Highlights from My SpinTunes 1 Experience

My participation in the SpinTunes songwriting contest has come to an end. It was a valuable experience. I learned a lot and had many thoughts and insights along the way, and I met a bunch of great people, my fellow competitors in particular, a group with a lot of songwriting talent and an earnestly friendly sense of competition.

To keep any potential for skewing the judging out of the mix, I didn’t want to express much while I was still in the contest. Even now I won’t express everything I could. I have nothing bad to say about the other contestants, even if I didn’t always like all of their songs. The judges also were, on the whole, respectable and helpful. Out of good sportsmanship, I won’t bother to express any subjectively negative opinions about any of the competitors’ specific works, nor about much of the specifics said by the judges.

What I’m sharing below are some valuable things my experience helped me learn about my songwriting and how to improve it, as well as about how to best participate in a songwriting contest like this.

I also developed many more general thoughts on songwriting contests and how they are — and could be — run. You can see a quick summary of my recommendations and suggestions at the top of that separate post and then read as much detail behind those thoughts as you like as well. For now, onto the highlights from my SpinTunes 1 experience.

6/30/10 — Round 1 Results Revealed

When the Round 1 Totals were revealed, Step Back Swooperman placed 19th out of 20 entries. There had been 31 original entrants, 11 of whom didn’t meet the round’s deadline. Entries below 20th place were to be eliminated, but with only 20 contestants still in the contest, everyone was simply moved ahead. Given my ranking, if even just two of those 11 people had bothered to make the deadline, odds are good that I wouldn’t have made it even to Round 2.

The judges’ overall consensus of my entry: poor vocals, musically incoherent, overdone references to John Williams’ Superman score. And the truth is, I can understand and embrace all these criticisms. I’m the first to admit that I don’t sing very well, and I can at least appreciate that I may have been too ambitious in the musical variety and too eager to pepper in Williams references.

Even so, I was stunned to find the song ranking second to last. I could complain about differences of opinion I might have with judges about the quality of my or other people’s songwriting. That’s all pretty subjective, though, and I can be okay with negative opinions and losing out on that basis. However, though again I won’t make any specific comments in the interest of sportsmanship, there were at least a few other songs that I really could not believe ended up ranked higher than mine. And I certainly had some very strong opinions about just how much vocals and production should count in a songwriting contest, especially one where contestants can have rather different amounts of time and other resources available to them.

Of course, one judge ranked the song 6th out of 20, and I received some other very positive comments, not only from friends but from other competitors who’d never known me or my work before this contest began and who’d therefore almost certainly never heard anything of mine but this one song. It makes me wonder just how meaningfully representative and generalizable these particular judges’ opinions really are. But I’ll leave that wondering inconclusive, especially since I do embrace most of the criticisms of my song.

Learning:

  • Don’t try to be too clever in referencing other works. It can work, but if it doesn’t, it can be seen as copout and/or trying too hard. Stick with original authorship unless there’s a truly compelling reason to do otherwise, and then be sure to do it really, really well.
  • Although I consider myself an author, writing songs to fulfill their own potential independent of what I as a performer or producer can do with them (especially when pressed by time and other resources), I’d better take a different approach in Round 2, playing up strengths and playing down weaknesses. So, a tighter vocal range, and a minimal, more piano-oriented approach to the rest.

7/14/10 — Hours into Round 2 Public Poll

As happened in Round 1, my song took a strong lead in the public poll. I didn’t mention this above while talking about Round 1, nor anywhere else online at any point, because I knew that the main reason for my showing there was that I publicized my participation through status updates and email, asking my friends and contacts to support me. I knew that the numbers didn’t really mean anything in themselves, and I was just doing what I could in case the poll needed to come into play, according to contest rules, as a tie-breaker to decide eliminations. The same was now happening in Round 2, with my song taking a lead in the public poll, and I was just as surely never going to bother to mention it anywhere as anything meaningful.

Another contestant, though, expressed concern about the Round 2 poll numbers, worrying about the ballot box being stuffed and also that the judges might be somehow biased by the poll results. This and only this led me to talk about the poll at all. You can see the entire discussion here.

In a nutshell, I said that it was a public poll and I was only doing what every other contestant had the same opportunity to do, but that I actually might have preferred if there was no public poll at all, because of the very thing we were discussing, the potential for unfairness. I posed that the poll could be open only to contestants, including shadow entrants, but that was a matter to take up with the contest creators. Incidentally, I also mentioned that the concern over judge bias could run the other way, too, noting how my showing in the Round 1 public poll was pretty inversely related to the judges’ opinion of me, whether causally or otherwise.

All were assured that the judges wouldn’t be swayed either way by the poll, and the consensus seemed to be that it would be best for contestants to encourage their contacts to give all songs a listen and be aware that they had the opportunity to cast three votes, not just one.

Learning:

  • Given the likelihood of the public poll tiebreakers mattering to any contestant in particular and the likelihood that one’s own contacts will vote for you no matter what, may as well phrase publicity in a more open-ended way rather than simply asking people to vote for you. Should I make it to Round 3 and be publicizing, that’s what I’ll do.

7/17/10 — Round 2 Results Revealed

When the Round 2 Totals were revealed, Another Universe placed 12th out of 17 entries. I passed to Round 3 by the skin of my teeth, since all entries below 12th were to be eliminated.

The judges’ overall consensus of my entry: Good meeting of the challenge, the lyrics were somewhat lacking, and the verses were lacking in general. Obviously this was a bit better than last time, but once again I was somewhat stunned that I placed so low, especially given the positive things some other contestants said about the song, most notably what was said by shadow entrant Dave Leigh of Dr. Lindyke.

In particular, sentiment against the blandness of the verses seemed to overlook that quality being a very purposeful part of the song. Additionally, one judge suggested that I wanted to achieve a dreaminess but failed. In fact, I wasn’t going for dreaminess at all, but rather two palpably different real senses the narrator has, one about current life and the other about a vividly perceived imagined life. It hardly seems fair to count against me a failure to achieve a dreaminess that I wasn’t even trying for. I can understand my not coming out on or near the top, but this far down once again? Am I (and the others who made really great and unsolicited compliments about my song) particularly deluded about my abilities, or are these judges, well, to be diplomatic, I’ll put it this way, are they an audience I can jibe with?

One general comment, though, from the judge who so far consistently disliked me the most but directed to all participants, helped me a great deal to understand just how to better play this game. He discussed the much larger challenge that lies beyond the particular challenge that happens to define each round: “The bands were given ultimate freedom to record a song about whatever they please. The big challenge here is do that and still create a song that slays the competition. It’s all fine and dandy to pass the challenge but this is a fight. This is not just getting into the next round. This is making the best song you can and blowing away all the other bands and if you don’t you can be eliminated. Sure, you can shadow and play along at home. But really, the challenge here is to bring your A-Game consistently.”

While it may seem obvious, this was, for me, something of a revelation. Just as this songwriting contest is obviously about vocals, production and far more than just songwriting, each challenge is about far more than just the challenge. Whether or not I personally aced either challenge so far, the point is it’s simply insufficient to technically ace the definition of a challenge and automatically consider yourself to be bringing your A-game. A challenge is, as I’m now realizing, actually only somewhat marginally about the challenge. It is not, or at least not necessarily, supposed to be the defining feature of the songs we submit. It is a constraint, to be sure, one that should be met if one is to do well. But there is, simply, a difference between the best challenge-defined song and the best song that happens to also fit the definition of a challenge. Judges have given high scores to people who met a challenge modestly and low scores to a tight fit to the challenge. There is simply far more going on here.

I’d somehow been under the impression that a round-by-round challenge-based songwriting contest was like a decathlon. An uber-event made of many separate events, taken on by not just any old athletes, because any old really good athlete can specialize in one thing and do well at it. It takes a special athlete to excel at many different things, all the events of a decathlon. Only such athletes would submit themselves to each of these many different things for all the world to see. I thought it was the same case with us songwriters, subjecting ourselves to the rigors of multiple different games in this contest, submitting our creations in response to each different challenge for all the world to see.

But in some sense, I could not have been more wrong. One need not look merely at the higher ranking songs in each round so far. Look across the board. What we see, for the most part, and I promise that I mean this merely as an observation and not a criticism in the slightest, is artists who have some thing that they do, and they go about doing it within the context of each challenge. We don’t see Edric Haleen trying to write Governing Dynamics’ guitar rock any more than we see Governing Dynamics attempting Caleb Hines’ They-Might-Be-Giants-like smart quirk any more than we see Caleb Hines penning Edric Haleen’s show tunes with gushing long-note melodies.

I realize now that I’ve been pretty misguided about what I’m doing here, and it surely comes from my not having as clear a musical identity as most of my competitors do. Without a particular musical identity, it’s maybe natural that I’d be looking for a decathlon, the opportunity to have the trying on of different identities be the very nature of a contest. But this contest isn’t interested in seeing me, or anyone else, play all the events of a decathlon. It just wants to see each of us do what we do, yet proving that we can do it well, through trial after trial, the same event, even when our arms are straitjacketed or our eyes blindfolded or our sneakers filled with rocks. A-game is about making great songs, every time, period. The varying challenges are not meant to see who’s the best at playing lots of different games. They’re just meant to see how good your A-game is when you’re under different kinds of pressure. It’s a subtle but crucial difference between this and a decathlon.

Now, on one hand, I’m pretty interested in the idea of different games, a decathlon. That’s easy to tell from my past output, especially the stylistic variety on Everyone’s Invited. At the same time, I can get behind this other approach, too. Most importantly, I now understand that this is the type of competition SpinTunes is. I only shoot myself in the foot if I try too hard to be clever and mix musical elements simply because I can (as in Step Back Swooperman), and just the same if I dive too deep to plumb the depths of a particular challenge’s semantic ocean (as in Another Universe). Hopefully I now know better how to play this game, this one game, the way it’s meant to be played — or, rather, at least, the way the judges are judging us as we play it.

Learning:

  • Tread very carefully when dealing with unpleasant feelings and ideas in the lyrics and unpleasant sounds in the music, and especially when doing both at the same time. When in doubt, be positive, crafting something most people could most often be in the mood to listen to, especially musically.
  • Be specific in story and imagery.
  • Heed the challenge, meet it well, but leave it at that, working beyond that in general to simply write a great song rather than getting too swept up in the particular challenge.
  • Continue to focus on my musical strengths (piano and composition) and downplay musical weaknesses (vocals and production), but consider making a bigger, and smarter, effort with production, since like it or not these judges are obviously not judging a songwriting contest but a songwriting and performing and producing contest, and, with my vocals being what they are, production is my only real area of opportunity.

7/30/10 — Dr. Lindyke Reviews Round 3

Dave Leigh of Dr. Lindyke talked about the difficulty of a challenge that imposes both a topic and an intended emotional reaction. About my song in particular, he felt I’d seriously overused production.

In response, I told him I took all his points well. About the production on my song, I’d hoped the driving feel would convey the parents’ growing despair, but I supposed this was no guarantee of evoking sadness in an audience.

I was especially with him on the challenge’s restrictiveness, though. As I said there, restrictiveness makes for a challenging challenge, but I agreed with Dave that it does tend toward formula. And so we saw several formulaic song notions, with formula itself not at all correlated to song quality: some formula songs were better than others. We also saw some people trying to buck the formula pull — Christ and supernovae, clones, kings, aliens, even my song with the idea of a birth crisis being overcome but sadness continuing for other reasons. And again, some non-formula works were better than others. I wondered, were these songs, mine included, failing the learning I’d done last round, getting too swept up in the challenge? Were we looking for originality points in our own heads rather than just taking the challenge as given circumstances and simply trying to write the best song possible otherwise? As opposed to Round 2 where I overdid the challenge and underplayed production, did I do just the opposite here, crafting decent production to “vindicate” myself compared to the previous two rounds, but in a way that failed to serve the tearjerker challenge? Did I go too far with one of my own bits of learning from last round, making a song sound “nice” despite its having unpleasant content?

Maybe all of this is true to some extent. But I also remembered a Tweet of Dave’s, in advance of the Round 3 deadline. Talking about his song, he said, “I don’t know how I’m going to sing this.” Now, I don’t know if he meant, how is he going to get through it emotionally, or is he up to the challenge on a sheerly musical level with his vocal performance, or both. Whatever he meant for himself, I’ll take those words on as relevant for my situation. Because Dave’s got a much better voice than I do, and I freely admit the weakness(es) of my singing voice. But in a contest that demands, even if not full-on orchestration and commercial-level production, at least a decent enough rendition of a song, how I sing itself becomes a restriction on the kind of submission I can make for the contest, the kind of song I can write for this contest.

In Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns, about They Might Be Giants, I recall one of the Johns explaining how their “Dial-a-Song” service would fail to work if the songs they wrote had notes that were too long. Long notes caused the answering machine that ran the service to stop playing and rewind the tape. So they got used to writing short songs with lots of short notes.

I’m in a similar boat. No answering machine is going to stop because I sing a long note, but no long note I sing (nor many short notes) will ever sound really good. I can’t possibly write something vocally demanding. I mean, yes, of course, I can write something very demanding. But I’d better not, not if I’m going to be the vocalist, because I won’t be able to pull it off myself. Case in point, Step Back Swooperman, which although there are other valid criticisms, I’m pretty certain would have been generally better regarded, perhaps much better, if only it had a decent vocal, even if nothing else were changed at all.

Now, none of this excuses over-production. But Dave, at least, suggests that my Round 3 song “could be a winner” if not for its over-production. So here’s the thing. If this really were a contest about songwriting, if we were being judged based on what songwriting really is, based on what might be considered a lead sheet mentality, then my Round 3 song, as is, would look no different from that angle, regardless of how I record it. I could record it as I did. Or I could record it with the looser orchestration Dave suggests, a more subdued tone, and I could totally flub the vocals. Or I could record it with that alternative orchestration and tone and spend a fortune hiring Barbara Streisand to sing it, whether powerfully or quietly or both. And none of these differences would matter, because the underlying song itself does not change. These are changes to things other than the songwriting. And that’s all just taking the song as it is now, not even accounting for the fact that I could have — and would have — written it differently if I’d known that my own vocals were going to be a non-issue. It would have been written to take even more advantage of what a talented vocalist could do to evoke emotion.

But that’s not this contest, nor is it most or all other contests either. In a contest where more than the writing itself is being taken into account, what can I do? Write appropriately and fail to record it well, and lose. Or compromise the writing for the sake of my vocal ability, and record it sufficiently well, and lose. Scylla and Charybdis. A dichotomy of just the kind I lamented in Another Universe. The only ways out:

  • Become a better singer — for which I don’t currently have the resources, whether financial, time or otherwise.
  • Find some other better singer — ditto.
  • Enter contests that genuinely judge only the writing — not sure they are any more extant than unicorns.

Once again, at least barring some change in my resources or in how songwriting contests are run, lose-lose for me.

I wonder what would have happened here, in Round 3, if we all just submitted lead sheets. Or if we all had the same production team and vocalists perform our works. I wonder how that would affect every round. Of every contest that says it’s about songwriting and not singer/songwriters or a battle of the bands. To those who balk at this wondering, and I’m not judging you as wrong or evil or anything like that, but if you balk at this, then you’re clearly interested in something other than contests about songwriting, something other than contests about, quite simply, writing songs. And it’s fine to be interested in something else other than that. Given the time, so am I, because I like playing with production. I’d just like a spade to be called a spade, and I’d just like the opportunity to participate in a contest that judges what I’m interested in putting up for judgment and not the stuff that may have to surround that.

Prediction: At best, the judges will echo Dave’s comments, and maybe I’ll place as high as the middle. At worst, who knows what else the judges will come up with to say about my song, and I’ll place at or near the bottom. Either way, with only two contestants moving on to the final round, I’ll be out, and not likely even in 3rd or 4th place to warrant bothering to create a shadow the way the contest runners are suggesting for those placers.

Learning:

  • Even when being careful about a challenge, be extra careful about it. Sometimes, the obvious and formulaic may be a better choice than even an extra ounce of originality.
  • In a challenge where the best possible path requires vocals and/or other resources I just don’t have, there’s not much point in hoping to do well.
  • In a challenge where my songwriting itself could potentially have been a winner without regard for vocals and production, my general feelings about songwriting contests are affirmed: I wish more than ever for a songwriting contest with a lead sheet mentality, where just the songwriting itself would be judged independent of everything else. The things that at least Dave counts against me here, and likely rightfully so, would not even exist at all or at least would be non-issues. The song, as a song, would stand on its own to be judged, and things might end up differently. Since this isn’t how things generally work in songwriting contests, then, my learning is: consider carefully and case-by-case whether it’s worth participating in them in the future.

7/31//10 — Round 3 Results Revealed

When the Round 3 Totals were revealed, Will It placed 3rd out of nine entries. Three of the dozen contestants who’d passed to Round 2 failed to meet the Round 3 deadline, leaving just the nine. By design, only two contestants would pass onto the final round, Round 4. However, the contest runners have been all along noting that if one of those two doesn’t make their entry, they will proceed down the Round 3 rankings to shadow entries. Ranked third, I have a pretty big incentive to shadow Round 4, then. And, intriguingly, I placed as a result of the public poll breaking a tie between the two of us who were ranked immediately after the top two. Who knew that the poll tiebreaker would come into play in just that potentially very important way, for anyone, much less for myself.

The judges’ overall consensus of my entry: Essentially a solid entry except that the song is just too groovy, taking away from the sadness of the story it tells. A few negative comments, with one judge believing the chorus too dissonant, and another predictably critiquing my vocals, though that latter judge actually ranked me first and particularly complemented the chorus. So be it, the usual subjective differences. But, overall, pretty positive, and to the extent not so positive, basically right in line with the Round 3 review from Dave Leigh of Dr. Lindyke as well as some other comments made about my entry. As I said above about Dave’s words, I really do see the point.

Interestingly, one judge ranked me 4th, feeling the music fit the lyrics well, while she ranked 7th a different song that she considered too upbeat for the content. This was the same judge who liked my Round 1 entry, so maybe I’m just on her wavelength a bit more! In any case, it does go to show that it was at least possible that my musical intentions might be received without having “upbeatness” held against.

Perhaps more interestingly, one of the judges, as it happens the one who ranked me highest, preceded his reviews by echoing Dave’s thoughts on the challenge itself — that it was simply demanding too much at once, being too restrictive. I say that’s interesting because it means he was sensitive to the difficulty of the balancing act, and so maybe inherently a bit more likely to be forgiving of not quite balancing everything. And there I am at the top of his list, while some other judges who were more sticklers for the tearjerker ranked me lower. It’s certainly their prerogative, given that this contest provides judges with no guidelines for judging. It does, though, suggest that maybe the nature of the challenge itself was, rather than simply being particularly challenging, possibly inherently problematic in some way. Not because I didn’t win! But because more than one person who wasn’t even an official competitor made these particular observations about it having so many restrictions.

I’m surprised I actually ranked this high. I’d figured I’d be in the middle of the pack at best. Now, the performance/production issue is that much more palpable for me. If I’d felt confident enough in vocally carrying a tearjerker, I’d have produced — and possibly written — differently. What would have happened then? Would I have placed even higher? Possibly so, even without changing the actual song, even with only a more sparse, ballad-like arrangement. What an odd feeling I have right now, to on one hand feel pleased for doing so much better than before, and yet to know that the thing standing in my way of an even better ranking is what I’ve been feeling worst about all along, i.e., the fact of a songwriting contest not being only about the writing.

In any case, it is gratifying to get a better overall reception than I did in previous rounds, and gratifying to feel that hopefully my own conscious learning process helped that happen. And though my time is pressed, I suppose I have a pretty good motivation to shadow the final round. If nothing else, it’ll just be a few days of a really intense schedule, and I’ll have hopefully a decent writing exercise to show for it.

An extra thought. Even though I’m the beneficiary of the current ranking system in terms of having the best shot at a shadow moving on next round, I have to admit that there seems something potentially unfair about the contest dynamic. What I’m about to say is in relation to Edric Haleen because it most dramatically makes the point, but the same perspective holds true in general.

Edric came in first in both previous rounds. I placed near the bottom in both previous rounds. Does it really make sense that I end up with a better shot at winning the contest than he does, simply because my Round 3 song placed ahead of him by two spots, with a difference between us of only a single point in the total scores for that round? Maybe there is a strong case for eliminating eliminations in favor of cumulative scoring across rounds. On the other hand, a challenge is what a challenge is, and just as I took an approach that sacrificed some potential for tearjerking, Edric certainly did as well, even moreso. From a sheer songwriting perspective, and even granting that the story is Arthur C. Clark’e and not Edric’s own, Edric did some really tremendous work, but if it was too far afield for the challenge, then, by the book, he goes down in the rankings and gets the lesser opportunity as a potential Round 4 shadow. Yet somehow that book doesn’t seem quite right to me. All of this also points, to me, to the crucial importance of consistent judging to ensure that all these different factors get weighed in a way that’s not arbitrary for each song and each round, independent of eliminations vs. cumulative scores.

One final thought. I almost hesitate to admit it, but I suppose it’s really no sin. With this round, I discovered my audio software’s pitch correction features. I took what was my usual pitchy vocal and set things to be essentially in tune. It feels like cheating to me. It is cheating in a way. But really, in the end, we have these tools to help our work sound better. And when it comes to something as blatant as my pitchy vocals — and when judges and others have so very clearly taken those pitchy vocals into account in judging my work — it just seems reasonable for me to correct the pitch. If I were a better singer, I would have an in-tune vocal. If I had other musicians working with me, I’d certainly have among them a singer better than myself. Should I leave a big hole in my submissions just because my untrained voice can’t do what otherwise could be done, what I can do using pitch correction, and what obviously makes a difference in how my songs are perceived? It would seem absurd not to do it. Earlier in the contest, I heard one of the other participants suggest to another contestant who is just learning to play instruments that she could go get Band in a Box as an easy way to make fuller sounding recordings. If that’s not cheating for her, then pitch correction can’t be cheating for me.

I only wish I’d discovered these features earlier so that my other two entries could have had a better shot, even if I’d changed nothing else. Apparently revisions will be accepted with no deadline for the songs to live in posterity at Bandcamp, so I suspect, after the contest is over, I’ll put in the bit of time to pitch correct those first two songs. I hope people will give them another listen and see if they might think at least a bit better of them. (Note: The revised versions of the songs became available sometime between 8/17/10 and 8/19/10. Hear them at Step Back Swooperman and Another Universe.)

Learning:

  • Keep trying to learn from each round and each song I do, because even though I dropped the ball in a big way this round, overall I have been honing in on a better match between what I do and what will be effective for the contest.
  • Really search for that sweet spot in meeting a challenge, the Goldilocks spot, not too much, not too little. And then make sure that, whatever else is done to make a song good or great outside of the challenge, be very sure it stays outside the challenge and doesn’t come back inside in a way that hurt it — the way I came up with a decent challenge fit this round in terms of lyrics, then decided to go produce a decent track, only to have the production contradict the lyrics and diminish their impact and therefore the sense of how well I met the challenge. And if it seems like it’s not possible to have it all in the sweet spot, have as much as possible there while having as little as possible outside it. A soft-spoken tearjerker with my singing voice might not have been as effective as one with someone else’s better voice whether soft-spoken or powerful, but it would probably have done better than the not-really-so-tearjerking arrangement/performance I’d submitted this round.
  • Even though I’ve benefitted this round compared to the previous two, with respect to both the ways that I didn’t do as well as I could have as well as the ways I benefitted over others, the overall contest dynamic continues to affirm my general thoughts and recommendations about songwriting contests in general.
  • Know the tools at your disposal, then use them to your benefit. Namely pitch correction. Even if part of you feels like it’s cheating. If there’s no rule against it, it isn’t cheating.

Onto my first shadow entry.

8/1/10 — Round 4 Challenge Revealed

Musical Road Trip – Write a song using at least three different ethnic styles. The music from each of the three parts of the song should give the listeners a mental image of a place or group of people from a certain area. (at least 30 seconds each style) (3 minute minimum)

This feels up my alley and fairly well along the lines of the decathlon idea I’ve talked about. Topic can be anything. Piano only, or go for production to help paint the different pictures? If I can’t pull off the production truly well for each, is attempting to do it just shooting myself in the foot? Is it worth the extra work, especially when I’m going to be out of town for four days during the time period for creating the entry? Could a piano solo backing be underwhelming or oddly effective and amusing? We’ll see what I come up with.

8/11-12/10 — Round 4 Entries Finalized

It is revealed that both finalists made the deadline, and so my shadow entry will remain a shadow entry. Obviously I have no idea how it would stack up to either of the finalists, but it’s certainly a big “what if,” wondering what would happen if one of those finalists didn’t make the deadline. Or wondering what would happen if the contest rules put three or more people into the final round, as is currently being talked about for future iterations of SpinTunes. Quite a thing to think about how poorly I did in the first two rounds but how relatively close I came to having at least a chance at winning the contest nevertheless.

I’m proud of the work I did, but it was pretty time-consuming during a week when I didn’t have a lot of extra time to spare. Would I have even bothered doing a shadow if I’d have known for a fact that both finalists would come through with entries? I’m really not sure. Very possibly not.

I appreciate the idea of not wanting someone to win by default and therefore having a provision like the current one in case a finalist doesn’t come through. But I certainly didn’t like being in a position of feeling that I “had” to create a shadow entry just in case the shadow might turn out to not be a shadow. I’m certainly behind the idea of having enough finalists to avoid putting anyone in this situation again.

The matter was made even more interesting by the question of whether one of the finalists’ entries actually qualified for the finals. This was discussed (including by me) pretty extensively in the comments of both the Round 4 Songs post and Dr. Lindyke’s winner prediction, and it leads me to believe firmly in qualifying all entries using only objective criteria before putting an entry in contention, and then leaving judging based only on subjective criteria.

With alternate rules already being considered for future SpinTunes even before the finalization of Round 4 entries, obviously even the contest runners have some qualms about the current rules. In any case, with my Round 4 entry destined to stay a shadow, and with my own vote already in for Round 4, my participation in SpinTunes #1 comes to an end.

8/16/10 — Contest Winner Announced — SpinTunes 1 is Over

Of Ballroom Dance, my Round 4 shadow, one judge said that it was not only my best song from throughout the contest, but that he felt it would have won had it actually been in the final round. Others involved with SpinTunes also told me that their opinion was that it was the best song of Round 4 and also my best song of the contest.

And so the “what if” grows and grows! I feel like Chris Daughtry ๐Ÿ™‚ I can only hope my future is as bright as his turned out to be!

When I look back at my participation, I see that, in each of the first two rounds, I barely avoided being eliminated. In Round 3, I nearly made it to the finals. Because of quirky goings on regarding qualification, I seemed to come even closer to making it to the finals. And given the reaction to my song, it seems like maybe I even could have been the overall contest winner. Regardless of the “what if” factor, I’m really proud of my participation. I’m proud of all my songs, but it’s especially gratifying to see meaningful results from my explicit attempts to learn as I went and to grow as a songwriter and game player.

It was, again, a valuable experience in a lot of ways. Just reread the very first and third paragraphs at the top of this post ๐Ÿ™‚ And if you’re interested, go ahead onto my more general thoughts on songwriting contests and how they are — and could be — run.

5 comments for “Highlights from My SpinTunes 1 Experience

  1. August 16, 2010 at 10:58 pm

    Wow, that was a lot to read. :p

    “A-game is about making great songs, every time, period. The varying challenges are not meant to see whoโ€™s the best at playing lots of different games. Theyโ€™re just meant to see how good your A-game is when youโ€™re under different kinds of pressure.”

    I think that’s the most important thing you learned in terms of competing in internet song writing contest. From what I’ve heard, most people have agreed you improved every round. The contest is not what you expected, but as you navigated your way fine as you learned.

    I don’t know of any songwriting contest off the top of my head that are more what you had in mind originally. Song Fu & Song Fight both use popular vote only…so the judging is even more random & large fan bases play a huge role in who does well in Song Fu.

    Nur Ein uses judges but I don’t think they have guidelines for judges, but you can ask Niveous about that since he’s the man who created & runs Nur Ein.

    Right now I do plan on having some guidelines, but not many. Mostly I just want all the judges on the same page as to what meets & doesn’t meet the challenge…before ranking the songs. Everything else will probably be totally subjective again.

    As for it being a bit unfair about how Edric ranked in comparison to you or even Kevin or Ross….. This is how I look at it, and how I told Kevin he should look at it. Round 1, 2 & 3 are like the regular season in baseball. You don’t have to be the best team each month of the season, but if you are consistantly doing well, you can put yourself in playoff position. And once you’re in the playoffs anything can happen.

    The current set up provides strong motivation for people not to slack off for even 1 round….that’s what I like about it. And even Edric is a strong supporter of this, and he’s the one that would have clearly benefitted most from a cumalative scoring system. That issue is up for vote in a day or so, it’s possible that could change.

    Pitch corrections….not cheating. I don’t care what people use to make music as long as it’s an original work. Use whatever you can to make your music sound the way it’s meant to sound.

    ….off to read your other blog post…

  2. August 16, 2010 at 11:13 pm

    Thanks for trudging through it all ๐Ÿ™‚

    I definitely agree about that being the most important thing I learned. No question.

    Much as I’d always been interested in those various songwriting contests, I’d never had the time to follow them and really see how they work, until now when I was participating myself. Trial by fire!

    I definitely see the argument about eliminations, Edric, Kevin, etc. When you see my other post, you’ll see that I have some thoughts about cumulative scoring that would make it more viable than some people think it would be, but I’m definitely fine with an elimination-based contest, especially if the rounds clearly increase in difficulty as the contest goes on, and especially if a preference voting system is used instead of simply summing up backward-rank point scores.

    You’ll also see in that other post my thoughts about having some guidelines for the judges, including and beyond the qualification issue. I didn’t spell out specific recommendations in that other post, but it could definitely be simpler than what I may seem to be suggesting there. Even just a few simple guidelines would, I think, make a big difference. Happy to talk to you about it, feel free to email.

    Thanks for your feedback here!

  3. August 17, 2010 at 9:55 pm

    Hey, Mark!

    Read your post. I was struck more than anything else by what you said you learned from SpinTunes #1. Particularly?

    > Tread very carefully when dealing with unpleasant
    > feelings and ideas in the lyrics and unpleasant sounds
    > in the music, and especially when doing both at the
    > same time. When in doubt, be positive, crafting
    > something most people could most often be in the
    > mood to listen to, especially musically.

    > Heed the challenge, meet it well, but leave it at that,
    > working beyond that in general to simply write a great
    > song rather than getting too swept up in the particular
    > challenge.

    > Even when being careful about a challenge, be extra
    > careful about it. Sometimes, the obvious and formulaic
    > may be a better choice than even an extra ounce of
    > originality.

    It’s probably just me — ’cause I know that I’m not (in ANY way!) a “typical”… well … ANYTHING! But to me, these seem like odd lessons to take away…

    You wrote, “When in doubt, be positive, crafting something most people could most often be in the mood to listen to, especially musically.” Well — if I had done that, MANY of my Song Fu/SpinTunes songs would not exist.

    You wrote, “[Work] beyond that in general to simply write a great song rather than getting too swept up in the particular challenge.” Well — many of my songs come from digging — nay, BURROWING — into the nature of the challenge. “(Happiness).” “Mad-Libs.” “Acceptance.” “This Song Doesn’t Rhyme.” (PARTICULARLY “This Song Doesn’t Rhyme”!)

    You wrote, “Sometimes, the obvious and formulaic may be a better choice than even an extra ounce of originality.” This just makes me sad! (And makes me want to use the word “commercial” as a perjorative…)

    I do understand the motivation. The motivation is to do as well as you can IN THE COMPETITION. And that, I suspect, is where I differ greatly from many of the competitors in these competitions…

    MY motivation is simply to do AS WELL AS I CAN.

    If someone writes a song in the hopes of making [whoever else] happy — what happens when that [whoever else] doesn’t like it? I imagine that would feel rather empty. And the act of writing that song seems like it would become rather a waste of time.

    I am quite proud of every single song I’ve written (even “Sir Isaac Quickmud”!). I’ve been fortunate enough to have a few of those songs receive some measure of acclaim — and I’ve had a number of those songs rank quite low in the voting/judging. But regardless of what the outside world thinks, THOSE SONGS STILL MAKE ME HAPPY! And, as such, those songs are FAR from wasted effort.

    I’m a person (I’m sure you can tell) who prizes originality, creativity, intelligence, and proficiency. When I know that there’s an “obvious and formulaic” approach to the song, I actually do my level best to FLEE as far from that as I possibly CAN! (“The Star” is probably the BEST example of that — but I’ve done that many times before, as well.) And when I finally decide upon my song idea, everything from that point on is chosen to SERVE the SONG! Whether it’s a subterranean harpsichord or an epic film score or a choral background or a solo snare drum — form follows function. My audience’s potential PREFERENCES do not factor into it — although I will often craft a song for the audience to EXPERIENCE in a particular way! (This is where Dave would reference what he’s termed my “signature reveals”…)

    There has only ever been one song that I wanted to write for each of the sixteen challenges in which I’ve now participated — and I’ve written that song each time. It’s rewarding — and I’m grateful — when people like the songs. But even when people aren’t so crazy about the song — or merely grant me begrudging respect for at least doing what I’ve chosen to do with a high level of QUALITY — it’s still rewarding! Because I’ve moved the mountain again. I’ve created something of which I’m quite proud.

    (And I never have to say, “Well, crap. They didn’t like it. Now I wish I had written the song I really WANTED to write…”)

    I told people early in the going during Round 3 of SpinTunes #1 that I was writing a song that would not put me into the final round — and I was right! But my goal while writing that song was not “to get into the final round.” My goal was not to “be the winner of SpinTunes.” My goal was to do the best I possibly could with the song I was writing. And, as such, I went right ahead and wrote the song that I wanted to write.

    True — the song finished fifth of nine in the judging. And it took me out of the finals. But I totally kicked that song’s ass — and pushed myself as a musician at the same time! I created a choral arrangement — which I had not only never really done before, but was also a little leery about attempting. (I don’t have a lot of experience with vocal parts in choral music.) I created an ironical counterpoint in Latin! (And I don’t have ANY experience with Latin…) I negotiated the challenge of adapting a wonderful short story into a completely different art form. And I’m intensely happy with the result.

    When people log into ArtiFiction and say that they’ve just finished their Song Fu/SpinTunes song, the first question I ask of them is always, “Are you proud of it?”

    If their answer is “yes,” then everything else is gravy — don’t you think?

    ๐Ÿ™‚

    Edric

  4. August 18, 2010 at 9:52 am

    Edric, thanks so much for all your thoughts here.

    I want to assure you that what I was saying was, indeed, about succeeding in a competition.

    I really value the idea of doing things the way I want to do it. Look at my album Everyone’s Invited. I wrote it to be a kids’ album, and a fairly mainstream one at that. And yet it opens with a song about nudity, includes a song equating emotional expression and going to the bathroom as two things that people just need to let out, and a few songs that fairly overtly critique parents and educators for creating in children the very kinds of problems they hope to avoid, with one of those basically coming out and telling people that they treat children as if they were training dogs. No wonder I haven’t sold a lot of copies yet ๐Ÿ™‚ So yes, I value speaking my own mind the way I want to speak it.

    In a songwriting competition, though, there are constraints. There are deadlines. There are challenges to be met. That seems a far from ideal situation to worry fully about artistic integrity. Worry about it? Sure. But fully, 100%?

    Once in a while we may end up writing a song that we would have anyway. Both of our songs from SpinTunes 1 Round 2 seem to me like they may come close to that. But on the whole, it’s at least somewhat unlikely that we could say that we, or anyone else, would have any of those contest submissions either at all or at least quite the way they turned out if we weren’t in those challenge-based contests. Even if it could be said about a given challenge’s content, it could rarely if ever be said about the deadline. Given an open-ended deadline, any number of those entries could likely have turned out differently.

    I have a *tremendous* amount of respect for your songwriting talent as well as your songwriting ethic, your approach that leads you to write, completely on your own terms, the one song you want to write for each contest challenge. I *loved* hearing “The Star” even though it was not a knock-out for the challenge itself. Loved it! The fact that there is a challenge at all, though, means that even those songs are never fully written on your own terms.

    There is something beyond even this, though. Much as I really value the opportunity to express myself, I’ve also learned — or at least have continued to be in the process of learning — something valuable about communication over the last several years. If a message isn’t received as intended by the communicator, and if the intended recipient isn’t going to take responsibility for trying to receive it in a different way (and they seldom do), then it’s the communicator’s responsibility to learn better how to communicate, to learn better how to express themselves in a way that can be successfully received by others.

    So yes, there is songwriting with 100% self-expression and zero compromise on one hand — like speaking the truth you know to be true and not worrying about saying anything different no matter how much people ignore you. And yes, on the other extreme, there is the total compromise of crank-it-out factory songwriting for Top 40 radio — like Mother Culture just whispering what people want to hear to keep themselves comfortable. But there is a world in between those poles, lots of nuances. And within that world, refraining from 100% self-expression doesn’t mean, or at least doesn’t have to mean, compromise or emptiness or a waste of time. Some tailoring for an audience — even outside of contest challenges — can be considered exercises in empathic communication as opposed to just pandering to the tastes of others. That doesn’t seem like a waste of time to me.

    Especially in a songwriting contest, where the challenges and other constraints are given to us, I at least feel that one of the opportunities for me is to get just that kind of practice. Practice getting clear about my agenda and what I want to express. Getting clear also about an audience’s agenda, what they want to hear and what they don’t want to hear, and, more importantly how they want to hear what they want do hear, and how they may need to be communicated with in order to hear the things they *don’t* want to hear. Practice taking my side and their side and trying to find a conduit between them. It’s true that I won’t end up uncompromisingly self-expressed if I do this. But it’s also true that maintaining full self-expression even in the face of messages failing to get through to others when you really *want* to get through to others is itself just another kind of compromise. In a world as in need of change as this one is, and in that world where those who have good ideas about change tend to be fairly unsuccessful at getting others on board, I think there may be fewer things more important than learning how to find the common ground between speaker and listener. On that basis, I, too, am proud of each of the songs I’ve written for challenge-based songwriting contests. For me, it’s just the four so far, for SpinTunes 1. And I’m proud of each of them, as well as proud of how I adapted my approach as the contest went on.

    So yes, what I was saying was about succeeding in competition. And there will continue to be times and places where, yes, I will likely act out of full self-expression, and that may even happen in challenge-based songwriting competitions sometimes. At the same time, in general, I’m trying more and more to not do that, not out of pandering, but out of a search for that common ground. And challenge-based songwriting contests seems to me an ideal place to get practice not only in songwriting craft but in looking for that common ground between my own agenda and someone else’s. Because in a challenge–based songwriting contest, there is simply no escaping someone else’s agenda, and therefore no possible way to express oneself fully without any compromise at all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *