Go for it – because you never know.

In the last week, I’ve had two relatively different situations come up that ultimately pointed to the same truth. Somewhat of a long post but I hope you’ll bear with me.

Last week, I was brought into a local ad project – no, not a cheesy car dealership commercial! It’s a beautifully shot, high production-value piece. The production house and I met on 12/14 with our client, the head of a well-respected agency, and talked through his needs. I came away with a variety of ideas and suggestions.

For custom composing jobs, I follow Tom Kelley’s advice in The Art of Innovation: “Prototype early and often.” Why is that great advice? Two big reasons: It helps you home in from multiple angles on what the client likes, and it protects you as the artist from getting too attached to a single idea.

So I promised three to five drafts by the next Monday, 12/19. The first was relatively safe but absolutely usable. #2 just plain didn’t work; I canned it. #3 and #4 had a little more swagger, which the production house wanted, and I liked them OK. For #5, though, I went with a less mainstream style that I personally like, even though I didn’t think it stood a chance with the client. I allowed myself to do what I thought sounded cool, regardless of likely marketability.

We sent them to the client and waited. I thought he might go for #1 or #3 but I secretly hoped for #5; the owners of the production shop thought he’d go for #3 or #4 – but no way #5. The answer came back: #5! As soon as the commercial is out, I’ll post a collage of all four drafts and the final product.

No rest for the weary, though. Later on Monday, the music agency I use (TAXI) posted an opportunity that I’ll excerpt here, w/bold for the key stuff:


NY Ad Agency URGENTLY needs TWO, Fun (but not silly), CONTEMPORARY, Indie Artist/Band-Leaning, Mid-to-Uptempo, Singer/Songwriter or Quirky Band SONGS for 2 DIFFERENT TV spots for a coffee brand’s upcoming commercials. … They need a song that relates to what you FEEL or LOVE about coffee, but your lyric should NOT MENTION the word “COFFEE” IN IT! … Instead, give them lyrics about “getting your day off to a good start,” or “I love the way you make me feel” type of stuff … for the FIRST TV spot. … Submit SONGS about “home” related subjects for the SECOND TV spot. “Home is where the heart is,” “Home is where I’d rather be,” “being home makes me feel good” in so many words. … If you’ve got the PERFECT song for these pitches, they COULD pay as much as $100,000 for EACH placement! …  Submissions must be received no later than TOMORROW, TUESDAY, DECEMBER 20th at 3pm, (PDT). TAXI #Y111220SS


So, yeah, they posted that on Monday, and it was due the next day at 4pm my time. Yikes. Part of me – a big part of me – said, Don’t bother.

For starters, these ad agency listings are pretty high-bar affairs that leave plenty of crushed egos in their wakes. So… I’m just talking about fear of rejection, right? I thought, What if I do something that I know is good and has value elsewhere, regardless of the outcome for this listing? OK – Mental Block #1 vanquished.

Then there was the time limitation.  As little as a year ago, I couldn’t have conceived of pulling anything off in that time frame. But I’d been working on speeding up, largely by not being so self-critical in the initial stages. As composer John Lewis Parker has said, “Ninety percent of composing is having the courage to continue, and being open to ideas.” And who knows, I thought — maybe I’ll start something really worthwhile, even if I miss the deadline. Sweet! Unnecessary Obstacle #2 kicked to the curb.

Finally, I don’t have a traditionally “pretty” voice. I just don’t. But I’ve been wanting to pursue some of these singer/songwriter opportunities – a genre where imperfections can be a good thing, plus I have a solid background there. I’d gotten a good start the week before by writing and producing a piece in one day for a similarly challenging listing. I quit the day job for exactly this kind of opportunity. Am I going to let it pass without even trying?

I decided to find a way. I realized I could take an existing instrumental that suited the listing and write lyrics for it. I set to work that night on the lyrics.  Confession: I find sweet/happy/”crazy about you” lyrics easy; I just think about Karen. Seriously. If everybody had the kind of love and support I have from her, wars wouldn’t start.

The next morning I edited the lyrics a little and then hit the studio. I had five vocal parts recorded, edited and mixed by 2:40. Eighty minutes to spare.

So… the listing requested two different themes; should I try the other? Why not? I took another existing track and wrote lyrics for it. In this case, I got really lucky: Karen and I happened to write lyrics for this song for an informal performance earlier this month, and some of them even worked for this job! I quickly wrote two suitable new verses. I got the thing done and turned in by the deadline. The execution isn’t perfect, but it’s sweet and evocative, which is important.

You can hear both tracks here.

The next morning while at my freelance gig, I got two emails from TAXI that started with words I will never tire of reading: “Congratulations, CK! Your song(s) has been forwarded… .” The songs made it through the very tough initial screening and are now with the NY ad agency. In reality, this just means I’m in the running. I’ve gone from one in a million to maybe one in 20, or 50 so or. But it means a helluva lot more than that to me.

What if I hadn’t tried draft #5 for the local ad? We’d be kicking around something that didn’t really excite the client. What if I’d stopped at “Don’t bother” with the coffee ad? I would’ve just reinforced my old presumption that those sorts of opportunities are impossible, not worth bothering, etc. Instead I set a new, far more positive precedent for myself.

In both cases I told the perfectly reasonable voice in my head to bug off. Glad I did!

About CK Barlow

I'm a composer and music-technology instructor. In the summer of 2011, I decided it was time to give full-time music-making a shot, so I left my corporate job (I've always had one). That's part of what inspired Composing Kitchen, the blog I publish with my incredible spouse, Karen Milling. View all posts by CK Barlow

3 responses to “Go for it – because you never know.

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