American Idol Songwriter Contest Rules Reviewed

UPDATE – APRIL 27: Big, huge, fun American Idol liveblog + discussion happening on our new discussion boards.

The entry form has finally popped up on the American Idol site for their songwriting competition. [CUE FRED SCHNEIDER] Surrrprrrriiiiisssse! It’s gonna cost $10 to enter the contest.

Ordinarily, I think $10 is a totally reasonable entry fee for something like a songwriting contest. In fact, in the next week or two, I’ll post a series of articles about how to tell whether a songwriting competition is legit and what the benefits (and pitfalls) are of entering your songs into national or worldwide contests.

With the caveat that I am not an entertainment attorney or a lawyer of any kind, here’s a rundown of key points in the American Idol songwriting contest rules:

Age – You must be 18 to enter, and all of the songwriters to be credited on the track must also be 18 as of the date of entry. If you’re under 18, you’re going to have to sit this one out.

Residence – You must be a resident of the U.S.A. They’re pretty clear about that. A lot of our readers from the U.K. and Canada will be disappointed, but it’s really the only way they can get this deal done legally without lots of tangles.

“Free to Contract”
– This means you can’t already be in a publishing agreement. Your song really has to be “unknown.”

“Your Song” – It’s got to be yours. 100%. No samples, no borrowed lyrics. You can have a co-writer, as long as they fit all of the requirements.

Royalties – There’s good news, there’s bad news, and there’s “meh” news. The good news is that 19 Entertainment is not immediately claiming ownership of the American Idol Songwriter entries, as some folks thought might happen.

Bad news – they are asking entrants to waive the potential television (sync) royalties for the duration of the contest if their songs make it into the Top 20. While that positions them as kinda cheap bastards, it’s not totally unreasonable. By waiving royalties, they can distribute the song online and on television without a lot of paperwork. This alone probably kept their attorneys awake for plenty of nights, which is what was delaying the launch of the contest.

And the “meh” – if you win the American Idol Songwriter contest, you get an advance of $10,000 against royalties of “75% at source” under a ten year exclusive agreement for the song. I’ve seen better deals, and I’ve seen way worse deals. For a rookie songwriter who is guaranteed at lease a few tens of thousands of units sold, this is going to be a windfall. I really do like the fact that 19 Entertainment took the high road and is offering “at source” right in the contest terms and conditions. As Bobby Borg notes in his Musician’s Handbook, you often have to negotiate for that sort of thing.

The overall verdict: If you were a client in my coaching program and you had a song you think sounded like an Idol finale tune, I’d say, go for it. There’s nothing in the T&Cs that claims your immortal soul, and getting Simon Fuller sniffing around the rest of your catalog wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Yes, there’s a $10 entry fee. That’s not just there to make them money — it’s really there to make sure that only serious entrants will apply. So get going, you’ve got less than two weeks.

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29 responses

  1. […] Blog Posts American Idol Songwriter Contest Rules Reviewed And the ?meh? – if you win the American Idol Songwriter contest, you get an advance of $10000 […]

  2. How many songs can be submitted?

  3. That’s a great question, Lashunda. It would appear, according to my reading of the rules, that each registrant may enter one song. However, I have sent a message to my press contact at 19’s home office in the UK for the definitive answer.

    For right now, assume it’s one song, so make your first entry your very best.

  4. oops!

    I have my answer I just read that only one song can be submitted.


  5. Thanks Joe!

  6. Jeff Rothkopf Avatar
    Jeff Rothkopf

    In reply to the “number of songs” question…the rules are explicit…Section 3, bullet #4, ends with the sentence, “You may only enter one Song.” Just thought I’d pass that on! 🙂

  7. It is confusing though because after you upload your first song it has a bright orange link that says “upload another song”. I didn’t because I figured it was a ploy to disqualify people.

  8. lynn esprit Avatar
    lynn esprit

    how do i enter the american idol song writing contest?

  9. Eric Smith Avatar
    Eric Smith

    I found this to be very confusing as well. I saw that like to upload another track, and so I did. I have sent an email to stating the following:

    “To who it may concern,

    It has come to my attention that there is some confusion as I read blogs on the internet about how many entries are allowed to be made for the songwriting competition. I, too, am unclear about this. I thought I understood everything, because major sites like this will usually say “sorry, you have already entered the contest!” if the registered email address has already entered, and is only allowed to enter one song, once. It was my understanding that each *separate* song may be entered once…which your site allowed me to do, and charged me for accordingly. I have a receipt for two separate 10 (ten) dollar transactions to the same email account as proof that I entered each separate song once.

    The confusion I am referring to is now that some blogs are stating that only one entry can be made, while others are stating you may be disqualified for mulitple entries regardless of if they are different songs. This would be a shame, considering I believe that at least one of my songs (the first one I entered, titled “[redacted]”) has the potential to be a winning composition…I worked very hard on that song in particular. It would also be a shame that a major corporation such as yourself didn’t set up a commonly used safety net to filter out people that have already sent in a submission from thier registered email address if what I am describing is, indeed, the case.

    Please work to resolve this issue in a timely manner.

    Thank you in advance for you efforts to keep me, and others like me, in the competition.


    Eric Smith”

    I will keep you posted with what I receive from them. This is potentially very frustrating.

  10. Thanks for doing that Eric, I will keep an eye on here to see what you find out!

  11. While I didn’t hear back from the idol site representative all of Friday about this issue (I’m sure they had to gather in the boardroom to discuss this), something I wanted to add is that none of you can enter if you are published. This is defined as “prepared and printed for distribution and sale”, so it doesn’t matter if you are not signed to a major label. If you are doing it yourself, and printing, pressing, and selling it even all by yourself with no help whatsoever,even from an Indie label, you are out of this competition…according to their rules. Just thought I’d make that clear so some of you aren’t wasting your ten dollar entry fee only to be later found out you are in breach of contract. I personally have a myspace music account as an unsigned artist with no prior songs published, but according to the definition of “published” which I previously mentioned as stated by google’s search engine, I am not engaging in an act of preparing for, or acting upon, distribution AND sale. It is an act of distribution alone, so any of you people with myspace SNOCAP accounts (myspace artists will know what I am referring to), you as well, by definition, are out of the race…even if you have no CD’s to go along with it, and your fans are just downloading sound files for a fee.

    ***Disclaimer***I am NOT an attorney representing American Idol, or any involved entities. My interpretation of the contract and rules is just that…my interpretation. However, it does raise some legitimate issues and concerns if you fit the previously mentioned profile, so act quickly and contact the necessary parties to determine if you may enter! You don’t have much time!

  12. I was also confused when I entered because I had read the rules when entering stating that only one song could be entered, and when I finished it asked if I wanted to upload another. Maybe this is for producers or agents who may be working with more than one artist and may be doing multiple submissions for others?

    Anyway, I had one song that I felt was an appropriate submission for this contest, so it didn’t really make any difference to me.

  13. Jesse Albert Avatar
    Jesse Albert

    You may enter one song per entry fee. Enter as often as you like but you will need to pay $10 per entry.

  14. The major question is this:

    It is clear to me what rights are granted and what compensation is agreed to if the song is chosen as a top-twenty finalist, but it’s not clear what happens legally to songs that are NOT chosen as top-twenty finalists. If I read the contract and the terms and conditions correctly, solely by entering a song in the competition, regardless of whether it is chosen as a finalist, the songwriter grants to 19 Entertainment ownership of the song, the right to record, reproduce and sell the song in any format, without any obligation to compensate the songwriter in any way.


    In layman’s terms, if today you enter a song in the competition and it isn’t chosen as a finalist, can they legally use your song to make money and not compensate you in any way? And also, can you still record your song without their authorization and if you make money off it, do you owe them anything?

    I’ve sent them an email, if I get an answer I will post it here.

  15. That’s great news Jesse! By what means did you confirm your information?

  16. @JC:

    I don’t think you have to worry about this — if this were true, I’d never have recommended the competition. The rules state that you’re assigning 19 the right to “copy and store” the data, but they do not assign the right to sell the song, nor do they absolve 19 from paying appropriate royalties if the song is used in any way outside the competition.

    There’s no way they can legally use your song to make money for themselves once the competition is complete. Nor would they be inclined to try — remember that 19 is a UK corporation, and attorneys have learned to avoid European songwriters’ unions at all costs. 😉

  17. Regarding the “one song” issue, upon closer reading of the rules, I realize that rule 1b is deliberately vague. You must “submit one song for entry” in order to be eligible, but nothing states explicitly that you cannot enter more than one song. If the producers have provided a big orange button that says “submit another song,” the intent here is to encourage multiple entries, not to disqualify contestants. That’s how this non-lawyer reads it, anyway — perhaps our attorney friends can chime in?

  18. Question regarding section 3.5 of the Contestant Agreement:

    ‘If the Song is selected by 19 Entertainment as one of the Top 20 Songs, you (and all Co-Writers) will be required to enter into a further agreement with 19 Entertainment (“the Publishing Agreement???) as a condition of you continuing in the Competition. The Publishing Agreement will grant to 19 Entertainment (or its publishing designee) the exclusive right to publish the Song (but not any other music or lyrics you may have written) for a period of ten (10) years in return for an advance to you of $10,000 against a royalty to you of 75% ‘at source’ worldwide.’

    If I read this literally, I take away that ALL 20 songwriters in the Top 20 will be getting a $10,000 advance in exchange for 19 Entertainment locking up the song for 10 years. Am I reading this correctly?

  19. Hi,

    I’m wondering what the ramifications are for musicians in the United States since the contract is implemented under UK law. Anyone know if this is an issue?

  20. Jeffery Cameron Avatar
    Jeffery Cameron

    to resolve the question of whether or not you can upload more than one song, YES YOU CAN!

    when you go to the submit song page, on the entery fee page it says it cost 10$ for “each song you submit”, so this conclusively means you can enter more than one song….

    i will definitely be taking advantage of that…

  21. Joe – thanks for your response, and I hope you are right, but I’m still not sure.

    You’re right that they say they will only use the material “relating to the competition”, but they also define the term “relating to the competition” to include the right to a) use in advertisements, commercials and other promotions (whether in or out of context) for the Competition; b) recording the Song and authorising others to record the Song; and c) embodying the Song and recordings of the Song (including the Recording) in television programmes (including episodes of the Series) or other audio-visual productions synchronised with visual images for exploitation in any and all media and in advertisements and promotions for such television programmes or other audio-visual productions.

    In other words, they are including programming that is not in the context of the competition to be included in the definition of the term “relating to the competition”. That says to me that they can use any song that is entered in the competition in any way they see fit. Are you saying that there are laws that would prevent them from doing that without compensating fairly the songwriter? I’m sorry to be such a pest, but I am one. 🙂

  22. @Steve:

    I think you’re right! A close reading of the rules indicates that they intend to award a publishing advance of $10,000 to EACH of the Top 20, which allows them to work around the sync licensing rules more cleanly. Good catch! (So this just became a $200,000 contest!)


    This is a very curious contract for that reason alone. Normally, a company would create a U.S. subsidiary to manage something like this. What this really means is that if you ever had a legal dispute with 10 Entertainment, you would have to hire a British Barrister to represent you in a U.K. court. Of course, some of our attorney friends can chime in with specifics.


    It’s wise to be cautious, but I think the high public profile of this contest is more than enough to keep them straight. Also, rule 3.6 states that if your submission does not make the eventual Top 20, they will make no further use of the song, other than storing your entry for archival purposes. While that may preclude you from entering it into other contests, I read that as leaving you free and clear to do what you like with it from that point.

  23. American Idol will possibly be granting 10,000 dollars to each of the top 20? If this is true, this just became a sweeter contest. A rare, and improbable outcome would be if multiple songs get selected by a writer, however I would assume they would compensate the writer per entry, and not per entrant, as they charged a fee per entry, and not per entrant. Interesting to see how they might handle that thought if any of us are lucky/talented enough to see that go down.

    I am also thrilled to come to the conclsion on my own, and from reading these posts, that the intent behind this competition is clearly to be able to provide ability to gain multiple entries from a songwriter if the works are fitting for the competition. Obviously they would not have added a large neon-like button that would suggest we enter another song (for another 10 dollar fee) unless they meant for us to do just that. An earlier post was correct, they were, indeed, “deliberately vague” in chosen word structure. The “new upload” button at the end of your upload process speaks plenty for itself.

  24. ok, i can’t seem to find the explicit rules and regulations for the contest, all i can find is the one for the website and it does not look like anything other than website liability stuff….where is this info? can someone post a link to the contest legal rules?

  25. How do you know that your previous entry isn’t made null by oploading another one? I want to upload other songs of mine but I am afraid that my prior entry will be overwritten.

  26. The terms and conditions of the American Idol songwriting competition are, for whatever reason, a pain to find. Going back to try to find that list of rules and regulations other than the website’s terms and conditions (which is easily found) is virtually impossible as of yet for me. I only recall seeing that specific set of terms available as you move through the motions of uploading a track. I believe they ask for payment near, or at, the very end of the upload process, so try logging in to act as if you are uploading another track to get to the rules and regulations you are referring to. No transaction that I am aware of involving money is complete without payment, so just don’t provide a means of payment (but still do so at your own risk, as there has been nothing but apparent speculative intent to prove we are allowed to upload multiple songs). Hope this helps Jeffery!


    If they are only going to take one submission, chances are it will be your first. With intelligent people sitting around a table, one of them is bound to speak up and say “The songwriters were unaware of the ‘upload another track’ button until they got to that point, so they obviously were submitting their top song first, with no prior knowledge that there was the possibility of uploading another one. That is just how I see it though.

    Anyone else care to have a say at that?

  27. I’m going to close comments on this post, since we’re talking about this on the newer post, here:

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