The Case Against Contests by Mike Turner

One of the “opportunities” that the Internet and social media sites have made available to songwriters as never before, is the songwriting competition. Some believe as Enzo Ferrari (the noted Italian carmaker) said, “Competition improves the breed” – that we as individual songwriters, and song in general, will become “better” through competition.

   Others – and this is the camp I’m in – believe that, as an artistic means of expression and communication, songwriting doesn’t lend itself to a competitive evaluation of which is “best;” and that most songwriting contests do little if anything to improve one’s technical craft. Let me explain why.

  The difference between Senior Ferrari’s field, and ours, has to do with the criteria used for judging. In the auto world (and I grew up in Detroit, and worked closely for years with the automotive industry, so I’ve had some exposure to the auto industry), and particularly in racing, there are objective criteria which can be used to measure and compare vehicle performance: which car is capable of the highest speed? Which crosses the finish line first? Which stops in the shortest distance? Which car sells the most units? These and similar objective criteria can be used to compare one car to another and determine which car is the “best” or is the “winner.”

  In the music world, there are objective criteria as well – but they tend to lend themselves to performance, versus the creative act of songwriting. For example, between two trumpet players, who hit a given note more cleanly? Who better keeps time over the course of a given piece? Again, objective criteria, as in, “The tempo is 80 beats per minute – who better achieve that timing over the course of the four-minute piece?”

  But in matters of artistic creation, objective criteria tend to fall away. Let’s think about cars again – which is more beautiful, a 1986 Ferrari or a 1936 Packard? Different, cars, different styling cues – and two different people can give two diametrically-opposed answers to the question of “prettier” based on their own tastes, judging criteria, etc

  The same for a song – each listener hears and interprets a song through the lens of their own musical tastes and experience, to determine if they “like” a song or not.

  There are of course some technical, “craft” considerations that we as writers may evaluate a song against – say, in structure, or in the avoidance of forced rhyme, or in the creation of a storytelling arc. We certainly employ those criteria when critiquing an individual song – but that’s to compare an individual song to those craft criteria, not to judge whether one song does so better than another. And of course, the average, non-writer listener doesn’t look to these craft criteria in judging whether they “like” a given song.

  In the case of songwriting contests, while judges may to a degree use some craft criteria in evaluating a song (certainly, they’ll mark down a song that evidences poor craft, such as inconsistent structure, forced or cliched rhyme, etc.), how can one then say whether one song or another made “better” use of craft? That one tells its story “better” than another? The criteria become far too subjective to carry meaning.

  And here’s my real rub with songwriting contests (and, yes, in earlier days I’ve entered a few): other than “winning,” there’s virtually no feedback to the writer on what the judges found “good” or “bad” about their song. Even if one wins or places (and, yes, I have), there’s no feedback as to “why” one did so.

  How can a writer, or songwriting in general, improve through competition, if we’re not told what the judging criteria were, or how we stacked up against those criteria? If I win a competition, does that mean that I should write all my future songs in the same way as my “winner”? The next judge in the next contest may look at the exact same song as my winner, or my future clones, and subjectively judge that this one isn’t a winner.

  Note that I’m making a distinction between contests, and peer review (as we find in some FaceBook groups, or songwriter associations). Peer review can provide meaningful feedback on songwriting craft – chiefly because (a) the criteria are somewhat objective and established (structure, rhyming patterns, etc); (b) individual songs are evaluated against the criteria, not against one another; and (c) the writer gets actual feedback from the critiques, not simply a “win/lose” notification.


   Two final points: first, many songwriting contests are actually “singer/songwriter” contests – decisions are based not just on the song, but on its performance and even sometimes on the technical production of the audio/video recording used as an entry. So, from a writer’s perspective, some judging may have nothing to do with the quality of the song itself.


   And, particularly in the FaceBook world, more and more “contests” are starting to be based on votes – which means that “winning” may be a factor of how many family and friends (and even yourself!) cast votes (repeatedly), not necessarily on the merits of the song itself.

   In my view, the music world is already competitive enough, particularly if one is in the business end of album sales, gigging, touring, etc. That’s a tough enough row to hoe. Artificially creating more competition, through songwriting contests that don’t provide any meaningful feedback to help writers grow their craft, isn’t in my mind an effective way of developing as a songwriter.

  Others, of course, may disagree – and there’s room enough in the tent for all of us. But I would suggest that, if one is interested in growing their songwriting craft, there are better ways – participating in peer reviews and critiques; studying other writers’ works; and writing, writing and writing – of doing so.


4 Responses to The Case Against Contests by Mike Turner

  1. Alan Thornton 9th August 2018 at 12:50 am #

    Well reasoned, Sir.
    As I write songs primarily for my own amusement, I find the contest type of thing to be but a side reason to join in. I enjoy writing to a theme as on Little Acorn’s FB group just to see how other folks react to the same stimulus.

    Learning by doing is my favorite way of moving forward. Homework, memorization, formulae all feel far less interesting than flailing and failing.

    I do find that your points, based on your premise, are spot on, howsumever. Nicely done and thanks for sharing your observations.

    • nick cody 9th August 2018 at 8:24 am #

      TV talent shows have now massively affected “the music business” and the negative aspect of a lot of this is that people become obsessed with “winning” and this often means working to a set formula the competition organisers feel needed for “popular aka commercial” music. It makes for a cookie cutter way of working and although I’m in favour of all kinds of expression, this status seeking is now more evident elsewhere, even in niche amateur music circles where people endlessly talk about being “the best” and “the biggest” I even had one event promoter send me photos of her and a competitor event saying “Who is biggest?” I didn’t know what to say! (: I wonder how such artists as Neil Young or Tom Waits would fare in a TV talent show?
      As with all comments, this is my 100% biased opinion and of course many will disagree as shown in TV ratings. Is it great for creating original music? I’m not convinced…

      • Marius 9th August 2018 at 10:11 am #

        … and neither am i!

  2. Marius 9th August 2018 at 10:08 am #

    VERY GOOD points made here!

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