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I’m the person who’s listening to your song when you submit them for consideration. Yup, it’s me: the person who skipped to the next song after only making it through the first chorus, the person who decided whether or not you got into music school with or without a scholarship, the person who picked you out of a large group and put you on a stage.
After having adjudicated many songwriting competitions and been the deciding factor in many young musicians’ access to opportunities, I know a thing or two about what I like to hear and see when it comes to songs that are submitted for my consideration. I’ll walk you through five key things you should think about before you click "submit."
1. Understand your audience
Your audience isn't the screaming crowd pictured above. Nor is it your friends or your fans. The people who adjudicate competitions, A&R reps, scholarship offices… they all listen to nothing short of a gazillion songs a week, and the fact of the matter is, their ears are tired.
On a light week, I’m probably listening to and giving feedback on roughly 30 songs. On really heavy weeks, I can easily hit over 100. After listening to that many songs per week for so many years, two things are painfully clear to me now:
- I can tell if a song is good within the first 30 seconds
- The songs that get chosen are the ones that excite me
There are many different varieties of songwriting competitions, each one with a different audience with different expectations. Here is a small selection:
Great American Song Contest: A great option to dip your toes into competitions. At the end of the competition, whether you won or not, each participating songwriter receives a writeup on their song from a judge. This writeup is a great way to better understand how your music is perceived on the judging table. Plus, it’s low cost to enter!
International Songwriting Competition: Are you ready to have Robert Smith, Ray Davies, Tom Waits, or Sean “P. Diddy” Combs judge your work? This is your chance.
The ASCAP Competition Resource Guide: Not sure what you’re looking for? Start here for an overview of the most popular competitions.
2. Don’t choose your favorite song
The song you submit is not your favorite song. In fact, it’s probably the one that everyone asks you to play at shows and parties, but you secretly hate it because it was some stupid song you wrote in 20 minutes about three years ago.
The song of yours that you like the most is not necessarily the song that everyone else likes the most. This is just the cold hard truth and one that you should accept when picking a song to submit. My advice is to ask the people who know your catalog which song is their favorite and see if there are any recurring themes.
Remember, just because a song excites you, doesn’t mean it’s going to excite me.
When picking their best material, writers often gravitate toward things that are more recent or things they’re emotionally connected too. But I’m coming in as an unbiased third party:
I have no idea when you wrote it or how you feel about it, so none of that matters.
Some submissions have areas where you can write in open-ended responses about your songs. A lot of times I see people going on at length about what their song means, or what they were going through when they wrote it or giving some sort of disclaimer.
Let your song speak for itself. If you have to explain it to me, it’s not a very good song.
3. Strategize around song structure
The form of your song, the length of your song, the tempo of your song—all of these should be considered. Here’s some food for thought.
You need to hit the ground running and make sure there’s no dead space in your recording. That means no extended intros, no instrumental solos, no waiting to get the point. There are, however, interesting ways to use negative space in music, if you’re feeling confident. And don’t worry, there are relatively easy ways to hook a listener in the first 30 seconds.
Some forms require a bit more work from a listener's perspective. Verse Refrain and AABA songs can be a harder sell because there’s much more storytelling and repetition before we potentially hit the bridge, and along with it a contrasting section. There are of course strategies to keep repetition in music interesting, If you’re going to submit one of these songs, it better be a really good one. Verse-chorus and verse-pre chorus-chorus songs are the ones that tend to hit the hardest.
Get to it quickly. Don’t submit a song that starts with two verses and doesn’t arrive at the chorus until one minute in. Get there in 30 seconds. The chorus should be the best part of your song, and should easily contrast against verses. Don’t let it be the bridge because there’s a strong chance I won’t make it that far. If you’re having trouble writing vocal hooks, start with these tips, for the chorus.
Think twice before submitting a ballad. Ballads can get boring quickly and most songs that win competitions tend to be more upbeat. Were you considering a ballad? Try your hand at reworking it from an entirely different angle by using the Oblique Strategy cards.
All that being said, amazing writing transcends all these things. If you know you’ve got the juice (see Lizzo below) and it happens to be an AABA song at 60 bpm with an extended intro, then by all means, send it on over.
4. Adding a visual: video or otherwise
Most places where you’re able to submit a song, whether it’s to a competition or a specific person, they’ll want a streaming link as opposed to an actual file. Before I move on, let me just point out that you need to make ABSOLUTELY sure that your link is working. Many times I’ve clicked on a SoundCloud link only to find out that it’s private or a DropBox link that no longer exists. Amature move! Double and triple check your submission link is correct.
But since we’re talking links here, you have quite an array of options, which include YouTube videos. I have noticed that songs which are submitted with an accompanying visual do indeed change the way I listen to them. If it’s a really well-made video it will highly amplify the experience. Even a lyric video makes a difference. It’s 2019 and we’re living in a world where a well-written song is up against poorly written songs with slamming demos and expensive looking videos. Even Spotify has started to incorporate music videos into what was once a strictly listening experience.
I hope this goes without saying as well, but your song needs to be demoed properly and it needs to sound like a professional recording. There are many features of a demo that set it apart from a polished mix.
Just like a visual will augment the way something sounds, the proper arrangement and production of your song can completely change the way it’s considered. Always remember to mix with your song structure and intended competition in mind.
If you submit a voice memo from your phone, a vocal which has pitch issues (something that should never happen if you have VocalSynth 2 by your side, or something that sounds like a middle schooler did it on an iPad, it’s going to make me think that you don’t really care that much about your music.
Yes, producing demos can get expensive if you don’t have the skills to do make them yourself (this blog is a pretty good way to start!). If that’s the case I would refer back to the “not your favorite song” section of this post to help you decide which songs are the ones worth investing in.
Perhaps reading this made you feel like I’m an a$#*^!e, and that ‘they’ should find someone who has the time and patience to sit down and listen to each and every song in its entirety from front to back, and who doesn’t let silly things like production cloud their judgment?!
Sadly, that’s not the reality we’re living in, and I think it’s safe to say that most of the people in my position are equally as fatigued and inundated with songs as I am. Take this advice, choose your song wisely, polish it up as best you can, and good luck!