Anyway. Contests. We love 'em. So much so that everything we do seems to be pounded down with the heavy hammer of competition. But there are places where simple dignity warrants holding out against descent into the maelstrom of conflict, and my own chosen profession of songwriting has long stood, in my mind at least, as one of them. Cage-matching songs isn't just apples against oranges, it's apples against robot zombies from Venus or Russian easter eggs. Songs are organic, emergent, unique not only to their creation but to their time and place and style and intended use. Amongst other things.
Unsurprisingly, then, I'm usually put right off by songwriting contests. Of course, it's well to note that such events come in flavors, only some of them frankly and rankly foul upon the tongue. While Great American You Could Be The Next Star Search style pay-to-play stuff ranks right up there with Ponzi schemes in the Big Book Of Just You Wait, You, there's nothing particularly satanic about local folk festivals trying to help local folkies feel better. Still, for all the bonhomie cheeriness there remains that subtle yet distinctive aroma of Stuggle! For! Dominance! that casts an askance air on the whole proceeding.
On the other hand, considerations like these go out the window, baby, bathwater and all, when I decide to enter such a contest myself.
Back in the winter of my disconsolation there, ol' Post-Molecular Atomic Thaddeus was faced with a number of cruel choices regarding his chosen work. I could try to keep doing material I'd previously done with Amber Tide by myself, bouncing one-liners off the ghost of my former partner. I could come up with some variant on my tediously-acquired-over-thirty-years chatterbox style of presentation more suited to an aging widower than a young smartalec. Or I could always get out of the performing racket entirely and seek some more dignified way to celebrate my declining years.
Naturally, I took the path less taken, less dignified and less rational. I shaved off my folk-hippie mustache, grew a hipster soul-patch and went into jazz. When in doubt, take romantic self-mutilation, I always say. The weird part was when it actually started to work.
I'm not the czar of all the Russias when it comes to the art that Jelly rolled. I should know — I've been doing it long enough. But when I took my lumpen swing rhythm chords on 12-string and sub-Toots rack harmonica and mashed-potatoes standards repertoire out to my favorite open mike, the same open mike that gave polite but slightly uncomprehending golf-claps to my original songs, they fell. Right. Over. Ate it up with a spoon. They applauded the harp solos, for the love of sin!
It's a truism of the The Dreadful Profession that if you find something the audience likes, you're pretty much obliged to keep doing it. Whether or not I had The Jazz, I had sho'nuff lucked into something nasty and had the duty to run with it, at least as far as the nearest brick wall in this obdurate labyrinth we like to call the Music Biz. Okay, maybe "like" is too strong a word there.
Open mikes are all well and good, but to eat, a musician needs gigs. And to get gigs you need an act (duh), recordings and some PR, preferably with something to prove someone besides you, your SO and your mother has heard of you. And what looks good on PR? Winning songwriting contests, that's what. There just ain't anything else remotely resembling a Singer-Songwriter Accreditation Board on the scene.
Sigh. You can sit at home smoking your stinkin' pride or you can stub it out and wade into the polluted waters of GitItOn. Nose firmly pinched, I filled out the application for the Tumbleweed Songwriting Contest, a not-for-profit, artist-friendly enough to be accused of being cuddly offshoot of a charming festival in south central Washington. The theme this year was "Superstition." I sent in a song about religion. I would. They put me in the finals. They would. Maybe they were short on snark this year.
I could have stopped right there — just finalist was good enough for the PR. Paradoxically, "Finalist at the 2009 Tumbleweed Songwriting Contest" sounds so much better than "3rd place winner..." But creature of my culture that I am, I went in it to win it, polishing my little jewel to a ruddy glow for the big day. By the time I strode godlike upon the stage, I was as prepped as a third party candidate at a major debate, and just as doomed. I was flinging a novelty song at a folk competition, and it was inevitable that the judging would be skewed toward, y'know, folk songs.
I consider that aforementioned 3rd prize that I managed to snag as a career triumph. Not only did I get a generous (for a local festival) check (and not saddled with the gawdawful Grand Prize trophy, for which I have no shelf space whatever), I also won undisputed right to imprint the prestigious title "Award-winning songwriter Thaddeus Spae..." on any and every piece of PR, business correspondence and used underwear I chose to release.
I dunno — I've been a songwriter for over 40 years, churned out a good couple thousand of the turkeys, devoted my life etc. It's kinda nice to finally get some recognition, however local. But as I've previously suspected, it only came after a fundamental shift in my viewpoint that renders it somewhat irrelevant to what I initially wanted it for back in my potato salad days, namely ego-boo. Now it's just another tool in my business kit, a brace for my brand.
But like that man said, that's why it's called show biz, not show art.