Random Thoughts From A Songwriter: Winner Is ?
Singing Contest: “And the Winner Is” By Lonnie Ratliff: I have never been a big fan of singing contests, but with American Idol, Nashville Star and Colgate Country Showdown, along with numerous other contests, producing such a large amount of our top selling country artists today, I have had to reevaluate my position on this. I have to say that the bigger contests, where millions of real fans end up choosing the winners by their phone in votes, beat the heck out of the way it has always been done. Until these big contests became so influential, future stars were brought into the business by music lawyers, managers or some other movers and shakers on Music Row who had never been more than a mile or two away from 16th Avenue in twenty years. They have always tried to convince us that they know what America wants to hear, while glossing over the fact that they were all right there in agreement saying that Garth Brooks just didn’t have what it takes and instead of wasting their valuable time he should just pack his bags and head on back to Yukon, Oklahoma.
Another thing that contests like American Idol do is bring in an artist with enough clout after winning that they are not going to be able to manipulate that artist away from the music they want to do. I would imagine the discussion would go something like this when you have a big winner like Carrie Underwood come into Nashville to sign with a major label after winning American Idol. The all knowing producer and label head probably tells her they are ready to sign her, but they plan on cutting a Polkaalbum or maybe a Tejano album on her because they “feel” that is what will really fit her voice and will sell. This is when Ms. Underwood would more than likely inform them that she has over six million fans who voted for her the way she is and are out there at this very moment with their credit cards just waiting to buy 6 million of her CD’s, and they want them to sound like the Carrie Underwood they voted for. This will probably be the end of the label’s plans for artistic control because they know she can walk across the street to their competition and sign a deal with no strings attached. I am guessing this is about the time that all discussions of making Carrie Underwood into a Music Row created image would be shelved.
I remember when I first came to Nashville, there was one of the older, retired music executives that said the music business needed to get back to doing their jobs before they ruined the business. It was his belief that singers should sing, songwriters write, publishers publish, producers produce records and the labels sell the records. That way you have the best people working at all levels and don’t let the “Peter Principle” kill your careers and business because you got a little too greedy.
Now getting back to the subject at hand, as an artist, getting to the finals of one of these big singing contests is a monumental task to say the least. You are probably going to do a lot of smaller contests to get there or maybe have to attempt the bigger contests more than once. This is going to mean you need to understand how contests work and how little control you have over anything they do or what they decide. Always keep in mind that any artist can look good as a winner, but a real “star” even looks good when they lose. Put winning out of your mind and sing for the crowd. Just tell yourself that you don’t have a prayer in Hades of winning but you are going to have fun and leave that contest with some new fans. There is no way I can write the following into a readable paragraph so I will just list some of the things I have picked up on over the years from being around singing contests.
1. Someone is making money off this contest, and they probably could care less who wins or loses most of the time. They just want to put the butts in the seats and sell some booze and hot dogs..
2. When it is all said and done, let’s face it, it is mostly a popularity contest at some level or the other – not something to be taken very seriously, much like those online charts and contests, where you harass all your family, friends and totally innocent strangers into going to vote for you. Serious artists don’t put much stock in the end results. At least in the singing contests, there’s a chance you can make more fans than enemies.
3. There is going to be at least one local favorite who has brought enough fans and family to the venue to raise the roof when they walk out on stage. Don’t try to compete with him or her on a personal level but instead say something to their fans like ” I met him or her earlier today and they seem to be a very nice person and I predict they are going to have a great future in country music.” This takes you out of the fans’ line of sight because you said something nice about their hero. Now they will get back to cheering on their hero and hating every other singer in the contest except you.
4. Judges: Every contest is normally decided by about 3 judges. This is very important for you to understand and will make losing a lot easier (keep in mind that my article is not intended to teach you how to win a contest, but just how to survive and keep from making a fool of yourself if and when you lose.) Remember in all contests, if you replaced one of the judges you would change the winner. Once again, this is something you have absolutely no control over. One of these judges is usually a local DJ, one may be a music teacher or music professional of some kind, a contest winner from a previous year and maybe a songwriter or maybe just someone who is a big country music fan. There is no way you can know what kind of music they will all like because they will be all over the map with their opinions. Don’t gear your performance to something you think will get them to vote for you. I know this is a worn out cliché, but just be yourself. OK, this is something you probably never thought of before, so keep it in mind before you go bad mouthing off at the judges after they make some idiotic decision, which sooner or later they will do if you keep entering contests. These judges all have something to do with the music that goes on in your community, and some of them are probably on the fair and festival boards that decide who gets hired to play at the county fair, the blackberry festival or the annual cow chip throwing contest. They are the people in your area who will get called when someone needs a band for a wedding or a family reunion. These people are going to be in your life for a long time more than likely, and they have long memories. You should always try to remember that probably 95% of the people you meet when you are out there singing can’t do a thing in the world to help you out but 100% of the people you meet have the ability to say something that can hurt your career. Don’t give them a reason to dislike you.
5. Song choice: Please think about this before you do the current favorite contest song. What I am calling “contest songs” are those songs that get sung at every contest from “Desperado” to “Wind Beneath My Wings,” “Crazy” or “Broken Wing.” If you are the only one who sings one of these contest songs in the competition then you are only competing with the artist who had the “hit” with that song. If you are the second one who sings it, you are competing with the other contestant that sang it plus the original artist. If you are the third one in the contest to sing it, the judges are going to be so sick of hearing that song, it may not make any difference how well you sing it because they have already tuned you out.
6. Band: You have to remember this, there’s no use getting mad at the band no matter what happens. They are as proud of playing their instrument as you are of your singing, and they did not get up that morning and plan on messing up your song. The odds are they don’t even know who you are. If they miss a chord in your song, get it too fast or slow or make some other mistake, it is just that, a mistake, and it’s just the luck of the draw that it happened on your performance. You can minimize this by choosing simpler songs that they will probably be more familiar with. If you plan on making a career in singing, you are probably going to have to play in your local area to start out, and let’s face it, there’s not an unlimited supply of good pickers around, and the bands at these contests are usually made up of the best pickers available. You are more than likely going to be working with them again or some of them may end up being in your personal band someday. Not a good idea to throw a hissy fit and burn a bridge today that you will need tomorrow. If the band makes a mistake, whoever did it already feels bad enough, so just let it go at that.
7. Be really careful about attempting to get any audience participation for your singing at one of these events. A lot of those people out there in the audience want someone else besides you to win. Maybe it’s their brother, girlfriend or grandson, so that old “Let’s all put our hands together and clap along to this song” or “help me out when we get to the chorus” suggestion has a real good chance of falling flat on its face. This is not worth taking the chance I would say. This next one is probably the kiss of death. Please don’t seed the crowd with a few of your fans and have them try to instigate a standing ovation by standing up at the end of your song. If you live to be a hundred years old, you will probably never forget the humiliation you feel when this ingenious plan goes down the crapper, taking you and your former friends with it. Just don’t even think about doing it.
8. When it is all over and you’ve lost to some little no-singing twit who is the niece of one of the judges, which eventually is going to happen, you will be at that point in your career where they test the metal and see what you are really made of. How you conduct yourself at this moment is going to tell you if you have what it takes to be a Garth Brooks or a Dolly Parton. Most of the losers in these contests, as soon as the winner is announced, will take their hurt feelings and damaged egos and hit the door, getting out of there as fast as they can. The real winners that night, and I don’t mean the one who gets the trophy and the check, will be the singers who congratulate the winner and go introduce themselves to the judges and tell them they’re glad they weren’t the ones that had to pick the winners because there was a lot of great talent on that stage. No need to be phony about anything, just adopt the attitude that the contest is over and done with and move on to your next obstacle. Walk around in the crowd, and if some fan comes up and tells you they think you should have won because you were the best singer in the contest, just laugh and tell them you are going to try to get them a job as judge next time and that it is worth more than any trophy to just hear them say they liked your singing. Most singers won’t be able to do this, and that is one reason why artists like Garth and Dolly don’t come along every day.That’s about all the things I can remember about singing contests off the top of my head, so now I will tell you a little anecdotal story about a singing contest that I am familiar with.
Erin Hay told me she was going to enter a singing contest awhile back that they were having at the Little Nashville Opry in Nashville, Indiana, and I was more than a little surprised because she never showed any interest in being in a singing contest. I asked her why the change of heart? She said that she wasn’t interested in competing or winning the contest, but she wanted to use it as an audition so the club owners could hear her sing and maybe she could get a job playing at the club. The Little Nashville Opry caters to a more traditional country crowd, and that is exactly the kind of music Erin sings for those not familiar with her. Erin said she had figured out that they would have a good back-up band there to play for the contestants and that most of the singers in the contest would be playing the more modern country songs that were on the radio, so she would just go sing a couple of old country standards, and though she didn’t figure she had a shot at winning, the club owners could hear that she sang the kind of music their regular crowd liked and maybe she could get a gig singing there. Erin said it was a typical contest and sure enough everyone except her sang the current radio hits. Four different girls sang Martina McBride’s “Broken Wing,” and when it was Erin’s turn, she just sang the old Leroy Van Dyke standard “Walk On By” and Jack Greene’s “There Goes My Everything.” The back-up band was the regular house band from the Little Nashville Opry, so they had probably played those two songs thousands of times, and they really sounded good. She said as soon as she finished singing, she located the club owner and got to talking to her about maybe coming up there and playing a regular gig. Not anticipating she would place even a distant third, she said she almost fainted when they announced she was the winner of the contest. Erin said she will always suspect they gave it to her just because she didn’t sing “Broken Wing.” The icing on the cake was that night they hired her to come back and open a show for one of her idols from the Grand Ole Opry, Connie Smith. She also got $500 for first place. That was her one and only singing contest as far as I know.
Used with kind permission from Lonnie Ratliff firstname.lastname@example.org