A Primer on the Top Songwriting Contests

Songwriting competitions are a very popular way for amateur songwriters to have their music heard. For a writer that may or may not perform, a competition that is not based on performance offers a great opportunity to be judged solely on the writing. But how advantageous are songwriting competitions? What are the pros and cons of entering? Writers are over and over again dismayed when they enter a competition, win, and then realize they have handed over all or part of the song’s rights unknowingly when they neglected to read the fine print in the rules. In this article, I look at the advantages and disadvantages of a few major songwriting competitions. While my list is not complete, it includes all of the major competitions.

American Idol
There is a $10 entry fee. This is actually pretty reasonable when compared with other songwriting contests. You have to be a resident of the USA. While this makes sense–it is, after all, American Idol– it does exclude, for example, songwriters from Canada, the UK. While 19 Entertainment doesn’t claim all of the rights to the winning song, they do claim the broadcasting rights if the song makes it to the Top 20 round, the point at which it is shown on TV. You will not get sync royalties either, but it does save contestants and everyone involved a lot of paperwork and legal issues. And the upside is that if you win, you get an advance of $10,000 against 75% of those royalties at source—and that is 75% without consideration to how many parties share in those royalties. This is something songwriters usually have to negotiate hard for.

John Lennon Scholarship Awards

The John Lennon Scholarship, set up by Yoko Ono, does not ask for an application fee. This is a pretty straightforward competition with little fine print, although the one stipulation is that you can’t have had anything that has been commercially released or distributed. That means that anyone who has ever been in a band that played original music and recorded an EP or album that was sold, even on a small scale, is ineligible. Also, only students attending certain schools are eligible to apply. The good thing is that the writer retains all rights to his or her song with the exception of the winning composition. In this case, BMI reserves the right to license up to three public performances (and the commissioning of suitable arrangements to accompany), posting the song on the website as an example work and a compilation CD for promotion. There can be no more than 12 copies of this CD made. Aside from those three things, the writer of the winning song retains all rights.

John Lennon Songwriting Competition

The John Lennon Songwriting Competition charges an entrance fee of $30 per song submitted. This entrance fee is reasonable if you’re only submitting one song, but if you decide to submit two or more songs, things start to add up. As far as rights go, the writer retains the rights to his or her song. However, the fine print says that “entry constitutes permission to use winner’s names, likenesses, and voices for future advertising and publicity purposes without additional compensation.” In other words, if you win, The John Lennon Songwriting Competition has full rights to use you as their poster child for as long as they want without giving you anything but the winnings of the competition. And speaking of winnings, everyone who places in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest receives their monies in the form of product, with the exception of the Lennon Award winner, who receives $20,000 in cash for the Maxell Song of the Year on top of product. For a self-motivated songwriter who is determined to make a career for him or herself, and is a runner-up, this can be useful, because it gives access to tools that may otherwise be more expensive. In general, though, the contest may not spawn with cash your songwriting career.


Of all the major songwriting competitions, the Eurovision contest is the most complicated to enter. The participating broadcaster from the country that won the previous year hosts this televised competition. Forty-eight countries competed this year, with guaranteed spots in the finals to the champion country, plus Germany, Spain, France and the United Kingdom. Nine other finalist countries are determined by ranking from the previous year. Every participating broadcaster has to be a member of the European Broadcasting Union and each participating broadcaster chooses one artist. The manner in which said artist is chosen is left for each individual broadcaster to decide, so entry fees and such are different for every country. The one thing that absolutely has to be consistent is that artists must verify that neither their song nor their lyric has been commercially released or publicly performed before October of the previous year. The part about not having songs that have been commercially released makes a lot of sense, but Eurovision doesn’t make it clear what they consider to be “public.” Do small performances like open mics count, or just larger performances where the artist is paid? Probably the latter.
Once the 24 artists are chosen, the winner is determined by a series of televised performances followed by call-in voting. Voters judge based on the performance and the song. Voters are not allowed to vote for the artist from their country of origin, which is designed to make a tie less likely, but does not account for the fact that some artists probably have a large fan base in their country of origin and might win on that count. Record companies, in fact, sign artists because of their local fan base. Eurovision, however, is a multinational contest.

International Songwriting Competition

The International Songwriting Competition (ISC) charges an entrance fee of $35 per song entered. Like the John Lennon Songwriting Contest, this adds up quickly. However, if you win, or even place, there is a fairly large cash prize involved (you will be taxed, though, by the US government). “The Grand Prize winner will receive US $25,000 cash and $20,000 in merchandise and services. 1st place category winners will receive $3,000 in merchandise and services…” and so on. Regarding the payment of those prizes, ISC rules and regulations state that if a winning writer does not receive his or her prize within 180 days or doesn’t respond to their communications, the prize is forfeited. A simple call of complaint can remedy such a thing if winnings aren’t received in a timely manner. The contest is open to everyone, professional or amateur, from any part of the world. As long as you own the rights to your song, you can submit it. Concerning rights to the submitted works, the policy is that “entrant retains all ownership rights to all submitted songs.” The only thing ISC asks for is the right to include all winning songs on a compilation CD used for promotion only. This CD is sent to A&R, press, radio, and other media–which helps you.

American Songwriter Lyric Writing Contest

There is a $10 entry fee. Again, in the scheme of things, $10 is very reasonable. American Songwriter gives you a free yearlong subscription to the magazine if you enter two lyrics, but the $20 is actually about even with the $19.95 you would spend on the magazine, so you’re really just trading two lyrics for a magazine subscription. This contest is open to amateur songwriters only. American Songwriter defines amateur as someone who has not earned $5,000 in royalties, advances or work for hire. While this does level the playing field a bit, the magazine is more than likely excluding a fairly large portion of its readership. American Songwriter doesn’t claim any rights to the lyric except to print the winning lyrics in the magazine. The magazine also takes the time to warn writers (in the fine print) that if a submitted work is not copyrighted and is stolen as a result, it claims no responsibility. Simply put, the best way to get around this is to register your song with the Copyright Office. Like submissions to any other competition, if people in the industry are hearing your work, it should already be copyrighted. So take care of business.

By Sara Richardson

“American Songwriter Lyric Contest.”
“2007 ISC Rules and Regulations.” http://www.songwritingcompetition.com/rules.htm
“Extracts from the rules for the 2007 Eurovision Song Contest.”
“International Songwriting Competitions Frequently Asked Questions.”
“The John Lennon Songwriting Contest: 2007 Rules and Regulations.”
Taylor, Joe. “American Idol Songwriter Contest Rules Reviewed.”

American Idol Songwriter Contest Rules Reviewed



3 Replies to “A Primer on the Top Songwriting Contests”

  1. On the occasion of the 10th Edition of the Italian Songwriting Contest “Musica Controcorrente”, a European On-line Contest has been launched. It is open to all songwriters coming from one of the 28 Countries of the European Union.
    The song submitted must be original and written in the contestant’s native european language.
    The wimmer/winners of the European On-line Contest will win a 3-day trip to Rome and perform on an important Italian stage, on July 20th 2014. Entries must be submitted by 28/2/2014.


  2. I might also mention SongDoor, which is open to amateurs and professionals worldwide. The entry fee is only $10 per song (as it has been since 2006) and everyone who enters receives a free all-access trial to SongU.com, a free Broadjam membership and free songwriting software (different every year, for Mac and Windows), all worth around $170. There is no obligation whatsoever. It’s just free.

    We always offer free advice and recommendations to anyone who asks, and we have a very personal touch. Our objective is to help songwriters get their music heard by someone who can do something about it; we cannot, in good conscience, charge $35 or $50 an entry to subsidize our overhead. So we don’t. 🙂 We are also listed on ASCAP’s website, which endorses precious few competitions.

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