DITMARS — It all started with a piece of cake.
The Waltz-Astoria's annual Ultimate Singer-Songwriter Contest, now in its sixth year, is set to bring 60 musicians to the stage later this month to compete for a $1,000 prize — a far cry from the humble slice of dessert that served as the first year's prize.
"It started on a winter night — we actually had an open mic night, and it was so cold that only a handful of artists came out. So we decided, let's give a way a piece of cake to the performer who performs the best," recalled Pedro Gonzalez, who owns Waltz-Astoria, an arts-focused bar and coffee shop at 23-14 Ditmars Blvd. along with his wife, Song Gonzalez.
"That was actually the birth of the contest," he added.
The following year, they hosted a more formal competition, with a $100 cash prize for the winner. The annual contest has grown since then, attracting sponsors and drawing contestants from outside New York, Gonzalez said.
"It just keeps getting bigger and bigger every year," he said.
More than 200 artists sent in video submissions for this year's competition, Gonzalez said. Of those, 60 will be chosen to compete over four nights from Jan. 23rd to 26th, with 20 performers taking the stage each night for the first three rounds. The performances are open to the public and kick off at 6 p.m. each night.
A panel of judges will choose the top three performers from the first three nights. Judges this year include Joseph Miller, a music coordinator for CBS Sports; Jimmy Lloyd of "The Jimmy Lloyd Songwriter Showcase" on NBC; publicist Lily Golightly; Mike McCready of Music Xray; as well as last year's contest winner, Sylvana Joyce.
The top performers from the first three nights will qualify for the final competition, which will take place on Jan. 26th. The finals also includes a "wildcard" pick chosen by Waltz-Astoria.
The competitors are required to perform songs that they've written and composed themselves, and they aren't allowed to use any special affects, like pedals, loops or back-up vocals.
"It's strictly singer-songwriter," Gonzalez said. "Pure skill."
The audience the final night of the competition will vote for the winner. In addition to the cash prize, first place will land a featured show at the Waltz-Astoria as well as 30 hours of rehearsal time at Spaceworks, a rehearsal space in Long Island City.
Gonzalez said the contest has helped to build a close-knit network of performers, many of whom keep in touch and have collaborated on shows together.
"There [are] a lot of artists who built their own community there," he said. "We call them our 'waltzers.'"