Learning the Art of Rejection

Bryan Parys
December 18, 2014
Mike Daly
Demi Lovato
Mike Daly '96, A&R director at Disney Music Group
Singer Demi Lovato
Photo courtesy of Disney Music Group
Photo courtesy of Disney Music Group

You wouldn’t think that an event involving a bunch of songwriting majors getting rejected by an A&R director would be sponsored by the Songwriting Department itself. And yet, the idea emerged from a brainstorming session between songwriting chair Bonnie Hayes and Berklee alumnus Mike Daly ’96, who is currently the A&R director at Disney Music Group. Hayes said that one of her main goals as chair is “to get Berklee students more and better access to real industry opportunities,” and so she asked Daly if he would come to Berklee and do a live song pitch session, knowing Daly could provide real-world feedback for students.

During the event, Daly emphasized that the main thing to remember is that rejection is not personal; it becomes a plentiful and necessary thing when producers like him receive between 100 and 200 song pitches a week. There’s enough time to listen to a verse and chorus once, and from there, a definitive decision has to be made swiftly. By giving students the opportunity to answer the brutally honest question, “Why do I care?” in response to a song, they gain the benefit of preparing for life after college while still in an educational atmosphere.

The stakes for the event were not a simulation. The session’s goal was to give songwriting students the chance to pitch their compositions to a real A&R person with the hope of landing a track on the upcoming Demi Lovato record.

Great Song—Now What?

While Daly was continually floored by the talent and production quality displayed in each track, his rejections came fast and matter-of-factly. “Chorus needs to be more explosive,” he said about a song called “Cold Sleep.” “Not for Demi,” he said after just a few seconds of “Velcro.” “I wish you had a chorus,” he said to the writer of “Dark Early Now.”

Throughout each piece, Daly was continually engaged, cracking self-deprecating jokes one second, and spinning the punchline into some kind of practical piece of advice the next. “It’s okay to love money,” he quipped, riffing on the wake-up call he received during his time at Berklee concerning a song he’d submitted to professor Jon Aldrich, who commented: “Great song—now how are you going to make money?”

Daly’s post-Berklee trajectory offers his take on how to answer such a big question in the music industry. Originally a cowriter and band member alongside Ryan Adams in Whiskeytown, Daly has gone on to write and/or produce for a wide range of artists, including Demi Lovato, Lana Del Rey, Stephen Kellogg, Caitlin Cary, and Jason Mraz.

While Daly cited elements of song craft as the reason for rejection in some cases, the majority of the songs demoed at the event didn’t make the cut simply because of logistics. After listening to a chunk of a song called “Ink,” Daly praised the song for having the right dynamic for Lovato, but he rejected it because she already has a new song that will explore similar territory. The main reason Daly gave throughout, however, is that the songs were just not Lovato songs—but he was quick to point out that they would work for other artists or genres.

Knowing Your Audience

It was evident by the end of the event that the lesson here is not that the students don’t have what it takes, but that they just need to have a clearer idea of how to tailor their writing for the audience they’re pursuing. “There are so many songs in the world,” Daly said. He pointed out that while the production may change wildly from demo to record, what changes the least is melody; a good song will always be a good song.

Case in point, the session ended with a song called “Slow” that clearly moved Daly by the end. Will you hear it on the next Lovato record? No. But, as he offered his advice—“I would work on this; I wouldn’t let this song go”—all of a sudden, rejection started to sound more like encouragement to keep going.