Monday, January 18, 2010

My answer to your question: "Will you listen to my CD and tell me which song to enter in [Song Contest]?

I get asked this question a LOT - presumably because I have been a winner, a loser, a finalist, a non-starter, a judge, and a contest coordinator. I have gathered some wisdom along the way - particularly the wisdom to know that I cannot and will not answer this question in the way that you want me to. Unless you choose the song, you are always going to question the advice you were given by someone else. I decided, finally, to create the following advice to help you make that decision:


Write great songs. Hone your craft. Learn. Take workshops. Seek out and be open to honest criticism from fans and fellow writers. Be willing to rewrite and change things to honor the core of your song. Understand that being married to a particular lyric is pointless if that lyric doesn't make someone FEEL something.

Make good, quality recordings. This doesn't mean you have to spend a ton of money on full-production demos. To the contrary, I think that the most important thing is that a judge can hear YOU and what you do, which means good signal-to-noise ratio, and simple production. (Signal-to-noise ratio is a fancy way to say if you are buried in "tape hiss" or white noise, it suggests that you don't care much about how you present your music.)

****Please resist the temptation to use drum machines! The music placement service, Taxi, has on their standard critique sheet, the following short list of Sound Quality issues to check off:

Well Recorded
Too much distortion
Drums/percussion sound mechanical
Instrumentation sounds synthetic

Two of the 4 issues that they use to disqualify a song from being forwarded relate to the use of "canned" drums. Don't use them.

Are you at this point with your writing and recording? Okay, now you can enter contests.

Criteria for choosing the "right" song:

- Which song(s) is most often requested by your fans? Which song(s) is most likely to cause people that you don't know to come up after a show and tell you that you really "hit the mark" with that one?

-Is there a song that made you cry as you were writing it, and maybe it's even hard to get through without crying while you're singing it? A song that is that deeply personal is the most likely to connect with a listener. Please note that "personal" does not mean "navel-gazing" and does not forget to be universal and accessible.

-What kind of contest is it? Who are the judges? Is the prize a performance slot at a festival, a single-song publishing contract? (If the former, you'd choose something that comes off as a great performance...probably uptempo? If the latter, you'd choose your most commercially-viable song...broad, hooky.)

- What kinds of songs have won this contest in the past? What do they have in common? What do the winners have in common?

- Will the submission include lyric sheets? Are they allowing you to include a bio? (If you are including a bio, you would want to include any personal info that connects you with your song. For example, if your song is about weathering a storm, and you are a Katrina survivor, that info is important. It carries more weight and will be likely to stick with them. )

These contests are all about CONNECTING with whoever is listening. Generally, your most moving, but most broadly accessible or universal songs will fare best.

The other part of this is that even if you have hooked and connected with the first person that is screening songs, and even if, to them, you are "NUMERO UNO, this songwriter RULES and is definitely going to win this contest!" - most likely there is a line of other listeners, and ultimately a Panel of Final Judges, and every one of them is going to feel a connection to different songs for different reasons on different days depending on barometric pressure, the quality of the coffee they're drinking, and whether or not they have to tinkle really badly...among other things. It is truly a "crap shoot", and not getting into a contest does not mean your song isn't good.

Other things to consider when entering song contests:

-SHORT INTRO! Judges and screeners have a lot of songs to listen to. Save the long, instrumental intro for your live gigs. Get right into the song - a couple bars, TOPS, to establish feel is all you need before getting into your lyric. The person listening will be delighted, and you will score good will points immediately.

-GOOD CD! Make sure your CD is not defective before you send it in! Don't just burn it and put it in the envelope - listen to it. Seems so simple and obvious, but... you'd be surprised.

-FOLLOW CONTEST INSTRUCTIONS! Every contest is different - and all of them have rules in place for a reason. Ignoring them is a quick way to get filed in the "pass" bin. These rules can vary from how many submissions you are allowed, to whether they accept cassettes, to including biographical info (If they don't ask for it, DON'T include it - it will go straight into the trash).

-BE A PROFESSIONAL! As the field narrows and the judges are trying to choose between several equally wonderful songs, they may visit websites for more information or to hear other songs. There are several things that they will look at:

• your bio...make it factual and compelling without using a lot of flowery adjectives. Writing a good bio is like writing a good song - show 'em, don't tell 'em, and have an interesting point of view.

• your concert schedule...someone who is out there working all the time is going get the edge over someone whose calendar is empty. If, for some reason, you have nothing upcoming - show past dates, so it is clear that you have experience.

• your really should have a REAL website "" Most judges/industry pros will not take you seriously if your primary web presence is a MySpace page. Sorry, it's just the reality. Domains can be purchased for around 10.00 a year, and hosts like GoDaddy have VERY cheap hosting packages with templates to build your site. is the hosting company of choice for musicians - a little pricier (25.00/month) but they have loads of beautiful website templates and musician-specific features. (you can also host a self-produced website with them - you don't have to use their templates - I don't)

Also, keep your website current - don't make it obvious via blog posts or "news" items that you haven't updated your website since 2005. : )

• If you have entered via Sonicbids, make sure your EPK is freshened up, current, and full of information!


It's about persistence. It is a numbers game, much like anything in this business. 99% of the time you are going to hear "No"...whether you are pitching songs, trying to get gigs, attempting to score a deal with a label, or entering song contests. If your goal is to win or place in these contests, enter them all, and enter them repeatedly. If you let one "No" stop you, you might as well call it hobby, stay at home and play for the cat.

©2007 Kathy Hussey, all right reserved

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