I think the first time I entered any kind of music-related contest was when I was about 14 years old. My little guitar buddies and I heard about a guitar shred-off competition happening on the campus of the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point. I think our instructor hipped us to it. Told us we should check it out if we had the chance.
At the time, I had been playing the guitar “seriously” for about a year. Taking lessons and making deliberate efforts to improve my skills. Before that, I had always been drawn to the instrument, if not quite bold enough to attempt playing it. There was a cheap old nylon-string acoustic guitar in the basement I would pick up from time to time. I used it mostly as a prop at first, imitating the players I remembered seeing on MTV whenever I had the rare opportunity to catch some cable TV time. But then a desire developed to actually learn the instrument.
First, I learned how to tune it. My brother Mark got me started with that. Then I figured out how to play a few simple things from guitar magazines I picked up on trips from the farm into the city. My dad bought me a “real” guitar. I started taking lessons. I got pretty good pretty fast.
But I was far from being a shredder. To my guitar buddy contemporaries, I must have seemed pretty advanced, but compared to the 25-year-old gunslingers who typified the competition's entrants, my skills were pretty primitive. My friends encouraged me to enter, though, so I did. I did all right! I did not win, of course, but my friends and I were pretty proud. I think I got to pick out some swag from the university's radio station afterward. A participation prize.
I've gotten a lot better at playing the guitar since then, but even with my current bag of tricks, I would not have won that contest. Yeah, I'm good at music. I have bonafide talents and skills, for sure. But I'm not the kind of musician who wins contests. And that's fine!
It doesn't mean I'm going to stop entering them.
I still have that cheap nylon-string acoustic guitar, by the way. In a case in the closet. Safe. Fun fact: I used it as a percussion instrument on the song “Everybody Needs To… (feat. Annie Sanchez)” from my album microorganism.
Gems In The Rough
I'm still not 100% sure what Gems In The Rough is all about, but I entered their song contest anyway. Last night in, like, the literal 11th hour. The deadline was 10:00 pm. My submission went through at 9:59 pm. Whew! Classic Matt!
YouTube served me a video someone made in which they said it was their “submission to the Gems In The Rough 2023 contest.” So I was all like, why haven't I heard of this? Some quick investigating revealed that it's a song contest, simliar to the Tiny Desk Contest (more on that below). I also learned that I had about 24 hours to get my entry together. Oh damn.
So I set up my stuff in the ensuite here at home. Pointed a red light at myself. Recorded myself playing a few songs. Time was running out! I finally squeezed out a version of my song “Ready To Burn” that I thought would be suitable for contest entry.
With about an hour left to enter, I prepared the video, uploaded it to YouTube, posted about it on social media and fulfilled all the necessary requirements. Damn.
Here's the video:
The NPR Music Tiny Desk Contest
This was my fifth year entering the Tiny Desk Contest. Wow. The memory of me recording my first entry back in 2019 (also in the 11th hour, if I remember correctly) is still really fresh.
Each year I enter with a different song. The first three entries were filmed in the little house where Annie and I lived in the Barelas neighborhood of Albuquerque. In the space where the aforementioned microorganism was made. Last year's entry was created in Sorrento, Maine. In a second-floor room of a pretty nice house on the coast. Where I recorded the upcoming album Family Plot.
This year I'm back in New Mexico. Back in Albuquerque. Different house. Same guitar I used for my first entry.
Uncharacteristically, I entered this year's Tiny Desk Contest within the first week of the competition's opening. That felt good. It also feels good to have created what I feel is my best entry yet for this particular contest.
I played a bunch of songs, but ended up using a take of “Does This Mean Things Are Really Getting Better?,” a song that appears on my recent EP DO YOU FEEL IT TOO?
Yesterday was the last day to submit for the contest. I've been keeping my eye on the entries. Watching all my fellow New Mexicans. Commenting and giving thumbs ups and stuff. It's pretty fun.
That's the whole thing with these contests. It's just fun. It's something different. I can upload a video of myself playing a song to YouTube any time. Yawn. Who cares? But when it's in the context of a contest, it feels a lot more meaningful. It feels like I'm participating in something along with a bunch of others who share similar passions, goals and desires, and not just creating content for the void to consume.
I never expect to win these things, or even to earn any consideration from the judges. For me, that's not the point. As I said up there, I'm not the kind of musician who wins contests. Rather, it's about the chance to feel connected with other artists and creators. Each of us as individuals pursuing our individual pursuits – this gets pretty lonely. Isolated. But in the context of something like the Tiny Desk Contest, there is a feeling of creating with a purpose, knowing other creators are creating with a similar purpose in mind. And paradoxically, it doesn't feel competitive at all.
Here is my video entry for this year's NPR Music Tiny Desk Contest:
Please Don't Let Me Win
It would be embarrasing to win any of these contests. Like Adele winning the Grammy everyone believes Beyoncé deserves. Like, what??? But I'll keep entering anyway. It's fun. It's good experience. I enjoy the pressure to get one take right, or at least good enough. I like to set up the lights and camera. It's cool to have something to post about on social media (and in one's blog) that's not just, “hey check out this new song,” or whatever.
So next year I'll probably enter the Gems In The Rough contest for the second time. Still gotta figure out what I got myself into there, but I think it's cool. And I'm sure I'll enter the NPR Music Tiny Desk Contest for the sixth consecutive year. From what state? Who knows? Anyone's guess! And I'll be delighted to share my efforts with you, once again.
And everyone wins.