Songwriting Contests: An increasingly popular career boost

by Mike Beggs for www.socan.ca

The MacGregors: Nine out of 10 songs on their debut full-length album, Dark Beauty, were contest winners.

Songwriting contests used to be something that you might try on a whim. But these days, with literally dozens of international competitions to choose from, more and more SOCAN members are entering – and sometimes winning – these contests.

The four largest and best-known ones – the UniSong International Songwriting Contest, the John Lennon Songwriting Contest (JLSC), the International Songwriting Contest (ISC), and the USA Songwriting Competition – attract tens of thousands of entries, feature some legendary judges, and yield tantalizing grand prizes, right up to a record-setting $50,000 U.S. for this year’s USA Songwriting Competition. Beyond that, one can find everything from the Woody Guthrie and David Bowie Songwriting Contests, to the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals (OCFF) “Songs From The Heart” awards, and SOCAN’s own recently established Echo Songwriting Prize.

Such competitions are commonly divided into more than a dozen categories. In addition to the prizes, winners can reap recognition, contacts, revenue, and inspiration.

Take Toronto singer/songwriter David Leask, for example. While working below the mainstream radar, his song “Five Minutes” claimed first prize in the 2003 UniSong competition. It won over “Rocket Girl,” an entry that was also the SOCAN Song of the Year at the 2003 Canadian Country Music Awards, and was subsequently a hit for Doc Walker. Leask did it again at UniSong 2005 with a blues, “The Honey I Want” (co-written with Suzie Vinnick, and Liz Tansey). He’s also posted second-place finishes in the USA and John Lennon contests.

“It’s an interesting thing,” says the Scottish-born Leask. “I don’t have a publishing deal, yet I’ve had all of this recognition. And some of the judges include people like Macy Gray, Norah Jones and Ry Cooder.”

Leask likes to sign up in various categories – usually co-writing. “I’ve used it, personally, as fuel to write better songs,” he says. “I’ve just got more momentum to write. That might [result] in a hit for myself.”

Similarly, Brampton country rocker Dan McVeigh has claimed five Billboard magazine songwriting awards, and is a two-time winner of the CMT/NSAI (Nashville Songwriters Association International) Song Contest.

“[It has been] helpful in getting people to be aware of what you’re doing. At least they will turn their heads, whether it takes you to the next level or not,” he says. The long-time president of the NSAI’s Toronto chapter, he stresses, “It’s also something you can put on your résumé, when you’re sending out your material.

“I think everything helps,” he adds. “You’ve got to persevere in this business. But you’ve got to be selective as far as these contests are concerned, to enter the ones that are well-known.”

No fewer than nine of the 10 cuts on Dark Beauty, the full-length debut album by two teenage Kelowna sisters, The MacGregors, were contest winners at one level or another.

Alisha MacGregor,16, topped the ISC 2005 Teen category for the pop song “Well Of Pain,” earning her a summer scholarship to the famed Berklee College of Music in Boston. Her sister Rachel MacGregor, 17, is a past ISC winner, and finalist in the John Lennon contest. Their co-written song “Dark Beauty” also reached the finals of the 2006 Lennon Contest.

“Oh my, it was so good,” Alisha says of her win. “I got to go to Berklee for five weeks and study violin. And while I was there, I got another full scholarship for next summer (after winning a campus songwriting contest).

“I think definitely [these contests help]. It’s good promotion, and it’s just a lot of fun,” she adds. “I got to know some of the people at ISC, and professors at Berklee.”

Presently working on their new video, “I Can Hardly Breathe,” The MacGregors enter three or four contests per year. “Definitely different songwriting competitions want different things,” Alisha adds. “I find ISC is more about worldly things and how you can help. The John Lennon is basically all-around [in subject matter].”

Veteran roots artist Ben Sures was the only Canadian winner in the 2006 John Lennon contest, taking top honours in the folk category for the song “Any Precious Girl.” For this, he won a single-song $5,000 U.S. publishing advance from EMI Music Publishing (still being negotiated), and $4,000 worth of musical gear.

“The contest helped quite a bit,” he comments. “There are so many people doing what I do. Just to get somebody to take the time to listen is the biggest problem. Having won, it actually moves you forward one desk. I had newswires across the country, and it meant that a lot of people checked it out. I think it’s the main reason I’ve sold a bunch of iTunes.”

His victory also earned the artist, who alternately lives in Edmonton and Toronto, a showcase at the International Folk Alliance conference in Memphis, Tennessee, in February, and an invitation to join the John Lennon Songwriting Contest’s educational tour bus and showcase at various events.

Also an ISC finalist in 2004, Sures signs up for these competitions, “from time to time.”

“I’ve discovered a lot of famous people enter these contests,” he adds. “I get the impression it’s par for the course. It’s one of those things professionals do. It’s like applying for a grant, in a way.”

That includes established recording artists like James Keelaghan (who prevailed in the folk category of the USA Songwriting Competition in 2002 and 2003), singer-songwriter Gordie Sampson, bluesman Al Lerman (of Toronto’s Fathead), and Shaye member Damhnait Doyle.

Talent contests of any kind have earned increased legitimacy via the mass popularity of TV programs like Canadian Idol. One need look no further than Toronto singer J.D. Fortune, who rose from obscurity to fronting international superstars INXS on their comeback tour, after winning last year’s Rock Star: INXS show. Fortune’s own composition, “Pretty Vegas,” was a charting radio hit as the lead single from INXS’s current album.

But even winning a small regional contest can serve as a big confidence booster. For the up-and-comer, it can also hone your songwriting skills; increase your awareness of what other writers are doing; force you to re-write a song that’s been shoved in a drawer; elicit valuable feedback from the judges; and help you gain experience in recording demos and preparing mail-out packages.

Signing up is simple. To enter the John Lennon Contest, for example, each entry requires one song of five minutes or less (on mp3, CD, or cassette), a lyric sheet, a payment of $30 per song, and a completed application. And you can do it all online, if you wish. You can enter as often as you wish, and pay as you go.

“For me, it’s like putting my songs out for a run at the races,” Leask muses. “Sometimes they win, sometimes they don’t.”

Uploaded Autumn 2006


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