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Q&A: How do songwriting contests work?
By John Taglieri - 06/06/2007 - 10:54 AM EDT

Hi John ,

I have a question about the validity of song writing contests. I am extremely new to submitting songs to publishing companies and I want to make sure I know how they work before sending material to them. Some contests claim that the writer retains all rights...this must mean that you lose those rights with some other song publishers. If you're not paid any royalties, etc. , what exacly is the compensation? Is it a common practice for some publishers to "bait" songwriters with a contest and then steal the songs? I suppose you can make a bad deal with even copyrighted material when it comes to promoting your music..... Any insight would be appreciated Thank you , I enjoy your articles!

-- George S.

Hey George. There are so many songwriting contests out there. Many are run by very reputable firms, like the John Lennon Songwriting Contest or the USA Songwriting contest (See Songwriting Contest Listings for more info). But, there are many that are not so legit and you have to be careful. There are many that you can submit to for free and many that you have to pay a fee to get into. This usually has no bearing on the quality of the contest. Most do it to offset the costs of having people screen the thousands and thousands of entries that they receive. Whatever contest you decide to get into , make sure you thoroughly check it out first. Email the contest people and ask how long they've been running. Get references from past winners and ask fellow musicians which they've been in. Check sites like the Muse's Muse for listings. Reputable sites like this will usually only list contests that are legitimate, saving you time.

(Editor's Note: George, while I certainly do my best not to put questionable content in front of The Muse's Muse viewers, it's impossible for me to check out every single contest in detail. *Please* do the checking. Don't assume that just because it's listed here, it's ok. I'd rather you be safe than sorry, ok? Good luck!)

Are there publishing, record companies and other firms who will scam the contest and steal songs? Absolutely. You hear about it all too often. Make sure your stuff is copyrighted before you ever submit it to anyone's contest or otherwise.

I've never heard of any songwriting contest demanding the rights to your songs. If they do, run the other way. That's a sure sign of a scam. These are your songs, end of story. If you sign with a publisher or record company, the story is much different, but not for a simple contest. I've been in contests and have never had a problem. But I spent time making sure they were the right ones for me.

It is not a common practice for publishers to bait songwriters so they can steal their songs, at least not the reputable publishers. There are, however, song sharks out there who are very unscrupulous and will steal from their own mothers if they thought they could make a buck off of it. If you get a letter in the mail from a publisher or a record company who you've never solicited and have never heard from before in any form, and they are asking you to submit songs for consideration, throw it right into the garbage. This is a common tactic by the sharks. They get unsuspecting writers all excited that a record company/publishing company has contacted them and they count on the writers naivete and expect them to send songs. Then if there is a problem, they have lawyers who will usually make it so hard and expensive that the writer has no recourse to get his song back. There's a lot more to it, but that's the general scenario.

As far as making a bad deal, it happens everyday to someone. It's happened to me in the past. Make sure your music is copyrighted and also make sure you have a good entertainment lawyer on retainer. They may cost a lot, but they are well worth every penny when things do go wrong.

I hope this helped you. Feel free to email me any time you want with questions.

--John Taglieri

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