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Competition Positions

Article from Phaze 1, June 1989

are rock competitions worth their salt? if you fancy your chances, read on...

It doesn't matter if it's the Eurovision Song Contest or the Chipping Sodbury Battle of the Bands, a rock competition offers young musicians a unique public platform. But is it the taking part or the winning that counts?

THE OPPOSITION WERE distinctly dodgy, but you played a blistering set. The singer sang her heart out, the rhythm section laid down a mean beat, and the guitar solos came out screaming. Yet somehow, you still managed to come last. How on earth did it happen?

Is it time you took a long, hard look at yourself and your music, and faced up to the realities of life as a milkman? Or can you put it all down to the mental deficiencies of the judging panel?

Well, it may be neither. It could be that you had everything going for you, but you blew it through bad planning and poor presentation.

And things could have been far worse. You may not even have got as far as playing — due to some oversight that was, likely as not, totally and utterly yours.

So what are the pros and cons of entering rock competitions? What's the best way of entering them? What do you do when you get there? And what chance, realistically, do you stand of winning?

The last question is one only you can answer. But armed with something like a Beginner's Guide to Playing in a Rock Competition, you could ensure you don't fall into any of the really obvious traps.

So here it is. A Beginner's Guide to Playing in a Rock Competition...


OBVIOUSLY YOU CAN'T enter a competition if you don't know it exists, so keep an eye on the local press and an ear on the local radio. In addition, the staff in local music stores often know what's going on in advance of the general public. Finally there are specialist magazines (like this one) which often contain news of national competitions, for which there are almost always regional heats.

If a competition appeals to you, obtain an entry form and a copy of the rules as soon as possible. Sounds obvious? You better believe it. Many bands miss out because they "leave it for a few weeks" and miss the entry date. And in a "first come, first served" situation, speed is vital. Remember that most local bands are crying out for the exposure of a well-publicised event, and as a result, most competitions are grossly over-subscribed.

Read the rules carefully and think about what they mean to your band. Is the amount of time for each set going to be enough? Are sequencers or backing tapes allowed? Is there a limit on the number of members in a band because of stage space considerations? And does the competition look like it's going to be strictly rock? If it does, think twice about taking the stage as an Acid House posse with a couple of turntables, a sampler, and a token "singer".

If everything looks cool, prepare your application carefully and make sure it's received in good time — if possible, deliver it to the organisers by hand. The music scene is pretty informal but no harm was ever done by submitting a clear entry form. Who knows? The guy who was impressed by your entry may also be one of the judges.

If photos are required, get them done properly. You may not be able to afford the services of a professional, but you deserve a bit better than mum's Polaroid. A good 35mm camera wielded by a semi-skilled friend will often do the trick, especially if you use black and white film.

For bigger competitions PR material will be requested, along with demo tapes. Be realistic. If you can't satisfy the entry requirements, the judges aren't looking for you in the first place.

Finally, be prepared to pay a deposit to the organisers. This ensures the bands that are selected to play do not fail to appear on the night. The organisers have probably put a lot of time and effort into getting the venue, PA, lights and press together, and they don't want it all ruined by a bunch of wasters who decide not to turn up.

If the competition has heats (as opposed to the "talent-nite" approach), your next job is to listen to the draw. What date is your heat? Is everybody available on the night? Just supposing you get through to the semis and then the finals, have you planned ahead for them? And what about the prizes? If the first prize (go on, be optimistic!) is money or musical equipment, you're laughing. But what if it's a recording contract, a management deal or, worst of all, a trip to Japan? Consider where winning may land you, because you may find yourself with commitments you'd rather avoid.

"Competition relies on opposition, and it's important to get on well with your rivals."


ASSUMING YOU'RE HAPPY with the price of success, how do you boost your chances? Begin by treating the competition as if it were your next gig. There are two prime factors to consider: music and image. Both of these need careful thought if you are going to impress anyone as a band, rather than just as a few friends with an ear for a tune.

Choose your songs carefully to make the best use of your allocated set time. Most competitions limit you to around 20 minutes, which isn't very long, so be direct. If possible, find out what sort of slant (musically speaking) there is to the competition, and what the judges are looking for.

Decide how important image is to your act. Gary Glitter gets away with murder, but if you turn up in flares and a long, flowing wig you might just look like an overdressed prat. Fancy yourselves as the next Guns N' Roses? Well, full-blown designer delinquency may not go down well at Eastbourne Town Hall in front of the Lady Mayoress (unless it's a heavy rock comp, in which case you know exactly what you're doing). So, think about your presentation. Does it suit your band's music? And is it suitable for the competition? Compromise a little if necessary. Nobody needs to get a bruised ego just because you conformed a little bit.

Even with the best preparation in the world, problems can arise. Find out from the organisers whether it's possible to change heats if necessary. (Believe me, drummers do smash their hands in car boots only seven days before your scheduled heat.) Find out what the regulations are regarding illness, and whether stand-ins are allowed. And check whether you can introduce musicians not on the original entry form.

Before you know it, it's competition night. What time should you arrive? The doors might open at eight, but there might be ten bands playing. They all have a soundcheck (you better hope there's a soundcheck!), lights have to be set, equipment sorted out, change-overs planned. It's easy to underestimate the amount of planning and time needed to stage an event of this sort, so if your instructions say be there at four — be there! If you miss your soundcheck you'll not only put yourself at a disadvantage, but also label yourselves as a bunch of cack-handed no-hopers. Which you aren't, are you?

When you arrive, check out the dressing rooms (if any) and the security arrangements. Then have a good look at the stage. Is it big enough? Are there enough sockets for your megalomaniac keyboard player's bank of synths? Does the monitoring system look adequate? Is there a monitoring system at all? If you find things aren't to your liking, chances are you'll be unable to do anything, but at least you'll know what you're up against.

There are lots of little things to look into as well. Like, are you going to use your own leads or the PA company's? If you use on-stage mixers, or some weird pedals, will you have difficulty connecting them to the PA? And what about the lighting? Do you have any control over it, does it look as though it's up to the job, and can you use it to your advantage? Few things look less impressive than a 2000-watt spotlight illuminating a patch of bare stage.

While you are doing all this, get to know the crew around you. There are a lot of important people at a competition, and most of them aren't the judges. If you get under the skin of the stage manager, he can make your life hell. Similarly, you need the co-operation of the stage hands — especially if you have only three or four minutes to get on and off stage. And for a few brief, painstaking minutes, the two most important people in your life will be the sound engineers. You can play a blinding set with a brilliant stage sound, but if all the audience are getting is boom and bass drum, you're knackered. Alternatively, if all your drummer can hear on-stage is guitar, and the bass player is getting nothing but keyboards, you're going to fall apart at the seams; the judges, getting an excellent sound out-front, won't understand why half the band is two beats ahead of the rest.

So smile and be pleasant to people. There's no need to bribe them; just appreciate that their job is at least twice as difficult as yours.

"There are a lot of important people at a competition, and most of them aren't the judges."

Don't take huge amounts of unnecessary gear. It may look impressive, but it will get in your way if you need to change over quickly with a minimum of fuss. That said, it's important not to rely too much on equipment supplied at the venue. Many organisers lay on drum kits and amplification, and if so you'll be obliged to use them. If this is the case, find out well in advance exactly what's provided. If you've worked out an incredible drum lick on your new eight-piece kit and the competition organisers provide a tatty old five-piece... well, you're stuffed aren't you?

But it's also important that the "smaller" items supplied are good enough for you. A half-broken bassdrum pedal and a tinny guitar amp aren't going to do you any favours, even though all the other bands have the same handicap. Find out in advance if you can take anything of your own — you can give yourself a headstart over all the other bands just by having your own microphone or bass pedal when everyone else is suffering with the organisers' shoddy gear.

Speaking of everyone else, it's a sad fact that, while most musicians are scrupulously honest with other people's equipment, it only takes one blockhead to waltz off with your '57 Strat or '89 D50. Some competitions will offer secure rooms, or have security staff on the stage doors and dressing rooms. If your event lacks these you must take every reasonable precaution to protect your own gear — it's odds-on that the organisers are not going to cough up £1500 to replace your stolen instruments. In case of damage or theft, find out whether there are going to be instruments available on the night. If the organisers don't provide any, you may get lucky with one of the other bands — but don't leave it to the last minute to find out.

Competition relies on opposition, and it's important to get on well with your rivals. It costs nothing to be friendly. Stay cool, and restrict the competition to the stage. You never know who may bail you out with that .009 guitar string you forgot to put in your case that morning.

Sadly, it's a fact that inter-band sabotage does occur. Keep a fanatical eye on your gear, and inform the organisers if you see anything suspicious going on. The most common form of sabotage is detuning of guitars and basses. The easy answer to this is to buy a tuner, tune all your instruments five minutes before your set, and keep them with you until you go on. Keyboard players should make a note of every setting on mixers and synthesizers immediately after the soundcheck — then check everything again while the axemen are tuning up. If synth/sampler voices are kept on computer disks or ROM cards, keep them with you all night, and make sure your girl/boyfriend has back-ups.

It's all a bit like sex. Take sensible precautions, and you greatly reduce the risk of an accident.


SO, AFTER ALL the hard work and preparation you finally get on stage. You may go down a storm with the audience or you may get soaked in stale beer. If the latter happens you just have to live with it; there is no second chance in a competition.

Just remember that, although in principle this is no different from any other gig, whatever your style of music, the judges are going to place professionalism high on their lists. So don't play to your mates at the front — play for the whole audience. And remember, if yours is a prestigious competition, there just may be the odd talent scout or three lurking at the back of the hall.

When it's over (usually far too quickly) there is that inevitable nail biting stage the judging. I wish that I could say that all judges are unbiased, but unfortunately that isn't the case. If you're playing in a big event with celebrity judges you should be OK, because the press will be there and that often limits any funny business. However, in many smaller affairs the judging can be decidedly dodgy — to the extent that the result is announced before the last band have finished their set! If that happens, don't get hot under the collar and start throwing bricks at the judges' car windscreens. Accept that you can't change the result, and go home.

On the other hand, and despite your self-belief, you may have lost because you simply weren't the best band. Not always the easiest thing to accept, but at least if you've done your homework meticulously you won't have made fools of yourselves.

Once the event is over it's in your own (and everybody eIse's) interest to get out of the venue as quickly as possible. Make sure you haven't forgotten anything, and also that you haven't "unintentionally" walked off with some of the PA company's leads. This can lead to serious complications later.

More bands split up after losing a competition than at any other time. It's as if everyone in the group has put so much into the event that, in defeat, the heart goes out of the band and it just disintegrates. Don't let this happen to you. If you have to pick yourself up off the floor, do so. You may have some hard home-truths to confront, but that's how it is — you just weren't good enough this time round.

Or perhaps the other problems (the ones the rest of us would give an arm and a leg to have) may be just beginning. You have won spectacularly, every promoter in town wants to book you, the press are hounding you, and the record company wants to see you next Tuesday. And that's when the serious competition begins.

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Publisher: Phaze 1 - Phaze 1 Publishing

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Phaze 1 - Jun 1989

Competition by Gordon Reid

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