Saturday, July 5, 2014

My Judging Criteria for SpinTunes 9

For the first time in forever, William Hoover actually asked me if we were going to compete in Spintunes. And I'd have really loved to compete in ST9 except for the fact that I've got some personal business coming up that may preclude that. I don't like to promise what I can't deliver. However, I will be judging with William's help, and this time I have the Judge's badge to prove it ;)

Made by Michael Carroll's Badger software.

We usually like to start off with an introduction and some indication of what we look for so that the contestants know where they can take risks. Normally I put that in my first reviews, but I think I'll give you a week's warning this time. Understanding that all judges are different and have their own tastes, here are a few of Dr. Lindyke's slightly self-contradictory criteria.
  1. It's all about the challenge. If it's stated, it's typically required, unless it specifically says not. I don't care if you're John Williams, Mozart, or Michael Jackson; if you didn't meet the challenge you will be ranked at the bottom of my pile. I don't care if the other judges choose not to disqualify you. My first, utmost concern is "did you give us what we asked for?"  Just make sure you hit the intent of the challenge. Now, that doesn't mean you can't get clever. The title isn't part of the challenge, and anything that's not forbidden or required is optional. Often that means that a HUGE risk is better than a little one. I'd rather see somebody surprise me with wild creativity than see them obviously explaining away the challenge. Avoiding the challenge for the sake of being 'clever' isn't clever, it's suicide. For Pete's sake, take the risks, but make sure they're worth the possibility of failure.
  2. It's all about the song. By that I mean it's about the composition, not the production. I know there are other competitions that are looking for some kind of polished radio-worthy output, but this is a songwriting competition. Generally speaking, if I can imagine your song produced in a way that is really, really appealing to me, I'll rate it highly. I've done it before, and gone on to cover the song, too! (hmm. I need to remaster that) That's no assurance that I'll like a crappily produced song, and certainly no guarantee that any other judge will rate your composition above your performance, but for my own part I will shine that ray of hope. That said, there are a lot of songs in the first couple of rounds, so it's asking a lot of the judges to interpret your songs. You'll do yourself a favor if you do your very best to get the idea across on your own, because I can't guarantee I'll "get it" every time
  3. Production still counts. I personally don't much care about production, but production is a factor. To me that's not contradictory. I've done this enough times to know that especially in the later rounds the differences in quality between songs is infinitesimal. If your song is just as good as the other artist's, and she performed hers better, then she gets the edge. Sorry, them's the breaks. But I also take into account whether the production is appropriate to the song that was written. Basically, if you've got a really killer idea that sounds good with a washboard and kazoo, you're going to do OK with those instruments. So do a little honest introspection, look at your strengths, and write songs that play to those. One of the best examples I can think of here is Steve Durand's "A Beautiful Voice". After a couple of rounds of feedback on weak vocals, Steve was faced with a round in which no instruments could be used. His answer was sheer genius, and won the round:
  4. Genre doesn't matter.  Again, this goes for me alone. I don't care if it's Hip-Hop or Pop Rock or Folk or Baroque... I'll listen with open ears. Your choice of genre is one of those risks you take. Go far afield, and you'll stand out in either a good way or a bad way, and that's up to you. Generally speaking, I like good surprises, but I'm the weird judge. 
  5. Song biographies help. In an ideal world your song should stand on its own. But sometimes, and for some challenges more than others, it helps if the judge knows where your head was at when you wrote it. You have the opportunity to turn in a brief statement about what your song is about. Spin will publish that on the Bandcamp site along with the song. I read those. Even if only one judge does, I advise you to leverage every advantage you can get. Turn in a song bio, even if it's just a sentence like, "This is about a girlfriend who stole my dog." The more inside information in your song, the more this will help you.
  6. You WILL get constructive feedback... If I can find it. I'm not here to tear you down or tell you that you suck. Tastes differ. You are still OK even if I don't personally like your entry. And if I don't like the song, I'll try to tell you why if I can put it in words. And you should know this... if I don't rate your song highly, but you get a lot of feedback, you should take that as a compliment. It means I listened to you a lot and saw potential there that deserved comment. If your song just flat-out sucked it doesn't take a lot of words to tell you why. In the past I've noticed myself giving special attention to "concept" songs that were a bit too ambitious (see #3).
That's all I can think of for now. With that in mind, the current challenge is:
Imaginational Anthem - Write a new anthem for a fictional country. (examples: Gondor, Utopia, Narnia, Val Verde,  Freedonia) (2 minute minimum length) (your submission is due Sunday, July 13th 11:59PM)
I know there were questions on interpretation, but honestly folks, this one's not complicated. You know the sort of countries for which anthems are written. Examples are examples, not rules... if they can be "interpreted" more than one way, then they should always be interpreted in accordance with the actual challenge given. Weigh your risks, get creative, do your best, and good luck.

Some folks quantify their rankings with some scoring system. It can be simple or complicated, like breaking it down by lyricism, musicality, performance, etc. I've tried that, but I don't do it any more. Why? Because all of the scoring of the individual criteria...? They're subjective, too. And as it turns out, musicality isn't necessarily as important in one song as it is in another. Neither is any other category. 
Even when responding to the same challenge, songwriters attack the problem from completely different places, with completely different mindsets. I personally have found my own attempts at "objective" scoring to be a Procrustean bed, so I've discarded it. 
Instead what you get is my holistic judgement, for better or worse. 

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