The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Competitions Pt 4: Rejection Letters

[This is part four 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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I nearly forgot about this aspect of competitions. Until this past weekend, that is, when I got a particularly unpleasant one and remembered how important rejection letters and emails are to the whole process.

Timeliness
It should go without saying – but apparently doesn’t – that organizations and ensembles that host competitions and put out calls for scores should adhere to the deadlines that they’ve posted for notifying entrants of their decisions. There are times, of course, when circumstances prevent organizations from getting through all of the entries by the posted date, in which case it’s probably a good idea to send everyone an email saying that the announcement has been postponed. We’ll understand. I promise!

It’s always unfortunate, and reflects poorly on the organization, when a composer finds out that she didn’t place in a competition or her work wasn’t selected from a call for scores by reading about a colleague’s win on their blog or having to hunt down the results on the organization’s website / Facebook page / Twitter feed weeks after the winners/selections were supposed to be officially announced. I think it’s safe to say that nearly every composer has been in all of these situations at least once. (Though one of my composer friends is still waiting to hear from a major orchestra’s competition held in 1997. He’s keeping hope alive.)

The rejection I received recently had a few strikes against it, number one being that it came a full 20 months after I originally submitted several works for consideration. I understand that professional ensembles with open calls for scores receive lots of submissions, and that time to review such things is limited, but a near-two-year lag is a bit long, in my estimation.

Tone of Voice
This is one of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to any sort of correspondence: people consistently seem not to realize that the written word has no tone of voice!

From text messages to instant messages, from emails to handwritten letters, the way you intend for something to be read is possibly not how it will be read. And the shorter your missive, the easier it is to misconstrue the meaning and feeling behind it. For most of us, short = unfriendly or rude, even if that’s not the intention. Which is not to say that every rejection or acceptance letter/email needs to be particularly long, but rather its tone needs to be evaluated before it gets sent out.

Tone is one of the things that I most often agonize over in these posts. Am I too sarcastic, too bitchy, too dry? Certain posts are fueled by anger, though I try to keep that anger in check. But however I intend for the posts to come off (usually an amalgam of mildly bitchy sarcasm, attempted humor, relaxedness, and pedanticism – with the odd bit of righteous indignation thrown in on occasion), I can’t be entirely sure how others will interpret them. When I originally read Ned Rorem’s diaries in college, I missed a lot of the sarcasm and humor that pervades his writing. It wasn’t until I heard him read excerpts from them aloud that I understood the tone of voice that had been lacking in my own reading (also the gentle lisp).

Organizations need to be especially sensitive to tone in rejections: the composer has put their work out for your consideration, which is no small source of anxiety. A rejection is often at best a painful thing. And while it’s not the organization’s job to make sure that everyone is happy or gets a medal just for trying, it is in the organization’s best interest to ensure that composers don’t lose their respect or good feeling toward the organization. A rejection with poorly-considered tone will undoubtedly make the composer less likely to speak well of the ensemble/organization, and that’s never a good thing for anybody.

I, for one, have – unfortunately – soured on the ensemble that sent me this most recent rejection email. The author of the two-sentence email clearly didn’t consider how his email came across, and after several days, I still honestly cannot tell whether or not I should be insulted by the first sentence.

Respect
I’m not implying that organizations that host competitions don’t have respect for the composers who submit works for their competitions and calls for scores. If that were the case, why would the competitions/calls exist in the first place!? But – to beat a dead horse – the proper tone in a rejection letter conveys a sense of respect for the fact that the composer not only took the time and went to the expense of submitting a work for consideration, but that they took the risk of sending this piece of themselves out into the world to be judged worthy – or not – of being performed by your group and heard by your audiences.

A well-considered rejection letter can actually boost a composer’s opinion of a group by showing the organization’s respect for composers and what they do, and acknowledging the emotional component inherent to making a submission.

The Person at the End of the Internet
Again with this dead horse.

But let me take the opportunity to turn this around on composers. If you are corresponding with someone at an organization, remember that, just as there’s a monster at the end of this book, there’s a person at the other end of the internet reading your email. Consider your own tone, respect that the organization is attempting to do right by composers and new music, and remember that we’re all in this together.

Tropes
There are a lot of rejection letter tropes that get complained about: “regret to inform you”, “so many wonderful submissions”, “high caliber of music”, “difficult to choose”… The fact that these and similar phrases, along with listing the winners/selectees, have become so common can grate on some composers. For some, listing awardees can feel like rubbing salt in an open wound: “You lost! But guess who won? These guys!!”

For myself, I don’t mind the majority of rejection letter tropes, and can’t really think of any that particularly bother me. Seeing the list of awardees doesn’t usually send me into a rage or a downward spiral of self-pity, though I’m admittedly not entirely immune to a bit of private envy. Typically, though, the winners list offers me a chance to congratulate friends who were selected, and to get a sense of what the panel was looking for. Sometimes seeing who was selected and knowing their style can give solace in the knowledge that you just didn’t fit the panelists’ stylistic profile. (Which is its own problem.)

Boo Boos
No matter how hard we try, something’s always going to go wrong somewhere. But here is a place where an error can be particularly painful. For example, spelling the composer’s name incorrectly. Nothing negates all the good will in the world like getting someone’s name wrong when you’re rejecting them.

And putting all of the rejectees’ names and email addresses in the To: line, and not bcc-ing them in a form rejection.

Although this falls under Tropes, “Dear Composer” is flat-out insulting. It’s the nineties – you should know how to use Mail Merge. You can do that with emails, too, you know, so that the form rejection at least has the composer’s name in it.

I’ve certainly not covered all of the tropes, the aggravations, the potential pitfalls, but if there’s one thing that must be absolutely clear: a rejection letter – be it for a competition, a call for scores, a school application, a job application, whatever – is a delicate thing that has much more power over a composer’s psyche than many people give it credit for. And while I loathe, Loathe, LOATHE the Romantic notion of the Sensitive Artist, composers do find rejection to be a very difficult thing. Everyone does, but there really is a special kind of anxiety and emotional fragility associated with artistic rejection.

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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.

Thanks!






The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Competitions Pt 3: Age Limits

[This is part three 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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Many of the composition competitions out there have decided to focus on helping composers at the beginnings of their careers, which is only fitting because once a composer has established herself sufficiently, she no longer needs awards to pad her CV in order to make herself more desirable to schools, other competitions, or (possibly) potential commissioners.

What tends to get overlooked by many of the organizations hosting these competitions, however, is that not all composers begin their careers in their youth. Some composers merely come to writing music late in life. And others start a musical career, then move away from music for whatever reason (usually financial) to return in later years, effectively starting over. Enough significant composers from the 20th century fall into either of these categories that they need not be listed here.

Consequently, imposing age restrictions on competition entrants has the net effect of excluding emerging-but-no-longer-young composers who could benefit greatly from the performances/exposure that a competition placement could earn them. Composers starting later in life are already at the disadvantage of having to change gears or start from scratch, so these limits put them at a greater disadvantage by excluding them from potentially beneficial opportunities.

And, as composer Christian Carey pointed out in a Twitter conversation on the subject, age limits are not only exclusionary, but further pander to the cult of youth that has already swept popular culture.

In short, we’re looking for a composer who – in addition to being talented and skilled – is also, as a former teacher of mine once described some of my extra-musical qualities, “Young, cute, and f*ckable.” (Srsly.)

We’ve also fallen prey to the 5 O’Clock News Syndrome: searching for the next wunderkind who will wow us all with his facility: the myth of the youthful talent that is so limitless that the organization who “discovers” them will be praised for all time for recognizing such a phenomenon. The five-year-old who plays Mozart perfectly after a single hearing. The 17 year-old who composes symphonies crammed with orchestral “color”. In short, a youth who can be propped up in front of audiences and donors as “the next Mozart”.

Wunderkinden are rare. And thankfully so, because we invariably ask them to run before they can walk, and few seem to continue past adolescence or early adulthood, when the pressures to recreate and simultaneously surpass their youthful successes become too great.

I understand that age limits are intended to keep out composers with more experience and (hopefully) growing careers, but they also neglect to take into account those composers whose careers haven’t reached a sufficiently significant level by age 30…35…40…whatever completely arbitrary number the committee decides to impose on entrants.

And one can’t help but wonder if there’s not a sense of distaste at the thought of having a competition winner be in his 60s. There is a more than subtle ageism at work here.

Not every composer started like me when he was 14. And not every composer finds success in youth, early adulthood, or even middle age – there are incredibly skilled and talented composers who toil away without recognition during their lifetimes.

There should be no problem awarding a composer who is not in her 20s or 30s because she started later or hasn’t yet achieved the status that she “should have” by such an age.

Taken alongside application fees and the rights grabs that many competitions make, it’s easy to suspect a certain…cynicism…at play in the organizations that host some of these competitions. The youth requirement all but guarantees that the entrants will be inexperienced and pliable, so a $25 gatekeeper fee doesn’t automatically seem outrageous to the applicants. Plus, a bit of legal-sounding language that seems to be guaranteeing a recording or multiple performances but which also effectively steals a composer’s rights will likely – and generally does – go unquestioned and unchallenged. After all, what experience do the entrants have to counter the claim, “This is just how things are done”?

The only ones to question these practices are the ones who are too old to apply anymore. And their criticisms can be easily written off as petty bitterness over not having achieved a certain status. (…which having won X competition would obviously have solved, if only they could enter it again.)

I’m just starting to age out of some of these competitions, and I honestly feel nothing but relief.

If organizations want to limit entrants to their competitions to be early in their careers, a glance at a composer’s works and CV list will show how long they’ve been at it, and how much experience they have. If a composer’s works list only goes back a handful of years, they’re obviously just starting out, regardless of age. If their musical education was 20 or 30 years ago, but their musical output has a corresponding 20 or 30 year gap…they’ve recently returned to their first love, and need all the help they can get in establishing themselves in this new career.

Competitions who purport to aid emerging composers (as opposed to composers just starting out) might have a slightly more difficult time with composers who are on the verge of moving from “emerging” to “established” (or whatever), but I think that this is a finer point that may need to be addressed on a competition-by-competition and composer-by-composer basis: “Is this composer sufficiently well-established that being awarded by our organization won’t be of significant aid to her career?”

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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.

Thanks!






The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Competitions Pt 2: Rights Grabs

[This is part two 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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The subject of competition rights grabs is something I’ve blogged about before on the NewMusicShelf, and I suggest you click on over to read that post, and if you haven’t done so already to read the Composer’s Guide miniseries on copyright.

The rights enumerated in copyright law are the key to an artist’s financial well-being. The only way we can generate any sort of income with our art is to retain as many of our rights as possible, which means that more rights we give away, the less income we can secure from our works.

And yet.

A worrisome number of competitions contain language in their rules and submission guidelines that grants the organization certain key rights to a composer’s intellectual property. Rights that the organization really has no valid reason to have or need. Rights whose exercise could cause severe damage to a composer’s financial well-being should the organization decide to make use of them.

Some examples I’ve seen are:

Right to make a commercial recording
Yeah, ok, I get that the organization or ensemble may be so excited about the winning entry/entries that they want to run straight into the studio to get the performances on disc.

But.

Anything regarding a recording – especially one that will be made commercially available on any level – should be reserved for a separate agreement between the organization and the specific composers involved. It shouldn’t be in a blanket edict dictated to all entrants to the competition at the time of application.

Most of the competitions that use this language also require that the composer waive certain fees and royalties that are normally payable to a composer. Meaning: the organization is claiming the right (by claiming yours) to make money off of a recording of your work without the attendant responsibility of having to pay you for it.

I’ve said this in other posts on this blog, but I’ll say it again: money always flows to the composer.

If someone uses your work, you need to be paid for it. Period. Especially if they stand to make money off of the performance/recording/synchronization. There is no use of your work that should not result in your remuneration. (Except certain educational uses. And music used in religious services – though I strongly disagree with this.)

The mechanical license for a small commercial release (and any sale of a recording constitutes a commercial release – it’s not just recordings sold by big record labels) shouldn’t be waived, especially since it’s not a large fee! When I questioned this point with a competition last year, I was given the excuse that the fee would be small anyway, so I shouldn’t mind waiving it. Sorry, no. If the fee is small anyway, the organization shouldn’t mind paying it.

Remember: the ensemble isn’t doing you a favor by recording your music. If they want to sell it, then they’re using your music to generate a profit for themselves. No one is doing anyone any favors, except the one where you waive your right to fees that are legally payable to you.

I get worked up over this because I see it quite a lot when I look at competition guidelines.

Maybe the organizations who use the language saw it in another competition’s guidelines, and decided to just adopt it into their own because they’re not really sure what sorts of things should go into competition guidelines.

Or maybe there’s a lawyer or businessperson involved in some of these organizations who knows just enough about IP law and the way that competitions are currently being run to think of putting in this language, but not enough to actually understand the potential and actual ramifications of the inclusion.

Namely: that there are significant monetary consequences to the commercial release of a recording of a piece of music. The composer’s only control over recordings of her works extends only to the first commercial release. This is the only time that she can negotiate the mechanical license and royalty rate, or veto the actual recording of the piece if it’s not of sufficiently high quality or not being recorded by performers she wants making this particular recording. All subsequent recordings of that work by other ensembles will only earn her a compulsory license fee, which pays 9.1 cents ($0.091) per copy sold for works under 5 minutes, and 1.75 cents ($0.0175) per minute of recorded music for works over 5 minutes. Beyond that, she will be owed nothing. So, first recordings are important. And you can be sure that a piece that already has a commercial recording probably won’t be eligible for 99% of these competitions, so the vast majority of submissions are unrecorded, meaning that these composers stand to lose something.

While these releases may end up flying under the radar if the distribution is purely physical, entirely offline, and on a small scale, under other, perfectly reasonable conditions they could present a major problem for the composer. If the competition organization is sufficiently tech savvy to get the recording on iTunes – which isn’t hard at all – anybody with an interest in recording the piece can find it if they do even marginal due diligence (and any ensemble working with a real label will get that due diligence from the label’s R&D team), and know that the composer only needs to be paid the compulsory license fee and no more. No permission need even be asked or notification given to make the recording! So whereas our hypothetical composer could have negotiated a reasonable license fee and royalty rate, this competition just screwed her out of hundreds or possibly thousands of dollars in royalties. And if she waived her fees and royalties because of the competition guidelines…..

The only way that a composer could make a decent royalty rate on non-first recordings is if a) the label decides to be uncharacteristically and magically generous, or b) the composer owns the rights to the recording herself, and will consequently earn the full profit from all sales. The latter meaning, of course, that she has either purchased the master, or paid for the entire recording process herself.

I should note that this little rant doesn’t extend to recordings made for archival purposes. Sometimes an organization just wants to have a recording on file of their performances for the sake of posterity or study or promotion. These uses are non-commercial, and have no significant impact on royalty rates or fees. For archival recordings, no mechanical license fee or royalty is due the composer, though I think that the composer should also get a copy of the recording for their own non-commercial use.

(The same competition that told me that I shouldn’t mind waiving the mechanical license fee, also tried to sell me the line that their recording would be archival, which to them meant that it would probably only sell one or two hundred copies. Sorry – not archival. That’s called a “limited commercial release.” And they’d still be making money off of composers who weren’t being compensated.)

Derivative works
One “competition” that I’ve specifically called out in the past really is a scam, and not just because it charges a hefty application fee and awards only a “Certificate of Excellence in Composition” to its winners. It makes a couple of rights grabs that a few other – infinitely more legitimate – competitions also make: most significantly, to make derivative works based on your submission. Seriously.

There is absolutely no reason why a competition should ever in a million years need to make an arrangement of your work or adapt it for any non-original purposes.

When I see this one, which is admittedly pretty rare, but still out there, the only thing I can think (besides, “Hulk Smash!”) is that someone has decided that they want to make some money by stealing rights to pieces, making arrangements, and selling them as their own work.

Performance Rights
Sometimes the competition claims the right to perform the work – almost invariably accompanied with the language “in perpetuity” (a phrase that makes my blood boil on good days) – royalty-free.

Sorry. No.

As a music presenter, the organization should have blanket licenses already in place with the major PROs, so your royalty will cost absolutely nothing more to the organization than what they’ve already paid. If they don’t have a blanket license in place, that’s a big problem, because it means that the organization isn’t paying royalties to anybody for any of the music that they perform! As someone who has paid these license fees before, I can say with absolute certainty that they aren’t expensive in the least, and are easy to obtain (though the PRO websites seem to have gotten more difficult to navigate lately – ya hear me, guys?)

Those unlicensed performances are – sing it with me, now – not. legal.

There’s no reason to ever waive your right to a performance royalty except maybe in the instance of a performance for charity – and then you should still be asked, and not dictated to.

You agree
All of these rights grabs are predicated on the idea that by submitting materials, you agree to all of the terms and conditions (the guidelines and eligibility rules) of the competition. There’s no need to sign here, here, and here, and initial here because you’ve probably filled out an application form, and you’ve definitely sent in scores for consideration; and as these things are worded, that (especially if you’ve signed an application form with attached guidelines) indicates that you have read and agree to all the terms.

Necessary Rights
There are, of course, rights that competitions need to exercise in order to operate: the right to use your name and likeness in press materials announcing that you’ve won, or in promotional materials for the organization or competition. Possibly the right to make photocopies of your materials for purposes of adjudications (which copies will be promptly destroyed). I’m not entirely convinced that a choral competition should have the right to make sufficient copies of the winning score(s) for the choir for performance, but I might be willing to let it slide. Still, I don’t think it would kill anybody to come up with a copying license fee for this latter instance.

Financial Liability
What I think all of these rights grabs really boil down to is not ignorance on the part of the organizers, or any active desire to harm composers or their financial well-being. Instead, it’s purely an act of looking out for the fiscal interests of the organizations themselves. Money is scarce everywhere, especially over the past few years. And ESPECIALLY in the arts. So if an organization can find ways to generate income (creating a recording, selling concert tickets) while also limiting their financial liabilities (not paying royalties, forcing composers to waive their fees, asking composers to submit scores rather than having to find and pay for them…), then they’re going to try them. It may not be sinister, it may not be intentionally harmful. But it is wrong. Administrators may be trying to avoid yet another expense, but it’s at the greater expense of the composers’ careers.

Which leads to issues of…

Professionalism
Because most of the composers who apply to the bulk of the competitions out there are young/emerging and generally professionally inexperienced, they’re not really equipped to know that there are potential and actual consequences to these rights grabs. And unfortunately, the fact that the rights grabs are becoming more and more common is training these composers to value their work less and less. If the organizations who set themselves up to be supportive of new music and of young/emerging composers will nickel and dime the artists, and insist that they waive their fees and royalties, those composers will be trained to put a low value on their art (and haven’t we already devalued it enough?). This sort of financial hamstringing is absolutely not in the interests of composers or of new music.

Rather than than using rights grabs to stiff young composers out of income that they’re entitled to, competitions should be helping to create professional expectations and standards of behavior. Organizations should be teaching young/emerging composers that they are entitled to be paid for their work, and affirming that composer’s rights are important, not manipulating them into giving up rights and waiving fees because the organization has so generously decided to perform a piece or award some paltry prize money.

This is not just a financial issue. It’s a moral one.

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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.

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

Thanks!






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!

§

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.

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Thanks!






Caveat Compositor

Over the coming weeks, I’ll be cross-posting a series of short essays that I wrote at the NewMusicShelf about self-publishing and making good financial decisions as an artist.

It’s one of those times of the year for me: time to check out the various “opportunity listings” with the Professional Organizations I’m a member of, and put together packets for competitions and calls for scores.

The thing that consistently annoys me about these applications is the ridiculous expense you go to in order to have a stranger judge you and your body of work based on a single score. If the competition requires that you submit your scores anonymously or pseudonymously, you’re dishing out money to print and bind this one-time-use-only score, mail it, and cover the return postage. Then there’s the cost of the other submission materials: CDs for recordings; labels for the CDs; a jewel case for the CD; envelopes; paper and ink for your cover letter, resume, bio, list of works, contest entry form, and the performance history of the work being submitted; and the sealed envelope marked with your pseudonym, containing your real name and the title of the work you’ve submitted. One application with one score and one recording can cost $20. Sending two scores and two CDs? Tack on another $10. And that’s all before any application fees. So, to enter a competition requiring two copies of the score and two CDs, as well as a $25 application fee (not at all unheard-of), you’re dishing out $55 at the very least. You can see why I’m happy that more and more competitions are going to electronic submissions!

This is sort of a long way of saying that I don’t particularly like application fees. I’m already dishing out a surprising amount of money to enter a competition, so making me write a check for $25 isn’t terribly endearing. Now, I totally understand that there are administrative costs to running a competition – judges need to be paid for their time; someone has to be paid to collect and sort the applications, get them to and from judges, and put them in their return mailers and get them back to their respective composers; and there are also costs to advertise the competition – but a competition whose intent is to benefit composers probably shouldn’t be taking so much of their money, especially considering that a composer probably isn’t limiting himself to applying to just one competition. If you apply to four competitions that need 2 scores, 2 recordings, and $25 app fee, you’ve just dropped $220.

Another function that an application fee supposedly serves is that of gatekeeper. Some application fees are in place to keep out those composers who aren’t really serious about the competition – just as some colleges and universities have exorbitant app fees in order to weed out those applicants who apply on a lark, and who don’t particularly intend to go there. Ostensibly, composers who aren’t very good and whose scores would add an unnecessary burden to the process would take themselves out of the runnings. I think that, more likely, these fees serve only to keep out serious composers who can’t afford the fee (see: Tobenski, Dennis from 2004-2010).

My thought is that the administrative costs should be budgeted for in advance. Any organization that has its act sufficiently together to hold a national – or international – competition, complete with prize money, should have an operating budget that takes these administrative expenses into account. And any organization that is using the entry fees to fund any part of its prize clearly doesn’t really have its act all that together, now does it?

There’s a potential argument that the administrative costs are budgeted for, and that the application fees are a projected part of that budget. To which I can only say: “Horse feathers!” If the organization has a real budget, it does fundraising. And if it does fundraising, it can come up with the judges’ and administrative fees. And maybe it can cut some costs by going digital, to boot. Save everyone some time and money. I know that fundraising is hard, especially in this economic climate. But being a young composer while trying to pay rent, feed yourself, and be an active participant in competitions and calls for scores is just a wee bit harder. (And it’s awfully awkward when you’re being taken to task by Fran Richard at ASCAP for not applying to competitions that you’re perfectly suited for yet can’t afford to submit to because you can’t really afford your rent and bills thanks to the abysmal job market (See: Tobenski, Dennis: June 2010).)

A nominal application fee, I understand. Something to help defray costs. For example: So-and-so is already being paid regularly for their time working for the organization, so a small application fee supplements their pay for the extra hours they’ll have to work to sort through and organize all of the submissions. Or: in exchange for working from their homes, the panelists have donated their time in judging the entries, so the application costs cover postage of the application materials to and from each of the judges. A bunch of small application fees can go a long way for an organization; conversely a small handful of application fees can be very harmful to a young composer’s financial stability. And don’t tell me that young composers should be more selective in which competitions they apply to (they should, but for different reasons) until everyone in the industry stops badgering us to “Apply! Apply! APPLY!!!”

I totally stand behind the American Music Center’s caveat about application fees on their website:

The American Music Center does not encourage the charging of entry fees to composers or performers participating in competitions, calls for scores, festivals, or other opportunities. While we understand that organizations may feel compelled to charge a nominal fee to help pay for reasonable administrative costs not covered by funding, the American Music Center strongly objects to organizations that charge fees in a manner that is misleading or inappropriate, such as charging relatively high entry fees in order to fund the cost of the actual award or performance or, worse, charging entry fees while reserving the right not to award any prize at all (e.g., hundreds or thousands made by charging fees, but no commission, performance, award, etc.). It is for these reasons that we urge all composers and performers to consider carefully all opportunities with entry fees and to contact AMC directly if you have questions or concerns about a particular opportunity.

I recently came across a competition listing that rubbed me completely the wrong way. The Midwestern organization hosting this competition offers an unspecified cash prize plus two performances to the composer of the winning entry. So after dishing out $25 for your first submitted score and $10 for your second, you have the chance to win $????.??! Bestill my beating heart! If you manage to read the submission guidelines all the way to the bottom, you find out that:

The composer of the winning piece will receive half of all entry fees collected, two concert performances in [date redacted], and a performance and/or recording session recording.

Your prize, should you win, is half of the collected entry fees. In other words, the organization hosting this competition didn’t budget for an award, and are hoping that a lot of suckers composers apply. You may be the only sucker composer who enters, which means that you’ll win $17.50 if you paid $35 to submit two scores. Or everyone in the world could apply, and you’ll be a billionaire!

If that weren’t weird and skeevy enough, this is the next bit from that paragraph which is buried at the bottom of the page.

[Name of organization redacted] will have non-exclusive, world-wide perpetual license to perform the winning piece and shall have the right to record the performance for archival and other purposes, including distribution and sale of such recording. Other submitted works may also be selected for performance but will not receive prize money.

Translation: If you win, then by having entered the competition, you give the organization perpetual license to perform your piece, record it, and use the recording however they damn well please. So you are entering into a contract with the organization signing over a portion of your rights, allowing them to make money off of your works in perpetuity. And the benefit to you that is explicitly spelled out in this contract? …. Yeah, I thought so. There’s no mention of mechanical rights; royalties; the ability to veto a recording that’s god-awful; coaching, consultation, or any involvement whatsoever with the rehearsal or recording processes; or even your right to have your name on the recording next to the title of your piece. Skeevy.

Taking a step back for a moment, most arts organizations operate on the policy of good faith. In a recent conversation I had with a pretty major agent for composers, it was further driven home to me that most contracts in the concert music world are mostly for show. Even with a major commission, the contract is never truly followed, save for the dollar amounts that should be written on checks to the composer. The whole transaction happens purely on good faith. My recent blogular hard-assed-ness to the contrary, I totally stand behind the practice of operating on good faith. We are artists, after all, not divorce attorneys!

So the problem that I have with this particular competition is that this paragraph clearly outlines the composer’s obligation to the ensemble, but not the ensemble’s obligation to the composer. Because it’s buried at the bottom of the page, and it uses such phraseology as “non-exclusive, world-wide perpetual license” and “shall have the right”, in my mind it belongs to the slimy world of fine print. I half expected to see “Some restrictions may apply,” or “Void where prohibited,” tacked onto the end. It just seems to nullify the idea of good faith.

I’m willing to believe that this competition is legit, but that it’s just very poorly managed. And it’s very unfortunate that someone in the organization felt the need to make such a slimy grab at the entrants’ rights. They want to perform the piece? Great, they’ll have to pay royalties. They want to record it? They’ll sign an agreement with my publisher (i.e., me), outlining the fee for the mechanical rights, and ensuring that I’m either involved with the preparation of the piece or have the power to veto its use on the disc should I be unhappy with the result. It’s not just in my best interest that the recording be good – I should hope that the censemble would want that, as well.

This is the sort of competition that makes me question all the others, and I don’t want that.


Free Kittens Scores

Over the coming weeks, I’ll be cross-posting a series of short essays that I wrote at the NewMusicShelf about self-publishing and making good financial decisions as an artist.

Giving away scores. We’ve all done it. You meet a performer, the two of you talk, and they say that they’d love to see a copy of that piece you wrote for their instrument (because it just happens that you have one – quelle coïncidence!). The two of you exchange cards. You rush home – giddy at the prospect of a performance – and mail off a prettily bound copy of the score.

What happens next?

Probably nothing, aside from the performer having a copy of your piece in a pile somewhere in their apartment.

You’ve done this. I’ve done this. We’ve all done this.

I think we should probably stop.

We don’t need to stop entirely, but we do need to take a step back and look at the situation for a moment.

The thing that bothers me about giving away scores for free (ok, there are several things that bother me about it) is that it can devalue the scores and the work that went into creating them. Not to mention the fact that we’ve just spent our own money to print and bind a score – and maybe mail it, too – for someone else who will in all likelihood ignore it. And this is considered to be a perfectly acceptable scenario (the rudeness of the ignoring part aside). It’s not only generally acceptable for a composer to go to the expense of printing, binding, and mailing a score at their own expense so that someone else can have it for free, but it’s expected.

One of the problems is that quite often we’re asked to give someone a copy of the score. It’s not so outright as, “Hey, will you give me a copy of that for free?” But that’s the underlying message. That said: I’m absolutely positive that the intention is never to weasel a free score out of us. (How awful would that be?) It comes from a place of good intentions and even genuine interest, I’m sure, but these things add up, and they can add up quickly. The unintended implication here, though, is that our work isn’t really worth offering to pay for.

Another, bigger problem is that we (young-and/or-emerging-in-particular) composers, in our desperation to be loved and performed everywhere, give away our scores higgledy-piggledy. We meet a performer (who we probably just heard on stage), go all a-twitter at her performerliness, and throw anything at her that we’ve written and that happens to make use of her instrument. Go dignity!

Regardless of whether we are asked for a score or offer it, there’s an element of “insult to injury” to the scenario – in the latter scenario, we just happen to be insulting ourselves. The injury is that we’ve spent our own money to print, etc the score. The insult is manifold. First, someone (the composer and/or the score-requester) thinks it’s ok for the composer to spend their own money to print, blah blah blah. Second, beyond the score itself, there’s the whole element of the composer having spent years and years and tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars studying and preparing to be able to spend the days/weeks/months writing the music and engraving the score that was given away for free. I, for one, didn’t spend all that time and tuition on my degrees or all that money and time on private study so that I could spend more money to just give away the fruits of my labor and education.

In the case of composers throwing scores at anyone they come into contact with, I’d like to see us be a little more dignified. There’s nothing wrong with wanting this new, exciting person to perform our works, but maybe we can create a more significant bond with them that will make it a bit more likely that they would perform our works in public.

In the case of being asked for scores, I do see less and less of this going on, which I like. In my own experience, I’ve had a growing number of people offer to purchase copies of my scores rather than ask for them outright. I think the difference is that, while yes the culture may be changing, these people also know that my scores are available on my website and on the NewMusicShelf (yay!), and that they’re affordable.

So, some potential solutions as I see them.

Solution 1: Stop treating scores like noodles and performers like walls, throwing one at the other and hoping they’ll stick. Instead, create relationships with performers, which will hopefully make them genuinely interested in your music and in performing it regularly. Then you can give them all the scores you want for free – it’s much more meaningful, and will probably be infinitely more fruitful.

Solution 2: If a performer says, “Yeah, I’d like to check out your piece for kazoo and nose flute,” direct them to your website where they can hear audio of the piece, and buy a copy of the score if they’re so inclined. This, of course, necessitates that you a) have a website (if you don’t: shame, shame, shame! Do it now!), b) have MP3s of your works, and c) have a set-up on your site or somewhere else to sell your scores (admittedly harder to do without a certain level of Web Skillz or someone to do it for you).

Solution 3: If a performer wants to check out your work, and you want to give it to them for free – email it. Save yourself the printing and postage costs. Not to mention the tree.

We’ve all gone through a lot of expensive preparation for our chosen careers, be we composer or performer, and we’re all in this strange, maybe-sinking ship (if you listen to any number of critics, which I don’t) of concert music together. While I’m not advocating a stance of “pay me or you get nothing”, I am a big advocate of working together in a way that’s fair to everyone, and not treating your work as something without value beyond the purely artistic.

Now, I do like giving away scores, I’ll be the first to admit, but I try to be judicious in who I give them to. Someone just performed one of my works? They get a signed copy of the score in thanks, and maybe second one – something I’d like to hear them do next. A close friend’s birthday? I write them a song and present them with a copy. I set a poet’s words? Signed copy, absolutely. Someone is a big advocate of new music in general, and my works in particular? You better bet that they get scores from me! But performers I just met? Not likely. I’m more interested in having it mean something when I give away a score.