Bitter Jester Music Festival, one of the summer’s highly anticipated celebrations of local music, faced a crisis this spring. As Chicago-area events were being postponed or canceled because of COVID-19, it became apparent to Nic DeGrazia, artistic director at Bitter Jester, and Director of Education Michael Tseitlin that the Highland Park performance series wasn’t going to be an option.
Pivoting to a virtual original song competition running throughout the month of June, the organizers, guest judges and fan votes helped winnow down a field of 56 contestants to the 12 up for judging this week — four songs chosen by judges, four fan favorites selected via votes online, and four Producer’s Choice songs selected by Bitter Jester staff.
The 12 finalists, announced Sunday, will be judged by the entire panel of more than 60 judges from the preliminary rounds, plus a few special additions, including Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins and Northbrook native Melissa Forman from WLIT-FM 93.9.
• “The Beautiful Things You Do” by Ian Jake Robleza
• “Collapse” by F.L.A.M.E.
• “Gentleman” by Quick and Painless
• “Keep Two-Stepping” by Pretoria
• “Peach Trees” by Ax and the Hatchetmen
• “Seven Stars” by Fluctuation
• “Shell City” by Feed the Monkeys
• “Sleigh” by Tess Clare
• “Slouched” by Shipwreck Kelly
• “Where My Life Remains” by Watchtower
• “Your Anything” by Double Identity
• “Your Love for the End of the World” by The Cuz
Songs came in from musicians across the country, but DeGrazia said most of them are from the Chicago region.
“The majority of the submissions have all been from musicians who could in theory attend our live events if they submitted to that,” he said. “I’d never even heard of a lot of them. So, it’s been a great kind of proving ground to find young artists.”
Three songs will be selected by judges to win the $250 cash prize.
One of the elements of the Bitter Jester contest that has made it stand out over the years is the feedback competitors get. Organizers select judges who have been involved in the music scene or industry and who can give clear and educational opinions to the bands.
The virtual take on this year’s competition hasn’t changed that. The emphasis is on teaching young artists what they need to know to get ahead, according to Tseitlin, a Glenbrook North grad and guitar director at Stevenson High School.
“(The judges) can really talk about anything from lyricism, which a lot of singer-songwriter judges talked about, to what to think about when you record the song professionally with music engineers,” Tseitlin said. “Music educators talked about how to sing more intuitively, use proper breaths and all that. Guitarists were like ‘Use these solos.’ … With 60 plus judges overall, it was clear and growth-oriented feedback that was so awesome. I’m compiling all of this, and we’re giving the bands a packet of 14 paragraphs that 14 music professionals have been writing based on their one song.”
In addition to the juried winners, a Fan Favorite pick, selected online through votes, will win $100. To vote, music fans should visit the Bitter Jester Facebook and Instagram pages to listen to the songs and select their favorites by liking that band’s post. Votes will be collected until 11:59 p.m. Friday, July 3.
Winners will be announced at 4 p.m. Saturday, July 4.