Thoughts on the COCA contest…

At 18, I made a list of 25 goals that I had for my life before I turned 25. One of those goals was to visit Africa.

At 25, I was a regular little world traveler, but I had yet to visit Africa. But I was on my way. I started in a graduate program that had a 6 month long practicum in Durban, South Africa. I was set. Although technically, I would not make the 25 years old deadline, I felt pretty proud of myself that I was heading toward one of those major life goals at a pretty impressive clip.

Suddenly, I hit a snag. As I got more and more immersed in my graduate program (read: past the point of backing out), the Sarah Mac Band began work on our first full-length studio album, Awakening. The deeper we got into the creation process, the more it looked like the timing would completely coincide with my planned study abroad. The more I pushed on the subject, the quieter Charlie and Claire got until finally, the moment came: “Sarah, we need to talk. We’re really sorry, but you can’t go to Africa. In fact, you can’t go anywhere. We’re about to release this album and we need you here. We can’t work to promote this album if you’re on another continent.”

I recognized the wisdom in that. Nonetheless, I was devastated and watched all of my carefully laid plans fall apart. Goodbye life goal of visiting Africa. Goodbye all the time I spent in grad school so that I could go to Africa. Even more so, goodbye to the joy of another life goal of finally making our first full-length studio album because it was eclipsed by the wrenching sadness of not getting to go to Africa which in my head condemned me to a drab life of terrible ordinariness.

That was almost the end of the Sarah Mac Band, friends. My feelings were hurt that my closest friends would so quickly dismiss my dream, and I was deeply grieving the loss of what I perceived to be the one thing that would make my life absolutely perfect (even at 25, I still had a healthy dose of teenage angst). But I still knew that before Africa came around, I had committed to do this Sarah Mac Band thing with Charlie and Claire. They had put in the time and energy and effort and sleep loss and money behind it just like I had. So, thumbing my nose at them and heading off to Africa would be disrespectful and poor form on my part. As much as it was the last thing I wanted to do, I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, and made myself smile and I signed the papers to do a bland, less than adventurous practicum that I didn’t want to do for people who told me (to my face—not kidding, the words really came out of the lady’s mouth) that they didn’t want me.

The good thing is that it wasn’t all for naught.

The Sarah Mac Band kept kicking and took advantage of Awakening’s momentum to get to the point that ultimately led us to now. Through that practicum that I didn’t want and wasn’t my dream, we met and worked with Dave, who then produced our next album, A Single Revolution. Through the process of Awakening, we met and made friends with the founders of Unseen Stories, a NGO that uses documentary film to bring about awareness and change for global justice issues. Then, in a strange twist of fate, because of my type of degree and experience in the practicum that I didn’t want, the Executive Director invited me to accompany her to Africa to work for Unseen Stories for a month as they toured facilities and worked on a strategic plan to partner with other NGOs to expand their fight against child trafficking.

It’s funny how things work out like that. I made the unglamorous choice to do the right thing and honor the commitment that I’d made to Charlie and Claire, which resulted in me not getting one of my heart’s desires. And then four years later, I got a chance at redemption which yielded new lifelong relationships (some even with  Benin’s hottest pop stars), affected change in very real ways in people’s lives, and because Unseen Stories was in need of someone with my specific skill set, was completely free of charge for me (whereas the study abroad cost more than a year’s worth of graduate tuition).

Left behind, something died, washed to Asia by the pull of the Pacific that night. But it made room for something new and it brought me to you.—“Crossroads,” Sarah Mac Band

We’re now almost through the first week of voting for a contest hosted by the Tallahassee Council on Culture and Arts, for which the prize is an all expenses paid trip to the Americana Music Conference in Nashville this Fall. A ton of Tallahassee bands are in the running for the prize, for which fans can vote online once a day between now and August 17th at midnight when the votes will be tallied and the winner will be announced.

Timing wise, this contest could be a great opportunity for the Sarah Mac Band. This conference, which happens in September, will coincide nicely with the release of our upcoming new album, which we can confidently say is the best work that we’ve ever done. We’ll have the opportunity to rub elbows with industry people and tout our work in an arena with a higher concentration of people of musical influence than anywhere we’ve ever been. We’re the Little Engine That Could, huffing and puffing along without a rest since well before I had to forego Africa to tour in support of Awakening. What a wonderful, encouraging break from the years of hustling this would be!

Prior to this COCA contest, we had sworn off contests that are determined by online voting. We used to participate in such contests with regularity. They really are a great way to gain exposure on a national level. In the last contest that we participated in, we were in a pack of five frontrunners. Suddenly, the other four bands began to take off, gaining thousands of votes per day. It became a fight to the death as our numbers continued to increase at a steady pace consistent with what it had previously been while the other bands spiraled upwards, with the winner having forty thousand votes at the end of the contest. We were a little bit discouraged, but then the contest organizers released a statement saying that they had discovered that the top four bands had cheated, using some kind of fancy computer technology to boost their votes. Because it was implied, but not explicitly outlawed in the original rules, the contest organizers strongly publically reprimanded the band that won, but still gave them the prize.

More than disappointing us that we didn’t win the prize (which was a showcase at some conference, but I don’t even remember now which one), we were frustrated that the impressive efforts of our fans were totally dwarfed by some goofballs who both lacked integrity and had hacker buddies.

Over the years of touring and meeting folks, we’ve grown a pretty impressive email list of supporters. Our last two albums have been completely funded by fan donations, so we’re already pretty secure, fully understanding the loyalty, enthusiasm and fervency of our fan-base. So it wasn’t surprising to us when we quickly pulled ahead of all of the other bands in the contest with a huge margin.  It also wasn’t surprising to us that when other people started to pull ahead that our fans cried, “foul!”

I do agree with our fans that some of the trends in numbers and their rate of accumulation have a familiar ring to them. But, I’m much more hesitant to cry “foul.” Part of that is because I tend to believe in the good in other people. Part of that is that I know the numbers that we have and the tremendous voting capacity of our fans, especially since our fans crisscross the country and the contest is open to everyone, not just Tallahassee residents. Because of that, I’m not willing to automatically discount the voting capacity of someone else’s fan base.

That being said, I recognize that the prize is pretty awesome and without a doubt ignites temptation to play dirty.

Although my graduate school training would say that all signs point to Charlie suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, my every day life experience with him would lead me to say that he doesn’t fall into full blown disorder category, but just demonstrates strong tendencies. Since this contest began, he has been tracking everyone’s votes and the time that it takes for them to gain those votes (to the point that it is very annoying to everyone around him). Right now we’re on the road, and can’t so readily check the votes. But last night before we all went to bed, Charlie checked the numbers from our hotel in Atlanta. This morning, I woke up to an alert on my phone of the shooting in Colorado. Charlie woke up to see that between 1AM last night and 7AM this morning, we had gained 600 votes. This is not in any way impossible given the breadth of our fan base, but it is inconsistent with our prior growth rate.

If this was legitimate voting by our fans, we thank you and really appreciate it. If this was someone who is convinced that we’re playing with people who are fighting dirty and decided to fight fire with fire to get us ahead, please stop. As much as we appreciate the sentiment behind what you’re doing and ultimately trust that your motives are altruistic, we don’t want to win that way.

 If I live into all the things that I have said then I won’t be just another one of those. –“Just Another” Sarah Mac Band

Claire, Charlie, and I have been talking about it extensively this morning and quite a bit last night on the drive up to Atlanta to conclude that this is a place where we have the opportunity to live into everything that we vowed when we were just starting out. We want to be set apart and do all of our business with a high degree of personal and professional integrity (which often is not found in the entertainment industry). Sometimes that means taking a hit and not getting what we think we want. But as I told my mom yesterday, “a victory is invalidated and all of the benefits that it brings are tinged and dirty if I had to resort to sleaze in order to win it.”

In a move that feels eerily similar to choosing not to go to Africa for grad school, we’re willing to let go of the COCA contest if it means that we have to resort to unsavory methods to get there. In spite of what any other contestants may chose to do, we’re making our stand to do it completely on the up and up. If we lose, we lose fair and square and that’s a consequence that we’re willing to take. You can’t win them all.  But inversely, if we win, it’s based completely on the dense network of fans that we have joining together to fight for us to get there.

We are the people and we will stand together, we will voice the thunder of change.—“Dead Revolutionaries,” Sarah Mac Band

I won’t lose sight of the fact that our ultimate goal is to get this new album out there for people to hear. We want the Sarah Mac Band name out there, moving through parties, radio, blogs, email, Facebook, getting people excited and primed for this fall launch. If nothing else, your continued efforts are doing just that. Every day, I get more than one email from supportive fans who are emailing all of their friends, their groups, their families, sending them a link to this contest and recruiting them for the cause. Even if we don’t make it to Nashville in September, people are rising up and spreading the news, adding more and more to our numbers every day.

I’ve said this a million times from the stage and I’ll say it again here from the blog: We can’t be musicians and performers without an audience. You guys are making our dreams possible (bigger dreams than those of an 18 year old who wanted to go to Africa). You guys give us stories to laugh about as we spend what often seem like endless hours in a van on the road. You guys remind me that we have a thousand Proud Papas and Supportive Mamas who want to wipe our tears and loyal Baby Bears who will fight somebody if they disrespect us (well, I’m not sure that there could ever be another Baby Bear!!).

So I say this to you, Sarah Mac Band fans: Don’t be discouraged by the staggering difference between us and our most vicious competitors in the last few days, even as it continues to grow.  Continue to vote loyally and steadily. Continue to spread the word and enlist “newbies” to join our cause. We’ll hope for a favorable outcome on August 17th at midnight, but if we don’t make it to Nashville for this conference, there’s always a chance that all of the pieces will come together and another magical redemptive Africa trip will pop up on our horizon!

Thanks for reading. Thanks for holding us up!


Sarah Mac



6 responses to “Thoughts on the COCA contest…

  1. Pamela Houmere

    ….and this is one of the reasons that we love you!

  2. Love your music. It’s also awesome to see someone that understands that potentially losing with integrity can be better that winning under suspect circumstances. The unfortunate thing is that I’m sure each of the bands in the contest shares the same sentiment… it is probably a few good intentioned but misguided fans that are not following the contest rules without any direction from the bands themselves.

    The easy solution to the whole thing is that COCA needs to change the poll settings. They can easily modify the poll to block multiple votes per day from the same IP address (I think they did that today since the 1000+ votes per hour overall seem to have stopped, but if they haven’t yet they definitely should). It is an easy option that should prevent anyone from using a program to auto-vote. The poll is/was initially set to use cookies to *attempt* to block multiple votes, but that obviously doesn’t work as you can vote multiple (unlimited) times by clearing or disabling cookies.

    It’s early enough in the competition that if COCA makes the necessary changes to the poll settings to prevent any overzealous fans from gaming the poll, the rightful winner (whoever that may be) should emerge by the end of the voting. Keep up the good work and best of luck in the contest!

  3. Hi Sarah, Just wanna say I have only heard you once and I am now a huge fan with 2 CDs I bought at your event here in Naples and one I downloaded online. I knew I loved your music and your person and this just proves I wa right about both!

    Be safe on the road. Have a amazing concerts. Great memories in the making and stay the course! As you learned with your dream of Africa. Sometimes we wonder why God doesn’t allow something or at least when we want it but it is always for a way greater purpose and outcome!

  4. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one thinking there was something strange going on… Contests shmontests!!! Who needs em… It definitely doesn’t validate a bands a worth or it’s deservance to go, because like I said at Swamp Stomp… everyone deserves to go, everyone. But alas this is a contest and I feel partially upset that we are even in this contest because I don’t believe our work as musicians should be held up in contest… Shoot, they should just send us all, they have grant money… But in the real, I respect you guys very much as people and as musicians and am glad to know I’m not alone on being concerned about the validity of this contest

  5. You and your band are awesome, God will always gift the deserved, like the trip to Africa. Gifts come to us when he knows its our time. His will and his time. Because he knows when and what is best for us always. If by chance you do not win, it is because he has another purpose for you. We can always look back an see why. We just have to remember he controls our future, as much as we would like to beleive that we control it. He leads us, down paths. As long as we choose the right path, (that will not hurt others or us) then we will be gifted. And in our soul, we all know the right path.
    Love you and yours, you give us all such gifts of self and soul. Music give us answers, when we choose to hear. And always remember you all are
    gifted in ways that you have listened and followed the right path. 🙂

  6. Joanna Long’s comment is eloquently expressed and so true…..Sarah Mac is on a path to be blessed as she upholds the honorable way to achievement. So refreshing in this day and time !

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