Songwriting Contest Secrets: Entry Fee as Red Flag?

If you type the words "songwriting contest" into Google, you're going to come back with close to a million entries. And that number is growing all the time. Too many scam artists are realizing that it's far too easy to convince a songwriter to part with her money on the assumption that she'll get "found."

Songwriting contests are similar in some ways to the poetry competitions that are often exposed either as scams or as thinly veiled excuses for folks to buy overpriced vanity books. The idea that you could be "discovered" and effectively win the songwriting lottery is a pretty powerful magnet. It's a lot easier to hear that Norah Jones might pick up your lyric sheet than to hear that you've got to hone your craft and write a song a day to really get the attention of Nashville publishing types.

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And here's a good question to ask when it comes to figuring out whether the songwriting contest you're thinking about entering is a legitimate opportunity or a shady scam:

Where do they get their money?

In general, the higher the entry fee, the more likely a songwriting contest is fraudulent. My personal rule of thumb is that an entry fee over $50 starts making me nervous. Here's a rundown of the entry fees from legitimate songwriting contests:

• American Idol Songwriter: $10 • John Lennon Songwriting Contest: $30 • Billboard Song Contest: $30 • USA Songwriting Competition: $35 • NSAI / Country Music Television: $40

As you can see, entry fees of $30-$35 are pretty much the norm. Those fees usually cover overhead expenses, like salaries, postage, and office space. Sponsors often provide the prizes, which can include gear, software, personal services, and other fun things. (We'll talk about sponsors in tomorrow's post.)

Most legitimate songwriting contests are actively endorsed or conducted by a well-known organization or media outlet. Remember that just because a logo is on a contest's website, it doesn't mean that they're really involved -- make sure you can find some promotion somewhere on the parent company's website or in their other marketing material.

Of course, the real lure for entering any songwriting contest is the opportunity to get your song heard by industry professionals. Winners and finalists of many legitimate songwriting contests often enjoy at least a little connection with some industry honchos. For example, the NSAI cash prize is very small, but the prize also includes a networking session in Nashville.

In general, legitimate songwriting contests do not have enough staff or time to provide individual song critiques. And that brings us to a gray area: song critique services that frame themselves up as contests.

While not illegal, it's a little dicey to call your song critique service a "contest." I imagine it's simply easier to market your service if there are prizes attached. And because songwriting contests are, inherently, based on skill, they do not run afoul of interstate lottery laws. So it's very easy to run a very subjective "contest" that makes lots of people winners and encourages them to enter again and again. If you notice that a songwriting competition seems to invite you to enter again and again (on a monthly basis, even), it might not have the kind of industry traction you're looking for in a contest.

There are plenty of legitimate song critique services that charge for quality services, but there are also plenty of places you can get good advice for free, like Just Plain Folks or our own discussion boards. It really doesn't take years of industry experience to identify a great song, otherwise nobody would be allowed to operate a radio or an iPod.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, be wary of "free" contests. A number of these contests impose bizarre restrictions on entrants, even to the point of claiming total ownership of catalog and copyright in exchange for "exposure." Remember that "exposure" and a dollar still won't get you a free latte at *$. This was a big concern of our readers when the American Idol contest launched, until we all had enough time to wade through the mice type terms and conditions.

Finally, use common sense when reviewing songwriting competitions. Check out our bulletin boards, or perform a search for artists who have entered the contest you're thinking about. If an entry fee is over $50, find out who has won previous contests. If you don't like the winners' songs very much, it's safe to assume you won't get very much out of entering.

Tomorrow, how to really tell if a contest sponsor is legit, or if they're just a pawn. Friday, I'll post about whether all those judges you see listed on songwriting contest websites are really poring through your entries.