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"Jazz Monthly Feature Interview" Candace Avery
Founder/Director of the International Songwriting Competition (ISC)
interview by Jonathan Widran

Launched by Candace Avery in 2002, the International Songwriting Competition (ISC) is an annual song contest whose mission is to provide the opportunity for both aspiring and established songwriters to have their songs heard in a professional, international arena. ISC is designed to nurture the musical talent of songwriters on all levels and promote excellence in the art of songwriting. Amateur and professional songwriters and musicians are invited to participate. With a mix of legendary artists and top major and independent label executives, ISC has the most prestigious panel of judges of all the songwriting and music contests in the world - offering exposure and the unique opportunity to have songs heard by the most influential decision-makers in the music industry. 

With a total of 68 winners sharing cash and prizes, ISC also provides a vehicle for songwriting artists to further their music careers and gain more industry recognition and exposure. Past category finalists and winners include country sensations The Band Perry, Grammy nominated jazz vocalist Gregory Porter and New Zealand based singer/songwriter Kimbra, the 2011 Grand Prize winner who is featured on Gotye’s smash “Somebody That I Used To Know,” the biggest selling single of 2012 and the best-selling digital single of all time. 

JazzMonthly: Tell us about your background in the music business and what led you to create this competition.

CA: I started out playing drums in New Orleans, playing in Second Line bands, and moved to Boston to study at Berklee College of Music. I segued into the business end of things and started doing event production, including an outdoor music festival in Boston Common and the Boston Music Awards, which I founded in the mid-80s. I also created NEMO, a South By Southwest type event that showcased 300 bands in 22 clubs over three days My career was centered in Boston until I moved to Nashville in the early 2000s. The impetus to starting ISC was seeing the weaknesses in other songwriting competitions that existed and believing I could do a better job. Ours would always be transparent as far as who the judges are, how many entries we receive and what the prizes are.

JazzMonthly: What was your mission then and how has it evolved?

CA: We’re basically a talent resource and our mission is to nurture talent and lend opportunities to worthy songwriters and artists. A small percentage of our entrants are just songwriters, especially in the country category, but for the most part, they’re artists and performers who are trying to build their careers. Whether they win or not, we can be a stepping stone for them. It’s exciting for us when we see them get signed to a publishing or recording deal, have their songs licensed, get more high profile gigs, tour and play festivals and conferences. There are so many ways to offer opportunities to our entrants.  Our 2004 winner never played a gig before she won, and she’s currently signed to Motown. Our growth has been impressive, from 6,700 entries our first year to 16,000 this past year. We’ve also grown internationally, and half our entries are now from songwriters outside the U.S. – 112 countries last year!

JazzMonthly: Your judges are from virtually every genre of music and your artist judges range from the fields of rock and country to hip hop and jazz. On the jazz side, your lineup this year includes McCoy Tyner and Bill Evans, and in the past you have had Pat Metheny, Ornette Coleman, John Scofield and Branford Marsalis. In addition to your artist judges, you have many top level record company executives. Such a great balance. How do you go about securing judges and what is their exact role?  

CA: We have a small in house listening committee that includes myself and others who have all majored in songwriting and music and been involved in the industry in different capacities. We carefully narrow down our thousands of entrants into 350 overall finalists, which breaks down to 12-15 per category, who are then evaluated by our well known judges. The way we get our judges every year is simple: we invite them! It’s a non paying position but they do it for a variety of reasons, including giving back, for fun and so they can have their fingertips of what’s happening now in music and what may be the next big thing. We’re very proud of our industry judges, who have included the presidents of Universal Republic and EMI Virgin and VPs of A&R at numerous labels.

The criteria varies by category, and for jazz it’s a bit different because most of the songs are instrumentals and jazz can mean anything from smooth jazz and bebop to avant garde and salsa. Songs are evaluated by originality/creativity, melody, harmony, arrangement, instrumentation and overall likeability. The instrumentation element can be a vocal because the voice is an instrument. We’re happy to say that jazz is one of our top categories in terms of quality entrants – and of course jazz can mean anything from avant garde to bebop to salsa.

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