Ask Jana: How to Compete in Songwriting Contests

5 Apr


This installment of #askjana comes from Heather, who is about to enter her soon to be finished EP in (I hope) a bunch of songwriting contests this year. Heather asks:

“How do you choose what songs to enter in a songwriting contest? And any other contest general tips?”

I’ve done quite a few of these over the last couple of years. There are two schools of thought for them and I subscribe to both. One side of the coin is that winning these definitely ups your “folk cred” in the songwriter community, so entering these competitions is a must for a singer-songwriter. Another school of thought is that it is weird to judge people’s music. Yeah, it is. But enter them anyway.

Most competitions have two facets to them. There is the entry process, where a pool of songs are selected from a (probably) giant pool. Then there is the actual competition, which usually involves a live performance.

Heather’s question is a good one because your task when entering is to

1) choose your most solid songs
2) that fit into the genre of the contest
3) that you can also perform with confidence when you get to the competition stage

Look at past winners and get a general feel for what goes at that particular contest. Some are straight up singer-songwriter acoustic guitar and words types, some lean country/bluegrass, some are very open to genre mixing. Keep your entry in line with those general guidelines.

Also keep in mind you might be asked to enter more than one song – pick the best ones (“Best” being the combo of a really solidly written song coupled with your ability to deliver a strong performance…if your brand new song is amazing but you’re shaky on the live performance, skip it). Yes, it’s like asking to pick your favorite kid…just do it.

Congratulations! You got selected to show up and…compete. What does that even mean? We are songwriters, not cage fighters. It means show up practiced and ready to compete, but know that some of the greatest benefits to doing these competitions is not what place you get, but who you meet and the networking you get to do.

Size up how the competition will go…some give you two songs only and they pick the winners. Some have rounds where you play 2 and then you move up to the finals to play one more. This means have at least 3 contest-ready tunes (even if you only had to enter one!). If you just have to play a one set, do your best songs (see criteria above).

Now let’s go with a scenario in which you play 2 and then move on to play 1 more.  You play your best 2 tunes for the semi-finals and move on to the next round…and suddenly you think, “I just played my best songs! NOW what do I do?” Except you want to play a really friggin’ great first set so you CAN move on to the finals. Hrm.

The real trick is to have 3-4 tunes you are immensely confident in both craft-wise and performance-wise…because you must be confident and know the song inside and out so you can perform it well and connect with the audience, not worry about playing it right. Practice and more practice helps that. You’ll probably be nervous anyway because no matter how many gigs and open mics are under your belt, few probably had a panel of judges sitting right in front of you taking notes. You will feel nervous. Over-prepare so you can cope.

The day of the competition take care of yourself however you need to…get a good night’s sleep.  I spent 20 minutes wandering around the parking lot of the Fairgrounds in Halletsville, TX at the Songwriters Serenade warming up. If socializing makes you at ease, go ahead. If it doesn’t, don’t feel pressure to chat before you play. You will see all the other contestants engaging in whatever zone-inducing habits they partake in…so don’t be embarrassed to warm up in your car or stretch or find a corner and play guitar.

HYDRATE. Start 2 days before. You’ll pee a lot. This is a good thing. Your throat will be lubricated and work for you. That parking lot in Halletsville? Dirt lot. It was windy. Ick.  Water helped.

When you’re up there, treat it like any other gig.  Banish thoughts of the awesome girl who played ukulele before you, or the dude that plays guitar like Tommy Emmanuel.  You got here based on the merits of your entry, so relax into it and have a great time.  I say this because I don’t always do it, but it’s always better when I do it this way.

If you win: be a gracious winner.

If you don’t: allow yourself to feel sad and mad for a minute if you do.  I did.  You go through these “I should have done a fast song because the winner did that” thoughts.  You start ultra-comparing.  Allow it for a TINY bit, then let it go.  Be a gracious not-first-placer.  (There aren’t really losers at these things since you all got picked to be there, even if it feels like it).  Revel in the friendships made, get business cards, Facebook friend them, whatever.

Win or lose, when you get home dissect the competition fairly (once you’re out of the YAY! or Booo. phase)…note who did well and why you think they did.  Sometimes judges share notes with you, sometimes you have no idea what the heck they were judging.  Oftentimes their list of criteria will include:

Song quality
Overall Performance Quality
Audience Engagement (Good banter is great.  Nervous rambling is not).
Instrumental skill

The thing to remember is that while there are criteria, the judges are human and have their own preferences, tastes, and preconceptions. This fact leads back to the main point of Do Your Best and Have Fun. Nothing else will do for these things.

To recap…
– pick your “best” songs
– prepare a lot
– relax and do your thing
– be gracious regardless of outcome
– meet people and network
– have fun.  I SAID HAVE FUN!

Some great ones to enter include: Kerrville New Folk, Wildflower, Telluride, Songwriter Serenade, and Merlefest.  Don’t stop there…start local and try everything.  Your community will grow and so will your performing chops.

Plus a lot of these competitions are at festivals and they have funnel cake.  You can’t beat funnel cake.

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