Songwriting Contest Secrets: Who's Really Judging? (part 1)

So far in this special series, I've written about some of the myths and realities of songwriting contests, the reasonableness of entry fees, and the real involvement of contest sponsors.

Today, I'm tacking one of the most subjective elements of any songwriting contest -- the judging.

The fact that many songwriting contests are really song critique services is blurring the line between the two reasons that you can benefit from entering a songwriting contest: using external motivation to coax you into finishing a new song faster and gaining professional exposure for your work.

On our bulletin boards, for example, a growing number of songwriters are chiming in with complaints about the expectations set by the publicity for the American Idol Songwriter competition. Although staff members from the show talked about songs that emphasized terms like "quest" and "journey," songwriters note that the Top 20 finalists for the contest contain few tunes that make those references.

At the very least, there was a bit of a disconnect between show staffers at the top level and the screeners who whittled down 25,000 song entries to just 20 finalists. But the process also highlights a challenge of running any songwriting contest -- finding experienced music business experts to evaluate songs.

At most songwriting contests, as at most radio stations that still accept submissions, the initial screening process is brutal. In most cases, it's handled not by experienced A&R executives, but by newbie interns who have their own ideas about what works. In the same way that medical students must endure crazy 24-hour shifts in an Emergency Room, music business interns must earn their chops the same way -- by grinding out the brute force labor required of any organization that wants to discover new talent.

Some of the more bitter posts I've seen on our own boards suggest that it would be impossible to review 25,000 songs in the short period of time that the American Idol Songwriter contest provided. If each song was three minutes long, it would take about 1,250 hours to listen to all of them. Consider a 40 hour work week, and you're going to need about 32 staffers to handle the inbox.

Here are a few more things to consider:

  • If the American Idol contest is like most of the organizations I've worked for or consulted with, screeners are only listening to the first thirty seconds of the song on the first pass. You have only 10-15 seconds to interest a screener, and you've got to get them "hooked" by 30 seconds, or your song doesn't make the cut. Even if you screen each 30 second snippet twice, you cut the workload down to about 400 hours.

  • It's more likely that the first wave of screenings happened as songs were being entered, not after submissions closed. Given that there was a tax-day style surge of entries at the close of the contest, it's still probable that screeners reviewed and filtered the first wave of entries before the contest closed. Because you can't change your entries once they're submitted, there's nothing inappropriate about that review strategy.

Under those conditions, it's feasible that a team of five to ten hard working interns could come up with a short list of 40-60 songs to present at a "war room" full of industry veterans. We have every indication that this was a part of the process. And it's entirely likely that songs bubbled up that hit judges in the gut even though they didn't contain the "themes" that normally occur in Idol.

Was that "fair?" I'll address that in a follow-up post this afternoon.

Track these topics: American+Idol, contest, music+business, songwriting