Earlier today, I asked if it was "fair" that many songwriting contests use interns to screen entries. It all comes down to what is promised in a contest's terms and conditions.
Unfortunately, many songwriting contests use vague terminology in their terms and conditions that often allows them to screen entries any way they want. On one hand, this is actually a good thing -- it shouldn't require an industry veteran to identify a potential contest winner. Just like a great song sounds wonderful the first time you hear it on the radio, you should challenge yourself to write a song that leaps out of the submission packet and into the screener's mind.
On the other hand, too many songwriting contests market themselves with the fantasy that music business veterans and chart-topping superstars will be holed up in a conference room, poring over your submission. For the most part, that simply doesn't happen unless you make it to the final round of the most elite and well-respected songwriting contests.
Read between the lines of press releases you see or websites you encounter. Our "sponsors rule" applies here, as well. If a well-known artist is promoted as being a judge or a sponsor of a particular contest, it should be pretty easy to verify that with a web search or a phone call. For example, you could check the website of an artist's publicist for press releases related to an event. Or, you could check that artist's blog or official website for information about an event. If you can't find any details, then that artist is either not significantly involved in the event, or the contest is so poorly organized that you can't really be sure that it will help your career in any meaningful way.
It's a very, very old and common scam in the music business to associate contests, talent shows, and other "exposure" events to well known figures, only to have those stars "pull out" at the last moment. I once counseled a distraught coaching client who paid over $800 to participate in an industry talent night after she had been told that Clive Davis would be attending. She got there, only to be told that Clive's busy schedule prevented him from traveling at the last minute, and that his trusted assistant was gladly stepping in. (She told me at the time that she knew I would have told her not to go, but that she really felt like the person on the phone was eager to see her succeed. She was simply the victim of a professional, high pressure sales person.)
The same kind of activity happens in some songwriting contests. While it's unethical in my book, it's actually not illegal if there's any kind of clause in the terms and conditions providing for last minute substitutions of judges. While many managers and publicists work hard to protect the good names of their clients, it's impossible to know about any instance in which an artist's name or image is used fraudulently. It's up to you to perform due diligence on any songwriting contest you want to enter, so you really understand who's conducting it, what they're getting out of it, and what you stand to gain from participating.
When you have really checked out the rules, the sponsors, and the judges of a songwriting competition, you'll have a better understanding of what you stand to gain from entering. That way, you can be more focused on delivering a killer demo and less worried about whether the contest was "fair" after you've already submitted your entry fee.amer