November-December 2011

Rejection And Folk Music

By Dennis Roger Reed

All artists face rejection. It may be your third grade teacher’s analysis of your portrait of her. Perhaps the band you auditioned for in high school still hasn’t called. Love may have been lost based on the poetry you composed for that disinterested someone. For our purposes, let’s keep this about artistic rejection in folk music. Note I do not say “artist’s rejection.” That’s an important point. You need to create the ability to realize that your art is not you, and criticism of your art is not necessarily of you.

So where can we seek out this folk music rejection? Good news: all over the place. Did you try to get a gig at that new coffeehouse that has their own sound system, edible food and has hired all of your friend’s bands? Did they return your calls? Perhaps you have been rejected. That band you sat in with a few months ago that seemed to really click. No texts? Rejection? Practiced all year for the big banjo and fiddle contest and you didn’t even place in intermediate mandolin? Rejection? Did you enter your very best song of all time in that nationwide songwriting contest? No ribbon? Rejection?

Rejection doesn’t have to mean the end of the world. Try another 8 coffeehouses, and at least learn more about rejection. Sit in with more bands. Practice more for next year’s banjo and fiddle competition. Really look at your song and make sure it’s as good as you first thought it was. Write ten more and enter a couple in next year’s program.

A big portion of the ability to remain resilient and try to benefit from rejection is attitude. It’s easy to drown in your own sorrow over how few people understand your innate genius. Step back a few paces and look at it all again. Maybe the song isn’t done. Maybe you tried to play the fastest mandolin piece you know but got a little off time. Maybe during that jam session you took a few too many solos, or played too much behind the singer. And maybe you’re just not up to the level of performers that particular coffeehouse is looking for.

Self knowledge comes into play big time. If you think what you are doing is the best you can do and is also pretty darn good, maybe your critic is just wrong. A long time ago I pitched a country rock song to a music publisher who said “Slash my wrists in a warm bath; this is the most depressing song I’ve ever heard.” I never thought of this song as depressing, I thought it was comedic. Luckily for me, a couple of Nashville publishers have disagreed, and although I’m still waiting for my million dollar cut, it’s a pretty decent song that almost always get a good response when played live.

And in the wonderful world of music, success can turn into rejection in the blink of an eye. In the olden days, there were several organizations like the LASS and NAS and SRS and a few other initials that would occasionally run an evening or afternoon program where you could pitch your songs to producers, publishers and even artists. This usually consisted of a coded cassette being played and assessed anonymously in front of a group comprised primarily of those who had submitted. Some of the reviewers were quite funny and positive, some were neither and some were downright mean and nasty. However, as we were always reminded, it’s the music BUSINESS, not hobby. One should act professionally, and have some idea of what you are doing. Generally only a few seconds of a song was played before rejection, and even songs that pleased the assessor usually were only listened to part way.

At one daylong event, I had a songwriting “consultant” go nuts over one of my lyrics, and read the entire lyric, blow it up on the screen and go line by line commenting on the strength of the lyrics. After class she tried to sign me up for melody lessons since it was “obvious since my lyrics were so good, it had to be my melodies that were suffering.”

An hour or so later, an impossibly young A&R director for a good sized international record label fell in love with the same song. She played the entire song, even the instrumental break. Six months later I was mailed the tape back with a Xeroxed noted stating that she did not accept unsolicited work. I had been rejected.

Despite all the love that tune got that day, it still has only been recorded by me, but it does have a decent list of folks who have rejected it. One afternoon I got a call at my day job from a song pusher who was in a dressing room with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and had my tape but had lost the lyric sheet. He slowly transcribed the lyrics as I could remember them. The Dirt Band deferred anyway. I did not end my career as a songwriter because no one wanted this song. Rejection of one song, or one audition, does not mean failure.

It’s a great time of the year to go out and see some live music. Don’t forget that tip jar.

Dennis Roger Reed is a singer-songwriter, musician and writer based in San Clemente, CA. He’s released two solo CDs, and appeared on two CDs with the newgrassy Andy Rau Band and two CDs with the roots rockers Blue Mama. His prose has appeared in a variety of publications such as the OC Weekly and MOJO magazine. Writing about his music has appeared in an eclectic group of publications such as Bass Player, Acoustic Musician, Dirty Linen, Blue Suede News and Sing Out! His oddest folk resume entry would be the period of several months in 2002 when he danced onstage as part of both Little Richard’s and Paul Simon’s revues. He was actually asked to do the former and condoned by the latter. He apparently knows no shame.


All Columns by Dennis Roger Reed