Songwriting Contest Secrets: Entry Fee as Red Flag?

If you type the words “songwriting contest” into Google, you’re going to come back with close to a million entries. And that number is growing all the time. Too many scam artists are realizing that it’s far too easy to convince a songwriter to part with her money on the assumption that she’ll get “found.”

Songwriting contests are similar in some ways to the poetry competitions that are often exposed either as scams or as thinly veiled excuses for folks to buy overpriced vanity books. The idea that you could be “discovered” and effectively win the songwriting lottery is a pretty powerful magnet. It’s a lot easier to hear that Norah Jones might pick up your lyric sheet than to hear that you’ve got to hone your craft and write a song a day to really get the attention of Nashville publishing types.

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And here’s a good question to ask when it comes to figuring out whether the songwriting contest you’re thinking about entering is a legitimate opportunity or a shady scam:

Where do they get their money?

In general, the higher the entry fee, the more likely a songwriting contest is fraudulent. My personal rule of thumb is that an entry fee over $50 starts making me nervous. Here’s a rundown of the entry fees from legitimate songwriting contests:

• American Idol Songwriter: $10
• John Lennon Songwriting Contest: $30
• Billboard Song Contest: $30
• USA Songwriting Competition: $35
NSAI / Country Music Television: $40

As you can see, entry fees of $30-$35 are pretty much the norm. Those fees usually cover overhead expenses, like salaries, postage, and office space. Sponsors often provide the prizes, which can include gear, software, personal services, and other fun things. (We’ll talk about sponsors in tomorrow’s post.)

Most legitimate songwriting contests are actively endorsed or conducted by a well-known organization or media outlet. Remember that just because a logo is on a contest’s website, it doesn’t mean that they’re really involved — make sure you can find some promotion somewhere on the parent company’s website or in their other marketing material.

Of course, the real lure for entering any songwriting contest is the opportunity to get your song heard by industry professionals. Winners and finalists of many legitimate songwriting contests often enjoy at least a little connection with some industry honchos. For example, the NSAI cash prize is very small, but the prize also includes a networking session in Nashville.

In general, legitimate songwriting contests do not have enough staff or time to provide individual song critiques. And that brings us to a gray area: song critique services that frame themselves up as contests.

While not illegal, it’s a little dicey to call your song critique service a “contest.” I imagine it’s simply easier to market your service if there are prizes attached. And because songwriting contests are, inherently, based on skill, they do not run afoul of interstate lottery laws. So it’s very easy to run a very subjective “contest” that makes lots of people winners and encourages them to enter again and again. If you notice that a songwriting competition seems to invite you to enter again and again (on a monthly basis, even), it might not have the kind of industry traction you’re looking for in a contest.

There are plenty of legitimate song critique services that charge for quality services, but there are also plenty of places you can get good advice for free, like Just Plain Folks or our own discussion boards. It really doesn’t take years of industry experience to identify a great song, otherwise nobody would be allowed to operate a radio or an iPod.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, be wary of “free” contests. A number of these contests impose bizarre restrictions on entrants, even to the point of claiming total ownership of catalog and copyright in exchange for “exposure.” Remember that “exposure” and a dollar still won’t get you a free latte at *$. This was a big concern of our readers when the American Idol contest launched, until we all had enough time to wade through the mice type terms and conditions.

Finally, use common sense when reviewing songwriting competitions. Check out our bulletin boards, or perform a search for artists who have entered the contest you’re thinking about. If an entry fee is over $50, find out who has won previous contests. If you don’t like the winners’ songs very much, it’s safe to assume you won’t get very much out of entering.

Tomorrow, how to really tell if a contest sponsor is legit, or if they’re just a pawn. Friday, I’ll post about whether all those judges you see listed on songwriting contest websites are really poring through your entries.

20 responses

  1. Do you know anything about is that a legit organization? I know for some indie artists it is how you can be heard by different festivals, but just thought I would ask.

  2. SonicBids is legit, though you shouldn’t rely on it as being the only way to submit material to talent buyers. It’s quite convenient for contest and festival coordinators, though.

  3. Joe – your article mentions to steer away from the “free” songwriting contests.

    There is/was a Geffen songwriting contest listed on your site (I believe for a kid’s movie?). I looked at it last week and the contract/agreement seemed a bit fishy. This looked to be sponsored by a major record label. Does this fall into your “cautionary” category?

  4. As with any legal contract, I would certainly show it to an attorney if I had questions. I think I know which one you’re talking about, and I chalk that up to a really poorly written T&C — so poorly written that I would probably advise clients to not make submissions. But I don’t get the vibe that they’re song sharks. Just skimped on the legal fees.

    Also, a good time to bring up our advertising policy. We try not to get too involved unless we know for certain that an advertiser is deliberately scamming our folks, then we boot ’em:

  5. What do you know about The Great American Song Contest? Is it legit?

  6. Great American Song Contest is a good way to get some feedback about your stuff. Entry fee is under $50, and there are some good folks attached to it. Just don’t go into it believing you will get “discovered” — you will get some good guidance and coaching, though.

    1. they say they offer, as prizes, tons of promotional tools. they also offer every entrant feedback on their songz.
      I came here to see if it was legitim4te too though. I don’t want to be throwing money and especially don’t want to be throwing away one of my brilliant (imo) tracks with no potential return.

  7. Thanks for this article, I really appreciate the info. Once we enter a song in one contest are we restricted from entering the song in another contest?

  8. It’s up to the contest rules. Some contests will stipulate that you cannot enter the same song in other contests. Others request that you only enter a song in other contests after you learn that you have not won. It’s totally the preference of the contest organizer.

  9. I have entered these competitions before and would say they are a waste of time. I think you may get lucky and win a prize but I bet they listen never to your material. After all, who has the time to filter through all the entries.

    Also if you check out the web-stats ( on these organisation you will soon find that the traffic they have coming to their site is very minimal; so your never going to get any real exposure here; so only the songwriters are the ones parting with their money and keeping these guys in buisness. Afterall, yes we all want a break!

    Don’t bother unless you think your feeling lucky!

  10. […] advisable to do some research to determine whether the contests you are thinking about entering are legitimate opportunities or shady scams. Cash prizes for winning these contests range around a few thousand […]

  11. Mary Larson Avatar
    Mary Larson

    I entered the great american song contest, I sent in a lyrics only entry with $30.00 and I am waiting for some feed back from them. I tried to contact them using the e-mail provided by them but it doesn’t seem to work. Do you know how to get in contact with them?
    Sincerely, Mary Larson

    1. Don’t really know, Mary. But it does look like they’re in the middle of a judging cycle that ends with the announcement of a new round of awards in March. That, plus the holidays, could be why they’re not getting back to you. I’d keep trying to reach them, though.

  12. Hey, great post Joe! I found this very helpful. do
    you know anything about the International Songwriting competition
    (ISC)? They seem legit, but I wanted a second

    1. They’re good people over at the ISC. Like the other contests profiled here, manage your expectations. ISC spotlights dozens of winners every year, and you may not get very much feedback. But it’s a decent way to hold yourself accountable to finishing some new work to share with the judges.

  13. vernon james Avatar
    vernon james

    the name of my track is called i adore

  14. Mr. Taylor, very nice outfit you’re running here. Thanks! I entered the John Lennon Songwriting contest and am still waiting for their decision this March. Are they for real? Since I read your article, I can’t seem to sleep anymore. I worry too much.

    1. They’re definitely for real, Ricky. But I’d work on getting some shut-eye if they’re still more than six weeks away from announcing winners.

  15. I entered a song at Do you know anything about them? Thanks The entry fee was $35.00

  16. Excellent info. It’s good that somebody is warning us about the hidden pitfalls of the song writing competitions. Thanks, keep up the good work 🙂