A few months ago I posted a few true stories regarding famous musicians who came back from failure or adversity.
* This singer/songwriter auditioned unsuccessfully for “American Idol” twice and on her second try she even sang her original song, “Bubbly.” Her name was Colbie Caillat and “Bubbly” eventually become a huge international hit. Ironically, Idol contestants Casey James, Katie Stevens, Katelyn Epperly, and Anne Marie Boskovich all did renditions of Colbie’s hit in later seasons of the show.
* Here’s another singer who auditioned for American Idol at the age of 17 but didn’t even make it past the producers. Pretty brutal, right? Well, she is now a major star on the hit show “Glee”. Her name is Amber Riley (aka Mercedes Jones).
* One more American Idol reject for you. This woman auditioned twice but she didn’t even make it past the preliminary rounds. This means that she never even got to sing for the judges…she only serenaded the production assistants and the interns. So, she decided to form the band “Lady Antebellum” which has garnered her five Grammys so far. Her name is Hillary Scott.
* In 1967, a young bandleader got booed off stage because the anxious crowd wanted to see the headliners. He was consequently dropped from the tour. His name was Jimi Hendrix and he was opening for the Monkeys.
* In the 1700’s, an aspiring musician was so awkward on the violin and was often so busy working on his own compositions that he neglected to practice. His teachers felt that he would never succeed as a violinist or a composer. He eventually overcame the odds and made a name for himself as a composer, but he was once again hit with a roadblock…he went deaf. He didn’t let this stop him either and he composed some beautiful music despite his handicap. His name was Ludwig van Beethoven.
* In 1913, a 30-year-old composer premiered his new ballet. The piece was met with such a negative reaction that riots erupted in the auditorium during the concert. A notable critic of the day described the work as “a laborious and puerile barbarity.” The composer was Igor Stravinsky, the ballet was “The Rite of Spring” and both are now considered to be shining examples of 20th Century Music.
* Here’s a story about a Belgian Romani jazz guitarist who suffered through discrimination and survived Nazi-occupied France. He also burned his hand so badly in a caravan fire that he lost several fingers. He had to reteach himself how to play guitar and was forced to find his own voice and technique based on his physical limitations. He is still considered to be one of the best jazz guitarists that ever lived. His name is Django Reinhardt.
* This man was born in the U.K. He was one of five children and didn’t excel in school because of his dyslexia. At the age of 15, he dropped out of school and became a construction site laborer. He had many jobs including being a plumber, toolmaker, slaughterhouse worker and a car factory employee. He was accused of burglarizing a clothing store, which landed him in prison since he couldn’t afford to pay the fine. Eventually, he turned it all around and became a very famous singer and bandleader. His name was Ozzy Osbourne.
* This woman was fired from Dunkin’ Donuts for squirting sauce at the customers. Her first band, “The Breakfast Club” was dropped by their record label. She picked herself up and decided to go solo. Her name was Madonna.
* In 1962 an obscure band from England made a demo tape for Decca Records in hopes of being signed. The label’s senior A & R person said, “guitar groups are on their way out” and the band was rejected. This band was named The Beatles.
* In 1954, a young singer was kicked out of the Grand Ole Opry. They told him to stick to his day job driving trucks. He picked himself back up and kept trying. His name was Elvis Presley.
So, what’s the moral of the story here? Don’t let rejection and criticism get in your way. It’s part of the music business and you must learn how to deal with it positively. Take what you can from a “bad” situation and move on.
The business world has some of the same stories:
Billionaire Alibaba founder Jack Ma was rejected from every job he applied to after college, even KFC. He is one of the richest people in the world, with a net worth of over $36 billion according to Forbes. But there was a time when he couldn’t even get a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken. 24 people applied for the job at KFC, says Ma, and while 23 were hired — he wasn’t one of them.
The early rejection taught him an important business lesson: “You have to get used to failure,” he says, speaking at the University of Nairobi.
After college, Ma applied for 30 jobs in his home city of Hangzhou, China. He was rejected from every one. The same thing happened when he tried to be a cop. This time four of five applicants were hired, all except Ma.
Another time Ma lost out on a job to his own blood. “My cousin and I waited for two hours [in a] long queue to be the waiter for the four star hotel in my city, on a very hot day,” he says. “My cousin’s score was much lower than mine, [but] he was accepted and I was rejected!”
Ma was even turned down by Harvard 10 times, he tells Charlie Rose in 2015. “I told myself someday I should go teach there maybe,” he laughs.
Although he can joke about it now, Ma says the continued rejection was painful. But it prepared him for his entrepreneurial future.
“If you cannot get used to failure — just like a boxer — if you can’t get used to [being] hit, how can you win?” he says to the audience in Nairobi.
The fortitude came in handy when he founded Chinese e-commerce site Alibaba in 1999. In the beginning, Ma heard “no” a lot.
“I remember year 2001, we went to raise some $5 million from venture capitalists in the USA and got rejected,” Ma tells Rose. Despite the setback, he didn’t stop. “I said we [will] come back raising a little bit more.”
Perhaps those VCs regret their decisions. Today, the company has a market cap of about $400 billion. When it went public 2014, it was the largest initial public offering ever.
Ma says he now passes around case studies about failure to colleagues at Alibaba, instead of reinforcing success. “When you read too many successful stories, people go crazy,” he says during his talk in Nairobi. “They think ‘I can be successful.’” But the truth is, says Ma, “When you share a lot of failure stories, you learn.”
On a personal note, I know very well what failure feels like. The nature of the touring business is a great place to feel the pain of complete rejection where you lose a tour and find yourself trying to fit into the nine to five world and getting rejected by every minimum wage job you apply for. But about the time you are considering the homeless option, the call comes in from a major tour and you are once again living the high life. The cycle just continues, but that is OK, you can just say you lived the dream most of the time and you know what it is like to be in the real world for a moment. 😊
Credit goes to Adam Small, a fellow music consultant for new artists for some excerpts of this article.