Song Competitions

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by Jan Seides
Friday 10th April, 2015, 11:35pm

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Let me admit, right here at the beginning, that I have a certain amount of ambivalence where artistic competitions are concerned, so we can get that out of the way.  Nevertheless, there they are, and here I am, so I’m going to try and be as open-minded as I can.

Also, I’m going to limit myself to the songwriting competitions I have encountered or know by reputation, as opposed to all the contests out there. That should eliminate the ones that are simply scams for someone to use songwriters’ dreams against them. It may eliminate some perfectly honorable ones as well. If so, I apologize for the inconvenience.

We can start with the ones that are part of a music festival, just another activity on the weekend’s Screen shot 2015-04-10 at 9.44.45 PM agenda. Kerrville Folk Festival, here in Kerrville, TX, looms large among these, Founded by Rod Kennedy and currently presided over by Dalis Allen, NewFolk  is one of the oldest continuous contests. Also in Texas, in Richardson, is the Wildflower Festival which includes another song competition. Though not as old, it is much respected in its own right.  Telluride Troubador is another venerable competition, which along with the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival occur in Lyons, CO during the summer months. Tucson Folk Festival takes place in Tucson, AZ in May, Dave Carter Memorial Songwriting Contest at the  Sisters Folk Festival occurs each summer in Oregon, Woody Guthrie, Calgary Folk FestivalGreat River Folk FestivalCT Folk Grassy Hill Songwriting Competition, South Florida folk Festival, Susanne Milsaps Memorial Songwriter Showcase at the Inter-Mountain Acoustic Music Association Festival,  Falcon Ridge Emerging Artist Showcase, which is not technically a competition, but they do poll the audience to see whom they would like to return.

Screen shot 2015-04-10 at 9.52.53 PMOf the competitions that are not connected to a festival, but are still songwriting competitions, as opposed to Battles of the Bands, there are several. The BW Stevenson Contest at Poor David’s Pub in Dallas, The Rose Garden Cafe songwriting contest in Massachusetts, Susquehanna Folk Music Society in Maryland,  and Songwriters Serenade in central Texas to name a few.

There are lots of songwriters associations that run contests as well: Austin Songwriters Group, West Coast Songwriters Association, Mid-Atlantic Song Contest, and a host of others.

And then there are the giant national and even international competitions. John Lennon Song Screen shot 2015-04-10 at 9.42.21 PMContest, which is now so big it is run in stages, International Songwriting Competition, Billboard Song Contest, Great American Songwriting ContestNSAI Competition, USA Songwriting Competition, Unisong International Songwriting Competition, Eurovision Song Contest and the UK Songwriting Contest.

And finally, we have the contests that are part of the “Reality TV” world. American Idol,  America’s Got Talent (which has its counter-part in many other countries), The Voice.

Most of these contests cost between $25 – $35 to enter per song, or sometimes per 2 songs. Kerrville costs $25 for a two-song entry, John Lennon is $30 per song. A few of the contests are free to enter, but a caveat goes with the free-entry ones: Read the fine print before you sign. Most festivals require a performance component (which means the writers have to get themselves to the festival — though they usually get in free) in order to choose winners, but Songwriters groups usually don’t.

Screen shot 2015-04-10 at 9.41.49 PMWinning a song contest where you are performing can be life-changing, or have no effect whatever on your career. Exposure at a folk festival is no small thing.  It can make booking gigs a lot easier, if you do a good job onstage. The opposite is also true. If you are not up to the occasion, it can harm your standing in the community. I even went so far as to hire an acting coach before one competition, and it really did help. And , of course, practicing can never hurt you. If you are “In it to win it”, then of course, you want to bring your “A” game. just like you would to any gig (Right?). Dress and behave professionally, don’t drink and drive, and be friendly to your audience. Be careful with introductions, ie. not too long. For one thing, there is someone running things with a schedule in mind.

On the other hand, just being part of the contest can do the same, even if you don’t win the contest. You would have displayed your great songs in the best possible light, and there are so many people in the audience — and onstage with you doing the same — that will be interested in your music. I’ve lost count of the number of times when someone walked up afterwards to tell me how much they appreciated my songs, even when I didn’t win the contest. Be friendly when that happens. Fans are important, even if you’re disappointed in the outcome of the competition. And I have witnessed a group of songwriters who all participated in a song competition one year who are now friends for life.

For those contests where the writer doesn’t have to perform, the important thing is to give the Screen shot 2015-04-10 at 9.42.35 PMjudges a good recording of the song. Notice I didn’t say fully-produced or anything like it. The simpler, the better is what I’ve heard from many judges. But clear sound, and a short simple (instrumental) introduction, if any, are essential. So is leaving out the lengthy guitar solo. Again, put your best professional foot forward. This is also true for the big, national or international contests.

As for the TV contests, they have been, for the most part. about singing ability and “star quality” rather than about songwriting. Grammy winner,  Sam Smith has stated that he thinks they are actually bad for songwriters, though he himself has performed his own song on one of them. He says he wants to be judged on the basis of the song, not just on his voice. I myself have never been tempted by them, though I know two people who have. One described her experience as “demeaning”, and the other, I believe, was somewhat successful. She is, however, an excellent singer, and the show was The Voice.

There is a new show being promoted that would feature songs and songwriters. It would be titled “Songland”. Adam Levine, of Maroon5 and The Voice, and Dave Stewart, Grammy-winning songwriter, are involved, and here’s what the blog, Saving Country Music has to say about it:

The show wants to feature “everyday people” and their compelling back stories as they try to pitch songs that eventually could become huge hits. Also involved in the show would be big-time producers and artists as a song goes through the pitch process.

So perhaps this would be a better TV vehicle for songwriters interested in TV exposure.

Speaking of exposure, it’s time for a word about winning and losing. I’ve won a few prizes and I have also been totally ignored, so I know that they both carry an emotional impact. Winning can be a wonderful shot in the arm for a performer’s ability to book gigs in prestigious venues — though that does wear off. Losing can be a discouraging disappointment, no matter how many friends and fans you make in the process. A good thing to remember is that winning a contest is not the reason you wrote the song. Also,  judging songs, or any other art form, is a very subjective thing, affected by all sorts of extraneous factors. Don’t take it personally, and you’ll survive to write another day.

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Category: Music, Music Biz, Songwriting

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One Comment

May 2015

Wednesday 13th, 11:35pm

Jan, This was so informative. I'm about to seriously dive into the the songwriting contest world for the first time. This is SO helpful. Thank you for so generously sharing this information.
Brenda
www.HimandHerTX.com

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