It all started with Iron Chef. Six years ago, 105.5 Triple M's former program director, Pat Gallagher, asked himself a question while watching the popular cooking show: If people like watching dueling chefs, then why not dueling musicians? Project M, Triple M's songwriting competition, was born soon after.
"We agreed it would be an interesting competition because there are so many talented musicians in the Madison area," says Jonathan Suttin, the competition's coordinator and a regular Triple M radio personality.
Unlike American Idol, Project M requires musicians to create original songs over a five-week period. The 2014 competition began this week at Funk's Pub in Fitchburg and continues there each Monday through May 5.
"The first three years featured individual singers, and then we switched to bands for the fourth and fifth seasons. We're back to individual singers this year," Suttin says.
The 2014 competition includes eight musicians: Cait Shanahan, Joey Broyles, Beau Osland, From the Moon, Derek Pritzl, Katie Scullin, Carell Casey and Sam Lyons. Each contestant performs an original song that responds to a "challenge" announced the week before. At the end of the night, the competitors receive their next assignment. But not before one of them gets eliminated. Project M's judges determine who goes home, with input from Triple M fans.
"The Wednesday after each performance, we'll have videos online for fans to watch," Suttin says. "They can vote online for their favorite musician."
Triple M's website will also stream live video of Project M performances this year.
The final three contestants will each perform a half-hour set of original music during a May 14 finale at the High Noon Saloon. The winner, chosen that night, receives $1,000 and a Summerfest gig in Milwaukee. Plus, Triple M will put one of his or her songs in rotation.
The contest's songwriting challenges provide musicians with constraints that promote creativity.
"Past challenges included giving each musician a famous work of art which had to serve as the inspiration for the song," Suttin explains. "One week we handed out a section of the newspaper and told them to find the subject of a song within the paper."
Suttin says Project M had 60 entries this year, the highest number in the competition's history. One of these hopefuls is Sam Lyons, a veteran of Launchpad, the Wisconsin School Music Association's statewide battle of the bands.
Lyons hopes Project M's weekly challenges help him take his songwriting skills to the next level. He says the format "forces you to write subject-specific words while still trying to make it sound mature."
Cait Shanahan, whose band Woodson competed in the first "band edition" of the competition in 2012, says Project M is "a good way to stretch your creative muscles and think outside the box."
Shanahan looks forward to competing as a solo artist.
"It was a little crazy with a whole band because it took a lot of organization, and we really only had about three hours in the week to write the song, polish it and then be ready to perform it," she recalls. "As a solo artist, I have a little bit more flexibility."
She also signed up for Project M in 2014 because she hopes to record a new solo album this year.
"I wanted to jumpstart the writing process," she says. "It's cool to be given different ideas you wouldn't have thought of. I'm stuck in a 'sad girl with her guitar and relationship songs' rut, so this pushes those boundaries, and it's an extra challenge to write something that I'll be able to use later."
Shanahan says Woodson put all their Project M songs in regular rotation at gigs after the 2012 competition.
Lyons, meanwhile, is keenly aware that subjectivity is part of the judging process.
"You can't focus too much on trying to win," he says. What matters most is "being true to yourself and your craft."
That said, he's not afraid to step outside his comfort zone.
"There is a time and place for adding a little more flair to your material to help your case," he says.