Hi, I’m Tyler Cook, Contest Winner, and I want to help you become as great at winning contests as me.
Actually, I’ve only ever won one sub-section of a larger contest, and I’ve never won the grand prize in any contest I’ve entered. That being said, I’ve been to enough of these things to know what the judges like. Remember, that’s what ultimately matters in these things: the judges. It doesn’t matter if you’ve written the best pop-rock tune since Rick Springfield sang “Jessie’s Girl” and all the girls want your phone number/Rocket Sauce; if the judges don’t like it, you’re not going to win. Therefore, the key to victory is getting into the heads of the judges, who usually fall into one of three categories:
1.) A professional musician in the “singer-songwriter” mold. From my experience, these judges like music similar to what they perform (which will be most people in this type of contest) and generally frown upon novelty tunes.
2.) A local personality, celebrity, or pillar of the community who loves music. This person could be a politician, a business owner, a teacher… pretty much anybody.
3.) A person involved in the artistic life of the community in some way other than what’s listed above. Think of the guy who runs the local community theater or a Music Appreciation professor at the college nearby. Yeah, this group is pretty similar to #2, but there are subtle differences, and, hey, you always need a 3-point thesis statement (right, AP US History students?).
Now, before I get to the specific tips, let me clarify an important point: when I talk about “songwriting contests,” I’m referring to a specific contest format that generally goes something like this:
1.) Limited to 1-3 musicians, mostly playing acoustically or with a digital piano (the latter being what I do).
2.) 2-3 judges matching the descriptions above.
3.) Typically take place in small, hip coffee shops (or other places hipsters and people who listen to Of Monsters and Men would congregate)
4.) In other words, I am NOT writing about “Battle of the Band”-style competitions, which have their own conventions, formats, and culture.
That last one is important: there is a distinctive culture to songwriting contests that I’ve noticed from participating in contests. It’s hard to put into words, but you’ll get the gist of it when you read my tips for winning (or at least doing well in) a songwriting contest:
1.) Play acoustic really well. The “really well” part should go without saying, but the majority of performers are acoustic guitarists. This means you have to play well and make sure your guitar is in tune. I’ve seen great songwriters lose out on a chance to lick that brass ring simply because they had a string that was way out of tune. I’ve also heard a lot of crappy acoustic guitarists.
2.) Be different. If everyone is playing acoustic guitar–and 90% of participants will–you need something to make yourself stand out. What can that be? Here are a few things I’ve noticed that really help:
- Play with another musician: if the contest allows more than one performer, have another musician play with you. Not only will it add depth and richness to your composition, but judges LOVE this stuff in certain forms. They particularly love tight vocal harmonies (who doesn’t?) or unusual acoustic instruments (cellos, upright basses, shakers, etc.). They also love to see male-female collaborations, so get your wife/girlfriend/platonic sex buddy/female friend up there with you.
- Look different: your clothes say a lot about who you are as a musician. I always wear a coat and tie when I play. Other musicians have crazy tattoos or look like 1940s pin-ups (stupid hipsters). Whatever it is, look the part of a musician. Don’t just toss on a black t-shirt from a Slayer concert and jump up on stage. Take some pride in your appearance!
3.) Be a talented youngster (especially if you’re a girl). Judges adore a talented young person. Now, being young in and of itself won’t win you any points. I’ve heard a lot of youngsters get up and play who suck royally. That’s fine, because they’re putting themselves out there and doing something most kids their age wouldn’t do. But youth alone is no substitute for talent. A genuinely talented young person just has icing on the cake: judges love them because they have good songs and because they’re young. And judges love girls more. People listen with their eyes, as creepy as that may be.
4.) Write really esoteric lyrics. You can’t just smash a bunch of random, weird words together, but interesting, nuanced lyrics are a big (and obvious) plus in songwriting contests. Judges are people, too, and they want to feel smart. If your songwriting is smart, judges will score you higher because it self-validates their own intelligence.
5.) Don’t play country or novelty songs… unless you look like a total hipster and you’re doing some kind of alt.country, Wilco crap. Remember, there’s a fine line between country music and Americana. Judges can’t get enough of the latter. The former is a dime a dozen. This is a tough one to parse down, but it goes back (unfortunately) to looks. I’ve heard some damn fine musicians who look like country musicians, and they never do as well as musicians who play “authentic”-sounding songs but look like they just pulled up in a Prius (this is also why you don’t do novelty songs: the songwriter judges won’t appreciate you “perverting” their craft–or poking fun at it, as I do in my song “Contest Winner”). In the twisted logic of the songwriting world, being “real” means playing music that doesn’t sound like it should be coming from you, which brings me to my next point…
6.) … Look different than you sound. This one is a bit iffier and is ill-defined, but I’ll give you a great example: where I live there’s a well-known brother-sister duo (see #2 above) who just happen to be, well, black. They sing tight vocal harmonies (again, see #2) and sound like The Civil Wars (which is probably the whitest band in America). At the risk of Paula Deen-ing all over the place, they have a different sound than you would expect from judging a book by its cover (an important lesson on racial tolerance and stereotyping, I suppose, but that’s for another post). But don’t think for a second the judges don’t notice it. They’ll never admit it, but they live in the same stew of cultural assumptions as the rest of us.
7.) Be talented! So this goes without saying, but if you don’t write good songs and play them well, none of the above matters. I’ve heard several songwriters who are simply talented and are perfectly comfortable in their own skin. They don’t try to manipulate the judges by intentionally being different or trying to game the cultural-musical assumptions of the ultra-hip judges. They just do their thing and they do it well–and they win. Heck, I’ve even heard some guys with excellent novelty songs that are so endearing that they win.
At the end of the day, you’ve got to work hard and write great tunes. Congratulations: you read these tips for nothing. You should have been practicing your new song!
Tyler Cook is a singer-songwriter from Florence, South Carolina. He plays with The Lovecrafts and Brass to the Future and performs regularly as a solo artist at local open mic nights. He sings and plays sax, keys, and a little bass. He loves songwriting contests even if he isn’t cool or talented enough to win them. He won the 2012 Artsville Songwriting Contest’s People’s Choice Prize for his original song “Contest Winner.”