The Waiting Game

Yesterday morning an old friend called from Los Angeles and recounted how earlier this month he and his band had their first real meeting with a bona fide record label. By all indications, the encounter went well and ended on a positive note with the record executive saying all good things about their music and hinting toward a time when they, record company and band, would share in a relationship both symbiotic and copacetic. He said he'd be in touch. Two weeks down the road, however, there's been no word; nor is aforementioned executive returning any of my friend's phone messages or e-mails. Seemingly a case of "Don't call us, we won't call you."

I told my friend that things are not necessary what they seem.

The thing is, he and I used to work in the service industry–transportation–where every aspect of our company's performance was measured daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly; this data was then shared with our customers so that they could better decide whether to use our services or our competition's. The idea of not returning a phone call or not replying to an e-mail is as unconscionable to him as it is to me. Except . . .

For the most part, that's not the way things work in entertainment–music, books, movies, whatever–where unreturned calls and unanswered e-mails are more the norm than the exception. Which is really ironic, if you think about it, given an industry whose ultimate goal is to please its customers.

But therein lies the answer: When we–musicians, writers, filmmakers, artists one and all–are doing our best to interest them in our wares, we're not their customers but rather their suppliers. Or at least we hope to be. Until they actually put a contract in front of us and we sign on the dotted line (which, come to think of it, is never dotted, at least not on the contracts I've seen and signed), we're nothing more than the unwanted call from the telephone company, the knock on the door from the missionaries, or the takeout menu left in our mailbox by the new sushi restaurant around the block.

What I told my friend was this: "Don't forget that right now, as we speak, there are probably hundreds, nay, thousands of guys around L.A. in bands who are wondering, What the hell's up with that guy at the record company? What you need to hang onto, in the midst of your completely understandable frustration, is that if the record executive were to reply to all of his phone calls and e-mails, he probably wouldn't have enough time left in his day to do what you're hoping he'll do in the first place: sign you and your band to a record contract."

Is it frustrating? Yes. Is it fair (to say nothing of good business or in the realms of politeness)? Of course not. I had a magazine editor tell me once, after expressing displeasure because I continued to follow up on a pitch after not having received a response in more than six months: "If we were interested, clearly we would have gotten back to you." "No," I wanted to reply, "if you weren't interested, clearly you should have told me so." Unfortunately, this is not uncommon; the delete button has become the answer to many a busy editor and agent's overburdened calendar and workload. Even enclosing an SASE with snail-mail queries no longer guarantees a response.

A line from Woody Allen's masterful 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors reminds us that all this is nothing new:

Show business is dog-eat-dog. It's worse than dog-eat-dog: it's dog-doesn't-return-other-dog's-phone-calls.

The Internet has just taught an old dog new tricks.

Could it be handled differently? Sure–and often it is. When I first submitted my short-story collection to the man who became my agent, he immediately e-mailed me to say that he'd received it and cautioned me that he was going to be out of the office for a while. "Therefore, if you don't hear from me for a week to ten days, it has nothing to do with my response to your writing."

But, then, he's a gentleman.

As for my friend, the days when a Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen can walk into John Hammond's office, play their songs, and almost literally walk out with a recording contract are sadly gone. Long gone. And so he waits.

It's how he's having to wait that's the problem.