In addition to some valuable learning about my songwriting and how to participate more effectively in songwriting contests, my SpinTunes experience led me to some general thoughts on how songwriting contests are — and could be — run.
SpinTown and the others most directly involved in running SpinTunes explicitly made an effort to design the contest in a way they felt would run well and work best for everyone involved. They deserve a lot of credit for the thought put into this. A number of people, myself included, felt there were various hiccups along the way. So be it — live and learn.
I have a number of thoughts that I believe would make for even more solid songwriting contest experiences. Many are relevant for SpinTunes. Some of the suggestions probably go outside of the bounds of the kind of contest SpinTunes may want to be, but most or all would probably be of interest to a lot of people associated with SpinTunes. If you’ve read some other things of mine, you know I can write a bit long. And this post is no exception! Here, though, is a quick summary, in case you want just some bullet points. I’ve broken them down into recommendations, which are things I think “should” be implemented, and suggestions, which are simply things I’d merely like to see at least on occasion in contests even though I’m also fine with alternatives.
- Qualification of all entries for each round through objective, requirements, regardless of whether they are challenge-specific or global to the contest in general — along with a total absence of objective/requirement-like criteria from judging.
- A preferential voting system to replace backward-rank point assignments if ranking remains a part of a contest.
- Unambiguously successively more difficult challenges in any contest based on eliminations as opposed to cumulative scores.
- A scoring system similar to those used in large and prestigious songwriting contests, assigning a certain number of possible points to each of a certain number of categories for assessing entries, bringing a valuable and needed consistency to the way songs would be judged.
- Setting the number of finalists so that there will be a reasonable chance at avoiding a default winner while also avoiding putting anyone in the position of “having” to create a shadow just in case it might turn out to be more than a shadow.
- Cumulative scoring as opposed to eliminations, which, when coupled with a scoring system like the kind noted above, would address many of the usual criticisms of cumulative scoring.
- A voting structure which would be a boon to perhaps all songwriting contests except those particularly large and prestigious ones — main voting/judgment done by neither a separate panel of judges nor the general public but exclusively by fellow competitors themselves — and which itself could optionally use the scoring system I talk about.
- Contestant-generated challenges.
- Decathlon-like challenges, with challenges involving more specific musical styles.
- A contest dynamic that I believe would allow a songwriting contest to be most true to its name — each round involving just hours to deadline after a challenge is revealed, forcing as much focus as possible on the writing itself as opposed to all the things that go on around the writing.
Since my own “agenda” here is larger than just providing feedback for SpinTunes, I’m organizing these thoughts in a way that makes the most sense of how and why my thoughts have flowed and connected to each other. If you find yourself wanting only to know more details behind certain of the recommendations, then just feel free to skip to those sections, and odds are a least a fair amount of what I say will make sense even if you haven’t read this whole post. I begin with a more minor point, but one that leads right into the more significant stuff.
Decathlons and Otherwise
In describing my reactions to the Round 2 totals, I talked about how I’d been participating as if the contest were a decathlon, made up of several very different events. Instead, I came to see that this wasn’t the case at all. Instead, challenges were not really separate events at all, requiring fundamentally different skills to excel. Rather, there was one event, songwriting itself, and the challenges were meant to see how well we would perform at that one event under different kinds of pressure. Instead of doing the high jump, then hurdles, then long jump, then track, etc., it was far more like doing just one of these things, but first with a straitjacket on, then with a blindfold, then with sneakers filled with rocks, and so on.
I was glad to have realized the nature of the situation so that I could participate more effectively — and based on how others received my entries for the last two rounds, it looks like I did, in fact, participate more effectively. I’d also noted that I could appreciate both approaches — decathlon and constraints on a single event. This, though, means that I would still love to have the opportunity to participate in a decathlon-like contest. One of the things I really enjoy as a songwriter is the challenge of exploring different styles of music and songwriting, evident from my past output, especially the variety on Everyone’s Invited — and which I was glad to be able to play with directly in Round 4. For the most part, though, a contest like SpinTunes leaves that off the table, something to be done by a songwriter only if he or she feels like it — and something that, if a songwriter does pursue it, may be just as likely to turn judges off as on.
Whether some future SpinTunes incarnation or otherwise, I’d be interested in the challenge of a songwriting decathlon (and no, it wouldn’t actually have to have 10 rounds). Make us write pop ballads, guitar rock, electronica, country, show tunes, sambas, swing, blues. Perhaps randomly pair up musical styles with song topics. Perhaps give us a list of musical styles and demand that we pick from them one at a time as we go through different topics that are given in each round. There are any number of ways to do it, and it would really ratchet up both the challenge and the diversity.
Crucial, though, would be to explicitly state this as the nature of the contest. That’s necessary both for songwriters — so that everyone knows what they’re getting into and can choose not to get into it if they’re not going to be up for it — and for judges — so that they can all have a solid and informed basis for judging. All of this points to the importance of leveling the playing field. Not to a least common denominator, but just to the extent necessary to make as many things as equal as possible so that competition can be meaningful, so that entries can be compared as apples to apples. Without that, they have no business being compared at all.
What Songwriting Is
There can be no songwriting contest without songwriting. So it seems pretty fundamentally important to have a grasp of what songwriting actually is — and what it’s not. Whatever one may think of the U.S. government and the Grammys — and I certainly have very mixed feelings about both — there’s something I think they each get right.
When copyrighting a song with the Library of Congress, it’s sufficient to submit a lead sheet containing merely the lyrics, melody and chord symbols. Anything else provided is unnecessary, because anything else is considered not integral to the song itself. The song itself, the underlying work of authorship, is known and identified only by its lyrics and the essence of its music, i.e., the melody and the most basic harmony ideas intended to go with the melody. Anything beyond these just doesn’t count as part of the formal authorship of the song. For those things, you’d need to make a separate copyright registration, such as for a sound recording and/or an arrangement. Anything else is, indeed, something else other than the song. Anything else is not songwriting.
Likewise, there are separate Grammy awards for Song of the Year and Record of the Year. Song of the Year is for the composer of the song alone, to honor the songwriting alone. Music and lyrics in their essence, basically the same as what one copyrights with a song. The song as written, not its recording, not its performance. Record of the Year goes to the performing artist and the producer, recording engineer and/or mixer for that specific recording of the song. It doesn’t go to the songwriter at all unless the songwriter happens to also fulfill one of these other roles, in which case the identity as songwriter is irrelevant for this award. The Record of the Year award honors the ephemeral combination of performance and production that brought the underlying song to life in a particular way that’s unique compared to how every other possible recording of that song might do so.
Songwriting is one thing. Other things are other things.
In the music business, though, they are often conflated.
When a songwriter is trying to get somewhere professionally, when livelihoods are at stake — your own and those of the people who might pay you for your work — the writing itself is seldom enough. How you come across matters. The powers that be need to get a sense, very quickly, about how a song will be received by an audience. That usually requires that demo recordings sound, in terms of performance and production, as good as recordings ready for commercial distribution. Even subpar songwriters who are good enough at production, performance and marketing will likely be more successful than a brilliant songwriter who lacks those other elements.
Many very well known songwriting competitions — ones with thousands and thousands of entries, world famous judges, highly valuable prizes, etc. — say that they are just about the songwriting. Production-related elements, though, inevitably come into play. The judges, and the competitions, aren’t likely to take a poorly made recording and endorse it with their name. They’re not in the business of having to explain how the songwriting quality underneath it all is really good. And in any case, they likely also believe, and likely not inaccurately, that the songwriters who submit poor recordings may be lacking in discipline and seriousness in ways that would make them poor candidates for receiving the boost that a contest win would give them. They just may not have what it takes to succeed in the end. The same basic attitude is industry-wide, not just for contests — it’s true for publishers, record labels, you name it.
The upshot: if you want to really make it as a songwriter, make sure your songwriting quality is at least passable, and make very sure that you can excel well enough at everything else. This isn’t my opinion. I’ve heard it over and over from professionals. A great discussion on this is given by Seinfeld composer Jonathan Wolff.
With SpinTunes, though, I heard it said more than once, by more than one person involved in running the contest, that, unlike some other contests, SpinTunes wasn’t a battle of the bands, it was not a contest for singer/songwriters, it was not a contest about how good a recording someone could make. It was a contest for songwriters.
When other places say it’s about songwriting and not production and performance, it’s almost invariably lip service. When a venture like SpinTunes says it, there’s good reason to expect that it puts its (lack of) money where its mouth is, making it all about the writing. Both running the contest and competing in it, one finds lots of amateurs — and I mean that in the best sense of the word, people who are involved in something for the love of it. Especially since there are many amateurs involved, whatever variations there may also be in entrants’ songwriting ability, there are certainly big variations in entrants’ abilities and resources in terms of performance and production. In SpinTunes 1, for example, one contestant didn’t even really know how to play an instrument, much less arrange and mix several in a polished commercial-grade recording. Finally, there are no prizes beyond bragging rights. Whatever professional aspirations any entrants may have — and some may have none — they will only be helped by SpinTunes success to a very modest extent, and only if those entrants bother to proactively run with it in their own self-marketing.
When it came time for judgment, though, there were countless ways in which judges ranked entries based not just on songwriting quality but on production value, mixing, instrumentation, vocals, performance, etc. Additionally, and maybe even more importantly, judges did not consistently judge based on these things. Many times, their reviews made clear that they were ignoring certain elements, and there are cases when a notion was held against one song but the same notion was overlooked in another. And apparently this was deemed acceptable for this contest — despite the fact that even the judges themselves sometimes argued with each other over how valid it was for them to be judging in these varied ways.
Indeed, when during the judging of Round 1 I posted a comment expressing hope that everyone would remember that this was a songwriting contest and not a contest about vocals, performance, production, etc., SpinTunes’ creator said, “Mark, you’re right it is a song writing competition, but the way the song is presented (vocals, performance, production, etc…) are fair game for judges. All the judges will have different opinions about the songs, and what’s MOST important.”
If those other things are going to be fair game, if songwriting alone is not going to be judged, that can be fine, too. However, I think it should be acknowledged up front. A contest that judges these things in addition to writing perhaps shouldn’t be called a songwriting contest. Whatever it’s called, there at least should be some clarity about just what will be judged — so that everyone knows what they’re getting into. Most importantly, then, rather than leaving results to the vagaries of what different judges feel is most important, there should be some consistency to guide the judges. This would give them all a solid and informed basis for judging, eliminating preference variations that could be arbitrarily applied from one song to another, and ensuring that any one factor, especially any factor other than the writing itself, can’t end up with a disproportionate impact on the results. Apples to apples.
The issue is not only the integrity of the very basis of what a songwriting contest is supposed to be about — it’s a question of the opportunities that are lost to songwriters who may be able to measure up in their writing but not in production or performance.
Maybe some will remind me of what I just said, pointing out how well the non-instrumentalist did in at least the first round. But I can just as quickly point out that she had a really good singing voice and could therefore provide recordings that, like many contestants, could showcase more than just songwriting ability. Indeed, in this contest at least, it seems likely that poor audio quality could be forgiven more easily than a poor vocal performance.
Before anyone suggests sour grapes, rest assured, I’m not saying that I think my songwriting is across the board the greatest thing since sliced bread. In this contest, there were a lot of great songs written by a lot of great songwriters, and I’m accepting of both the fact that a lot of songwriting judgment is going to be subjective as well as of many of the specific criticisms made about my songs. I’m speaking on behalf of myself to the extent that it’s relevant, and in ways that point the way toward benefits for everyone in general in terms of leveling the playing field in appropriate ways.
For me personally, my skills and resources for all production elements are limited. I acknowledge that I often sing off-pitch, and even beyond that I don’t have a great singing voice. When it comes to orchestration and sound engineering, I do enjoy those aspects of production, and I think I can do a fairly decent job — and to some extent did so in SpinTunes 1. However, I’m entirely self-taught, with limited experience and equipment resources compared to some, and I don’t know how to nearly fully use what I do have.
Those aren’t the only differences in resources. In terms of sheer time, obviously there can be huge differences in how much competitors are willing or able to put into preparing their entries. I’m self-employed, my wife also works, and between us we don’t yet bring in enough to make ends meet, so we simply have a lot less free time than many people. Add on top of that parenting (and, for now, the fact of our daughter being home for Summer vacation), home ownership, etc., and I suspect that my discretionary time for songwriting contests may be more limited than most. If there are other competitors even busier than I am, then I speak for them, too — I speak to the general issue, not only my own individual circumstances. I speak to the fact of variation among competitors that makes for an uneven playing field, wherever I or any other particular competitor may fall on that field.
As I commented after reading Dr. Lindyke’s Round 3 review, I wonder what would have happened in each round if every contestant had the same production team and vocalists perform our works. To those who balk at that suggestion, that’s fine, but it merely proves that you’re interested in a contest that’s not just about songwriting. And, again, that’s fine, too. If that’s what you want. Which I, at least sometimes, don’t.
If I were creating recordings intended for sale, I could consider taking lots of time and also sporting some funds to pay for a decent vocalist and at least a bit of production help, all of which I did with the Everyone’s Invited album. But for a contest, with no prizes, where I don’t know going in just how long-term worthwhile for me will be the particular songs I’m going to write (in themselves, that is, beyond the extra songwriting experience which is always helpful) — and especially when it says it’s for songwriters and not about production and performance? I just don’t have the funds laying around to pay to fill in those holes of mine sufficiently for a situation like this, and I certainly can’t put the time in, over such a short period, that I could justify for other projects. So where does all this leave someone like me in such a contest?
I could have the next Good Vibrations in my head, and if I do as much as I’m actually capable of with production and performance in the time I have available, the judges concerned with more than songwriting could still likely say, “Wow, he really flubbed bringing this thing to its full potential. And by the way, the vocals stink regardless.”
If I take the opposite approach, trying specifically not to play into my weaknesses as much as possible, they could say, “Wow, this song really called out for more. Where was it? And by the way, the vocals stink regardless.”
What about the polar opposite kind of song? I could write the next Love Me Tender, a song that lends itself to quiet simplicity. Even then, they could say, “Wow, this could have been so much better with some lush orchestration behind the melody, something, anything to compete with all these other really well-produced entries and to make up for those stinky vocals.” And even if they were fine with everything else, there’s all the more likelihood that a sensitive song like this, recorded by me, would result in the practically inevitable, “The vocals stink regardless.” Indeed, my thoughts in response to Dr. Lindyke’s Round 3 review are entirely a propos to this point.
Woe be to today’s Irving Berlins, Cole Porters and Diane Warrens, legendary songwriters who generally didn’t — and often really couldn’t — sing for themselves all that well. Not to mention the likes of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, whose success as singer-songwriters is, many or even most people would say, despite rather than helped by their singing. What about people like the Holland-Dozier-Holland team, George Gershwin, Marvin Hamlisch, David Foster, brilliant at both songwriting and orchestration/production? Or even Jacques Morali and Max Martin, also extremely successful as songwriters and producers, regardless of what you think of the quality and depth of their work? Still, all these people stayed behind the scenes, their voices silent on recordings. In a world that demands performance and production, these are people whose success as songwriters today, however it might come about, could only be likely, through songwriting contests or otherwise, by either strokes of luck or investing as much as necessary to make up for their weaknesses.
Again, I’m entirely clear that my showing in SpinTunes was not only about production and performance, and I’m certainly not comparing my songwriting, whether specifically for this contest or in general, with the most brilliant songs ever written. I’m just saying that the deck is stacked against quality songwriting in any songwriting competition that lets other factors into the judging. And it’s stacked even moreso in competitions that allow judges free reign to weigh those non-writing factors according to their own whims for each song and in each round. In such a situation, it simply matters far less how good the songwriting quality is. A mediocre song produced and/or performed really well can end up doing much better than a better song, better even than a song as brilliant as any ever written. Maybe a judge will see past production and performance to that brilliance, but there’s never a guarantee. Given the way things work in music production and human psychology, the odds are, unfortunately, against it. So let’s talk about improving those odds.
Some of the recommendations that follow are inspired fairly directly by the hopes I have for greater recognition of songwriting compared to other factors in contests. Some are pretty independent of this attitude of mine. Either way, the majority of these recommendations seem to me likely to be beneficial even when the songwriting/production issue is not a concern.
Qualifying Versus Judging
There was a great amount of discussion about Round 4 as a result of one of the entries failing to meet some of the criteria specified for the challenge. You can read those discussions in the comments of both the Round 4 Songs post and Dr. Lindyke’s winner prediction. Similar issues were argued about earlier in the contest as well, though, including between the judges themselves. All of it resulted from the fact that some criteria in certain rounds were phrased as if they were requirements.
Fundamentally, the issue is one of qualification. Any contest or game may involve ensuring that entries/entrants are qualified before they actually go into contention against each other. Some contests and games can involve the possibility of disqualification even after entries/entrants have gone into contention. A songwriting contest is not such a contest. All of the “playing” of the game occurs in the creation of the entries themselves. There is no gameplay during which to consider disqualification after contention.
The approach I think sensible, then, is to recognize that what matters isn’t whether the criteria are specific to a challenge or global for a contest in general, but rather whether criteria are objective, clear-cut and unambiguous enough to be considered required or whether they are fuzzy enough to be considered subjective.
Contest runners (who aren’t judges) should qualify each entry based on fully objective requirements — including any challenge-specific criteria that they wish to be considered as requirements. Only if all such criteria, challenge-specific or otherwise, are met does the entry make it to the playing field for judging. At that point, all remaining criteria should be fuzzy and subjective, weighed by each judge as appropriate.
If the contest runners want certain objective-sounding criteria to be weighed during judging rather than counting for up-front qualification, then those criteria should be phrased not as requirements but as recommendations or targets. E.g., recommended minimum 30 seconds per musical style, target total length 2 minutes.
Eliminations, Ranks and Scores
I was really impressed with how collegial the atmosphere was among contestants throughout SpinTunes. The competition was a genuinely friendly one. It led me to wonder, why have a contest at all? Why not just have a songwriting collective, in which writers are just looking to have a good time, mutually inspire each other, and learn from each other, all while going through the same exercises together? Doing the same challenges seems a particularly ideal way to run a songwriting support group, giving a lot more basis for learning than people simply bringing their various very different songs to the table. Especially when a contest doesn’t have any prizes and such, what, really, is the meaning of doing this as a contest anyway?
Even then, I can imagine that such a songwriting collective might enjoy and even value scores, eliminations and winners. This would be not only for fun but because it would give everyone the opportunity to give clear feedback and have that feedback be meaningful, actionable, perhaps even more forcefully leading to learning.
The main question with eliminations is whether it’s actually the best way to get to the best results, the best songwriting, whether collective or contest. Looked at one way, eliminations structured the way SpinTunes 1 did can be potentially unfair. In my reaction to the Round 3 totals, I admitted that it seemed unfair for me to have a better chance at a Round 4 shadow getting anywhere compared to others who did much better than me in Rounds 1 and 2. At the same time, there is something to be said for “outwit, outplay, outlast.” The key with an elimination system is to ensure that each round is successively more difficult than the last.
Of course, elimination means not being anymore able (not immediately, anyway) to incorporate and act on learning, at least not within the context of ongoing formal challenge participation. Beyond that, there are arguments to be made about cumulative scoring providing an overall more accurate assessment of who is “best” overall. What’s the worst that happens without eliminations? More songwriters writing songs. Work will tend to rank where it deserves in each round anyway, and keeping people in the game throughout only increases the chances that a songwriter’s overall output quality will be the main determining factor. Cumulative/aggregate/average scoring would smooth out unimportant variations. A songwriter can have an atypical round and still come out in a way that makes sense based on overall performance — whereas with elimination, even an excellent songwriter’s off-round could mean elimination.
I can see the argument either way. But there is a more important point that transcends this whole discussion. Contest or collective, eliminations or cumulative, there is a fundamental question that hasn’t yet been well answered by SpinTunes: what is a score?
SpinTunes 1 had rankings done backwards — 1 point to last place, 2 points to second to last place, etc. — with points added across judges to determine an overall score. The thing is that this isn’t really a score. Or, rather, any number can be a score, but this isn’t a cohesive way to create a score. This is a ranking, and simply adding the values of rankings is just not a mathematically sound method to weigh rankings across multiple voters.
Let me put a plug in, then, for instant runoff voting and other forms of preferential voting. In a contest where submissions are going to be ranked, a voting system like this is the ideal way to provide an accurate reflection of the consensus, far better than backward ranking point sums. Should eliminations remain in play, this would be a tremendously helpful move.
However, a genuine scoring system, beyond mere rankings, would make an enormous difference regardless of the question of eliminations. If eliminations were themselves eliminated in favor of cumulative scoring, it would be crucial for scores to aggregate meaningfully. This can’t happen when the scores are simply rankings. At least some of the arguments some people give against cumulative scoring would evaporate if the scores that were to be factored in were created in a different way, based on a solid scoring system. Even keeping eliminations, there is still the question of how judges rank the entries, and a scoring system would make that a vastly more solid process. So let’s take a look at scoring.
Before we do, one tangential comment about eliminations, particularly related to the final round.
Two people were placed into the finals, even though the contest runners believed that there may be a good chance that the finalists might not both come through with entries. Therefore, they recommended that the third and even fourth placers from Round 3 do a shadow entry, which could move into the finals if a finalist failed to make an entry. Being the Round 3 third placer, that advice applied to me more than anyone else.
I appreciate SpinTunes’ desire to have a contest in which nobody would win by default, but I really disliked feeling like I “had” to create a shadow, especially given time constraints I happened to have during the Round 4 writing period. It was a really difficult position to be in, and I believe that contests should avoid doing so.
Therefore, I’m compelled to recommend that the number of finalists be set to give the contest runners sufficient confidence that at least two entries will actually be submitted, allowing for a vote rather than a default winner. Two is just not sufficient. Three finalists minimum would be good. Four might be better just to be safe. More than that hardly seems necessary.
A Scoring System
In SpinTunes, and it surely happens in many other places as well, it wasn’t said up front that elements beyond songwriting could have a big impact, and in any case there were no standards at all for how the judges could choose to assess those elements. In terms of honoring songwriting and making for an even competition, this is the worst possible combination. Even a complete lack of standards could be accepted far better if only there were the openness up front about production and performance being fair game, so at the very least that seems an obvious recommendation. More, though, is easily achieved — some consistency in the judging process.
The Iron Chef approach seems really workable here. Just as in SpinTunes, the competitors are given a specific challenge they must meet through their creativity and on a deadline, and a panel of judges determines the outcome. Here, though, the judges score the competitors in three areas, with 10 points set aside for taste and five each for presentation and originality.
A songwriting contest could easily follow a similar scheme, with some number of points, I’d hope the majority, given for songwriting quality. They could possibly be separated into one or more aspects. A number of national/international songwriting contest in which I’ve participated do just this sort of thing. The Great American Song Contest breaks lyrics down into five categories: title/hook, clarity/progression of theme, originality, rhyming and imagery/poetics. Melody is broken into three: structure, prosody and how lyrics fit music. Each of these eight areas is scored equally. The Billboard Song Contest and the NSAI Song Contest presented by CMT/CMT.com have similar categories but ten rather than eight. Taxi’s song evaluations are broken down into melody (with seven components), structure (five components) and lyric (15 components). A contest could use as complex or simple a system as it desired, even giving a certain number points to the writing as a whole, regardless of any further possible distinction between music and lyrics or any aspects of either of these.
In a challenge-based contest, clearly one would add one or more relevant categories to judge how well a contestant met the challenge. The simplest possible breakdown beyond one category might be concept for the meeting the challenge and realization of the challenge concept. To the extent that it was deemed worthwhile, challenge judgment could transcend the scoring system, with failure to meet a challenge causing automatic disqualification. There’s a compelling case to be made for this in a contest like SpinTunes, since otherwise someone could win with a genius song that scores high on all other counts but may even completely ignore the challenge. An appeals process would be helpful, since it is possible that judges’ opinions about how well or poorly an entry meets a challenge may be changed based on notions they hadn’t considered.
If any non-writing elements were thought worthy of judgment — vocals, orchestration, engineering, etc. — they could be broken out in any number of ways and assigned whatever weight compared to each other and the writing factors. I would hope they’d, in total, end up the minority compared to the writing factors.
That hope, though, is based on a contest being primarily about songwriting. A contest can be about whatever it wants to be about. One contest may involve writing factors only, another may weigh writing and non-writing equally, another may weigh writing in the majority, another may weigh non-writing factors in the majority. Every one of these could have challenge criteria if appropriate, weighted however desired. Some contests could pursue the decathlon notion simply by weighing in particular challenge criteria in different ways compared to other factors. It’s all just a matter of defining the purpose of a contest, settling on a scoring system that meets that purpose, and being transparent about the criteria up front before people enter the contest.
In SpinTunes, based on their various comments about all songs in all rounds, it’s clear that the judges were already segmenting different factors in their heads, giving different weight to different criteria. The problem is simply the lack of consistency they showed in doing so, weighing them in arbitrarily different ways from song to song, round to round. With enough judges representing enough variety of opinion, that could end up averaging itself out, but that would require either a much larger pool of judges or incredibly careful selection of particular judges to complement each other in particular ways. Barring that, formalizing a scoring system would bring consistency while still leaving judges very free to express their opinions.
Scores could be used raw, with scores across judges added or averaged and than the aggregate scores compared. If there was a desire for an elimination system with rankings, and possibly the use of a preferential voting scheme, each judge could simply translate scores into rankings, perhaps breaking their own ties on their own based sheerly on preference. No matter the situation, eliminations, cumulative scoring or otherwise, a category-based scoring system would bring a tremendous amount of consistency and integrity to the judgment process.
Contestants as Judges
In a contest like SpinTunes, there may be an even more important factor in judging, and that’s who should be doing it.
SpinTunes took pains to reduce the impact of public opinion compared to other songwriting contests. Public polls were subject to general popularity, ignorance and cheating, but there was a desire to let fans participate in some way, so public polls were preserved for tiebreakers. Given the size of the contest and the number of votes made altogether, it seems that the fan factor is, on the whole, a small one for this contest. That smallness could suggest that it’s fine to keep or that it’s no big deal to get rid of it.
However, smallness in the contest is more important in a different way. This wasn’t a giant songwriting contest. This wasn’t Billboard or the Great American Song Contest or the International Songwriting Contest, etc. Those contests have big prizes, and they get celebrity judges, and usually a fair number of them. Perhaps a contest on the scale of SpinTunes doesn’t even warrant a panel of judges.
Before I’d participated in SpinTunes, I hadn’t heard of any of the judges. Now, that doesn’t mean they aren’t credible. I believe firmly in the astounding amount of talent that lies in all corners of the globe and that hardly anyone has heard of yet. And unlike most of the other contestants, I wasn’t previously involved in any of the songwriting/contest communities that flowed into SpinTunes, so again, my not having heard of judges isn’t itself at all meaningful. But I also never saw a lot of information to tell me just how credible they were. It seemed that either you were already involved in one of the overlapping songwriting contest communities and knew who they were and had some reason to trust their judgment, or you knew nothing and just had to accept that they were chosen for their good judgment, by people who themselves who had good judgment about judges.
What’s clear to me from the judging itself is that some judges were focused more on writing while others were judging as if this were a battle of the bands and not a songwriting contest. At the same time, despite these changing tendencies across judges, any given judge may have showed inconsistencies in how they themselves assessed songs, sometimes playing up the meeting of a challenge or the value of vocals or production, sometimes playing those things down. Finally, and I won’t refer to any specific judges or any specific songs, but at least subjectively, I think that some of the comments they made were off the mark in various ways. I’m talking across the board, not at all just about their comments about my songs. And I do mean that only some comments were off the mark — every judge had plenty of smart things to say as well, but I’m not sure there was any one judge who I felt was insightful straight down the line.
None of this makes them evil. And imposing a scoring system would help. Tremendously. Certainly enough for me to feel good with almost any panel of judges that a songwriting contest honestly felt was reasonable and credible to take on, regardless of how well I might know of any of them.
But when it comes down to it, my take on the judging is that it was a mixed bag. Some good comments, some not so good. Are any of these judges likely to be that much more credible above and beyond what most of the contestants could themselves be considered? It seems to me that if you’re the kind of person who is willing to enter a challenge-based contest, and if you’re the kind of person who then actually puts the work into actually meeting each challenge, that could very well be enough to suggest that your opinions may be credible enough to judge a contest of this kind.
As at least an option, then, why not look to another exemplary reality competition show for inspiration: Survivor. Here, the competitors themselves do the voting. In SpinTunes — or any other songwriting contest on this scale well below the Billboards and ISCs of the world — there could be a poll just for contestants to pick the best from among each other. I’d certainly be happy to see even shadows participate — they’ve put the work in just the same as contestants, and I think that work justifies them earning a vote. Mutual elimination, with everyone in the same boat, with the same motivations. Very hard to adulterate. As it is, the final round of SpinTunes is already modeled on Survivor, with voting open only to eliminated participants, including shadows. Wouldn’t it be only natural to extend this backward through the other rounds?
A scoring system could still be an option if there was a desire for real consistency in the voting. I suspect it would be less important in mutual contestant elimination than it would be with a separate panel of judges, though I’d always think using such a scoring system would provide more meaningful results than not using it.
With participants judging themselves, why not have each participant come up with a challenge. Talk about fairness and leveling the playing field. Each participant could pose a challenge of their choosing, with a round for as many participants as there happen to be, or contestants chosen at random to provide each challenge if there was a desire for a number of rounds smaller than the number of participants. Choose based on something you feel would be a great challenge for you personally. Choose based on something you believe would be an ace in the hole for you personally — and see how humbled you may be to see how well everyone else does. That would, I think, be a pretty exciting thing to watch.
Whichever of the two approaches I just mentioned might be taken for the main vote — ether a panel of judges (ideally ones whose credibility is demonstrably high) with a consistent scoring system, or a contestant-only system with or even without such a scoring system — and regardless of the question of eliminations vs. cumulative scoring — there is still the question of the public poll. Of course, any voting system is a popularity vote, it’s just a question of the audience — a panel of judges, and/or the contestants themselves, and/or the general public and/or otherwise.
I believe SpinTunes was on a useful track in keeping the public out of the main vote. With the main vote handled in an effective way, the primary structure would be providing as fair a contest, as level a playing field, as possible.
The issue of ties in the main vote does beg a solution, though, and that solution can come from any group that hasn’t participated in the main vote. With judges determining the main vote, ties could be broken by contestants, the general public, or, as was the case for SpinTunes 1, these two groups combined. Likewise with contestants in the main vote: the general public could break ties, or there could a panel of judges just for tiebreakers.
It’s easy to imagine decent arguments for any of these tiebreaker audience possibilities. If there’s a strong desire to keep fans involved, then the public poll could be preserved, despite its potential faults and skews and unfairness. With enough concern over those issues, other solutions are right at hand.
A Speed Challenge
A level playing field, though, is only achieved to a certain extent by altering voting systems. There are still those differences among contestants in terms of not only ability but resources and time. Whatever factors are judged, writing or non-writing, those differences are going to come into play. Of course, differences should come into play, since that’s sort of the point of contests. The point is for the meaningful differences to come into play as much as possible, and for other differences to be downplayed as much as possible, in order to achieve apples to apples as much as possible. For those interested in a contest about more than just songwriting, great, weigh those factors in carefully as well. For a contest to be about songwriting only, it’s important that as many steps be taken as possible to minimize the influence of other factors, especially the factors beyond ability such as resources and time. A voting system can help, but it’s not the only possible step.
Toward the end of a contest truly based on songwriting itself, what I’d really like to see is also inspired by Iron Chef: urgency. The chefs have one hour to prepare a multiple-course meal using the theme ingredient. I’d love to see a competition about songwriting mastery whose rounds each had a similarly urgent deadline. Not 12 days. Not a week. At most one day, 24 hours. Maybe even less, perhaps a number of hours down into the single digits. I’m not at all confident that I would or could win such a contest. Nobody could be. But I know that that’s a game I’d love to play.
Yes, quality art sometimes takes time. Even so, this would be a genuine test of songwriting ability, pure and simple. There’s almost no place to hide. Maybe behind a great vocal or a genius instrumental part, but otherwise, nowhere. Differences in performance ability, production ability and resources, and, crucially, available time would all be minimized. Someone has a very busy life? Someone else has much more free time, maybe even has Summer vacation entirely off? As long as they both can set aside the bit of time required by the contest, they’re on an even playing field. Bar production and performance from the official judging criteria. Maybe even limit the recording to a single instrument and vocal. Maybe even make the judging based only on a lead sheet — the lyrics, melody and chord symbols alone. Either way, under these circumstances, there just wouldn’t be enough time for anything other than sheer songwriting ability to come into play all that much.
It could still be done over the internet, even asynchronously instead of all contestants having to work during the exact same few-hour block. A discreet period — maybe even a week or more, to guarantee that people who need weekend time for song work will get it — could still be identified for the writing work for each round. Ahead of time, each contestant would choose an exact day and time within the round’s writing period to receive, individually, the round’s challenge. This would allow each contestant, no matter their time zone or life circumstances, to set aside the needed block of time for facing the challenge.
As long as they got their submission in by the set number of hours after that moment of receiving the challenge, all would be well, otherwise theirs would be considered a shadow entry. Email notifications could be automated to communicate the challenge, otherwise the contest runners could notify contestants personally at their chosen times. All involved would be sworn to secrecy about each round’s challenge until the end of the round’s writing period, at which point the challenge would finally be made public and then, very shortly after, the songs themselves. Should a contestant blow the secret, they could be banned from that round, or even the remainder of the competition or all future such competitions. This, though, shouldn’t be a problem, because every contestant would be equally motivated to avoid giving a head start to any other who hadn’t started their own personal writing period yet anyway.
Except for handling the individual notifications, none of this would require really any extra work on the part of the contest runners. And except for the contestants doing their work at different times and having less time to do the work, all contest logistics — challenge creation, songwriting, gathering submissions, listening party, judgment — would go forward more or less as in any other contest. The costs are small, the benefits high: excitement, urgency, the unknown — and, importantly, a focus on songwriting itself.
Would other competitors from Song Fight!, Nur Ein, Masters of Song Fu, SpinTunes, etc., be up for this challenge, divorced almost entirely from the luxury of time, denied almost entirely the opportunity to fully use their production tools and techniques, forced almost entirely to focus on what songwriting, in fact, really is, which is, simply put, lyrics and musical essentials? Would challengers let their creations be put to the test if they had to be judged only on a lead sheet? Would judges — whether a separate panel or the other contestants themselves — feel credible passing judgment on the creations of others if they were only allowed to consider what appeared on a lead sheet? Of course, it’s not really about lead sheets as opposed to recordings. It’s about a lead sheet mentality — judgment on the basis of the essence of songwriting. Would everyone so used to spending time tweaking their tracks, so used to judging the tracks of others, letting their vocals and instrumentations carry them, be up to this challenge?
Again, I’ve no idea how I’d do. And I spend plenty of time tweaking my own tracks when I know that they are what’s going to be judged. I’m just saying that this, a speed challenge which puts the focus on songwriting essentials, is a game I’d want to play — and those songwriters who also wanted to play are surely songwriters I’d love to play the game with.
My Future Participation
The more a songwriting contest offers a set of challenges I find satisfying, whether decathlon-like or otherwise, the more its intrinsic rewards are a draw, and so the more likely I’d be to participate. Same would be true for anyone.
The more a songwriting contest offers tangible benefits in terms of prizes, publicity and other professional opportunities, the more its extrinsic rewards are a draw, and so the more likely I’d be to participate. Same would be true for anyone.
The more a songwriting contest offers the kinds of conditions I’ve described here — a focus on writing as opposed to performance and production, optimal voting systems, ultra-tight deadlines, etc. — the more such a contest is conducive to what I personally have to offer, allowing me to compare fairly to others, and so the more likely I’d be to participate. Whether that’s true for anyone else would depend on the person, their talents and their preferences.
Given the reality of my current life circumstances, mainly in terms of available time and finances, the combination of these factors would have to head fairly close to ideal for me to participate in another songwriting contest any time soon. This will be especially true with contests that demand performance and production, i.e., contests that converge on a battle of the bands or a singer/songwriter showcase rather than really being about the writing. It’s not sour grapes, it’s pure practicality. Until my abilities, finances and/or time increase enough to dramatically improve what I can realistically achieve in terms of performance and production, I just may not have the time needed to participate as effectively as I’d like in many or most songwriting contests.
To those with more balanced skills in songwriting, production and performance, and the time available for participation, more power to you. To those same people as well as others who consider themselves to be, like myself, fundamentally writers, here’s to hoping that we have the time and resources for the contests that require it, and here’s also to hoping that there also may be some contests someday with some of the more songwriting-specific traits I’ve been talking about here.