Rejection and Creativity: Hand-in-Hand

All creatives face rejection.  It’s something of an occupational hazard.  We throw our hat into the ring for consideration, and–more often than not–the client picks someone else.  This happens for all kinds of reasons, but for beginning and mid-level composers, it’s usually due to stiff competition and the incredible amount talent that’s currently in circulation.  There’s no doubt about it, landing a composing gig–especially if it’s one of your first–is tough (more on this in a future blog post).


The rate of rejection can be even higher in the commercial music world, where multiple ad houses are submitting numerous demos and competing for a ‘win.’  Some of my Minneapolis ad colleagues tell stories about friends leaving the business altogether, because they can’t handle all the client brush-offs and bounced submissions.  Thankfully, most rejected tracks will filter their way into the music house’s catalogue for future development or licensing, so these endeavors are rarely completely wasted endeavors.


Still, most new creatives know what they’re up against and how hard it can be to land worthwhile gigs.  The rules of the road are pretty clearly stated. Most writers, noise-makers, graphic designers, and photographers are used to hearing “no thank you,” “no unsolicited submissions,” or even “get lost.”


Rejection During a Gig: Oh Yes, There’s More to Go Around

While rejection in the face of trying to get a job is expected, we don’t often talk about rejection during a project we’ve already landed.  For content creators, this can be a real uphill battle.  I got my first really potent dose of this while scoring a feature film this last year.  


Although it was a first-time collaboration, the chemistry with the directors was good, and we were able to talk in clear terms about the nuances of the film.  For this film, however, I was finding myself doing upwards of seven rewrites per cue. For several tracks, I had to begin again entirely from square one. I was relearning that just because you were accepted to write a film’s score, you could face a healthy amount of rejection while completing the project.


To make things worse, I thought I was alone in my plight.  Was I messing this up? or was this particular director a challenging case?  I didn’t find an answer to these questions until recently, and like most things in life, the answer is ’C, all of the above.’  Yes the director was a very kind–albeit very challenging–employer, but the experience of rejection it turns out is an incredibly common theme.


Thomas Newman and Allen Silvestri  joked about “weak and faint-praise rejection” in an interview-roundtable with The Hollywood Reporter.  They described an all-too-common situation in which a director would find a cue “nice,” but nevertheless send a composer off in a different direction.  In the same interview, Henry Jackman went on to discuss his own frustrating rejections were while working with director Paul Greengrass on Captain Phillips:


“Paul Greengrass’ background is is in journalism, so he’s obsessed with objectivity.  You’re not allowed a huge theme, and you’re not allowed to color the American Navy with heroism...I’d write something and think ‘This is surely the limit of minimalism,’ because I think there’s one harmonic shift three minutes into the cue, so no one could possibly bust me for this being too opinionated.  Then Paul would hear it and go, ‘It’s great. It’s a bit acrobatic... [laughs].“


While shared experiences seldom make the rejections less frustrating, it is still comforting to know that we are now along in our frustrations as composers.


Setting Aside Self-Doubt & Shelving Ego: The Benefits of Rejection

I was no stranger to revision notes.  Having a cue flat-out approved is sometimes a rarity, especially when working with directors that are green or have limited experience collaborating with a composer.  All the same, I felt myself sliding into a cycle of negative self-talk. “They’re going to fire you,” I would tell myself. “Might as well pack it in and let them find someone who can figure out what it is she’s looking for…”   I took the cue rejections really personally, even though in hindsight, I shouldn’t have.


Of course the score was completed, and of the course the directors were happy when all was said and done.  This does not, however silence those dark choruses that ring in our minds when we’re mid-project. In many instances, self doubt is a good thing: it keeps us from settling into complacency and it pushes us to complete our best work.  But be careful. It can stifle creativity and stop you in your tracks if you allow it to speak too loudly.  

The other benefit of rejection is that it forces us to shelve our ego...both personally and creatively.  Starting a cue for the third time with a smile and “No problem” attitude with your director or producer is an active exercise in patience and humility.  It serves as a reminder that we are hired to help complete someone else’s creative vision rather than write exactly what we like.


A Note for the Directors...

Directors and filmmakers, this one is for you. 


Never allow your composer to submit subpar work that doesn’t satisfy your creative vision.  Every director has a right to send any one on their team–composer included–back to the drawing board.  However, remember this snippet from the composer’s perspective:


Over-reliance on your veto power will eventually take a toll on your maestro’s self confidence.   Too many rewrite requests can even result in diminishing returns, as your composer takes wilder jabs to get at what it is you’re trying to achieve.  Use clear, descriptive, emotive language. You need not use musical terms to describe your vision for the score, as any capable composer should be able to translate emotion to music.