Des with guitarI apologize for the dearth of updates on Hometracked this month. I’ve been busy with a few things, and one in particular that bears mentioning.

A local radio station songwriting contest recently caught my attention, mostly because of the sizable cash prizes: $10,000 for the winner, and a total purse of over $26,000. (This is a huge package for a small-market radio station.) So I submitted I Meant To Remember. And my song garnered enough votes in the first round of the contest to land me in the finale, along with 4 other bands from around Ontario, performing live for a panel of judges who determined the grand prize winner.

The finale was Tuesday night, and my band finished in 3rd place, which thrilled me not least because it meant I won some money!

How this relates to Hometracked, however: I completely overlooked the revenue potential of songwriting and performance contests in my previous post on making money as an independent artist. So I thought I’d share some thoughts based on my experience the last few weeks, and in previous contests I’ve entered, on how to increase your chances of winning.

(Note: Some of these points address live performances, but in general the advice applies equally to online contests.)

1. Win money, not fans
People enter contests for the chance to win prizes, and song contests are no different in this regard.

As indie artists, we’re conditioned to think of every performance as an opportunity to reach new fans. But song contests are a horrendous vehicle for promotion. Most people in the audience cheer for their buddy’s band, secretly hoping the other acts screw up so their friend looks better!

Success in songwriting contests, then, requires a different mind set than regular music promotion. Some of what best helps a band connect with new fans has no place in a contest entry – most notably: improvisation, like extended drum solos and guitar solos, and excessive story telling. You don’t need to make a lasting impression when competing for a prize. Rather, you need to sound (and look) great just long enough for the judges to give you their vote.

In short, be forgettably brilliant, rather than memorably unique.

2. Popularity contests depend on votes
Some contests are judged, while others involve audience voting. In the latter, you’ll only win if your fans and listeners actually vote for you. So leverage your network, be it a mailing list, the audience at a weekly gig, or Myspace and Facebook.

Of course, it should go without saying that you need all your friends to vote. Still, one band in the contest I just entered finished the two week online voting period with zero votes. Why bother entering if you don’t at least vote for your own song?!

3. Image matters
Public consumption of music has always depended on presentation as much as the music itself. And every judged song contest in which I’ve particpiated has included a “marketability” criteria for that reason.

Case in point: 3 of the acts on Tuesday clearly put some thought into their physical appearance on stage. And the other two bands finished 4th and 5th.

4. Bring your own fans
The winning act on Tuesday night packed the house with their fans, and there’s no question it factored into the judges’ final decision. Even if audience response wasn’t a judging criteria, I’m sure the venue feared a riot from the mob who turned out to watch their friends win.

5. Err on the short side
Submit and perform your best material, of course. But if you have a choice between a 7 minute opus showcasing your lead guitarist’s love of Stevie Vai, or a 3 minute rock song with choruses and a beat, go with the short number every time.

People in general, and jaded music judges in particular, have short attention spans, so it’s best not to overstay your welcome. (And remember, the main goal is to win money, not fans.) Two of the bands performing on Tuesday night exceeded their allotted 30 minutes, and while they weren’t explicitly penalized for this, the audience’s restlessness can’t have helped their standing with the judges.

6. Highlight your differences
While it’s generally good to focus attention on what makes you different, with a song contest entry it means drawing attention to your differentiators often at the expense of other elements in your music.

For me, this required downplaying the instruments, and working the “pop” elements of my songs: Lyrics, vocals, and a strong back beat. I had Kev and Clif (my lead guitarist and bassist) underplay their parts, and asked Jan (the drummer) to put everything he had into the snare drum.

Your music might demand a different focus, but the same guideline applies. Find a way to highlight whatever makes your songs unique.

7. Work the hometown angle if you’ve got it
When all was said and done on Tuesday night, the local band won. This makes sense: A local radio station held the contest, ostensibly to promote local talent, so it’s fitting that a local band got to hoist the giant novelty winner’s cheque.

But the winners didn’t turn in the best performance of the evening, not by a long shot. And 3 of the bands (mine included) had everything else that matters: Fans, an on-stage image, a short set, and a unique sound. In the end, their hometown won them the prize! So while you don’t have much control over where you’re from, this at least suggests a good reason to focus on entering contests in your area.

And, it probably goes without saying: If you find yourself with the hometown advantage in a contest, work it hard!

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