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15 June 2016

Songwriting Contests

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Over Memorial Day weekend, I participated in the New Folk contest at the Kerrville Folk Festival, the annual gathering of songwriters and song appreciators in the hill country between Austin and San Antonio. The way it works is, you submit two songs before the early Fall deadline. Then, a jury selects 32 finalists from among the 500+ submissions. Those 32 finalists are invited to perform their two songs at the festival – 16 performers per day over two days – and three judges select six winners, each of whom receives an honorarium and performs a short set at the festival the next weekend.

There are lots of these contests/showcases out there. Some are more prestigious than others, but being selected to appear in any of them is an accomplishment, given the number of submissions they receive and the infinitely variable definitions of a good song. You could be someone’s all-time favorite songwriter – you could be Bob Dylan! – and not appeal to the gatekeepers in a given year. I applied to New Folk probably 10-12 times beginning in the mid-late 90s, but was never selected until 2016. I’ve also never been selected for the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival Emerging Artist Showcase.

For whatever reason, I’ve had more luck with Planet Bluegrass, which runs the Telluride Troubadour Contest (4x) and the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival New Folks Showcase (2x). In addition to what I think of as the “majors,” I found my way into lower-profile competitions at the Tuscon Folk Festival (2x), the Sisters Folk Festival (Sisters, OR), the Rose Garden Coffeehouse (Mansfield, MA), and a small festival in Illinois whose name I can’t remember and which might no longer exist.

Needless to say, there’s no such thing as winning/losing when it comes to artistic endeavors. The organizers know this, but new-artist showcases are a great way for them to (1) identify up-and-comers and (2) add an interesting, low-cost block of performers. (In fact, aspirants will pay $10-15 for the pleasure of submitting!) And then, as Steve Szymanski of Planet Bluegrass says, you might as well reward good songs/performances with prizes if you can.

It’s critically important NOT to approach these opportunities with career advancement in mind. Think of it this way: if you advance your career, it won’t be because you won the contest. As a rule, first place in a songwriting contest will generate close to zero incremental business – gigs, press, radio play, record deals, etc. – in and of itself. But if you throw yourself into the total experience – basically, if you hang out and make friends – you will create enduring relationships whose value will become apparent over years. For example, I toured the Midwest with Jason Walsmith of Des Moines band The Nadas in March 2016, probably fifteen years after we first met at the Rocky Mountain Folks festival. I met the late Sean Laroche, my soul brother and former agent, under highly irregular and basically illegal circumstances at a late-night campfire in Colorado.

That said, winning is preferable to losing. This has a little bit to do with the prizes – some festivals award main stage slots, and I regularly play the Baby Taylor I earned at the 2001 Rocky Mountain Folks Festival – but it’s more about the sense of accomplishment. There’s also a minuscule amount of glory, but that only lasts as long as the festival. In the wider world, no one cares if you win a songwriting contest at a folk festival. In my opinion, they’re resumé-builders only if you’re brand new on the scene and don’t have anything else on your resumé, and/or if you’re after very specific types of folk gigs. Of course, that’s only my (unscientific) opinion.

I have known the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. For example, I crashed and burned at my second Telluride, when I attempted a brand-new song and forgot the words. On the other hand, I mixed up the verses to Anywhere at Tuscon and still won; for whatever reason, my course correction came across as charming rather than incompetent. I won a three-person event at Sisters, and placed in the top five once each at Telluride and Folks, but more often than not I’ve landed “out of the money.”

Naturally, I’ve given some thought to why I’ve lost more often than I’ve won. Could it be that my songs – for want of a better term – suck? Probably not. But it could easily have to do with song selection: some songs are better suited to the context than others. The judges are only going to hear your songs once, and they’re also hearing 20-60 others, so it’s important to communicate quickly and clearly. One of my ongoing issues is that some people miss the irony/humor in my material, which can be “deeply embedded” and take a few listens to reveal itself. To those who don’t get it right away, I might come across as mean or arrogant. I wonder if this dynamic came into play the year I tried a song called My Satanic Friends in a contest? But then, another time, it was Bolted Down – a song that could be construed as deeply cynical – that propelled me to victory.

More generally, the songs I consider my best aren’t as uniformly uplifting/empowering or fundamentally entertaining as some of the most successful contest songs. By way of example: I’ve always thought Wilco’s What Light could be a huge winner. The first two verses drove the crowd crazy when Jeff Tweedy opened with it in a solo show at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival many years ago:

If you feel like singing a song
And you want other people to sing along
Just sing what you feel
Don’t let anyone say it’s wrong

And if you’re trying to paint a picture
But you’re not sure which colors belong
Just paint what you see
Don’t let anyone say it’s wrong

It’s almost like he wrote the song just he could open with at folk festivals! I mean, we’re talking about an artist who hangs his hat on lyrics like “I am an American aquarium drinker/I assassin down the avenue,” which might or might not be nonsense.

But I digress. My point is, it might make sense to perform songs that will have a quick, decisive impact on the audience, which of course includes the judges. As I watched the first fourteen New Folk contestants at the Kerrville contest a few weeks ago – I was fifteenth out of sixteen on the first day – I wished I’d submitted something funny or at least more straightforward. There’s nothing wrong with my two songs – Saint Catherine Street and Artificial Light – but they’re quiet and subtle and not the kinds of musical numbers that make an audience leap to its feet, which this particular audience was willing to do at the slightest provocation.

I would have liked to have won at Kerrville. I’ll never say no to glory, even if it’s short-lived! More importantly, winning would have earned me another weekend at the festival. As noted above, having an excuse to hang out is the real benefit of contests. Over the three nights I was at the Quiet Valley Ranch, I re-connected with old friends but also made a number of new friends. It remains to be seen how the “network effect” will play out, but experience tells me some of those people will figure into my musical future.

1 Response

  1. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on song contests. I was in New Folk twice, 1986 and 1991. Back then, it was 40 finalists, playing on the main stage (so most of the audience either burned up in the sun, or sat far away in the shaded areas). I think the current format on the second stage is a much nicer set-up. I was one of the six finalists in ’91, and one of my winning songs was heard by main stage performer Josh Joffen, who performed it at a show in New York, where it was heard by country singer Kathy Mattea, who recorded it. Changed my life in many ways. I’ve heard great things about the Colorado festivals but never been. Maybe it’s not too late!

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