My first record producer once said of songwriting competitions – “The only competition I’m interested in is – can it get played on the radio.” His wise words came back to me in a week when I was reminded twice of my peripatetic career as a songwriter. One reminder was a quarterly royalty payment from APRA, derived from having five songs played on the radio in the quarter under review. The money rarely gets above three figures, but it is easy to see how the multiplier effect kicks in if you have a song that is being played on a lot of radio stations all over the world. I usually spend mine on music! Last time I bought a set of harmonicas.
Also, I received an email from the International Songwriting Competition (ISC) which informed me (a) that I was not among the 2018 semi-finalists and (b) 18,999 other songwriters had taken up the challenge. The ISC judges’ panel, which includes luminaries like Tom Waits, Kayne Brown, Adam Lambert and Jeremih, whittled this down to 1,900 semi-finalists in 23 categories.
Last week I received a second email, the names of the finalists – it’s still a packed field. The ISC Grand Prize is worth winning – a cheque for $US25, 000 and a host of sponsor-driven extras including a six-song recording package at Nashville’s The Tracking Room (plus a fully mastered album) an Art & Lutherie Roadhouse Acoustic Guitar, recording gear and free online marketing campaigns.
The competition is high-level, as the ISC is open to songwriters already signed to labels and many entrants have, ahem, a track record. This year’s finalists, for example, include (from Australia), Missy Higgins, Sahara Beck, Pete Denahy, Fiona Boyes and Georgi Kay.
ISC spokesman Jim Morgan told me that Australians have always done well in this competition, since Kate Miller-Heidke became the first Australian winner back in 2008 with Caught in the Crowd. Other Aussies who have taken the main prize include Kasey Chambers and Vance Joy with Gotye winning the Folk category.
“Out of nearly 19,000 entries for ISC 2018, 199 Australian songwriters made it through to the Semi-finals and 30 from New Zealand.”
Kate Miller-Heidke’s husband and musician partner Keir Nuttall said of their 2008 win: “I think the great stuff we got out of it was that it gave us a bit of credibility overseas and it looks great on the bio.
Keir reflected on his days entering songwriting competitions as an emerging songwriter/guitarist.
“It reminds me of when my band didn’t make it into one of the early incarnations of Triple J unearthed. In Queensland alone there were literally thousands of bands.”
Established in 1995, Triple J Unearthed has exposed 99,000 music tracks from previously unheard of bands. Each year the ABC FM station plays its Top 100 unearthed artists. If your band makes it into Unearthed, you automatically get played on national radio – then your fans take over.
One of the early winners was a band called The Rubens (also named in this year’s ISC finals). Other artists who got their start on Unearthed include Flume, The Jezabels, Northeast Party House, Tired Lion and Courtney Barnett.
fRETfEST founder Alan Buchan, who recorded my first album Little Deeds in 1998, has since been persuaded of the merit in songwriting competitions. Tamworth-based Buchan started the Regional Songwriting Competition, now in its fifth year, which gives writers in rural areas a chance to display their craft.
Nambour-based songwriter Karen Law won this year’s Illawarra Folk Festival songwriting competition with 9am on Polling Day and has received honourable mentions in the Australian Songwriters’ Association (ASA) contests over the years.
“My first songwriting competition got me into being a perform iner. In the UK while I was at Uni, I won a folk songwriting competition run by BBC Radio Shropshire Folk Show. Part of the prize was appearing in a live broadcast concert – I was terrified but I did it and it set me on the road to becoming a performer”.
Sunshine Coast songwriters who have made it into the ASA Top 10 over the years include Kelly Cork and Noel Gardner. Noel’s lyric-driven songs have won several awards, including first place in the lyrics section of the 2005 ASA competition for Stolen Children. His songs have often been placed or highly commended in other contests.
“It’s lovely to be acknowledged by your peers and it does keep you motivated. However it is just someone else’s opinion at the end of the day,” Noel said.
Harry Vanda and George Young, co-writers of the international pop hit, Friday on My Mind, established a songwriting competition in their names in 2008. The Vanda & Young (Global) Songwriting Competition has outlasted one of its founders, George Young, who died in 2017 aged 70.
Like all of these songwriting competitions, there is an entry fee. All up, songwriters sent in 19,000 entries to the ISC, paying $US25 per entry. The Vanda & Young competition charges $A50 but the money goes to Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy Australia, a charity which has benefited to the tune of $1 million+.Last year, Gold Coast singer Amy Shark took out the top prize in a competition entered by 3,296 songwriters from 30 countries. The Vanda & Young Award is promoted by APRA/AMCOS and funded by sponsors including Alberts Music and BMG, who put up the cash prize of $50,000.
I’ve entered this competition a couple of times. I was going to say to no avail, but (a) it was for a good cause and (b) it allowed me to doff my hat to the authors of Friday on My Mind, after which my blog is named.
Before professional songwriting competitions like Tamworth’s Golden Guitar Awards, established in 1973, being an unknown songwriter and breaking through was largely a matter of luck. It also took a classic song. So it was for Scots-born Australian Eric Bogle, whose then unrecorded song And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda found its way to the UK in the mid-1970s via the oral tradition. It quickly became the favourite ballad of many recording artists including Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy, Slim Dusty, John Williamson, Christy Moore, The Dubliners, Joan Baez, The Pogues, June Tabor and Priscilla Herdman.
It took Bogle a few years to record his song, written in 1971, and a few more years for his own fame to overtake those who had recorded his anti-war anthem.
He is making a rare visit to Canberra at Easter for the National Folk Festival, where he will be presented with a Lifetime Achievement award. The links between Bogle and the NFF extend from 1974, when he entered his now famous song in the National Folk Festival competition. It won third prize.
To some degree this is a commentary on the inevitably subjective nature of competitions and the tastes of individual judges. It never helps if the song you write for a competition extends beyond the radio-friendly three and a bit minutes (Matilda is 7 minutes 48 seconds).
Try telling the authors of Stairway to Heaven, Hotel California, Streets of London, American Pie, Bohemian Rhapsody, Tubular Bells or November Rain (Guns n’ Roses) that short songs are better.
Perhaps someone could start a songwriting competition category for songs of four and a half minutes and more. I’ve got a few!