Songwriting contests are a great way to extend the potential life of your song, give it a chance to be heard, and get feedback on the song. If you place in one of the top spots you’ll win cash, and often performance and industry opportunities as well.
Winning or placing in a songwriting competition is also a great feather in your cap – you can include it in your biography and make the most of your achievement.
Don’t enter a songwriting contest thinking you’re going to win. You may have the best song of the entire group, but that doesn’t mean the judges will hear it that way. You may have written a great ballad, but they may gravitate towards upbeat songs.
However, you should always give yourself a fighting chance to stand up against the other songs. Here is our guide on winning songwriting competitions and setting yourself up for success.
First things first, the song has to be strong and well-written. Further, it should be written with some attention paid to how it will be received by judges.
I’m not saying you should tailor the lyrics or emotional content of the song – quite the opposite – you should write the hardest hitting thing you can, but make sure that the song is laid out effectively.
Short/No Instrumental Introduction
Judges are listening to hundreds of songs. Their ears are tired. A soft instrumental introduction might be a nice way to start the song in a live show or on an album, but for the version you are sending to the judges, skip it.
Your intro should not be longer than 15 seconds. The shorter the better, I wouldn’t make mine more than 10 seconds. Get to the verse as soon as possible. If you can, just start with verse right away.
Reduce Or Cut Out Other Instrumental Sections
The same rule applies for all instrumental sections. Songwriting judges are not evaluating the instrumental parts of the song. It’s all about the lyrics, melodies, ideas, and hooks. For the sake of the competition submit a version of your song without instrumental interludes or solos.
You may find that scrapping or shortening instrumental sections actually makes your song hit harder anyways – getting quickly and effectively from section to section is a mark of a great song!
Focus On The Chorus
These songwriting competitions are often unevenly focused on choruses. Of course, the chorus is supposed to be the catchiest, hookiest part of the song, but in songwriting contests there is a lot of emphasis placed on the chorus.
Make sure your chorus is everything it should be. Don’t be afraid to get there quickly. Nobody us going to complain about a short verse, quick pre-chorus, and smash hit chorus. Many famous songs follow that exact formula.
Believe it or not, a strong title will make a difference. The title of your song can be whatever you like – on an album. For the sake of the songwriting competition make your title strong, clear, and simple.
Ideally, you should make the title the key lyric, phrase, or hook from the chorus. It should represent the idea and theme of the song in a few words.
Make Sure All Of The Lyrics Are Tight
These competitions are all about the lyrics, ideas, and melodies. Lyrics are definitely half of the battle. You need to make sure every line is tight. What does that mean?
Get rid of extra words where you can. Words like ‘just’, ‘but’, ‘so’, etc. are often put into verse lyrics to add syllables. Often, these words are useless. They don’t add anything to the story, and judges will note these extra ‘filler’ words as being a point against you.
Make sure that every single line in the entire song supports the title, supports the chorus, and supports the idea of the song. For most songs, you have creative license to be vague or mysterious. For songwriting competitions, it is best to tighten up those lyrics and arrive at something solid.
For almost all songwriting competitions you will have to type out the lyrics to the song. This is a perfect opportunity to sit and think about your lyrics. Are they everything they could be? Do they all work?
Unique Ideas Are Winners
All of these suggestions are boiler-plate suggestions that may not apply to your song. Having a truly original idea is always the best way forward. You shouldn’t try to write someone else’s song or write something you think the judges want to hear. Write from the heart.
Now, if you have a totally unique idea and you’re able to tighten up the intros and interludes, keep your verses on point, and slam it home with an amazing chorus, then I think you’ll have a real fighting chance.
Don’t Be Afraid To Co-Write
Many, many hit songs and contest winners were co-written. Songs that reach the top charts are often written by a team of writers. There is a lot of pride and ego at play when writing songs, sometimes having other ears and brains on the writing session can help move past that and get to the core of a great song.
Songwriting contests require a recording by which they will judge the song. Some people will submit fully produced songs, others demo, and others will submit very simple demos with just an instrument and a vocal. It doesn’t matter which of these you submit, just that whatever you submit is good quality and shows off the song.
The judges are not judging the recording. They are judging the song. That said, there are certain things you can do spruce up the recording to give the song the best fighting chance.
Make Sure The Vocal Is Front And Centre
The most important thing you can do for your recording is keep the vocal front and center. If that means turning down or muting other instruments, so be it. The judges should be able to hear every lyric clearly.
If you’re going to spend money and time on the demo, spend it on achieving a good vocal quality and vocal performance.
There are so many great writers who aren’t necessarily great singers. Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and so many more. You don’t need to have an incredible voice to write great songs or to win these contests.
That said, if your voice isn’t very strong (which is totally ok) you may want to consider hiring a singer to sing your song for you. This is completely fine in almost all songwriting competitions.
In fact, professional songwriters around the world hire professional demo singers all the time. Sometimes, having a great singer on your track helps get the melodies and ideas across in a more accessible way.
Consider hiring or bartering with a friend to have them sing on your track.
Keep The Production Genre Appropriate
The genre you are submitting to will determine the production to some extent. Folk, Americana, Roots, Singer/Songwriter genres can have very stripped back demos that just focus on the song.
EDM, Hip-Hop, RNB, and Pop may require more fleshed out demos. You don’t need to stress it too much – many artists will be submitting work tapes. Keep it genre appropriate and keep the song/vocal front and center.
Collaboration Is A Good Thing
In both the recording and the writing process, collaboration can lead to a better song and a better recording. Having someone experienced in recording help you get the right sounds for the demo.
Having an excellent guitar player accompany an make it easy for your vocal to pop. Having a hired singer can take your melodies to the next level. Have fun with it, stay true to the song, and try to make the best demo you can!
The last component to songwriting competitions is the submission. You usually have to include a bio, lyrics, contact info, copyright info, and pictures. There’s no reason to screw this part up, make sure you dot your I’s and cross your t’s!
Your bio should be hard-hitting and straight to the point. If you are not comfortable writing your own, it may be time to hire someone. Having a great bio is an asset whether you are submitting to a songwriting competition or just trying to get gigs.
Writing your own bio can be difficult, but if you don’t want to hire someone (which is totally fair) just keep it simple. Who are you, where are you from, what inspires your music, and where has your music taken you? Any accomplishments should absolutely be included, this is no place for humility.
Be Thorough In The Application
Fill out the application forms as thoroughly as possible. Don’t leave many or any blank spaces. These would imply that you haven’t thought through your entry or don’t care enough to fill it out. You do not want to seem underprepared.
Make sure your lyrics are clean and easy to read. Reread them and keep them clear of typos. Have them typed out without too many paragraph spaces. Imagine you are submitting a piece of poetry in high school – keep it simple and clean.
Again, this is a good time to make sure you are completely satisfied with your lyrics.
Your pictures aren’t going to be very important unless you win, but nonetheless include 2-3 professional promo photos if the contest asks for them. Make sure they look attractive and show off your personality as an artist.
Submitting Through The Right Channels
Finally, it’s very important that you format your submission properly and submit it through their preferred channels. A submission that doesn’t meet the contest’s guidelines or is completed unprofessionally will put you at a disadvantage before anybody even hears your song.
Send the recording through the contest’s website or to the email that they provide. Do not send the song to people who aren’t expecting to receive it. That is annoying an unprofessional.
Make sure you are sending the song in the proper format as well. If they require an MP3, submit an MP3, not an M4A and not a WAV. Some file formats may not play at all, and others like WAVs are too big.
Don’t overdo it with the number of entries either. Usually, each entry costs money, so just enter a few categories or a few songs and make your submissions as good as you possibly can. If you are entering more than once, check the rules and make sure that is ok.
Following up with the administrators of the contest can be okay, but don’t do it too often. Following up after a couple of weeks of no communication can be okay. Following up every second day is not okay.
Basically, be professional, courteous, and respectful of the rules. You will be better off for it!
How To Win A Songwriting Competition, Final Thoughts
Songwriting competitions are not the be all and end all of your songwriting career. You may win, you may not, and it doesn’t mean that your song is better or worse than someone else’s.
Look at songwriting competitions as an opportunity to finesse a new song and make it as good as you can. Look at it as an opportunity to co-write or collaborate. It’s an opportunity to practice pitching your art.
Put your best foot forward, and good luck!