I had a conversation with someone via Facebook messaging a couple of days ago. She’s someone I know, someone who works in the music industry, someone with contacts. I’m currently planning a film and I know exactly who I want to do the soundtrack. I’ve never done anything like this before, so I’m facing a steepish learning curve, part of which is figuring out how best to get my offering to the right people. That’s fine, I’m right in my element, there’s nothing that energises me more than getting my teeth into learning something really complex and nuanced from scratch in less than no time and then adding something new and different. At least, that’s how it works now that I know who I am and that I can achieve anything that I want to achieve. It wasn’t always like that.
For most of my life, I found it difficult to ask for things, for help, for people to share expertise and advice. There are reasons for this, which I intend to write about in detail at some point, but that’s another project, for another time, not here, not now. In the past, on those occasions when I did manage to overcome my barriers to imposing a request on another (because that’s how I saw it, in my mind I had no right to ask for anything, to ask anyone for favours, or to offer ideas that might turn out to be mutually beneficial, so I was making an imposition, throwing myself on their goodwill if I did). If I did ask, I did so apologetically, came across as unsure of myself, stumbled over things, was awkward beyond belief. And when, unsurprisingly, responses were cool, I would apologise and back off faster than the proverbial scalded cat. I would interpret anything less than immediate enthusiasm as rejection, as discouragement, as a resounding NO! I would slink off, tail between my legs, without ever getting to the interesting part of the conversation, the part where I spelled things out for them; I would never actually get to present my proposal. Now, I’m supposed to be past all that, yet I found myself slipping into old habits during the conversation.
Before I talk about where things went astray, I should say something about where I was intending the conversation to go. Here’s how my thought process was running. People like those I want to get to talk to are constantly bombarded with proposals… or rather, the gatekeepers they employ are bombarded with proposals… lots of them, all the time. They apply filters, they ask questions, it’s what they’re paid to do. Among those filters will be looking at who originated the proposal; how well known they are, what their track record is. Any submission from a complete unknown (and there will be lots of those) could well get marked down – and quite possibly just filtered out solely on that basis, before the proposal itself is examined. And if the proposal is examined, the questions the gatekeepers will be asking aren’t going to be about artistic merit or whether this is something that might appeal to the Artist on a personal level… the filters are going to be about things like the bottom line… is there a risk this might not be a box office smash? … how does this fit with the image that our marketing effort for the Artist is currently centred on? Any doubts or uncertainties here and the Artist’s view on their interest isn’t likely to be sought, even where the Artist’s involvement is likely to be a major contribution toward reducing the risk factor.
Contrast this with a direct approach. Hi… love your work! How would you feel about doing a film soundtrack, possibly working with nnnnn? (they’ve worked together before on a few occasions and totally rocked, there’s an obvious chemistry there) It’s set in the 1940s… I know that would be a bit different from your usual, but I think you’d be perfect for it (this is someone who has taken several previous departures from the genre they’re best known for… and seems to really enjoy experimenting) There’s scope for a spin-off album and I’m seeing a nice cameo for you. Either the idea grabs them and the discussion moves onto more detailed negotiation, at which point the business people get involved… though if you’re going to be super cheeky and suggest they’d also be an ideal Executive Producer, then it’s probably best to slip that in before the bean counters get involved… or it doesn’t interest them and you can thank them for listening, give them your details in case they change their mind and move on to plan B. I’m not an insider, but I’d venture an educated guess that a large majority of those collaborations that actually happen, began with just this sort of direct human contact, rather than as the result of an unknown negotiating their way through the massed ranks of gatekeepers who sit behind the front door. Now it has to be said (once again, for emphasis) that I am going to make this film, come hell or high water and if necessary I’ll do it the hard way. But why not use everything I have at my disposal to ease that process as far as possible?
So, given that I’d much, much rather have a chat with a kindred creative soul, that focusses on the possibility of combining our respective talents with others and making something wonderful together, than a hard-nosed business conversation – that’s what the likes of Agents, Managers and Producers exist for – I decided the next step was to sound out those I have some connection with, who have contacts, if not with the Artists I’m going to need to talk with, then with people who do have contact with those Artists. And that’s how I came to be having the conversation.
It went something like this – I asked the question Do you know of any contacts, or backdoor routes I could use to put a proposal to ‘xxxxxx’ and ‘yyyyyyy’? I was expecting the answer to be either something like Yes, I do (or Well, I might…) let’s talk or something like No, sorry, there’s no way I can think of to reach those people. The former would lead to some form of negotiation about what it would take to get it done; the latter perhaps to a conversation about possible alternative ways of getting things done. But the response I did get threw me completely off balance. It wasn’t a Yes… it didn’t sound like a Maybe… it wasn’t a clear No either, though when my automatic response kicked in (as conditioned by a lifetime of self doubt and lack of confidence) it interpreted it as a No… a definitive No… a this isn’t going anywhere, back off kind of a No. What the response seemed to be saying (through my conditioned filters) was You’re asking me for favours that you’re not qualified to ask for and I’m not going to play. That’s not what was actually said though; that was more like I have to be very careful and selective about using my contacts. This is my work and I can’t afford to upset these people. It was the following day before I read between the lines and realised that this, while certainly extremely cautious, was in fact much closer to Maybe than to No.
But I didn’t see that immediately. I read it as a No, accepted that and made as positive an interpretation of the rejection as I could. Oh well, looks like I need to polish the pitch to the point where even the most negative gatekeeper will go wide eyed and open mouthed about it. I replied, indicating that if there was no backdoor, I’d just have to go through the front. The conversation naturally petered out at that point and I never got to the What I want to establish at this point, is whether ‘xxxxxx’ and ‘yyyyyyy’ find the idea of doing their take on 40s music for a film soundtrack at all attractive. No need for anything further unless they answered Yes or Maybe to that. Well, ok, I’ll admit I’m a tease…
As I said earlier, it was the next day before I realised that the door wasn’t in fact being closed in my face. What my contact was saying was more along the lines of OK, I see a risk here and I’m going to proceed with caution. You have some convincing to do before I stick my neck out and this is going to have to give me a return. Now, had that been spelled out, I wouldn’t have got my wires crossed and would have asked the obvious next question So, who exactly can you get me in front of and what will it take for you to do this? But people often don’t spell things out that clearly, do they? And why should I expect them to, when I don’t always communicate with perfect clarity myself. Mostly I do, but not always. Misunderstandings and crossed wires are easy to fall into.
So, what’s the valuable lesson that I’m grateful to my contact for? Showing me that it’s important to listen carefully to what people are actually saying. Showing me that I need to read between the lines. Showing me that slipping into my old ways of giving up and letting go far too easily, is a trap that I need to be aware of. Showing me that caution doesn’t mean No, but should be read as an opportunity to tease out what it will take to get a Yes. So thank you. With this in mind, I’ll be returning to the conversation.