What does the American Idol Songwriter contest winner tell us about professional songwriting?

USAToday profiles Regie Hamm, the winner of the second American Idol Songwriter competition.

Last year, our boards were pretty heated up, with folks so excited about the opportunity to get their songs discovered. Unfortunately, nothing in the rules specifically stated that an amateur songwriter would win the contest -- just that they couldn't submit a song that was under contract. The revelation of last year's Top 20 songwriters broke a lot of hearts, and you can still read a lot of those painful entries on our archives.

This year, most of the songwriters I met had managed their expectations about the contest. Unfortunately, it created a sort of bell curve for entrants. Many of the contestants, like Regie Hamm, come from a strong songwriting background. Like most professional songwriters, Hamm lives in Nashville, where he's done a decent job of stringing together some gospel and country hits while earning extra cash as a session performer.

At the other end of the spectrum, I hear some of the most strident complaints from first-time contest entrants who weren't around for last year's debacle. These folks typically have little or no formal training, and submitted very rough mixes to the competition.

As I wrote in last year's special series on songwriting contest secrets, a strong demo certainly helps to move a song higher in just about any contest. While many judges like to say that a real song will shine through a rough recording, the truth is that production can play a huge role in getting a song past industry screeners. The closer a tune is to "radio ready," the better a chance it has at winning a songwriting contest.

Did Regie Hamm have an unfair advantage because he's been previously published? Because he lives in Nashville? Because he co-wrote a song with last year's American Idol Songwriter winner? Certainly not. As with last year, there's nothing in the rules that says someone with industry experience can't win.

Last year, it seemed really unfair, since songwriters weren't held to the same standards as singers who applied for the show. This year, with Carly Smithson getting called a "ringer," it's just another indicator of the blurred lines between "professional" and "amateur." In ten years, will anyone be able to tell?