Handling Rejection with Grace

by SaskMusic

July 31, 2009 in Doing Business

At some point in your musical career, you're going to run face-first into it. Whether it's when trying to book a gig, sell albums, get radio play, a spot in a festival or the many other avenues you'll try in order to promote your music, you're going to have to learn to deal with rejection. Ugggh. The worst part of choosing a career in a creative field is that everything you put out there is subject to personal opinion!

You'd be hard pressed to find a band that has never been turned down for something. Even the most successful band out there doesn't get accepted to showcase at every NXNE, every CMW, every NewMusicWest, every...you get the idea. Even artists with songs in heavy rotation on some stations can't get a spin on others.

There is no perfect system for ensuring that the most talented bands always get the spots, the airplay, and the recognition. In fact, if there were only one set of criteria for figuring out what constitutes a "good artist", you'd end up with a pretty bland musical landscape. Take an artist like Bob Dylan. With his off-key, mumbling vocal style, a lot of people could have (and did) write off his talent. But of course, his exceptional songwriting overcame his perceived shortcomings, and that style made him one of the most recognizable voices in music.

What's gold to one person is crap to the next. You probably don't expect that absolutely everyone is going to love your music, and unless you're hell-bent on the popular music market, you probably don't want to appeal to everyone! So, the only way to deal with rejection is to accept that it's gonna happen, and figure out how you want to react to it.

Easier said than done, right? You've just finished your brand new album. You've sunk all your cash into making it perfect. You've written songs that bare your soul and bring your friends to tears. Your band is pumped. You're proud, and ready to conquer the world. Confident of your greatness, you send your application off and get ready for your call to showcase at major music festivals. Then the rejection letter comes...one of the worst feelings in the world! You're crushed! If the rejection if severe enough, the feelings you go through may even resemble those of grief:

Denial/Shock. "What do you MEAN we didn't get in? They must not have listened to it."
Anger. "How dare they turn us down. Don't they know we're selling hundreds of albums? It's just not fair." This comes from feeling helpless - that you have no control over your success or failure.
Guilt/Blame. "I should have sent the newer photo." "The jury was rigged." If you feel you've done everything right, it follows that someone else must have messed up.
Depression. Duh. You may begin to doubt your talent, or that you know the business well enough.
Acceptance. This is the hard part...

In most cases, you can learn from your mistakes. The rejection may have had less to do with your talent than how you handled the situation. If you've been rejected by a venue, a record label or the like, did you do the proper work ahead of time? Did you make the necessary phone calls and get all the information necessary before submitting a package? Were you polite and clear in your conversations with a key person? Did you find out if you're an appropriate band for that type of venue or company? If you've been rejected for something like a grant, did you make sure your package was received by the deadline? Did you spend enough time making it look professional, checking it for errors, and provide plenty of detail?

Tip: If you've been rejected (for something specific), don't submit exactly the same package again. Something needs work first. The only time a "repeat submission" works is if the person evaluating has changed, or if it's a jury system (and different people will comprise the jury the next time your package comes up).

Often, you can contact the person or company who made the decision for more information. FACTOR now provides comments (provided by the jury) to those who are not accepted, which can be very helpful when you are getting ready to try again. For the Flatland Music Festival we also make scores available, so you can see what your weakest areas were (according to the jury). It never hurts to make a polite phone call and see if you can gather more information. Usually, the person on the other end of the phone is willing to help - you're calling because you want to improve yourself.

Tip: Very few bands take advantage of the fact that feedback is available. If you're afraid of hearing negative comments, you probably already know what your weaknesses are. Fix them. If you feel strongly that you were slighted, make a point of getting feedback. You may not realize just how off-key your vocals are, or that your lyrics really do need more work. Hey, maybe it was even just a really bad run of your demo.

How you deal with rejection may be one of the toughest things to master - and can also harm or help your career.

Take a look at the following scenario: Two bands submit packages to a record label. Both receive a standard rejection letter, stating that the company isn't signing artists right now (or something to that effect). Both bands were convinced that they perfect for the label, and had a great product.

The leader of Band A phones the label the next day, and demands to speak to the exec. He's rude to the exec's assistant, and the assistant (who is trusted by her boss to deal with troublesome calls) doesn't pass the message along. When his call hasn't been returned the next day, the leader calls again, and gets through to the exec. The leader is now rude to him as well, tell him he doesn't know good music, and they're going to prove him wrong by signing a deal with another record company. Record exec says okay, good for you. He hangs up the phone and makes a mental note that Band A is immature and unprofessional, and if he'd liked the band's demo a little, he'll now discount them completely. He's got hundreds of other bands to listen to, and he doesn't owe Band A anything.

The leader of Band B waits a few days to get his disappointment under control. He phones the label, identifies himself and asks for a few moments to speak with the exec. When he's told the exec is busy, he finds out the assistant's name, and asks when a better time to call would be. When the leader calls again, he greets the assistant by name, and gets through to the exec. The leader identifies himself, asks for a few moments of the exec's time, and then asks the exec what areas need to be improved upon. The exec may respond that he really liked the demo, but knows they won't be signing any new acts for quite a while. They should work on their lyrics, get a better producer, and have some professional photos done. Call back in three months and I'll look at the band again. The leader thanks him for his suggestions, and assures him that the band will resubmit in three months. The exec hangs up the phone and makes a mental note that Band B has their stuff together, and if they take care of the things he mentioned, they might really be someone to watch.

Tip: Treat everyone with respect. The assistant today could be the A & R rep tomorrow, and it's funny how well you remember someone who was rude to you.

Everyone who sits on a FACTOR jury, books acts in a club, determines who will get a showcase, signs bands, and figures out who will get played on a radio station is...a human being. It's almost guaranteed that they will not hear the same things in your music that you do. They'll have a favourite style of music, they'll like music for different reasons, and they will make decisions based on particular needs - the most important one being the one to please the audience that will hear the selected music. The people who make decisions that affect your career are all trying to please the audience, whether it's the club guy who's trying to fill his venue, the record label guy who needs to sell records or he'll lose his job, or the radio station programmer who's trying to figure out which song the general public will want to hear. They're not always right, and it sure ain't a perfect science, so why would you let a rejection from them disrupt your career?

Tip: An isolated comment that "your voice is too shrill" can be considered one person's opinion, if everyone else seems to be okay with your sound. However, if all your feedback is reporting this, distance yourself for a moment and think about the possibility that they're actually right on this one. Or be prepared for more rejection.

I've sat on juries where two jurists had completely opposite opinions of the same band. One loves them, one can't stand them. Now, this is not a bad thing! The band in this situation may end up being rejected for that particular opportunity because no one could agree, but obviously, they have a quality that caused a reaction. At some point that unique quality is going to find its market, its "sweet spot" jury, or that record exec that believes in it. For nearly every REALLY POPULAR artist out there, there are often record companies who turned them down, and there are a lot of people who hate their music. You don't need every single person to "get" your music (unless fame is your main goal, but you're in it for the love, right? Right?) You need to get your music to the right people. Whether that right person is the head of a label that would be a good fit for your band, or whether that means you can pack the shows with the right fans on your next rock tour, depends on your goals for your career.

Tip: Sometimes juries really want you to hear their feedback, because you were SO CLOSE. They want you to succeed. It's not easy to tell someone they didn't get the grant, or they didn't get the gig. Hey, most of them are musicians too!

Whatever the case, take rejection for what it is. An opportunity to learn that something needs improvement...and to test the strength of your dedication to be in this music business. How much fun would it be if everyone got approved for everything they applied for? Ho-hum. You like a good challenge, don't you?

Life will go on. Your music should too.

By Lorena Kelly for SaskMusic. Originally published November 2003.

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