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If You Don't Win, You Can Still Play: 
Thoughts on Song Contests

by Lynn Harrison
© 2001 Lynn Harrison. Printed with permission. All Rights Reserved.

Last week I won a song contest. Actually, I was one of two runners-up, which was almost as good as winning. Wow, did I feel great. I had arrived. Some high-up authority figure said my music was not only good, it was better than lots of other people's music. Hallelujah!

But this week, I lost a song contest. I didn't even make the list of nominations. I found myself angry at the judges, jealous of the winners, and worse, critical of myself and doubting my talent.

Not coincidentally, I haven't felt much like writing songs. Not this week, and strangely enough, not last week either. Why is that? Could that be that in the excitement of entering contests, I've lost sight of why I make music in the first place?

Contests are seductive to independent musicians. They offer a rare opportunity to be singled out from the throng and to potentially get paid large sums of money. They offer prestige, affirmation and the closest thing to professional credentials many of us will ever get.

Entering usually takes some money but very little effort. To enter a contest, you don't have to play for an hour in a smoky club at 1:00 a.m., you just have to upload your MP3 and enter your Visa number. Then, as the John Lennon Songwriting Contest says, "just imagine".

Imagine you'll get discovered. Imagine you'll get famous. Imagine Bonnie Raitt will cover your song and you'll get fabulously rich. All this imagining is fun, but it doesn't make for very interesting music.

There were many differences between the two contests I entered. The one I "won" was relatively local with a few hundred entries. The one I "lost" was international and very big with thousands of entries. Obviously, my odds were better with the first one. But there was another important difference.

I succeeded in the contest that originated close to home, not in Nashville. In my own community, and at my own neighborhood stage, my songs are known and loved by a loyal and growing audience. When a song is shared among friends and people are moved, everybody wins. If I don't win the 'big' contest, does that make me a loser? Not if I pick up my guitar, write another song, and play it for someone.

Songwriting contests can be a boost to our egos and our careers, but ruthless competition is harmful to the spirit. Sure, you can't win if you don't play. But the playing comes first…the winning second.

Born in Dallas, TX, Lynn Harrison grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba and started writing songs when she was 12. After moving to Toronto for a career in broadcasting, she continued to write and perform. Since 1998 she's been working almost exclusively as a singer-songwriter, winning honours in the 1999 Unisong competition and receiving both national and regional airplay on radio and tv for numerous songs from "Lynoleum", her first album. Produced by acclaimed Canadian musician David Woodhead, the album highlights Lynn's accessible and engaging vocals, insightful urban lyrics and hook-laden melodies.
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