Seven Steps to Winning a Song Contest
Date: Saturday, February 03, 2007 @ 18:44:55 UTC

If American Idol isnít your thing, how else can you gain a quick trip to the top of the star heap? If youíre an aspiring Kurt Cobain or Dolly Parton then maybe a song contest is your ticket. Itís not exactly an express train to the land of Green Day or Garth Brooks but it could garner you some nice prizes and opportunities you wouldnít otherwise get by just posting your songs on MySpace or performing in your little burb.

By Jamie Anderson

1. Find the contests. Some are listed in's Tip Sheet & Directory. You can find more with a good search engine or on one of these sites:

2. Do your research. Listen to the past winning songs. Do yours match up? Are they a similar style to yours? Are the prizes something you could use? Is it a contest with name recognition? (Will anyone care if you win the Dogbreath, Ohio song contest?) Does it include a spot on their stage in a market where youíd like to play? If they promise to put your words to music and get them directly to a Big Star - after you re-mortgage your house - then run. Fast.

Contests that require a live appearance present a whole Ďnother set of issues. If youíre a heavy metal god, donít apply to the contest that wants only solo performers. If you must be available on a certain date for a performance and you arenít, then donít enter. And most importantly, if you donít feel youíre a strong live performer, fuhgetaboutit. This all may be simple logic but as the director of a song contest, Iíve seen all of this happen.

3. Follow the rules. Again, this may seem basic but itís amazing how many song contests get incomplete entries, a check for the wrong amount, no lyric sheet, etc. If they say no jewel boxes then dammit, put that disc in a paper sleeve. If no press kits are allowed then youíre only wasting trees by sending that fat packet of reviews. Send your entry to the right address and include the correct amount of postage. Otherwise, itís like showing up for a job interview in a tank top and rubber thongs.

4. Carefully choose your song(s). If itís a song contest theyíre judging the song, not that brilliant 24 measure guitar solo that starts the tune. Chances are good the judges wonít even get past that solo anyway. Itís best if the words and/or main melody begins quickly. Depending on the genre, as little as four measures of intro might do it. There are exceptions, of course, itís art after all Ė but imagine yourself on the other end of the process. Youíre a judge whoís bug eyed after slapping on 30 discs. Your fourth cup of coffee is cooling and if you hear one more extended guitar solo youíre gonna use that disc as your dogís newest fetch toy.

This may seem counter intuitive but you donít always want to choose your favorite song. Choose your audienceís favorite song. What one gets the wild applause? What tune is a must to play at every gig or the fans riot? At the CD table what song do fans ask for? Also, listen to the advice of other songwriters and the people who regularly give you feedback. Honest feedback. Not your mama who murmurs that everything is nice.

Get as good of a recording as you can. Again, this may seem like a DUH piece of advice but if a judge is listening to a whole stack of cleanly recorded CDs and your song, recorded on your 20 year old boom box, comes up, itís not going to get the same attention. Sure, some contest guidelines say they donít care about the quality but why take a chance? If they canít hear the lyrics over the white noise of that old Sony then youíve wasted your time. Speaking of volume, make sure yours is high. Put your song with a bunch of others and quickly scroll through the first few measures of each one. Does the volume seem much lower than the other cuts? Then make it jump out. Donít go crazy with the compression but make sure the judge doesnít have to tweak her computer controls to hear your song.

Make sure the music is played well. If the rhythm section is a half beat behind everyone else for the whole song, itís gonna be distracting. Yeah, itís not a best band contest but you donít want anything to deter from that brilliant melodic hook or refreshing lyric. In fact, donít feel like there has to be a huge band unless your genre is prog rock or the like. A good song is a good song even if itís only your voice and piano.

Make sure your song fits the genre. If youíre submitting in the country category, donít enter a long ballad about peace with only your voice and an acoustic guitar. Yeah, itís got country possibilities but make sure thereís a weeping pedal steel or lively fiddle. Cut out a few of those verses and make sure you mention God, getting drunk or cheating. (A little sarcasm yíall but you get it, right?)

A song thatís over four minutes long is a rock opera, not a good song contest entry. It doesnít matter if itís your very own ďStairway to Heaven.Ē

5. Send in your entry and wait. It isnít going to do any good to email the organizers. This isnít a deal where the squeaky wheel gets the gig. When the winners are announced and you arenít one, again, it isnít going to help if you harangue the grand poobah. The decisions are made. The end. Sure, you can send some suggestions to the organizers but if you start out with a complaint about your song not making the cut then itís only going to be viewed as sour grapes.

If the deadline passes and you donít hear from the contest, check their website, your spam box and your SonicBids listing. The notifications may be there. Donít assume youíve been left in the dust by a heartless song contest.

6. Donít give up on a contest. If you feel like itís a worthwhile endeavor and you donít win the first time, try it again. Judges change and circumstances change. Your song might've been one of thousands of entries and dude, someone had to lose. Maybe you need to enter a different song or fire the drummer and get a new recording. Listen to the winning entries and figure out where you went wrong.

7. Realize the limitations. No contest is gonna make you Elvis but that cash prize, merchandise or bragging rights in your bio might make entering worthwhile. You can call the press, your friends and your mama. Youíll know that someone thinks youíre a great songwriter.

So go on, Dolly, Kurt and Elvis, enter that contest. Enter several. Your chances are better than winning the lottery and while you wonít win several million, the prizes can be great. Besides, you want your mama to think you have a Real Job.

Jamie AndersonFor two years Jamie Anderson was a song contest director but had to quit when she stopped doing caffeine. In her sordid past she was a judge for other contests. Jamie has entered contests too, getting a few finalist slots and honorable mentions. Sheíd fire the drummer but she doesnít have one. Jamie also teaches songwriting, guitar and bellydance, not all at the same time, and has toured for 20 years.

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