By Savannah Leigh Wellman
It’s undeniable the positive impact that artist development programs, grants, and contests have on the Canadian music scene. Artists being educated on the “how-tos” of the industry begin to see their music not just as an art form, or hobby, or crap shoot – but a viable business, in which they can learn the tools to use in building a career. Funding given to artists is in turn invested right back into the industry around them. Programs that include mentorships or professional introductions offer an invaluable “insider” opportunity to make connections that would quite possibly be otherwise ignored. Being selected for any kind of funding or program is almost always a welcomed leg up and boost of confidence for an artist.
But what happens when being left on the outside of these opportunities creates the opposite effect – a discouragement, a seed of doubt in an already self-critical mind? It can create divides amongst the very community the programs are aiming to support, or lead to viewpoints of entitlement and judgement. Not that these programs shouldn’t exist – they’re crucial for building the careers of emerging artists, in a way that record labels generally can’t any more. But how can we help artists come away from such experiences stronger than when they began, instead of defeated?
Anyone who’s ever worked with an artist understands that the creative mind is usually also a sensitive one – that sensitivity is what makes an artist compelling to the public, and what provides a unique insight into the human experience. When your product is so innately personal, criticisms can feel extra severe, and artists in the early stages of their career don’t have the same defense mechanisms as more established acts. They don’t have dedicated fans sending positive messages of support, or successes they can look back on for reassurance, or managers and team members to keep them focused on the positive. To someone who is still trying to make it on their own, blows to your confidence can be real setbacks.
But why is not being selected for something taken as a criticism? Why can’t an artist simply shrug off a “no” and apply for the next opportunity? I think it comes down to the fact that when putting your music on the line to be judged, to be critiqued and evaluated, it’s close to impossible to not take the results personally. It feels like someone is reviewing everything you’ve poured your heart into, and deciding it’s not worthy – when in reality, there’s just not enough funds, or showcase slots, or prizes to give away to everyone who is worthy.
The most important thing to remember when putting your music in a situation where it will be judged in one way or another is that art is subjective. Even though guidelines can be created to try to best measure the tangible components (strong melody, professional production, interesting lyrics), at the end of the day, it still comes down to an individual’s opinion. And when has the music industry ever been unanimous on an opinion of what’s good?! Just because the small sample group of people who had the fate of your application in their hands didn’t think it was better than the one they heard before it, doesn’t mean someone else won’t.
Also, some programs offer feedback for applicants, and if you’re up for taking it in, it can provide great opportunities for growth. Again, the key is to take them with a grain of salt, and if there are suggestions you agree with, then consider following those.
In some cases, instead of spawning insecurities, a “no” will raise feelings of anger, and defensiveness. But I did this, and I have earned that! Or perhaps a comparative outlook is taken on – but I did this and they didn’t! These mind frames breed negativity and competitiveness within a scene, and can harbour jealousy and resentment towards acts for which there’s no other reason to withdraw support. It’s important to remember that everyone’s working hard, and that someone else’s success does not actually take away from your own.
If the concern is about procedure or policy, making sure that certain standards are being upheld, or that processes are transparent and accessible, then those are fair points to make with whoever is running the program. However, it’s important to bring it up in an un-biased, rational discussion, rather than as an emotional defence. Don’t focus on why your own application wasn’t selected, but rather on the guideline or policy that seems to be counter-productive for a number of artists (for example).
We are so lucky to live in a country that supports arts and culture the way Canada does – it’s unique on a worldwide scale. While it can be disheartening to apply for various support programs and not be selected, it’s important to remember the real reasons you started making music – chances are it wasn’t to win contests, or record albums only if someone else paid for them.
Every successful musician has their own novel of rejection stories – it’s the ones who persevere through them who have a chance at a successful career.
Savannah Leigh Wellman was the program manager at Music BC Industry Association for eight years, performs under the artist name SAVVIE, and is a co-founder of Tiny Kingdom Management & Artist Services.