Anatomy of a song contest
By Caleb Mundy & Jean Gregory

For every professional songwriter who has scored a radio hit, there are thousands of dreamers strumming their guitars with no audience but the four walls of their messy room and their dog. They may hope to one day know the thrill of hearing their own musical brilliance emanating from the next car over at a red light, but they have no idea where to begin. What happens between creative inspiration and money in the bank?

Many have talent and desire, but few have the resources to move or make regular trips to Nashville or L.A. Fewer still have the tenacity to get that hit song once they get there. So what is a songwriter to do when just paying the bills takes so much time and energy, it's all they can do to even write songs, much less record and pitch them?

There is one simple and relatively inexpensive first step for these creative dreamers: SONG CONTESTS.

Song contests are an excellent opportunity for aspiring songwriters to promote their talents. One usually gets judging sheets, which should give honest feedback about your work. Also, just doing something with your songs will give you a sense of momentum. You could even end up with some decent prizes and bragging rights, too.

We found over a dozen song contests during our research, from small contests hosted by various organizations to well known international contests. This article will compare the Billboard Song Contest, CMT NSAI Song Contest, and Positive Pop Song Contest, and discuss three main aspects: judges, prizes, and odds.


The Billboard Song Contest is sponsored by Billboard Magazine and has been in place for years. Because it maintains a very high profile, a Billboard award makes an impressive addition to any resume. www.billboard.com/bb/songcontest

JUDGES: As of 2004, entrants receive judging sheets. Billboard says they have "preliminary panels" of judges who are "supervised by songwriting professionals" to screen the entries down to the semifinalists. [Translation - word on the street is, they sometimes use college students to weed out the first round of entries.] Those who make the semifinals are judged by "Billboard's Blue Ribbon Judging Panel".

PRIZES: Billboard offers a grand prize, as well as prizes for top winners in each genre. Prizes include recording equipment, a year's subscription to TAXI, songwriting books, and computer software. They also produce a CD compilation of the top three songs in each category, and give the winners an invitation to perform at an awards ceremony as well, but don't necessarily provide transportation.

ODDS: Because of Billboard's size and wide range of genres, thousands of people enter every year, making it very difficult to make it to the final rounds of judging. Based on our latest research, they easily could be getting 100,000+ entries, which makes it understandable why they would need to rely on a less qualified first round of judges.

CONCLUSION: The main appeal of the Billboard Song Contest is its reputation. The main draw back is the massive number of other entries you are up against. If you've got the $30 and feel like taking a shot at it, go for it. It could be an excellent opportunity to promote your music.


The CMT NSAI Song Contest is brought to you by Country Music Television and Nashville Songwriters Association International. Although it's sponsored by CMT and based in the Nashville music industry, this contest is not limited to country songs, and boasts some very impressive rewards. www.nashvillesongwriters.com

JUDGES: Judges are a panel of music industry professionals and songwriters. Entrants do receive the judges' critique sheets.

PRIZES: The grand prize winner receives a three day all-expenses-paid trip to Nashville where they will perform at the Nashville Fan Fair, and the famous Blue Bird Café. Winner has the chance to be interviewed on WSM radio, a private mentoring session with an established writer, and their song cut in a professional demo session and pitched to publishing companies for a year. Prize also includes a guitar, strings, software, and memberships to various websites and the NSAI itself.

ODDS: The only statement NSAI gave regarding the number of entries is that it "varies from year to year".

CONCLUSION: The main appeal of the CMT NSAI Song Contest is the prizes. They are staggering, and present some of the best opportunities to move your song writing from hobby to career. As far as we can see, for this contest there is no draw back. If you have $45, do yourself a favor and enter this contest.


The Positive Pop Song Contest is brand new to the song contest scene. This contest's only stipulation is that the song lyric be positive. Some writers may be put off by that description, but the contest's "positive" element only refers to limiting lyrics which contain blatant dark, morose, violent, or sexual content. Almost any songwriter has a song in their catalog which meets this definition. They accept songs of all musical styles, which means if you have a few songs that meet the criteria, you could increase your chance of winning. www.positivepopsongcontest.com

JUDGES: All entrants receive judges' feedback, and all judges are qualified music industry professionals and songwriters.

PRIZES: The Positive Pop Song Contest has prizes which are on a much more personal and attainable level than the larger contests. Grand prize winner will receive a professional production package of one song from Worldwide Groove Corporation, including mixing and mastering at some of Nashville's best studios, a year's subscription to TAXI, a possible one-song publishing deal through EMI, as well as a guitar and accessories. One singer/songwriter winner will receive a live performance opportunity at a concert of an established artist, and voice lessons. Multiple winners will receive digital distribution of their song to paid download services like iTunes.

ODDS: This is the Positive Pop Song Contest's first year, so if there is ever a time to enter it would be now while it's still small.

CONCLUSION: The main appeal of the Positive Pop Song Contest is the magnitude of the prize compared to the small number of entries you are up against. Just remember that the lyrics must be positive. Anyone with $25 and a song that fits the description should definitely enter this contest.

IN SUMMARY: Entering song contests is a great way to get yourself started, with a minimal investment. The main thing is to get your music out there, and to start finding out where you lie on the landscape of professional songwriting, and where you can go with it. Until you put yourself into the market you will never be more than the best songwriter your friends know.

Editor's Note: There is also the John Lennon Songwriting Contest: www.jlsc.com