Over on BBC Four, a new series presented by Nile Rodgers tackles the tricky subject of How to Make It in the Music Business, and it almost goes without saying that one thing any aspiring musician needs to do is persevere. Many letters will need to be sent out, but don't give up if you get initial rejections. "It's a long way to the top if you wanna rock 'n' roll," sang AC/DC in 1975, and that goes for artists who would go on to rule the world...
"I do not feel that Madonna is ready yet..."
It seems almost impossible to imagine but, yes, there was a time when Madonna was just another singer with a demo tape hoping to get a record deal. The rejection letter read above was sent by record executive Jimmy Lenner of Millennium Records to her then-manager Alec Head in the early-80s and it says: "In my opinion, the only thing missing from this project is the material... I do not feel that she is ready yet, but I do hear the basis for a strong artist. I will pass for now, but I will wait for more."
Soon after, Madonna signed to Sire and released her eponymous debut, but it was her Nile Rodgers-produced second album, 1984's Like a Virgin, that really put her on the map. She's now the most-successful female artist of all time. The letter was sold at auction in 2001.
Sub Pop's "Dear Loser..." letter
Madonna could take some encouragement from the fact that Jimmy Lenner at least listened to her tape, which was more than aspiring artists could expect from anyone at Sub Pop. The legendary Seattle-based label became hot property after one of their groups in particular, Nirvana, blew up in the late-80s, leading to them being flooded with demos from unsigned bands.
Cruelly, but with wry humour, they would send the following generic letter to artists:
Thank you for sending your demo materials to Sub Pop for consideration.
Presently, your demo package is one of a massive quantity of commendable material we receive every day at Sub Pop World Headquarters, and is (due to time and volume restrictions) on its way through the great lower intestine that is the talent-acquisition process*.
We appreciate your interest in Sub Pop and wish you the best in your pursuit.
*This is a form letter. This letter is what is known as "a rejection letter."
See the letter on Letters of Note
Nina Simone is refused entry to a music school
Nina Simone became one of the 20th century's most iconic and radical artists, but only after a struggle. A recent documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, sheds light on Simone being rejected by letter to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia in 1951, suggesting she was refused entry on grounds of race. The claim proved controversial and was questioned by Peter Dobrin of the Philadelphia Inquirer, after the film came out (he suggests that "on piano, that day, at that point in her development, she simply did not make the cut"), but what's significant is that Simone believed she was a victim of racial discrimination, and that spurred her on to make it in music (although, she said, she always wished she'd become a concert pianist).
Before she died in 2003, the Curtis Institute awarded her an honorary degree.
Bowie's brutally curt response to Dave Grohl
Rejection happens even when you're at the top of your game, as Dave Grohl forever seems to be. Just last year, the Foo Fighters frontman revealed that he'd approached Bowie to work on a song for a film, only to be given a brutal response. "About two years ago, I got approached by this movie to do a song for the movie, so I thought, 'Maybe I'll have someone else sing, I'll do the music and then have another vocalist,'" Grohl said, as Rolling Stone reported. "And then I thought, 'Maybe I'll ask and see if David [Bowie] would want to do it. So the next day I get an email and it says, 'David [Grohl], I watched the movie and I got to be honest, it's not my thing.'"
Grohl then thanked Bowie for considering his request, to which Bowie replied, "Alright, now that's settled then, f*** off."
"Thank you for submitting your tape of 'U2'..."
U2 were given the generic-refusal-letter treatment by RSO Records after Bono (Paul Hewson) mailed the London-based label a demo tape in 1979. "We have listened with careful consideration," the label's Alexander Sinclair said, and we'll never know whether that's actually true. Either way, Mr Sinclair must be kicking himself now.
"Dear Deee‐Lite, your stuff's completely unoriginal..."
Deee‐Lite's breakthrough hit, 1990's Groove Is in the Heart, is a copper-bottomed classic and highly original. But it took record companies a long time to realise what a great act they were. "We'd been playing live for four years before we got a record deal," the group's DJ Dmitry told Blues & Soul magazine in 1992. "It wasn't like we were just thrown on stage behind a hit record. When we first started making demos in 1987 we sent a demo tape to all the A&R dance departments of all the major labels. We didn't get any response from any of them.
"One company sent us a rejection letter saying, 'Sorry, your stuff's completely unoriginal and we're not interested at the moment.' From that we knew they hadn't even heard our tape. That didn't discourage us. We just said we'll keep on playing live."
Said Liquidator's 44 refusal letters
Strictly speaking, this article should have been titled '51 rejection letters that will inspire you to not give up', 44 of which were sent to indie band Said Liquidator between the years of 1988 and 1991. They've been compiled in all their glory by fanzine Eccentric Sleeve Notes with the following note: "The band didn't go on to achieve commercial success so these letters are neither newsworthy nor an embarrassment for the senders but the fact that the band carried on regardless, in the face of so much rejection, says something about their self belief, resilience or delusional state of mind!"
Nick Cave rejects an invitation from the MTV Awards
When you do make it, suddenly the shoe is on the other foot, so we'll finish with a great letter that Nick Cave wrote to the MTV Awards in 1996, asking them to withdraw his nomination for Best Male Artist. "I have always been of the opinion that my music is unique and individual and exists beyond the realms inhabited by those who would reduce things to mere measuring," he wrote. "I am in competition with no one."
Read the letter in full on Letters of Note, and watch Nick read it above.