I happened to come into contact with a Grammy award winning songwriter who now does consultancy. I asked her what she thought about song writing competitions. “Oh, they are just run to make money for the organizers!”. Of course, her own consultancy business is not just there for the altruistic benefit of songwriters – fees are involved. So are song contests worth entering?
Firstly, you need to decide what you want to get out of it. Winners automatically get the best publicity, but this doesn’t guarantee the song will ever be re-recorded and published and there are of course very few of these. It seems that being a finalist can also be enough to contact local press, radio stations and TV. Even semi-finalist places can lead to publicity, apparently. Perhaps you want to advertise your band or yourself as a solo artist or maybe only the song?
Secondly, you need to put song contests into perspective. There are basically three ways to get your songs noticed:
1. Send your CD to publishers (or sometimes a link to your song by email or occasionally mp3 files are allowed)
2. Join a website, networking organization within the business or use a consultant to pitch songs
3. Enter your songs into contests
Method 1 involves costs; postage plus all the jiffy bags, materials (cover letter with biography, lyric sheets, CD) and the presentation must at least be neat and tidy (ideally with some sort of CD labeling tool plus your name, address, telephone number, email address on all materials), if not a highly professional presentation.
Then there is all your own time invested. One difficulty is that you need to follow the submission rules of each publisher, which can vary; perhaps just one song allowed, three or up to five? Some songwriters advise to send only one song, which should be targeted at an artist the publisher promotes! It’s often the case you get no feedback and you don’t even know if the CD gets listened to (although publishers usually promise they will try to).
You can see the work and difficulties involved here and whether to include return postage and materials. Advice on the best way to use this method has appeared on more than one occasion in previous quarterly GISC magazines. There are quite a few advertisements in the magazine. If the publisher asks for link to your song(s) or an mp3 file, you should definitely contact them by this low cost method, but pay attention to the kind of music they are asking for – don’t send easy listening to hip hop companies!
Method 2 can also involve significant costs – membership fees, song review & feedback fees, pitching fees and so on. I think using a website or consultant to network can be of value if for example you live in Europe but want to get exposure in the USA.
In one case I know, the publisher/owner doesn’t allow just any songwriter to join until he is convinced the songs are of sufficient value to his publishing community and the production quality is high enough. At the third attempt of sending a couple of my mp3 files, the owner finally agreed I could join but advised that I was unlikely to find interested parties for my kind of songs! Nice of him considering he could just pocket the membership fee. This subject is clearly one that can be expanded into another full article.
Method 3 Song Contests. In my time, I have entered many different song contests in the USA and Europe including the UK Song Contest (UKSC), Brit Writers’ Awards (new in 2010), Song Expo, Unisong, Song of the Year, Songdoor, USA Songwriting Competition and the International Songwriting Competition (ISC).
These are the points you need to consider when entering a song contest:
– Price: This can vary from free (rarely) to around $30 (roughly €23 for comparison) per song. All other song contest features considered, price is clearly very important. The organizers need to charge a fee to be able to pay administrators and for IT services plus most importantly to pay the judges. We will never know just how much profit they make and therefore whether the contest is “overpriced”. Songdoor charges just $10 (about €8) per song and the Brit Writers’ Awards 10.95 pounds (about €12) for 3 entries (songwriting is a small section of this general writing competition). Song Expo is €60 (about $80) for 5 songs – you now have to apply for an entry form to be sent to your address.
– “Early Bird” Offers: Some contests offer “Early Bird” discounts. If you are sure you want to enter a contest every year offering these, be well-organized enough to keep a list of the contests you are interested in, cost, early bird & final closing date etc. (a spreadsheet is handy for this) and get your songs in on time.
– Keeping records: Also, record which song you entered where, when and in which category as emails confirming payment/entry with a reference number often don’t repeat even the song title let alone the song category.
– Song production: most contests claim that the actual production is not taken into account and they are looking for originality, good lyrics that fit well with the melody and so on. I think it pays to send the best quality production and arrangement you can as it showcases the song qualities and the judges must be influenced even just a little bit by a great production? Imagine asking people to judge the pictures of Michelangelo, Rembrandt or Renoir but ignoring the colour? How well would Van Gogh do in that competition?
– Feedback: We all want feedback! This seems to be a common topic on songwriting pages on websites such as Facebook or in music forums. I have received glowing one page reviews of my songs, even though they weren’t anywhere near the final. Wonderful to have one’s ego massaged to alleviate the pain of the submission fee, right? Note that some competitions charge an extra fee to get a review back.
The best system, I think, is that employed by the UKSC, where every contestant can find back his/her name and songs (with certificate) with a score from 1 to 10, 10 being allocated to the winner, 9 to a finalist, 7 & 8 semi-finalist and so on. Take heart as in the UKSC’s own words “A score of 4, 5 and 6 indicates that the writer has demonstrated real songwriting ability and understanding and songs with these scores will receive a Commended Entry Certificate.”
Contests often claim that even if you are not a winner your material is exposed to the industry professionals, implying a judge might hear something he/she likes enough to make contact with you. Cases of this seem to be rare. I have to commend SongDoor, who months after the end of their competition are still in contact with us about trying to place our stage musical (One Star Hotel by Robert Young) with folks they know and work with in the Nashville, USA due to the high placing and consistency of the songs (see www.songdoor.com/2010HMs.html) although we didn’t reach to the final five.
– Ease of Entry: Most song contests are relatively easy to enter. You fill in a form online, attach the song mp3 file and lyrics sheet and fill in your personal details plus credit card payment or go via PayPal. Note that some contests have to be entered from a music or networking site otherwise you have to send a CD by post or will not be able to enter at all!
– Judges: I just tend to trust that whomsoever is elected, they will do an honorable and unbiased job in the song categories they are responsible for and know something about music! Other song contest factors are more important.
– Song Categories: The real two-edged sword. The UKSC now offers 15 categories, Songdoor just 6. So it can be confusing, which category to place your song in if it’s a kind of pop/rock adult-contemporary love song kind of thing. Of course, you are encouraged to enter the song into as many categories as you like as you have to pay the fee for each entry.
I have found that when I have entered the same song into different (but similar) categories, the score didn’t change much if at all (exception – my finalist placing). There are usually contest guidance notes on what kind of songs fall into each category to help you.
– Placings & Statistics: The only feedback one competition I entered gave were the winners! I had no idea where my song was placed, no review, no score, no feedback at all. I tend to avoid these and stick to the ones that do. Some list finalists and semi-finalists only – better than nothing.
Most contests receive “thousands of songs”. The UKSC claims over 6,000 in 2011 and that about 3% are finalists, so the 15 winners represent under 0.25%. Obviously, not all categories have equal numbers of entries and the bigger the competition the more likely you are to run up against another “hot” songwriter like yourself and therefore less likely to be highly placed. Entering one of the smaller contests in a less favored category increases your chances (but which are these?) The song contests guard their exact statistics – we only get glimpses. Additionally, they may be restricted by sponsorship agreements and evaluations cost more time and money.
Lastly, for the first time this year I made it to the finals of the UKSC in the new Show Songs category, which encouraged me to write this article as well as the questions arising in music forums about what value a finalist placing has. Personally, I feel it’s useful to enter competitions as long as it is reasonably inexpensive per song and there is meaningful feedback – a scoring system helps.
Choose the competitions wisely and select your best work for the right category to keep costs down. Song contests are an addition to pitching your songs, not a replacement for contacting publishers. But at least they give you some idea what industry professionals might think before you lick the stamp and help you to choose your best works more objectively.
I want to campaign in the future for more song contests to award scores and make finalist & semi-finalist placings and statistics more transparent so we can understand where we stand in our music forums and just occasionally, show off a little!
Copyright © 2012 David Hardwick All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from David Hardwick