SongBizness: Song Contests

Contests provide songwriters, singers and bands with an opportunity for validation/acknowledgment of their talent as well as an opportunity to win prizes.

Contests are created for many different reasons and it’s important to be able to assess whether or not you’re wasting your money to submit material at all. Most contests are created to make money, though there are always contests that spring up for other reasons, for example to find a theme song for an organization or a city. There have been several competitions for a new national anthem, for instance. Many non-profit songwriting and music organizations use competitions to raise operating funds. These contests are usually open to writers from all over the world.

The loftier reason, aside from making money, is to find and expose new talent. Seldom do contests translate directly into commercially successful record deals, hit songs etc. There are, however, a wide range of potential benefits depending on the scope of the contest.

The long-defunct American Song Festival and Music City Song Festivals offered, by virtue of their judging procedures, the benefit of being heard by many judges and of each song being heard by several judges who could turn in the code numbers of songs they particularly liked. After the contest was over, the judge would be provided with a list of the writers he/she requested and their addresses and phone numbers so the judges could, on their own, request additional material. This benefit was a valuable door opener for many writers to establish ongoing relationships with the music publisher and producer judges. Today’s contests do the same. I judge several and have referred many of my favorite songs to other industry folks. And my favorites, by the way, aren’t always the winners.

Beyond prizes and validation, one of the valuable prizes was that winners were provided with more door-opening tools via the publicity they received as contest winners. This could, in turn, be used for inclusion in query letters or e-mails to industry professionals requesting permission to send CDs.

Submission Procedures

Each competition will give you its own submission requirements on the entry blank, and contests now all have downloadable forms but the following are common to all.
An entry form is submitted with each song submitted in each category (if there is more than one category). Be sure to fill out each form completely as though it was the only one submitted. In nearly all cases, it is acceptable to make copies of the original form. To save yourself some work, fill out the basic name/address/phone information on the original before making the copies so all you have to add is song titles, writer(s), if different, and categories.
A fee is required for each entry submitted in each category (except the JPFolks contest which is free). Fees can range up to $30 per song per category. Entry fees are certainly justifiable. It is not cheap to promote and organize a contest of any kind. Advertising is expensive and necessary despite the luxury of free online viral promotion. Contest producers have discovered that it’s not enough to just announce that the deadlines are rolling around and assume that those songwriters who entered last year will automatically enter again. Each year they have to go after a whole new group of writers because last year’s entrants who didn’t at least receive an honorable mention are likely to believe that, if someone didn’t recognize their hit, the contest is a rip-off and the judges don’t know anything. The last thing they’ll allow themselves to believe is that their song just wasn’t good enough.

In addition to advertising, contests must hire people to process entries, book, coordinate and supervise judges and judging sessions, keep financial records, answer phone inquiries and many other tasks. In some cases, judges are also paid.

Some critics have actually advised writers not to pay a fee for submission to contests, particularly if they get a critique because “you should never pay for a critique.” Nonsense! That philosophy originated as a way to protect writers from song sharks who would ask a writer to pay a small fee for a critique, give their song a rave review as a way to set them up for a publishing contract for which they would unscrupulously ask for an additional fee.

A lyric sheet is usually requested to speed the judging process. A judge can listen to and judge a song by listening to a verse and chorus of the song while scanning the remainder of the lyric. Lyric sheets should always look as professional as possible, be neatly typed with sections (Verse/chorus/bridge) separated so the judge can clearly see the song’s structure.

Rules and Regulations
Some competitions request that your name not appear on the tape/CD or lyric sheet to avoid the possibility of favoritism should the judge recognize the name of a writer. It is especially important, in those cases, for the writer or performer to completely fill out the submission form so that the person initially processing the tape can code the submission form, the lyric sheet and tape/CD. Don’t be too concerned about it though. If you don’t eliminate your name, the contest will black it out themselves. In fact it’s always a good idea to have a proper copyright notice (© year, copyright owner) on each lyric sheet no matter where you send it or for what purpose.

Stylistic categories. Amateur songwriters often have difficulty distinguishing pop from R&B or rock, country from folk etc. They either enter the same songs in several categories just to be safe, or risk entering one song in an inappropriate category and having it eliminated, not because it’s not a quality song but because of a poor category choice. The best approach is to play it safe by entering more than one category, if you can afford it, after getting as much feedback as you can from fellow writers and friends on the most appropriate category.

Some of the criteria to consider in making the choice of songs to enter involves a process of elimination, which, in fact, is involved in the judging as well. So it may be instructive to come from the viewpoint of a judge who knows that certain factors will preclude a song being a winner even though it may receive an honorable mention. Here are a few:
1. A song without a chorus
2. The title doesn’t appear in the chorus or first or last line of the verse.
3. Clich©d lyrics
4. Little or no melodic contrast between verses, chorus and bridge
(See Taxi Critique Sheet P___)

Along with those factors that will immediately eliminate a song from competition, another factor that will enhance its chances of staying in the race is a well produced demo. Though most song contests will ask judges to focus on the song itself, production can’t help at least subliminally affecting a judge’s decision, particularly with styles like R&B, Hip-Hop, straight ahead rock and up-tempo pop/rock. This doesn’t always mean spending $1000 in a state-of-the-art studio. A good sounding demo recorded on a Digital Audio Workstation can be more than adequate. But make sure you have a great singer. There’s no other factor more important other than the song itself. Don’t sing it yourself if you’re not the best singer for it.

You will partially base your decision whether or not to enter a competition on the lure of the money, hardware, software, memberships, etc., offered to winners. Customarily, a grand prize is awarded to an overall winner and first, second, third and more prizes awarded in each stylistic category. In addition, honorable mention certificates may be awarded to songs that judges felt deserved special consideration but didn’t make the finals.

A history of take-the-money-and-run contests makes it important to be on the lookout for some distinguishing factors that help you recognize the legitimate ones. Here are some things to look for.
(1) If a contest has been in operation for more than a year, they should be willing to provide you with a list of previous winners.
(2) If they offer you merchandise prizes, they should be able to prove to you that they have either purchased them or with an affidavit from the manufacturer that the merchandise has been donated. Note: Most manufacturers no longer directly donate equipment, but may work in conjunction with a local music store to make it available to the contest in consideration of publicity. Don’t worry too much about this one though. Contests that have been around for a while can’t handle the bad PR generated on the Internet by winners who were denied their prizes.
(3) If the contest offers a cash prize, they should be able to offer proof that the money is in an escrow account that may only be distributed to winners. A common downfall of contests is to promise prize money with the honest hope that money received from entries will exceed the prize amount by enough to cover all expenses and profit. A very risky gamble because it is expensive to get enough publicity to insure that many entries and once a contest fails to provide prizes on time, its reputation has been destroyed. Same as above.

Bad Internet PR.
(4) The individuals responsible for the contest should be listed in the advertising or on a web site and there should be an e-mail address and hopefully a street address and phone number where they can be reached.
(5) The contest officers, owners, representatives, judges and their families should be ineligible to enter the contest.
(6) Prize schedules and amounts as well as entry deadlines, deadlines for notification of winners and awarding of prizes should be clearly listed on the application and the contest’s website. If a deadline becomes impossible to meet, a pre-determined process for notifying contestants should be implemented. New deadlines must be clearly stated.
(7) Judges of the contest should ideally be music industry professionals with proven experience in judging and critiqueing songs and, hopefully, in a position to further your career. There are also many peer-judged contests online and you just have to decide if it’s worth it for you. As they’re not judged by industry pros, they don’t really carry much weight as great promotional items. That’s because peers tend to judge on the positive side if the demo and musicianship sound great and don’t look at all the criteria that pros listen for.
(8) Don’t enter contests in which your entry becomes the property of the contest. In fact, look for a phrase that specifically says that it doesn’t. However, the contest should have the right to play the song, print it, or use your name and photo for promotional purposes. Your career benefits directly from that publicity and is one of the unstated “prizes” for a winner.

There is another caution related to ownership of your entry or winning song. Every year there are at least two or three individuals who want to get into the music publishing business and think that a great new way to find songs and finance their businesses is to have a contest and offer the winner a publishing contract. Sometimes they’ll form a record company and their first recording artist will sing your song. Savvy writers don’t enter these contests for two main reasons.
(a) If you believe in the commercial potential of your songs, the worst “prize” you can imagine is that your song will be owned by an inexperienced and unconnected new publisher whose only means of financing a company and finding songs is to hold a contest.
(b) Legitimate publishers never charge you to screen your songs. It is part of the business of a music publisher to find material and convince the writer that he can represent your song better than anyone else. So to set themselves up as someone who you “automatically” would want to publish your songs, without a track record or connections, is arrogant, to say the least. Frankly, under certain circumstances there may be writers who should not to even sign with well-established major publishers because, in their individual circumstances, it may not be in their best interest.

Finding Contests has become the submission vehicle of choice for not only contests entries but festivals and conferences in which bands audition to be showcased. Sonic Bids is a reputable and very effective service/community with forums in which members can share personal stories about the relative merits of festivals and contests (among many other topics). Their core product is the EPK (Electronic Press Kit) that’s like a mini website that contains some of your digitized songs, lyrics, photo, bio, video, press reviews, set list, contract requirements and gig calendar. You can send it anywhere with one click. One of the best values on the web. Use it to enter most contests. Too many other features to list. Give them a visit.

Jodi Krangel is the pioneer of the songwriters community resource site and songwriters e-mail newsletter. At her MusesMuse site you can search under “contests” and get a list of all of them with comments and info on each. She also encloses info on at least one in each newsletter.
There are new contests being created on a regular basis and it’s difficult to keep up with and futile to try to list them all but check the above sites periodically, join them, in the case of SonicBids or subscribe to the free newsletters. Also, use your browser to search “song contests.”
Among the established and reputable contests are:
Billboard Song Contest

Great American Song Contest

International Songwriting Competition

John Lennon Song Contest

Just Plain Folks Music Awards (Members only but membership is free)

Mid Atlantic Songwriters Contest International Song Contest

Unisong international Song Contest

USA Songwriting Competition

Indie International Songwriting Contest


2 Responses to SongBizness: Song Contests

  1. Jessica April 14, 2010 at 2:44 pm #

    Thanks for the mention and thanks for friending me on Facebook.

  2. Jessica April 14, 2010 at 2:45 pm #

    Thanks for the mention & friending me on facebook 🙂

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