giving the feedback. If they detect any potential for offending someone in the room, they won’t say it, which isn’t what you want.
That said, I led the discussion of the session last night, along with another one of the producers, so I’m a bit of a hypocrite here. I’ve found (at least from my perspective) that I take criticism pretty well and very rarely get defensive, so I was comfortable leading the session (I was involved more in the HR and business side of the project, though). The questions I was asking also didn’t directly apply to any of my personal work on the project, so I wasn’t too worried about being biased. The other producer present also knew she was supposed to be silent during the questions and is in a similar situation to me, so I wasn’t too worried about skewing the results.
Next, like I said before, think about your questions beforehand and make sure they’re unbiased. Ask what you want, but they need to be delivered in a way that doesn’t provoke any specific answers. There are certain “yes or no” questions you may want to ask, such as “did this song make you want to dance”, because if that was your intention and they say no, then you have a clear indicator of what work needs to be done. Keep in general, though. Don’t ask questions like, “did this song make you feel X?”, because you’re not really gathering anything useful.
Be careful who you invite. You want critical feedback from people you can trust, not just anybody. In our case, everyone we invited had won awards from festivals we were considering entering. They were people who we knew would give us harsh feedback, regardless of our feelings. And they were people with passion for the art of filmmaking and storytelling.
Now, that’s not saying you shouldn’t get feedback from general consumers. We had two general consumers sit in on the session as well. The general consumer usually has less weight in feedback than the harsh critics, but they usually provide key indicators of major issues. In our case, they and the critics all agreed that one of the characters was just too much and made them uncomfortable. They’re also great indicators of emotional journey, although they’re usually not great at telling you why they were feeling that way. Either way, it’s a great indicator of how the general consumer will be feeling and what their perception will be. They’ll tell you when they were engaged and when they started to tune out, which can help a ton.
Be friendly. That should go without saying, but when you’re trying to be unbiased sometimes you can go a little too far and come off as cold. Not a good play. These are people that were willing to sacrifice their time and give you critical information. Treat them with respect. Ideally, this will double as a networking opportunity for some of them. Entice them with that. In our case, we brought in people that we knew didn’t know each other, so it gave us a variety of feedback and an opportunity for them to network with each other. That makes it beneficial for you and them.
Feedback is critically important. Don’t get caught in the trap of “if I like it, then it’s good”. Remember, the arts, at their core, are meant to be shared. If you only ever make things for yourself, I promise you’ll become miserable and unfulfilled. That’s not the point. Share it, get feedback, and improve.
Good luck and have fun!