It used to be that, to rip off musicians, you had to take out an ad in Rolling Stone and open up a post office box. At least then, a disgruntled contest entrant could sit outside the post office at wait for someone to come and collect the mail. Today, all it takes is a merchant account and a website -- both of which can be set up for under $50, in places like Nigeria, or even Burbank. (I kid.)
Why such a grim opening to this post about songwriting contest sponsors?
Because most of the time, when a musician tells me about a bad contest experience or an outright scam, they tell me that they believed it was legit because there were so many legitimate sponsors attached. Unfortunately, it's very easy to be taken in by a scam artist with Photoshop skills. We've even had to deal with folks attaching our logo (hey! our logo is back!) to one or two bizarre little schemes over the years. With just a dollop of digital paste, it can look like your phony songwriting contest is sponsored by every major label in the universe, and the Pope.
Hanging out in front of a post office may sound absurd, but it actually has a parallel in the advice that I'm going to give you now:
If a songwriting contest sponsor is legitimate, they will have some kind of promotion of that contest going on at their website or at their physical location. For labels and publishing houses, check the "media room" or the "press office" of their website. If you can't find that too easily, call them up and ask for the person who is in charge of publicity for the contest. If you can't find any material on the website and nobody on the phone knows what you're talking about, the contest is either a scam or the sponsor is way too disorganized to be any real help to you, anyway.
Remember, also, that legitimate sponsors can sometimes get pulled into bad situations. For instance, sponsors frequently provide small-scale prizes, like magazine subscriptions or gift certificates, in exchange for logo placement. If their involvement ends there, it's reasonable that they might not have a clue what the contest organizers are doing with the prizes after they've left the office.
We hear a lot of stories where Billboard Magazine's logo is on a site, and it looks like the Billboard Song Contest, but it's really someone offering a subscription to Billboard as a prize. Read the fine print. If the biggest prize is less expensive than the entry fee, the contest is probably a scam. Responsible brand managers will want to know when someone's abusing their logos and their goodwill, however. Just remember that the less a sponsor knows about a particular contest, the higher you should raise your alert level.
Coming soon in our Songwriting Contest Secrets series: Who's really judging these contests? Who's really winning these contests? And how is online voting impacting the outcome of contests like American Idol Songwriter -- can a crowd really pick a winning song better than an experienced A&R executive? Keep your story ideas coming - this series might spill into a second week!
p.s.: We're not the only ones discussing the ins and outs of songwriting contests. Here's a great set of guidelines from T.C. Smythe at Stave Magazine.