Updated: Jan 5, 2019
New ideas are hard to accept.
Some interesting examples:
Stan Lee's editor thought that Spiderman was a terrible idea for a super hero.
Chester Carlson spent ten years shopping his idea for the copying machine around before the company that would eventually become Xerox finally accepted it.
The board game Monopoly was originally rejected by Parker Brothers.
Even Barbie dolls were are hard sell in the beginning: too adult, the stores were afraid that people wouldn't buy a doll with breasts!
On a more personal level:
I remember how shocked I was the first time I tasted cilantro! Yuck! It was such a strong, new flavor. But I loved it the second time and have ever since.
Years ago I stopped trying to convince others of my political or spiritual beliefs. At best I get a blank look or a quick change of subject that shows that my thought didn't even register. At worst I spark an argument. (America, are you listening?)
A few years ago, the thought of moving away from Richmond made my stomach clench up and my heart hurt--really. Now I live in the Netherlands.
To the annoyance of friends and family, I have often rejected ideas (too many to mention) and suggestions only to embrace them heartily weeks, months, or years later.
When it was first released, I really didn't like a lot of the music that is now called classic rock. Today I even play a lot of those songs that used to induce a change of station or turning off of the radio. Not only do I really like "Baker Street" and "Hotel California", I respect them as excellent songs, especially musically!
And thus the songwriter's dilemma: NEW IDEAS AREN'T EASILY ACCEPTED.
And that's our business: new ideas!
I can think of several cases where I performed well-known cover songs very poorly and received applause, compliments, or even a tip. On the other hand, I've nailed my originals or obscure covers only to face dead silence. I remember talking to a guy at one performance in Katendrecht. He told me that he liked what I was doing, but didn't like my song (an original!). He perked up significantly when I launched into "Ring of Fire."*
So how do songwriters deal with this?
One solution is to sing mostly covers. That is usually more remunerative. Cover bands get lots more good-paying gigs. Downside: creative dissatisfaction and unfavorable comparisons with well-known songs when you play the occasional original.
Another one is to write songs that are very derivative of popular songs. When I was just getting into playing music, a bazillion bands sounded like R.E.M. That got them initial notice, but back to that losing comparison battle. Most of these bands have been relegated to the cut-out bins of history (assuming they ever got to make a record.)
A third way to cope is to soldier on, keep on striving for popularity. There's scientific backing for this approach. Studies show that people like a work of art more as they grow more familiar with it. So the more you get your message out, the more likely you are to hit it big. There are plenty of overnight sensations who were on the road for twenty years before hitting it big. In fact that is the story of most musicians. They just started out at a very young age and put their long periods of thought and practice in before becoming popular in early adulthood.
Another way is to see songwriting as its own reward, to grow and progress in a natural way, to accept all the opportunities you can, to see each experience as a success, to know that you wouldn't be doing anything different anyway because songwriting is just too integral to your soul to give it up.
Can you guess which way is my way?
I'm very happy that I've recently written some songs with that feature a change of key.** I've been wanting to do this for a long time. Sometimes I go through old songs with the intent of reviving them. I often have to rewrite lyrics because I now realize that the rhythm is clumsy. (Embarrassment at many of my early songs is a sure sign of progress!) In addition I almost always can play the song more easily years later. I've found that sponsoring the Open Mic club when I was a teacher or singing as a volunteer with Pameijer here in Rotterdam have led to great musical growth as I learn new songs or improve my lead guitar playing, which in turn leads to bettering songwriting ideas. One of my favorite musical moments was when a child in a stroller hit himself in the forehead to the beat of my song "I Oughta Know Better."*** (The child was unhurt, of course, as was the little boy who was so entranced with my playing that he gently ran his bike into a pole.) My music has comforted people who were very sick (and in the process brought me a deep joy.) Of course for every dollar, euro, or peso I've made, I've spent at least ten. But I wouldn't have it any other way. I'm not going to stop. And there's no way to measure the value of the friends and acquaintances I've made through music.
I'm not saying this is an easy approach. One always wishes for some sort of acceptance in the form of sales, hits online, or recognition or respect.
But the most important thing is a personal definition of success. And life is totally subjective. Do I want the success that Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, Jimi Hendrix, or Jim Morrison had? Resounding no! Do I want the success that Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, or Bob Dylan have had? No. Do I admire aspects of their successes? Yes!
I'm still refining what my perfect success actually is. It involves music, performance, sales. No less importantly it also involves family, friends, hobbies, daily life.
The tricky part is that my definition of success keeps changing as I grow and expand my horizons. I remember when I first started playing guitar. I thought to myself, "I can't wait till I've been playing for ten years, it will be so easy." Ten years went by, and I was a much better musician. But didn't find guitar playing to be "so easy." And I thought about ten years into the future, realizing that ,sure, I would progress, but once I got there I'd want to progress even more. That an essential part of growth: constantly setting our sights higher.
And that's another dilemma.
But if we view it correctly, it's a wonderful one.
* I'm thankful that he was receptive enough and cared enough to tell me.
**If you don't know anything about music you can still feel a key change when in the last verse (usually) you feel a lift in the song because they're playing/singing higher notes. "I Walk the Line" by Johnny Cash (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lq0fUa0vW_E) changes key a lot. Not so usually, he goes up AND down, especially effectively at the end.
*** "I Oughta Know Better" by The G-Men