Seven Steps to Winning a Song Contest

Some think song contests are bogus but heck, if they offer prizes you want or get you into that venue you’ve wanted to play, then they’re worth their weight in Dolly Parton CDs. For three years, I was the director for a song contest. I’ve also judged several others. So, potential winners, here’s a few steps that might get you a little mail box money.

1. Find the contests. You can find them 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? Does it include a spot on their stage in a place where you’d like to play? If they promise to put your words to music and get them directly to a Big Star – after you send them a Big Check – then forget them. They’ll only leave you shivering in the cold without a full wallet to keep you warm.

Contests that require a live appearance present a whole ‘nother set of issues. If you’re a heavy metal god, don’t apply to the contest that wants only solo performers. If you must be available on a certain date for a performance, then keep that date open.  And most importantly, if you don’t feel you’re a strong live performer, fuhgetaboutit. This may be simple logic but I’ve seen all of this happen.

3. Follow the rules. Again, this may seem basic but it’s amazing how many song contests get incomplete entries, a check for the wrong amount, too many songs, no lyric sheet, etc.

4. Carefully choose your song(s). They’re judging the song, not that brilliant 24 measure guitar solo that starts the tune. Chances are good the judges will fast forward past that solo anyway. It’s best if the words and/or melody begins quickly. As little as four measures of intro might do it. Sure, there are exceptions but imagine yourself on the other end of the process. You’re a judge who’s slogged through 50 songs. Your fourth cup of coffee is cooling and if you hear one more extended guitar solo you’re gonna run into the street and attack innocent passersby.

This may seem weird but you don’t always want to choose your favorite song. Choose your audience’s favorite song. What one gets the wild applause? What tune is a must to play at every gig or the fans riot? What one seems to end up on a lot of people’s Facebook page? 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 songs and you’ve recorded yours on a 20 year old boom box, it’s not going to get the same attention. Sure, some contest guidelines say they don’t care about the quality but why take a chance?

Make sure the volume 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. Don’t go crazy with compression but make sure the judge doesn’t have to tweak the volume.

Make sure the music is played well. If the rhythm section is a half beat behind everyone else it’s gonna be distracting. Yeah, it’s not a best band contest but you don’t want anything to deter from that brilliant melody or refreshing lyric. In fact, don’t feel like there has to be a huge band. A good song is a good song even if it’s only your voice and piano.

Make sure your song fits the category. If you’re submitting in the country category, don’t enter a solo acoustic guitar ballad about your organic garden. If it’s rock, use a few power chords and have a killer rhythm section.

A song that’s over four minutes long is a rock opera, not a good song contest entry. Someone’s already written “Stairway to Heaven.”

5. Send in your entry and wait. This isn’t a deal where the squeaky wheel gets the gig. When the winners are announced and you aren’t one it isn’t going to help if you harangue the director. The decisions are made. The end.

If the deadline passes and you don’t hear from the contest, check their website. They may only notify the winners.

6. Don’t give up on a contest. If you feel it’s worthwhile and you don’t 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 your drummer and get a new recording.

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. You’ll know that someone thinks you’re a great songwriter.

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

About jamiebobamie

Musician - teacher - writer - gets bored easily. I write an almost-weekly blog that includes true stories gathered from 20-plus years of touring, how-to articles for musicians and profiles of performers. Also, I love dark chocolate, I can play "Brown Eyed Girl" behind my head, and I twirl the baton badly.
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7 Responses to Seven Steps to Winning a Song Contest

  1. Just when I was thinking about never again entering a song contest, you had to go and call me by name. What’s a poor songwriter to do? I mean, an unwealthy songwriter, not someone who writes poor songs. Is it too late for a re-write? Arrrggghhh!

  2. Clark says:

    Hooray, a brand new blog! May your stats be ecstatic. I’m not likely to enter any songwriting competitions, but if I were, I’d follow your advice.

  3. Ernie says:

    It seems to me that the right contest can be a good way to boost a writers career but are certainly not necessary. From what I can tell, the performer who has some elements of their career in place, website, bio, cd’s, press, actively gigging, will have a much better chance at placing than the fledgling who is just starting out and does not have these things in place. Is that a true assumption generally? If so then it might be worthwhile to have those things in place before entering. One contest I am interested in, The Great American Song Contest, offers feedback for each entry from the panel. I have not seen what this feedback consists of personally but if it is good then I think that is one contest in which the relative beginner might benefit regardless of winning.

    Song contests are interesting to me. You toss your song and a wad of cash into a void and then go on with your life as usual. When it comes down to the finals it’s really up in the air. Were they to be held on a different day, with a different judge, or considering any other factors that may contribute to the results, the outcome could be completely different.

    I have not made up my mind about contests for myself so for now I am entering here and there mostly out of curiosity.

    • jamiebobamie says:

      Ernie, I’ve seen plenty of people win who didn’t have those things in place. Judges for a song contest don’t research the artist – in fact, the judging is often done blind so they don’t even know the name of the songwriter. And no, song contests aren’t necessary to a successful career but like I say in the blog, that extra cash and those bragging rights are a cool thing to have.

  4. jamiebobamie says:

    Thanks, Clark. Send your songwriting friends here, ‘k?

  5. Pingback: Ten tips for song contest entries | Jamiebobamie

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