I have been re-watching the Great British Baking Show recently. It is one of my go-to shows (along with Seinfeld and Top Chef) when I just want something on in the background to keep me company while I cook or grab a bite to eat between work stints. It is supposed to be easy to turn off and go to back to work because you know what is going to happen. The problem is it invariably draws me back in. This show is apparently about baking but really it more about the actual people. You get to know them in a quiet, slow reveal. The ending of one of my favorite seasons always gets me. The winner (no spoilers here, you have to watch it!) says directly into the camera one of the most moving things I have ever seen on “reality” television:
I’m never gonna put boundaries on myself ever again. I’m never gonna say I can’t do it. I’m never gonna say ‘maybe’. I’m never gonna say, ‘I don’t think I can.’ I can and I will.
Love it! Huzzah!! But the thing that struck me as I was wiping away my tears after my most recent viewing (I always cry, every freaking time, can’t help myself….) is that the winner was saying this after 1. being picked as one of twelve bakers out of the submissions from all of Britain (presumably hundreds if not thousands of entries) and 2. being chosen as the winner after 10 weeks of competition with 3 different challenges per weekend. When you have that level of feedback and success it is easier to make such a statement. But for many of us we are trying to summon that same courage in very different circumstances.
If you are a composer for film and media right now there is a solid chance that you will have applied for at least one of a number of great opportunities that arise this time of year: the Sundance Composers Lab, the ASCAP Film Scoring Workshop, the BMI Pete Carpenter Fellowship, the Helix Collective LA Live Scoring Film Festival and the BMI Conducting Workshop. These programs can be career elevating and definitely provide visibility and a great learning experience. However it has gone from the low hundreds of people applying to now the very high hundreds and beyond for a very limited amount of positions; around 5-10 spots depending on the program.
I have applied specifically to the Sundance Lab for a number of years now. Last year my rejection letter closed with this statement: “I hope you will not take this as a comment on the quality of your work and that if you are serious about a career in film music you will persevere and find opportunities for yourself.”
I have had many conversations with fellow composers over the years about these applications and the following rejection. Some of the composers I most admire – both from the standpoint of the music they compose and their career trajectory – have never been accepted into these opportunities. The stark reality is that you can be a really good composer and never gain acceptance into these program. That is entirely possible.
I just wrapped up being a judge in the LA Live Score Film Festival for their first round of judging. I was a composer in this event in its second year, an absolutely brilliant experience. As a judge this year I was truly impressed by the quality of work I heard in many of the entries this year. It made the judging quite challenging. There was some great music, high production quality and really interesting and creative musical choices in the reels. It made me excited about the concert. It also became very clear that talented, hard-working composers would not make it into the final selection. Just too many great composers. I hope they re-apply in the following years.
The rejection of your application truly cannot be considered feedback on the quality and creativity of your work. It is not a statement regarding on whether or not you will be successful in years to come. This rejection is not actionable feedback.
So the question stands: if you apply to every workshop every year, and you are constantly rejected, should you continue to persist, and have the attitude of our GBBS winner: I can and I will! A key requirement for being in the arts is a relentless persistence. I saw this fantastic tweet the other day:
How cool is that?! He never was accepted into this program and yet he now has directed a TV episode. I feel like he truly did what my Sundance rejection letter told me to do: he found his own opportunities. After reading this tweet I was curious so I checked out his imdb page. This guy has been Working: OMG! He has credits as set production assistant, co-producer, producer, director, editor, writer….the list goes on. His most recent success is the result of a significant amount of hustle with his first credit happening in 2008. 11 years.
As creatives we experience a lot of rejection beyond these education/mentoring/ exposure/amplification opportunities. We are applying to gigs every week and experiencing rejection there. Again, this cannot always be taken as feedback on our creative abilities. When I was first breaking into film scoring I read Richard Davis’ fantastic book: Complete Guide to Film Scoring: The Art and Business of Writing Music for Movies and TV. The thing I love most about this book is the interviews of composers. My favorite interview had this story about how a composer (I am so sorry I cannot remember who – read the book and find out!) got a great film gig. The director had his tape, listened to it and then they met in person. After the meeting he landed the film. He found out afterwards that the director didn’t even like his demo. Didn’t care for the music! But loved hanging out with him and on those grounds, hired him.
Composers (or anyone in this industry…or any industry) often get the gig for reasons beyond their actual ability to do the job. They are hired because the client knows them, someone the client trusted recommended them, because of their previous credits, or simply because they are great to be around. It is about way more than the music but it does speak to the other key aspects involved in order to successfully exist in this industry. At this point I can list all the brilliant people that have experienced massive amounts of rejection. Stephen King who collected his hundreds of rejection letters. The Mad Men showrunners who carried around their script for eight years before it was picked up by a largely unappreciated cable channel. Need more? Check out this link to rejection letters sent to now famous people. History proves they had the ability but it took a long time for them to experience the benefits of their skillset. In the meantime, they persisted.
For me, landing gigs is a different sort of feedback than that which you would receive from a fellow composer or by getting into a lab or competition. It speaks primarily to your ability to survive in this industry. It is evidence that you can connect with filmmakers, present your work in a way that is convincing and that you write music which appeals to people. This is a different, but equally important area to receive feedback on. You may not write music that other composers applaud or rave about, but if you are working that speaks for itself!
So hopefully you are encouraged by reading all this. All your rejection doesn’t mean you suck. All you have to do is keep perservering, keeping being relentless in the face of all this rejection and start creating your own opportunities.
However: you could still suck. There’s a chance you are not good at all. Especially if you are in a situation where you are not getting into learning opportunities like labs and not landing gigs. Is your music the problem? Is it how you are representing yourself? Is it the way you are pursuing opportunities? What to do?
Seek Actionable Feedback
I use this annual application time as a feedback opportunity for myself. The process of putting together the application sends me listening through the projects completed in the previous year. I pick out the cues that I feel best represent my voice, the best production quality of my work, the most interesting pieces of music. I find it a fascinating trip down memory lane (it is surprisingly easy to forget what you wrote in the previous year) and I also immediately hear things that I would like to improve. I have my application somewhere on my computer for every year I have applied. It shows me how much I have progressed, and areas where I need to keep pushing.
Then I take it a step further and receive feedback from someone else. James Clear, one of my favorite authors, spoke about rapid feedback again this week in his article about “overnight success”. He listed this as the #1 thing to do when trying to take your thing to the next level. I have composers in my life who have heard my music over the years and are qualified, given their body of work and credit history, to give me solid feedback. I also apply to opportunities where feedback is guaranteed. When the invite is extended I send my music to composers I want to work with and it is so helpful hearing their thoughts on my cues. What helps me relentlessly persist in this career while being able to sleep at night is not whether or not I got into a program. It is my mentor’s feedback, and my body of work.
My mum Roslyn Langlois is a concert pianist and choral director. A very admired and respected musician, and for good reason: she’s amazing. However this didn’t stop her from getting lessons throughout her life from her pianist peers. I loved this about her. She has this incredible humility and openness to learn and improve. I am trying to follow in her footsteps, even though it is hard! As crazy as it sounds it is way easier for me to send my music to a filmmaker and receive their two cents than it is to play my music to a fellow composer and hear their feedback. So weird, but totally true.
To summarize: the challenge of this week is the mental and emotional aerobics required to relentlessly apply to career opportunities, whether they be gigs or labs, and to deal with the potential following rejection. Don’t take that rejection as feedback. Find feedback in reliable sources. Listen, do the work, push yourself forward. Then rinse and repeat.
- Complete Guide to Film Scoring: The Art and Business of Writing Music for Movies and TV by Richard Davis
- Rejection letters sent to now famous people Mental Floss
- Podcast: How to build Creative Confidence By Todd Henry
- How to achieve overnight success by James Clear (spoiler alert: he doesn’t believe in overnight success)
If you are interested in sessions with Catherine Joy for feedback and career consultation you can contact her here.