I came, I saw, I was conquered
"Immerse" is a conference for composers of Contemporary Christian Music to teach them how to improve in their craft and help them understand the industry. It is held annually, for three days in the summer, at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. Attending "Immerse 2019," would be my first foray into cultivating my songwriting in a way that might lead to something more professional.
As I traveled there from my home state, Delaware, I had every reason to believe that "Immerse 2019" would be a great experience.
I almost never let myself believe in signs, but two things happened on my trip that seemed to portend that it might be extraordinary. First, as I sat at my gate in the Philadelphia airport, I got to listen to a local radio show play a half hour that featured exclusively music from my new CD, "Found."
Then, on the plane ride itself, I successfully completed all three Sudoku puzzles - easy, medium, and hard - as well as every square of the crossword puzzle in my seat-back magazine. In fact, I finished the last word just as the wheels touched down in Nashville.
"Wow! Surely these were signs from God of amazing success in store for me!" I laughed as I dared to dream.
As a first timer to Nashville and "Immerse," I came daring to hope to be discovered. And I came determined to make the best use of my time and opportunities there. With a loaded backpack of demos, one-sheets, and business cards, I thought I was unique, having a singular talent that would astonish anyone who would listen to my music. On top of that, I had a unique testimony of unparalleled personal suffering to draw upon as I shared my songs and testimony.
But instead, at the conference I encountered hundreds who were much like me, uniquely gifted, with their own stories of pain through which Christ’s triumph gloriously prevailed.
The conference offered morning and evening sessions of praise music for large-group participation. The singing was beautiful, but each song seemed overly elongated and carefully crafted to play on our emotions much like an oft repeated eastern chant. In the evenings, after the praise music, participants were invited to perform their original music at open mic sessions.
Middays, there were numerous seminars on subjects including how to write music with collaborators, how to craft songs, the business of the music industry, and how to market one's original music. Looking around me at these sessions, I saw a few people typing occasionally on laptops; however, I was taking copious notes with a pen in a spiral-bound notebook until, on the last day, an old tendonitis injury in my elbow flared up and I had to quit.
On the whole, the other attendees were mostly in their 20s, many thirty years younger than myself. Besides taking many notes, it seemed that I was more serious than them in various ways. I handed out my demo to whoever would accept it, with my three best recent songs, attached to my email, composer website, and Spotify address. “Oh, I wish I’d done that,” other attendees would sometimes say. “How could you not do it?” I would ask inwardly. Nashville was a big investment for all of us. Why not do it right? Why not seek publicity in this environment?
Also, more often than others, I was striking up conversations with anyone and everyone, aiming especially for those well-known in the industry, willing even to shamelessly flatter, just to be able to dispense my demos.
Feeling cheapened, I ached to just be regular me, respectful of my introversion and love of solitude, missing my small group of loving, honest friends, and family.
The second night, during the worship session, I was stunned that some people had come to this conference burdened to cultivate my talent and career, to sow into my life instead of exalting their own talents and personalities. A tall man sat down with me at lunch one day and asked me about my life goals so that he could "figure out how to help me." This conversation resulted in his giving me a new $20 book that he had purchased with his own money.
That night at the end of the worship session, other music creatives gathered around me to hear my life struggles and to pray for me as I dissolved to tears. I had to stop pretending I was invincible and admit some strident battles the enemy was currently waging in my personal life. I had to admit my ongoing need for Christ and for the intercession and kindness of his people. I was no longer at a place of pretending, or masquerading beneath a façade of success.
"Immerse" was about so much more than advancing my music career. It was about helping us all to understand Christ's love and concern over every aspect of our lives.
During the conference, I stayed alone in a hotel about two miles from campus. Every night, I enjoyed slowly getting ready for bed, methodically removing my makeup and sliding beneath the cool sheets to watch TV before drifting off to sleep. Being in a quiet, private space felt glorious. But I was taking prednisone to recover from allergies, and every couple of hours I would wake with a new song coursing through my mind. I would turn on the light and sing scratchily into the voice recorder of my phone. Over the course of a week, I ended up with 17 new choruses and songs that had been inspired by my time in Nashville. The prednisone intensified the whole experience, leaving me exhausted from lack of sleep as well as creatively drained.
The last day of "Immerse," one of my songs was appraised by an expert who said it was “not commercial” and lacked “spiritual depth” as evinced by a “trite rhyme scheme.” At that session, my work was compared to the work of two other songwriters, who were given substantially more encouragement and affirmation than me. Their work was “commercial.” It was “catchy.” But their work did not speak to me. The comparison irked me, and I despaired.
My heart sank into my stomach. In some ways, I told myself, this was only fitting. To experience Nashville, one must not only feel its highs and its hopes, but its lows and its emptiness.
But my mind returned to what I had heard in many of the seminars: “You do you. You are the only one God has gifted and purposed to do what you can do where he has planted you.” And I had needed desperately to hear that, and not only to hear it but to fully appropriate it in my life. Which led me to this single golden orb of truth that had been rising on the horizon of my consciousness throughout the conference: Up to this point, in my music career I had been writing well-crafted music that I liked, but I was not active in the genre I loved the most. At home, in that genre, I had 15 songs fully written just waiting to be recorded, but had delayed recording for a year because the musicians closest to me did not connect with that kind of music.
At "Immerse 2019", hearing artists perform at the open mic nights, my love for that genre had been reignited, and I remembered how deeply it had always stirred my soul. I now knew God was calling me to pursue the project I had put down. I do not conform to any of the stereotypes you might expect to see among songwriters of the music I love. But I am uniquely me, and that is the unique desire that God has placed in my heart.
Another lesson I learned is that I must seek collaborators. No matter how wonderful I think my own compositions are, I must seek out artists whose style is different than mine so that I can stretch and grow as a songwriter. And I have to be generous with my collaborators, willing to attribute to them large percentages of our finished products.
Collaborators have to be first and foremost friends, and only secondarily co-workers who benefit our careers. Before Nashville, I had been too possessive of my songs as intellectual properties. By the time I left, I had realized that more important than owning a song is the process of giving birth to a song that helps many to worship God. And it’s ok to need others to help in that process.
I went to "Immerse" hoping that my career would be boosted by being discovered by people within the Contemporary Christian Music industry. I was focused on winning their recognition and praise of my talent. Instead, actively and more profoundly, “I discovered myself.” I came to understand that I needed to pursue a new project with a new genre. I needed to be willing to mentor and pray for other musicians, and to receive help and encouragement from others, even if it meant addressing their and my personal lives. And, finally, I needed to actively and generously seek collaboration with other musicians.