Sam Lambeth is a journalist and musician with Birmingham-based band Quinn. Prior to this, he spent three years in The MonoBloggers, who enjoyed successful UK tours, a record deal and magazine coverage. Back in the rock saddle as both a spectator (journo) and participant (muso), he offers a glimpse at the grubby but glorious world of unsigned music.
People in bands are perverse, and not in the obvious sense. To be in a creative outfit as potent as a band – where articulating your art to big audiences (the bigger the better) is a pre-requisite – you have to have a skin as thick as Joey Essex and a determination as ruthless as one of those Texan models who marries a 90-year-old oil tycoon. And yet, conversely, musicians are often sensitive, struggle to deal with criticism and wrestle with depression. It’s a recipe for disaster, surely?
I’m not ashamed to say that over the years I have tried to shrug off those feelings, the horrid lingering malaise of ill self-worth, futility and melancholy, and those emotions fuel the songs I write. And then, weirdly, I want these songs to reach a huge audience, and a fervent fire is lit under my fingers as I try to nag and beg people to listen to them. But I’m an insular, emotionally unbalanced individual…what the hell am I doing? I am practically pillorying myself and inviting the locals to throw hot gruel on my baby face.
A few years ago, in my first band we were playing a domino awards ceremony (don’t ask). It was at a venue called the Conservative Club, and it was basically full of people who would, in a few years’ time, take great pride in voting ‘out’. The room smelt of beer, pork scratchings and casual racism, and, as it was 2011 and The Big Pink were still a thing, we tongue-in-cheek opened with ‘Dominos’. Of course, they didn’t get it, but we tried to salvage things by covering ‘classics’ like ‘Summertime Blues’, ‘Wild Thing’ and ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’.
We hadn’t had much time to rehearse all these covers, so our set was, at best, ‘passable’, and I hoped the antiquated ears in the room wouldn’t be able to hear any errors. However, when I went to the bathroom cubicle, two old guys were in there and I overheard one say: “they’ve been a band for two years? Sounded more like two weeks to me.” Others might have brushed off that criticism, but I felt paralysed. I was ashamed, angry and hurt. I was trying to make it as a professional musician, and yet I couldn’t handle the stinging, geriatric gambits of a 68-year-old retired plumber.
I resisted the urge to drop kick him and went back to the room, but that was me done for the night. The truth is while established bands might not read reviews or care what people think about their records, unsigned bands read them all – we scour the internet for reviews and opinions, hoping some positive feedback from a Wordpress wonder might give our Soundcloud a slight boost. But, on the flip side, we dread a bad review.
Once before, I was floored when a reviewer called my band “a poor man’s Busted.” This was back in 2010, so Matt Willis and co were now festering at the back of a foster home’s airing cupboard, but the comparison still stung; to be compared to Busted at all was a barb, but to be compared to a poorer version was beyond the pale. What made it worse was that the reviewer was actually a girl I was seeing at the time – obviously love wasn’t going to get in the way of a scathing review.
So how do you cope with the criticism? It’s hard to say, but easy to surmise – firstly, you have to take a step back and wonder if they have a point. If it’s a reviewer who obviously has no knowledge of your chosen style and influences, then it’s not worth losing sleep over. But if they raise some constructive points, it may be worth taking a breather and then taking them in – are there things you could do differently? Could the songs be tighter? Is that chorus too flabby? Music journalists can sometimes be slighted as they aren’t producing music themselves, but it’s their job to critique, and, alas, it’s our job to listen.