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.]


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!


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.

And I really love to get feedback in the comments section, via email, and on Twitter – they really keep me going on this project.


The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Commissioning Consortia

Consortia. Such a great word. Consortia. Don’t you just love Latin plurals?

Commissioning consortia have been on my mind a fair amount lately, not just because they’re another source of income, but also because I’m in the middle of helping to build a consortium to commission a new choral work of my own.

Commissioning consortia are a great way to get works commissioned, especially in economies as crappy as our current one. There are a lot of arts organizations right now that really want to commission new works, but can’t do it by themselves because they have severely limited budgets.

Traditionally, consortia have been used to commission larger works such as operas and orchestral or wind band pieces. Commissioning large works requires a correspondingly large budget, and even the biggest of organizations can be financially strained by such projects, so they often band together and share the financial burden. John Mackey’s Redline Tango for wind ensemble and Daron Hagen’s opera Bandanna were both commissioned by consortia of wind bands.

Today, I think that consortia are incredibly useful for smaller-scale works, as well; and also for organizations (and individuals!) with limited budgets.

For example, a group of middle or high school choirs could commission a new choral work from a composer. Or a group of individuals who play the same instrument could commission a new work together – each would have a new piece to perform at a fraction of the cost than had they done it alone. Meanwhile, the composer gets the full benefit of being commissioned and receiving a fee that is probably much higher than she otherwise would have received from any of the individuals by themselves. I’ve heard heartening reports over the past few years that this sort of thing is happening more and more, and I couldn’t be happier!

The lessening of the commissioner’s financial burden is possibly the greatest benefit to forming these consortia.

For a work for which the composer would ask a fee of $5,000, five participating ensembles would only have to raise $1,000 apiece, which is an easy Kickstarter campaign for almost any group. A few requests to friends and family could raise a handful of individuals the funds needed for a $2,000 fee. And eight commissioners contributing $300 apiece earns the composer a nice $2,400 fee. When broken down, what might be prohibitive for one commissioner becomes much more manageable for several.

I especially like the idea of consortia of school groups for a number of reasons past the benefits to the composer. Not only does the project become much more financially manageable for the schools, who are almost uniformly in budget cut hell, but the students benefit infinitely more from the experience than the school might otherwise be able to afford for them. By exposing students to new music in an active capacity such as premiering new works and working with living composers (hello Creative Connections grants!), schools can help to create a culture of active arts participation, and hopefully train the next generation of musicians to make commissioning a regular part of their careers.

Of course there are always practical considerations, too!

Fee structure
I can think of two ways to structure the composer’s fee for these sorts of projects: a per-participant split, and a per-participant fee.

With a per-participant split, the composer sets her commissioning fee, and the co-commissioners split it amongst themselves, either evenly or at varying percentages. So: a group of four commissioners might split a $3,000 fee evenly so that they each pay $750, or they may find a different, unequal split that takes into consideration any number of factors (that the composer probably need not directly concern herself with) so that some commissioners pay more than others (and probably have more leverage in claiming the full premiere of the piece – more on that later). The advantages here are that you as the composer know unequivocally what your fee will be regardless of the number of participants, and the commissioners’ shares of the fee will be correspondingly lowered as additional ensembles and individuals join the consortium. A disadvantage is that the commissioners’ shares of the fee are higher if there are fewer participants in the consortium. However, that becomes an advantage in that the participants will have a greater incentive to want more co-commissioners on the project, which will hopefully lead to their finding additional ensembles to join the consortium (which will mean more performances of the piece for the composer).

With a per-participant flat fee, the composer sets a fee per commissioner, so that each ensemble or individual pays a set amount to be a member of the consortium regardless of the number of co-commissioners. I might advocate for this sort of fee structure if the per-participant fee were reasonably low and you either had a reasonable sense of how many participants there would be or were feeling particularly generous should there be few participants. The main disadvantage here is that the composer doesn’t necessarily know what her fee will ultimately be until everything is finalized. An advantage, however, is that the co-commissioners know exactly what their financial stake will be from the start. On the other hand, should there end up being more consortium members than originally anticipated or hoped for, the composer can end up with a correspondingly higher fee. I’m much less a fan of this second option for a few reasons, but I can see uses for it.

Lead commissioner
Every commissioning agreement spells out a series of rights and responsibilities that the commissioner is entitled to, which can be complicated by the participation of multiple commissioners. Consequently, there is usually a “lead commissioner” who has a greater stake in the commission, both financially and in terms of the rights and responsibilities. The lead will likely pay a greater share of the commissioning fee and have the right to the first performance; so while the other commissioners end up paying less, they also don’t get to have the first performance, but are entitled to subsequent – possibly regional – premieres and performances of the work within a period of exclusivity. Everyone gets credit as co-commissioners.

The lead commissioner may also take a more substantive role in finding additional consortium members because they may have an increased visibility or prestige over the other participants, and will likely handle the negotiations involved with figuring out which participant is entitled to what and when (it’s probably best if you keep your nose out of this one if you can!).

The lead may not have a greater financial share or any additional entitlements, but may just be the go-to member for communicating with the composer or advertising the performances, or may merely be the person/ensemble that initiated the commission.

Getting Paid
Again, there are a few options here. Each commissioner might pay you directly; or they may designate the lead commissioner as the financial point person, in which case all funds funnel through the lead and are paid to you on whatever schedule is spelled out in the contract. And on occasion, a third party may be involved as the collector and administrator of funds. In the end, how the composer gets paid comes down to what is easiest for all parties involved, and what everyone is most comfortable with.

Finding Participants
This is probably the hardest part of setting up commissioning consortia. (Duh!)

In many cases, I’d probably advocate for having the lead commissioner do the majority of it. They probably know more ensembles of the same instrumentation or performers in their field than you do. And depending on the situation, there’s a certain…legitimacy…that is lent to the endeavor when the lead is the one who approaches potential participants. The alternative could come off like: “Hi, person I don’t know! Do you want to commission me?” Maybe not the best face to put on the project?

So tell me – do you all have experiences with commissioning consortia? Please share in the comments section below!

Speaking of income: see that “Donate” button down there? Be a dear and click that 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.

And I really love to get feedback in the comments section, via email, and on Twitter – they really keep me going on this project.


No JFund this time

Well this was not how I wanted to start my week.

Because I’m impatient, and because I happened to see on Google+ last week that the JFund applications were being reviewed, I checked out the American Composers Forum website this afternoon to see if the grant winners had been announced. They had. Last Wednesday. Which is a pretty sure sign that I got nothing. And that’s exactly what I got.

I’m honestly incredibly depressed by the news. I hadn’t felt so optimistic and confident about an application I’d sent out, well…ever. So this was a significant blow to the ego, especially given the subject matter of the piece and my personal stake in it.

But life will go on. It goes on with temporarily undermined confidence and a brief bout of depression, but it goes on. I’ve still got the MAP Fund Letter of Inquiry out there.

More grant writing

I spent some time yesterday reworking the JFund materials for MAP. The changes will be more substantial than I first anticipated, but not overwhelming by any means. MAP provides a 7-point list of suggestions for writing the Letter of Inquiry, which I’m hewing to very closely, adapting my existing texts to the order and layout of the list. I’m feeling even more confident about this project description than I did about the JFund, which I think was still quite good.

Tonight I’ll spend some time at the library trying to finish the writing so that I can have a few people look at it tomorrow and over the weekend.

One of the challenges is to hit all of the points while maintaining a consistent flow. I find myself jumping around from section to section, adding a bit here, editing a bit there, moving things around to accommodate both the 7-point structure and the arc of the writing.

Back on track

Fundraising for Only Air stalled briefly, but is back in full-swing as of this afternoon. After the briefest of misunderstandings with The Field late yesterday afternoon, I’m set up on the MAP Fund’s site, and will be submitting my Letter of Inquiry materials for review at The Field in the next day or so. I’m glad I spent so much time preparing the JFund materials – for this round with MAP, I’m able to duplicate much of my work from the previous grant, which is a HUGE time-saver. I’ll still be spending some time reworking it over the next day or two.

Of course, all of this money talk seems a bit crass in the light of yet another suicide. Jamey Rodemeyer of Williamsville, NY committed suicide Sunday because he was bullied relentlessly at school for his sexuality. He was 14.

It’s because all of this is still happening that I’m writing Only Air.

Letter of Commitment

This morning I got a draft of the Letter of Commitment from Dr. Block for the JFund application. Aside from having to correct the spelling of my last name, I just tweaked the project description, which was lifted from my original proposal a few weeks ago. It was just a matter of substituting newer, more elegant language.

The letter also gave me some pretty cool information.

Aside from answering my question about the woodwinds (they are in threes), I now know that a harp is available. And I may just avail myself of that harp, especially now that I have an affinity to it because of Starfish at Pescadero and at least a moment.

I also now know the official premiere date: April 27, 2013. A semester alter than expected, but it allows for more rehearsal time, and especially more time for the Drs. Block & Vought to learn the piece. I approve.

The most sort of surprising – but in the best possible way – part was the last paragraph, which listed my responsibilities for the week of the premiere: I’ll be in residence at the school all week, attending rehearsals, teaching master classes in composition, and giving a pre-concert talk/lecture on the piece and everything behind it. Awesome! As if I weren’t excited enough already!

I’ve spent a goodly chunk of the day, since it’s been a slow day at the office, working on my JFund application materials. I’ve got a nice chunk of the personal statement ready: the “How I’m an ‘Emerging’ Composer” segment, and the “How this commission is a significant step forward for me” segment. I’ll finish the remainder on Sunday after Darien and I have dinner with Chet and talk more about his thoughts on the Development/Direction sections. We’re also having dinner with our friends Marc & Seth tomorrow (Marc is a pianist who has premiered and performed a lot of my works), so there will be more discussion then, as well.

Putting the “Fun” in Fundraising!

Since Dr. Block got back from his trip yesterday, I requested the presented materials from him again. Hoping to have it by the end of the week so that I can send out the completed JFund app by Monday. It doesn’t need a postmark until next Friday, but for once in my life I’d like to get an application in before the last possible second.

I also spent a significant chunk of yesterday afternoon working on the commissioning contract, making edits from the copy I marked up at the bar last week. It looks as though it will be about 5 pages, but I’m considering cutting a few lines that deal with payment since ISU isn’t the one paying me for the piece. The main items that remain are the commissioner credit in the score/programs/marketing materials/etc and the specific date(s) and number of the performance(s). I’m hoping for three performances, but I’m not holding my breath – I’m not the only thing that they’ll be playing next year.

I also spent some time looking at potential funding sources in addition to the JFund. The MAP Fund is a possibility, and there are a few funders that popped up on a search of LGBTQ foundations/philanthropists. I’m kicking around the idea of a Kickstarter thing for this, but I’m still unsure of whether or not to save that for the recording sessions I want to do starting in December. Basically what I have to decide is this:

1) Do I want to potentially do two separate funding drives for two separate projects within two or three months of one another?
2) Do I want to do ONE funding drive for just one of the two projects?
a) Which Project should that be?
i) The commission will potentially be partially funded from JFund and/or the Secret Music Foundation and/or any other granting organizations we decide to apply to.
ii) I *could*, if I were so inclined – and this idea does sort of appeal – fund the recording with the commissioning money.
iii) However: It might be nice/smart to put that money (whatever it ends up amounting to) in a savings account or toward some investments. I *do* have my financial future to consider.

I’m leaning much more toward doing a Kickstarter project for just the recording so that I can bank the commissioning fee. Keeping the funds separate seems smarter, especially in the long term.

On the other hand, were I to try to fund part of the commissioning fee with Kickstarter, there’s a real possibility, I think, for greater exposure and a wider funding base since there’s a larger social issue involved.

I’m also going to pick the brain of my friend who’s the Director of Development for the ISU College of Fine Arts to see what he thinks/suggests.

I’ve also decided not to try for the VCCA this Fall. If I’m going to go to Brush Creek in the Spring, that’s two of my four weeks of vacation days eaten up right there. I may be better served keeping some of my days in reserve. I can always take a day here and a day there in the meantime to do work.