Wrestling with Rejection

by Mary Dawson

You know the drill. You pour your heart and soul into the writing of a new song. The lyrics have been forged in the fires of heartbreak. You've let it "all hang out" -- honest and raw! The music is the best you've ever written. This is the birth of a masterpiece! And then, the moment comes when you play the song for somebody else -- a friend, a relative or (perish the thought) a panel of judges -- and as my friend Babbie Mason says, "They have the nerve to tell you that your baby is ugly!" It's called rejection -- and it hurts like hell!

Well I remember attending my first songwriting seminar and fearfully submitting one of my songs for a critique session conducted by "music industry professionals." There's absolutely nothing that makes the heart pound faster or the palms sweat more than hearing your song being played on a cassette or CD and knowing that in just a few more minutes, it will be torn to shreds by the panel of reviewers. And believe me, many of my songs were not only torn up, but chewed up and spit out as well.

For some people this kind of rejection ends their careers before they start, while other people seem to survive and even thrive under the pressure. What should be our attitude toward the inevitable "bad critique" or the "form rejection letter?" Is there a way to endure the pain of rejection and even make it work for you?

Unfortunately, rejection in the world of music seems to be an unavoidable reality, but how we choose to respond can either make us "bitter or better." Here are some thoughts to weigh as you choose your own response:
  1. Consider the Source -- We've all had this experience or variations thereof:

    You've done your homework and made the proper introductory calls, but finally you've received permission from the A&R Department of a major label to submit your song for consideration. You wait expectantly for a response, and then…one day…the mail arrives and you see a letter with the record company logo on the envelope. With trembling fingers you open it, only to discover that it's a form rejection letter letting you know that your song "is not what we are looking for at this time."

    Before depression sets in, think about this: It's entirely probable that the A&R Director never even heard your song. In fact, the more likely possibility is that his/her receptionist or intern is the one who actually listened to it -- and it's also likely that the receptionist doesn't know a lick about songwriting!

    You think I jest? Not at all! I can't tell you how many A&R representatives I've met over the years who started out in the shipping department of the record label...worked themselves up to receptionist...and now, are one of the senior execs. This may speak well for their tenacity but it doesn't necessarily mean that they have any kind of songwriting evaluation skills.

    I personally know a producer in Nashville whose office was next door to a major label. Every week the A&R assistant at the record company would bring a box of demo cassettes out to the trash. The demos were from aspiring songwriters all over the country -- some of the packages hadn't even been opened.

    My friend, who was just getting started in the music business and had little money, used to scavenge through the record label's trash can to see if any of those tapes were good enough to be used again. Before he would re-record, he would listen to what had been submitted. Guess what he found one day! The original guitar/vocal demo of Garth Brooks' hit, The Thunder Rolls. It was a simple recording, but it was definitely Garth and the song was as good then as when it hit the top of the charts a few years later.

    The point is -- even the biggest names in Music today were once aspiring songwriters and artists who were at the mercy of the infamous A&R receptionist who couldn't tell a hit from a hole in the ground! Don't get discouraged by form rejection letters from unidentified, nameless, faceless music personnel.

  2. Learn to identify and appreciate positive criticism -- Believe it or not, there is such a thing as positive criticism. It's usually given by someone more accomplished than yourself and out of a genuine desire to help you improve. Even though it still can "sting" a little to hear it, every good songwriter must learn to cherish and seek out such honest feedback in order to keep stretching and growing in the craft.

    Very early in my career -- when I had really no idea what I was doing as a songwriter -- I entered a songwriting contest. One of the contest judges was a music publisher, and although I didn't win even an "honorable mention" in the contest, this publisher saw something in my song that caused him to contact me and give me his critique personally. A mentor/mentee relationship developed between us which produced conflicting feelings in me vascillating between absolute admiration on one hand and homicidal tendencies on the other. Every time I came up with a new song, he would find something that could be improved. He would say stuff like: "Anybody who can write a great verse one like this, should be able to write a much better verse two!" (Was that a compliment? It sure didn't feel like one.)

    Over the years, however, I began to appreciate this man more and more. He was a wonderful songwriter himself and -- as much as I hated to hear them -- his criticisms of my songs were "right on the money." He saw a potential in my writing that I didn't see myself and he kept pushing me out of my comfort zone into new understandings of the craft. As I look back over my career, I can honestly say that this man's criticisms were some of the greatest gifts I ever received. He cared enough to reject my B- efforts when he saw that I might be capable of A+.

    If you have someone in your life who is more knowledgeable than you are about music and songwriting, and if that person believes in you enough to make time to listen to your songs, don't let the sting of his/her comments keep you from receiving the priceless benefit those comments contain. Thank God for someone who is willing to get behind you and push!

  3. Master the Craft of Songwriting -- So how do you know when a comment is valid and when it isn't? The answer lies in how well you know your craft as a songwriter. If you are constantly studying and educating yourself on the subject, you will have a basis of evaluation for the comments and critiques you receive. But if you don't really know the rules and skills of songwriting, every comment or rejection will be overwhelmingly discouraging.

    In my own experience as a songwriter, I am constantly endeavoring to learn more and more about my craft. I read books; I attend seminars; I study the current hits. When I receive a negative critique on one of my songs from a music professional or a simply music listener, I try to evaluate his/her opinion in the light of what I know about the craft. If the criticism is valid, I use it to my advantage as I re-write, but if I recognize that the comment is unjustified or made in ignorance, I simply compartmentalize it and move on. I don't have to get upset with the person who made the comment -- nor burn a bridge in anger. I simply realize that I have already thought about that point and have chosen to create the song differently because of my knowledge of the craft.

    Knowledge and expertise in any field create confidence and security. Make it your aim to become a master songwriter.
In summary, it's fair to say that criticism and rejection will always be a part of the music industry, but remember that in the end, the song is still your baby. You can choose whether or not you will change it and how much. Go with your understanding of the craft and with your gut instinct and you won't be far off the mark. In fact, you may even have the last laugh.

In 1962, a Decca Record executive made the following statement about the Beatles:
We don't like their sound and guitar music is on the way out.

**From her earliest childhood years writing simple songs and poems with her father, through her twelve years as an overseas missionary, to her present, multi-faceted career as an author, lyricist/songwriter and conference speaker, Mary has always been adept at using words to communicate her heart to others. She is the President of CQK Records & Music of Dallas, Texas, a company which creates and produces songs in a panorama of musical styles for a variety of audiences, She is also the host of "I Write the Songs," a nationally syndicated radio talk show, especially created to inspire and instruct the more than 25 million aspiring songwriters in the U.S. "I Write the Songs" is broadcast over the Internet. Mary is a frequent public speaker and seminar lecturer on songwriting. She is a regular columnist for Independent Songwriter Web Magazine. Mary's commitment to discovering and mentoring talented new songwriters has given her extensive experience in song analysis through adjudicating songwriting competitions and conducting songwriting workshops across the country and around the world. Because of her role as president of an independent music company, she is also well qualified to instruct aspiring songwriters on the various business aspects of the music industry. She is married and a mother of four. She resides in the Dallas area.

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