How do you know you are good as a musician/writer/artist/etc. in the age of the Internet?

I’m going to contrast the way things were before the Internet (meaning before the WWW was popular among a large number of people), and the way things are now. I’m not saying I’m definitely right–tell me what you think.


There were reviews by critics in newspapers, magazines, and TV. They could decide the fate of artistic products. When a Broadway show opened, people would wait up until late, late at night to read the reviews coming fresh off the presses. Those reviews could instantly sink a show. Magazines like Rolling Stone were highly influential in forming a more or less consensus opinion about popular music. TV movie reviewers like Siskel and Ebert had a large influence on what people saw.

The outsized influence of a smaller number of critics resulted, it seems to me, in a greater desire to be “fair”–in a restricted sense of that word. I think you still see this on a site like, which offers a database of reviews that go back before the Internet was a thing (and new reviews, too).

For example, if you look at the reviews for a major artist/band on Allmusic, you almost never see the reviewer (often Steven Thomas Erlewine) just hating on him/her/it. If enough people validate it, then his perspective is to validate it too. He may give “worse” albums a lower score, but he isn’t going to say Billy Joel or Arcade Fire or Def Leppard just sucks. Of course, there are “whipping boy” bands like Nickelback, but this too reflects the consensus opinion.

Back in the day, reviewers had a commercial incentive to like the stuff people liked, and like the stuff they thought people would like. Trashing something that otherwise would sell would piss off important people in the industry, and if general fans could not trust the critics’ taste to match their own, the critics could lose status. Plus, I think the critics took their responsibility seriously and wanted to steer people in the right direction.

The result is that contrarian opinions by critics stood out. There are some famous cases of Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert liking or disliking movies that virtually everyone else disliked or liked, such as Roger Ebert supporting the violent The Last House on the Left.

I think the end result of this kind of old school reviewing was that the consensus view tended to be much stronger back then. Sure, you knew that some critics didn’t like David Bowie or whomever as much, but there was a general sense he just was “good,” “important,” and so on. Plus, there was universal agreement that certain things were just great and loved by everyone that had a brain. For example, there were movies that all the major critics loved, and you wouldn’t encounter a contrary opinion, except among maybe your friends at the water cooler.

(There were also a few critics, like Rex Red, that made a point of trashing a lot of stuff. There were Rolling Stone journalists who hated entire genres of music. I know I’m oversimplifying, but I think the basic thrust of the above holds true.)


The critics still review in the way outlined above, but there are more of them, and since there are more, I think they feel freer in taking a swing at something they don’t like than they did before. I regularly read movie reviews on MetaCritic:

And there is usually someone willing to take down a popular movie.

But that’s not the big change. The big change is crowdsourcing the entire planet as reviewers on IMDb, Amazon, and other sites. The result is that there will always be a contingent of people who love the unpopular and, contrariwise, hate the popular.

I don’t care what the album, movie, or book is, you will find people taking it down. Sure, a lot of these contrarians are not trying to think or write well, but many are. Also common, for example, are reviews that go, “I’ve loved everything that XYZ did until now, but I really hated this new creation, even though everyone loves it. Here are the reasons.”

In addition, you will find cogently expressed macro ideas that you would never have heard before. For example, you will find entire websites dedicated to why the Beatles suck. I love the Beatles, but I can’t dismiss everything they say, either.

I find it interesting to read these kinds of opinions, personally. They really do remind me of how matters of opinion are, well, matters of opinion. There are many different ways to look at something.

But here’s my big question

I think there’s also the general idea out there that popularity does not equal goodness. And some things that are also very popular are also reviled, such as Twilight. Some artists may be oblivious to this fact and think that, so long as the money is rolling in, they are doing great work–but I think most probably have doubts to some degree.

Thus: How do you know you are good when there is always a contingent that can cogently explain why you suck? In the year 1985, someone like John Hughes was making money, and while not every movie review was going to be stellar, critical opinion was also on his side. He could not log on and read what the haters had to say. Today, every artist has that option. No one is immune.

An example

Beyonce came out with a new album recently. Here is the relevant Amazon page:

I’m surprised at how few reviews there are, just 152 right now. The breakdown of the stars is as follows:

5 = 93
4 = 20
3 = 13
2 = 14
1 = 12

In my experience, the people who love something tend to review the most. Thus, most popular stuff gets an average of 4.5 stars or higher. A 4-star average, which this album has, is not really great, and anything less than that is not a good result for the artist.

It depends on how you view 3-start reviews–I tend to see them as more negative than positive, but at a minimum 17% (26/152) are disappointed with this album. Does Beyonce go on Amazon and read her reviews? If I were in her position, I would. And if I saw these negative reviews, I would have doubts about how good the album really is.

Here is a cogent 1-star review:

The reviewer is not trying to be a fancy rock critic–but that is a strength of these reviews, in my view. The writer just drills right down. The writer asserts that she liked other Beyonce music–this is to establish credibility and say, “I’m not just a hater.” And the reasons adduced are cogent, even if you disagree with them.

So, granting that an artist can always access such criticism, how does he or she retain the feeling that he or she is still doing good work (assuming that is a concern in the first place)? In the Internet era, all that can possibly be criticized will be. The crowd-sourcing of criticism is powerful thing.

Thanks for reading, I appreciate your thoughts on the above!

[The Incredibles]

If everybody’s special, then nobody is.

[/The Incredibles]

I hear you, struggle with the concept, and so far end up concluding that it’s the same as it ever was. Rolling Stone hated Led Zeppelin and AC/DC; critics loved The Velvet Underground and the Ramones, even though neither sold well but ended up being hugely influential. Darn critics.

The Internet is an evolving thing - it’s moving from Frontier wildness to concentrated pockets of activity - look at Amazon and eBay which have evolved into virtual monopolies.

The biggest issue is the compression of the Hype Cycle. Before, reviews would come out and there’d be time to digest them. Now everyone feeds on each others hype and stuff goes big, big, BIG!! Until a few folks step back and say “meh” and other folks chime in to say “whew, I thought it was only me” - which is how bad blockbuster movies seem to work.

You have to know which critics are worth listening to, and which are just out feed their own ego.

Reviews at, for instance, say nothing. The big issue with the Internet is that it’s ended any nuanced discussion of art. Either sometime is amazingly good or disgustingly bad. Few people will say “there are good parts and weaknesses, but the good parts overcome” and many will focus upon a single error irrelevant to the plot and use that to condemn the entire work.

What this means is that few Internet reviews are worth anything. The main exception are paid reviewers or places like TangentOnline, which has a history of honest reviewing (and even some of those can be questionable; Locus Online has an admitted prejudice against Analog magazine.

But being an artist always required a thick skin. Works got bad reviews all the time, including some that are now considered classics. Anyone will tell you to not listen to the critics.

But the sign you’re good is the same as it always was: people are willing to pay for your work.

Now, people are often willing to pay for things like Twilight. That’s because, on at least one level, Stephanie Meyer is a good writer*. Her work is not going to become classic, but she wrote something that people are willing to pay her for, and that’s very hard to do. And it’s even harder to be as successful as she is, even if her work is crap: you have to hit upon the right kind of crap, and that is mostly good luck.

*I’ve never read her, but you can’t have her success without doing something right. You can point out what is wrong with Twilight, but that is not reason Twilight is successful.

Apropos nothing, most music is bad. This is a matter of opinion: it is an objective fact. In other words, people’s music tastes are defined as much by the music they dislike as the music they like. (This point isn’t mine: I am lifting it from a survey of the music industry that I read in the Economist some years back).

The OP might ask an easier question: how do you know you have a market niche? This has 2 components: sales consists of those who find your music good enough to buy for various reasons. But a survey of your fan base would measure the intensity of their enjoyment. These are separate questions.

If you want to get more nerdy, you can try to define what characteristics of the medium you consider “Good”, then judge how well your work matches them. Then get a 2nd and 3rd opinion.

The only reason I thought I was good enough was when my riffs/words/ideas were being played by popular acts on the radio months after I wrote them.

Only a few people were around at the time to hear and notice it.

No one will believe that I wrote tunes like top bands from the 80’s there’s no way to time stamp the crappy casset tapes that I recorded on.

Since the easy access to the Internet/Software/Youtube, It doesn’t matter anymore.

When you take out the struggle and no one has to work at it, the individual credibility/the blood sweat and tears is gone, once everyone is allowed do it.

The whole shebang has been diluted with subpar bullshit.

There are a few jewels in the mix, unfortunately that all gets tossed aside with the next one, then that too is forgotten about soon after. :frowning:

I think the big difference is that anyone can be a critic now online.

I didn’t know they hated those first two bands, interesting. Styx is another band excoriated by the critics while having a pretty big fan base.


I agree. Or even mediocre movies, albums, etc. It’s as if there is a need to be excited about something, anything.

Well, I agree that there is that type of review, but I also find a lot of nuanced reviews too online. Given enough reviews, there will be some of every type, pro/con + intelligent/stupid.

I dunno, you have both false positives and false negatives.

False positives. No one, critic or layperson, believes that any American playwright was good in the 19th century. Heck, their names and the names of their plays are almost totally forgotten. Only Wilde, Shaw, and Ibsen are considered good from that time period. It’s about as black and white as it gets; I’ve never even read a contrary viewpoint. But people were paying to see those crappy shows back then.

False negatives–these are common too. Van Gogh shot himself knowing he was a total failure. He had sold one painting in his life. Now his works are among the most valuable.

But I don’t really buy, either, that works that “stand the test of time” are automatically validated, or those that don’t are invalidated. Some creative work, like political cartoons, is meant to be for its time period and no later. Also, some work could be good for its time period but just not relevant later because of changing circumstances.

It seems that you are merely asserting in a different way that that which sells has to be good in some way.

But I have an argument against that. If lots of bottles of Coca-Cola sell, is that good literature? “Well, that’s not even literature,” you say. Fine. What if it’s lots of math textbooks? “Not literature either,” you say. True. But how do we even know that “Twilight” is literature unless we critique it as literature? Just because it’s writing on a page doesn’t mean that it’s even art. Porn books aren’t art. Penny dreadfuls were arguably not intended as art by their authors. The same thing goes for romance novels.

IOW, just knowing that something sells doesn’t allow one to assert that it’s automatically good art, which is what the OP is about.

No, people back then were paying to see Shakespeare, which was incredibly popular. So were other classic playwrights and, of course Uncle Tom’s Cabin..

The reason there were no notable 19th Century American playwrights (except for Augustin Daly*) was that plays weren’t copyrightable. Anyone who wanted making a living writing plays had to run a theater company and crank our melodramas, and only got money for those plays in his company. They haven’t stood the test of time, but they never were intended to.

People who wanted to write gravitated to other literary forms; you could make money with poetry back then and with novels. So you’d put your effort into novels or poetry. And the great US writers of the era wrote some great novels.

Sure. Van Gogh was a failure in his lifetime (though there is some belief his death was an accident, not a suicide), as was Herman Melville. They just were lucky enough to be rediscovered. It’s quite obvious if you know the era why Moby Dick failed miserably – the novel was too much in the tradition of the sentimental novel of the time for critics to like it, and it was too different from it for the readers to like it.

But you can never know how people will judge your work in the future.

That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that you know you’re successful in your lifetime if people are willing to pay for your work. People paid those political cartoonists. How people will think of your work after your dead shouldn’t be a consideration, since you’d never know of your success.

True, but if people are buying your work, that answers the question as whether your work is good – it’s good enough that people are willing to spend money to see it.

The test of time is nothing an author can ever know and shouldn’t be a concern.

The definition of “good art” changes and what is considered good art in the lifetime of the artist – people like Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth and Winston Churchill (the American author, not the UK Prime Minister) all were praised greatly in their lifetimes, but are completely forgotten today.

But if people are willing to pay for your work, then you’re doing something right.

*Inventor of tying a victim to the railroad track (the hero, who was rescued by the heroine) and of tying another victim to the sawmill.

This is almost diametrically opposite from my understanding of artists, and how great art is created. Artists create what they believe to be great art. If they’re really cutting edge, and doing something that changes the paradigm for their discipline, then they can expect not to be understood or appreciated. There are many artists (actors, writers, etc.), who pay no attention to the established critics, and go out of their way to avoid reading them. I hear it from actors all the time – that they don’t watch their own work, and that they don’t read the reviews. Many artists believe that if they pay attention to the critics, it will change the essence of their creativity, because they will be working toward the critic’s standards, rather than using their own creative instincts. Paying attention to the masses on the Internet would be even worse. Of course, if your sole goal is to make money, you can go out there and see what twitter is saying today, and make something that meets those standards. But I can’t imagine that any truly talented artist, such as Beyoncé, would want to create an album based on what Amazon reviewers have to say about it. I just can’t imagine her changing her opinion of the quality of an album that she created based on anonymous comments.

Do you have any cites for that? I don’t so much want to challenge you as study up on the issue.

Thanks for the info on Daly.

I don’t think this reflects how artists really think, however. Some musicians know they’re just churning out crap that’s selling at the time, and some are trying to make “great music.” Sometimes music is appreciated by very intelligent people yet doesn’t sell well. Should an artist in that case think of him/herself as a failure?

I am not saying sales is worthless as a measurement. I’m saying that it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Thanks, I studied up a bit. Churchill sounds as though he could be good; I wonder why all of his books are forgotten. Richard Carvel sounds legit.

I don’t think this is true of all artists. From what I’ve read of Van Gogh, he was clearly self-doubting and wanting to be appreciated.

Also, some artists don’t identify themselves as creators of quality work. For every Kanye West who thinks he’s a genius, there’s someone who is churning stuff out, perhaps even cynically. Sometimes it’s the same artist. Mozart sometimes busted out a lesser-quality work for quick money.

But if they’re not understood or appreciated at all, then no one will buy their stuff, and they will have no validation of their talent.

I am willing to bet money that there are artists who read every review they can get their hands on, including Amazon reviews. I don’t think they are all the same. For all his confidence in his genius, Kanye clearly desires validation, as evidenced by his stunt with Taylor Swift that time. A lot of creative types are really needy. Hell, “I do it for the applause,” sings Lady Gaga.

I picked Beyonce on purpose as an example, since I don’t think she’s very talented. She can sing, sure, but her music is mediocre and seems churned out, even if that is not intentional. Beyonce does not seem very intellectual, so I can well imagine her being blithely uncaring of what individuals think. But Kanye? I would not be surprised if he was reading his Amazon reviews.

Sure, but since almost no one reads what random people write online it has almost no impact.

I’m an artist (visual), and I don’t pay attention to what other people say about my art. People who see it tend to like it, and tend to like the same pieces. But as for myself, when I finish a piece I know how good it is, and I know whether it’s VERY good. I don’t need anyone to tell me; whether their opinion is good or bad, it doesn’t change how I evaluate it.

Exactly. This is what I was getting at. I’m sure there are artists who read their reviews, and some who try to tailor their work to what the audience wants. But I think at that point you’re crossing the line into being a manufacturer, rather than an artist – you’re producing a product for consumption, not making art in the traditional sense.

As panache says, an artist doesn’t need external validation of their talent. They have their own judgment to validate their work.

Nothing is 100%, so it’s a questions of how many see things your way. Why does Kanye West care if Taylor Swift won the award and not he?

Well, to be honest, I find Kanye West to be a producer of product, not an artist. And a pretty insecure one, at that. Award shows really are generally more for producers of product than artists, IHMO. Best case scenario: he was grabbing some free advertising.

The award acceptance speech he interrupted wasn’t for him, he did so for some other female artist. And it’s not like artists don’t have big egos.

Yes, big egos requiring external validation.

Also, “sales” was given as a reason for feeling that one is doing good work. But that is also a form of external validation.

Moreover, art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. panache45, I get that you do your work on your own terms, and I think that’s cool. And art can be 100% for one’s own consumption if one wishes it to be, and that’s cool too. But it sounds as though you are good and your works sell. Thus, there’s some dialog with the external world there. If you make your living from your art, you would need to keep receiving that validation via dollars, even if that wasn’t your primary motivation.

I would have thought that is the very definition of a stunted ego. People with good ego resources don’t need anyone else to tell them how awesome they are. Drama queens do.

Well, there is a traditional meaning attached to the term “big ego.”