The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Competitions Pt 1: Application Fees

[This is part one of a multi-part miniseries of posts on composition competitions. Competitions are typically a significant part of a composer's coming-of-age process, and young composers in particular are frequently (in some cases constantly) bombarded with exhortations to apply to everything possible from teachers, administrators, and older composers. In these posts, I'm taking a look at various issues with competitions that many composers have come to see as problems, and which have caused many to stop applying altogether.]

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A recent Twitter conversation, paired with a competition announcement (also on Twitter), prompted me to immediately start scribbling notes on this week’s post. (Yes, I actually outline my posts on paper before I come here to start tippity-typing away – the same holds true for my music, for what it’s worth.)

In my day, I’ve applied to a fair number of composition competitions, so I’ve been through the process many times, and one thing that has consistently bothered me – and basically soured me on the whole competition experience – is the application fee that many of them charge. The American Music Center, before it was New Music USA, always segregated their opportunity listings into competitions with fees and competitions without fees, and made a point of saying every month that they discourage the practice of charging composers to apply. I almost invariably only ever looked at listings without fees, in part because I – like most composers I know – didn’t (and still don’t) have a lot of money, and dropping $25 for the privilege of collecting yet another poorly-worded rejection letter just didn’t sit well with me. Also, I took to heart what I understood to be the subtle undertone of AMC’s notice about fees: namely, that composers should think twice before applying to a competition that charges a fee. Caveat compositor. Composer beware.

To this day, on the off chance that I feel like looking through the American Composers Forum’s listing of composer cattle calls, I only ever look at those competitions and calls for scores that don’t ask the composer to pony up more of their hard-earned cash. Because, as I’ve said before and will undoubtedly say again: entering these things is expensive and time-consuming enough as it is without the indignity of having to write a check for the privilege of probably being rejected. Printing and binding scores, putting together a CD, writing/updating whatever bios/composer statements/program notes/CVs/etc, postage – all come with time and money costs.

Over the years, I’ve heard a number of justifications for application fees, all of which I’ve found to be increasingly lame.

Before I launch into the justifications, let me just say that I know that every organization that hosts a competition means incredibly well, and wants to foster new music and living composers – for which I (and all composers) are incredibly grateful. But certain practices are no longer in keeping with the times, and have proven to be either ineffective or actually harmful.

Serious applicants only
I can’t count the number of times that people have tried to justify an exorbitant application fee (or any application fee at all) to me by claiming that it prevents “un-serious” composers from applying. Weeding out the riffraff. Who, may I politely-yet-pointedly ask of these competitions, are these “unserious” composers who are flooding your mailboxes with their “unserious” applications? What makes these composers any less serious than those whose applications you actually want to receive?

This (poor) excuse is predicated on the idea that there are droves of dilettante composers who write awful music – probably horribly engraved, to boot – and have nothing better to do than to send out applications to every competition that they come across (doubtless thanks to listings such as ACF’s).

Of course, the only thing that could possibly distinguish a “serious” entry from an “unserious” one is that the composer is willing to pay the application fee! There are certainly no other easy-to-identify criteria that could immediately disqualify an entry that doesn’t meet the eligibility requirements of the competition!

Just to dial down the rhetoric a bit, let’s take “seriousness” to mean “ability to follow written instructions” or “having basic professional abilities”. Meaning, a “serious” applicant would submit a score that exactly follows the posted guidelines in terms of instrumentation, duration, performance history, submitting required additional materials, and presenting their application in a manner that is suitably professional in appearance and execution. Now, I totally stand by the need for professional standards, but to call an application that doesn’t meet them “unserious” is, in my estimation, a severe misrepresentation of the situation.

The process of putting together a submission packet takes time, care, and a surprising amount of money, so I should expect that anyone going to the lengths required to prepare one is sufficiently “serious”.

My own applications to competitions (and, just out of undergrad, schools) were wildly unprofessional in presentation a number of years ago. Not because I wasn’t “serious” about them, but because I didn’t know any better at the time – I hadn’t been taught the proper formatting and etiquette for such things. So to consider those early applications to be “unserious” badly mischaracterizes them. They were merely uneducated.

And as for applications which stray from posted instrumentation or duration guidelines: while, yes, they should be disqualified for not following instructions, they probably aren’t “unserious” in the least. I would imagine that such entrants are merely trying to find a place in the YOUMUSTAPPLYTOEVERYTHINGWHYAREN’TYOUAPPLYINGTOTHIS culture (that is foisted upon us by nearly every teacher and music administrator in our lives) for existing pieces that don’t quite fit the mold that this or that competition would have us conform to.

Really, if there are applications that don’t meet certain standards of quality (engraving) or that don’t follow the entry guidelines (instrumentation, duration, performance history, etc), those entries should be disqualified, and the judges move on. They don’t warrant the preemptive punishment of a $10, $20, or $25 application fee to make us think twice before applying.

And let’s be perfectly honest here. The only type of composer that an application fee will likely deter from applying is a composer who can’t afford to pay the fee in the first place. I speak from a decade of applying experience here. I cannot count the number of competitions that I’ve been unable to apply to not because my works didn’t fit various application criteria or because I didn’t fall within the proper age group (another post for another day – promise!), but because I just couldn’t afford to dish out the $25 and still manage to eat that week. Seriously. For all that I was “serious” about applying, I was much more serious about being able to feed myself. And I’m absolutely positive that I’m not alone in this. In fact, a colleague with whom I share a first name recently said on Twitter, “By the time I could afford to enter competitions, I was already too old for most of them.”

This excuse exhibits the absolute wrong type of gatekeeperism: it does very little to deter the types of applications that it’s supposedly meant to, and instead definitely does prevent composers who are perfectly suited to a competition, and would likely benefit from it the most, from being able to participate.

So for this reason alone, I invite competition hosts to think of the financial burden that they place on the very composers whose careers they claim to want to foster.

Judges’ fees / Administrative costs
As a businessperson, I’m sensitive to budget considerations. I am. But seriously, if this is the reason that a competition is charging an application fee, the admins need to revisit their budget and start thinking ahead a bit more.

If an organization can raise enough money to pay some sort of award, they can also raise the money to cover their administrative costs, as well as any honoraria that they want to give their judges/panelists. Because these aren’t going to be huge costs by any means. Each group will have different needs; and the smaller the group, the smaller the needs. And with electronic submissions being more and more the norm, postage and other costs are increasingly small – to the point of being either negligible or nonexistent.

Judges should be given some sort of honorarium for their participation (when the judge doesn’t waive their fee altogether and just donate their time), but I’m a firm believer that judges and panelists should also have a sense of citizenship and a belief in “paying it forward”. A panelist who insists on being paid $X to judge young composers’ works may not be the best choice for the competition.

Then there are these:

Application fees without monetary awards
I have zero tolerance for this sort of thing. I’ve posted about a competition like this over at the NewMusicShelf, and can really only consider these sorts of things to be scams, no matter how well-meaning the organizers. Anyone running a competition that charges a fee and doesn’t have some sort of monetary award needs to stop hosting that competition NOW.

Application fees with small monetary awards
Seriously, what’s the point? So I’ve dished out $10 to enter your (probably) brand-new competition, and on the off chance that I win, I get $240? Whee!

Organizations that do this sort of thing either need to stop hosting competitions altogether, or seriously get their acts together and start fundraising for the award and admin costs. If the competition is a high enough priority for the organization, then it should be done properly. But I have a nagging feeling that there are more than a few ensembles and organizations that think that hosting a competition is some sort of status symbol, or lends them greater authority and cachet. On the contrary, the organization itself should lend authority and cachet to the competition!

If an organization is truly serious about the competition that it hosts, it should have the foresight to budget for it properly. And if the organization doesn’t have proper funds on hand, it should postpone the current year’s competition and do it right next year.

And don’t even get me started on competitions that use the application fees to fund the prize money!

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I’m going to be spending a few weeks on the topic of competitions and various elements that I think need to be addressed. These posts will be aimed at both composers, so that they can be aware of various issues before entering any competition or submitting to a call for scores, and competition administrators, so that they can have a composer’s eye view of the issues involved with competitions and awards. The end of this mini-series will culminate in my (ever-humble) opinion on how I think organizations should structure programs like these to be as supportive as possible of composers and new music without putting a greater burden on those organizations and ensembles.

I write the Composer’s Guide here, taking time away from my composing to do so. If this post helped you in any way, be a dear and click the donate button at the bottom of this post, will you? If you can’t afford to donate, please pass this chapter along to someone who you think might get some help from it.

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Thanks!





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