One year ago today, I wrote about why I wasn't submitting to the NPR Tiny Desk Contest. I was actually afraid to publish the post. I feared my opinion would be unpopular, and that there would be backlash.
The post ended up being surprisingly popular, quickly becoming the highest traffic moment I've ever had, both on social media and on my website.
I guess my disillusionment resonated with more people than I thought.
Everything I wrote then still holds true for me, and I'm not here to regurgitate. Here's the original post, if you're interested.
Still, the earth has traveled around the sun once more, and once more Bob Boilen and company are inviting all ye hardworking musicians of the trenches to setup your cameras, sit behind a desk, and shoot for your moment of stardom.
And I've realized I still have some unsaid thoughts on the matter.
Mostly, I've been reflecting on the music contests (NPR and otherwise) I've submitted to over the years. I've thrown my hat in my fair share of contests. Now that I've made a very public stance against them, I sometimes wonder: were all the contests I ever entered bad? Was entering always a waste of time?
Upon reflection, I realized that the answer contains a paradox.
Some undeniably good things came out of the contests I entered. The first time I ever made recordings of my music was so I could enter a contest. The same goes for press shots and videos. Over the years, contests forced me to hustle out improvements to my website, campaign on social media, and build my mailing list with greater fever than usual. I can honestly say that entering these contests moved me forward, even though I didn't win them.
So why stop entering them, if they've been useful in the past? This is the shortest answer I can come up with:
Contests moved me forward in the past because they forced me to take action that any serious musician should already be taking.
Contests didn't help me because I won them— they helped me because they gave me a swift kick in the pants to DO something. Something that I could have, should have been doing all along. Something that would move my music forward whether or not I won a prize or a tour or a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity. This is where the paradox of contests begins:
If a contest is causing you to take action you wouldn't otherwise take, you're probably not what they're looking for.
If you need a contest to put out new content to your listeners, or finally create an email list, or write a new song, then it's probably fair to say that you aren't taking consistent, determined action on your music. If you're not taking consistent, determined action, then it's also fair to say that you're not really taking your music seriously. And if you're not taking your music seriously, why would a panel of judges?
Note: I say the above with no judgement. I have been in this position more often than not. Learning to take my own music-making seriously is an ongoing process, and I fall short on a regular basis.
Now for the other part of the paradox. As you may know, I have quite publicly announced my intention to write, record, and release a new song and video every week this year. Given this commitment, it would be all too easy for me to make one of these weekly videos do double duty as an NPR Tiny Desk Contest Submission. Just sit behind a desk and hit record, right? I'm going to make the video either way, right?
But here's the thing I've learned: once you start taking that consistent, determined action that contests used to inspire, two interesting things begin to happen.
If you're already taking consistent, determined action to grow the reach of your music, the contest will lose its appeal.
A few final thoughts on the reason these contests exist in the first place:
There's nothing wrong with the people at NPR or the Tiny Desk Contest, or with marketing and positioning for that matter. Still, it's important to know that who they target with their marketing and who they're looking to pick as a winner are two very different subjects.
The Tiny Desk Contest marketing is geared toward unknown bands and artists seeking their big break. Bands so under the radar that the definition could include every human with a laptop and a ukulele. Boiled down to two words: Undiscovered Talent.
Is that really who they're looking for? Yes and no. Yes, the attention of the unwashed-aspiring-musician-masses is what the Tiny Desk Contest ultimately seeks. No, undiscovered talent isn't the primary factor in the winner they choose. How could it be? Undiscovered Talent is the largest possible common denominator: it will never be in true demand on its own.
So what are they looking for in their winners? Boiled down to two words: Exceptional Stories. Look at their past winners for the proof. Does your band have a truly exceptional story? Do you personally? Probably not. I sure don't. That doesn't make us bad musicians, it just means we probably aren't gonna win this one, no matter what desk we play behind.
But of course, the people at NPR really want you to believe you will win. That's why undiscovered talent is their catchphrase. And at the heart of it, that's the whole point of the contest.
It's not about lifting some unknown singer out of the masses and helping them achieve instant fame and fortune. It's about something much more practical.
They want you, your sweaty bass player, and your Facebook friends to know that NPR Tiny Desk Concerts are a thing. They want you to tune in and care. Ultimately, they probably want you to pledge so you can get a tote bag. They want to remain a tastemaker in the world of American musical elitism, and they need listeners to do that. Appealing to the desires of aspiring musicians is the best way for them to secure a younger listening audience. Your ears are the ears they're after.
That's fine. Listen to the concerts (as I do). Love NPR. Pledge. Get that tote bag. And then get back to that consistent, determined action that is its own reward.
Fellow musicians, let's play the long game.
Speaking of the long game, did I mention I'm releasing a new song and video this week? And next week? And every week for the rest of the year? If you want these creations delivered straight to your inbox, sign up below: