The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Competitions Pt 5: Odds & Ends

[This is part five 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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As this mini-series draws to a close, I thought I’d tackle a few issues that don’t necessarily warrant an entire post to themselves.

Anonymous/Pseudonymous Entry
Quite a number of competitions attempt to level the playing field by requiring that all distinguishing marks on a score be removed – any names, places, or clues as to the potential identity of the composer. The idea is that by masking the identities of the composers, the panel is prevented from awarding a work based in any significant part on the reputation of the composer (or not awarding a work based on the reputation of the composer…). Instead, the panel’s decision is based entirely on the artistic merit of the piece. In theory.

In practice, it’s entirely possible that a panelist may already know a particular score, or be able to identify the style of a composer he or she is acquainted with. In theory, the panelist should recuse himself when it comes to that submission, but we know that doesn’t always happen. As well-meaning as these panelists may be, and as objective as they may think they are or try to be, it’s still an ethical problem.

Another problem with these types of entries is the amount of time and money that a composer has to spend in creating this separate version of her score and all of her materials. If I’m submitting a song cycle, I have to go song by song removing my name, my poet’s name (because they’re probably alive, and I’m likely one of the few composers they’ve collaborated with), the copyright information, dedications, and dates and locations at the double bars. Then re-export the songs to a PDF; merge the PDFs; create a new version of the cover without my name, the poet’s name, or my publishing company; create that PDF with the other front matter (again, removing the poet’s name from the texts); merge those with the rest of the score to create a single file to print from; then send the score to be printed at my local copy shop, and pick up the new score. Now, of course, I have an anonymous version of the file for the next time I want to submit the piece to a competition that require anonymous entry, but I have no other use for the file.

Oh, wait, the next competition I want to send it to requires a pseudonym? Sure, I don’t mind starting all over. There’s nothing better I could be doing with my time.

Then there are the actual costs. While I could have just grabbed a copy of one of my scores with my name on the cover off of my shelf and popped it in the envelope with a SASE, then reused the score when it was returned to me, instead I have to spend $15-20 to have a new one printed and bound. 8.5×11, black and white, double sided, clear front, black back, coil binding. Or 11×17, black and white, booklet style, card stock cover, saddle stitched. And let’s not forget the digital processing fee that many copy shops charge. Now I have a copy that’s only good for competitions that require anonymous submissions! Joy!

Pseudonyms are also particularly sticky things, and offer composers an opportunity to attempt to game the system. While enough of us believe that entering competitions is akin to entering the lottery (you’re probably going to lose), some try to stack the odds in their favor. By watching lists of competition winners, some composers claim to see trends in the genders and races of winners and runners up. Consequently, I know of several composers who have multiple pseudonyms at the ready to attempt to sway panelists’ opinions: Hispanic male and female pseudonyms, Korean female, Chinese male, Eastern European male, etc.

Electronic Submissions
Yes, please!

More and more competitions are doing the electronic submission thing, and we composers thank you. It saves us a lot of time and money. Plus, it leaves control of our materials with us – we don’t have to worry that the copy shop might get it wrong – and getting it wrong for a last-minute submission is devastating.

And there are lots of other little perks, too.

Electronic submissions are easy to implement – they don’t require fancy online software that comes with monthly costs, only an email address. Download the files, organize them into folders, and you’re set! Or set up a Dropbox account and have applicants share their materials in a dedicated folder.

E-submissions are also more eco-friendly in that they don’t require that more paper be shuffled around.

And materials can’t get lost or damaged like they can in the mail. Plus, they make deadlines that much easier to enforce – there aren’t any stragglers coming in days late because of slow mail service. If the files aren’t received by X time on Y date, which is easy to see by the email’s timestamp, it’s late.

Performance History
I see an awful lot of competitions that require that the submitted works not have received a premiere. Or at least not a “professional” performance.

This assumes one of two things: 1) that composers just happen to have works for such-and-such instrumentation lying around that they haven’t gotten around to getting performed yet, or 2) that the entrants will write something specifically for the competition.

#1 is plausible under certain conditions: the composer is young and has only received performances of the piece at school, which doesn’t constitute a “professional” premiere; or the composer wrote the work on spec and hasn’t yet managed to find an ensemble willing or able to play it. Great, fine, whatever.

But to assume #2 is a little heinous.

My favorite use of this requirement in competition guidelines occurred several months ago – a friend Tweeted a link to a competition for choral music that required the composer to submit three unperformed pieces. The panel would then select a composer, award them something like $200, and ask them to write an entirely new piece without performing any of the others.

This type of requirement also indulges in the Premiere Fetish. It values new works above all the other excellent music that already exists, and which would benefit greatly from a second or third performance. It’s also incredibly selfish, especially since the ensemble can claim a world premiere without having burdened themselves with the expense of paying for a commission, which is simply abusive, manipulative, and exploitative.

My recommendation is to search for works with a limited performance history. It widens the field for composers to send in solid work – which one should hope that the organizations would appreciate – while still leaving openings for the ensemble to claim the performance as some sort of regional premiere (there’s a post coming soon on this topic). By all means, require that the piece not have been previously awarded. And even say that preference may be given to works that have not been premiered.

Publication History
While the requirement for works to be unpublished is becoming more and more a thing of the past, I still see it crop up now and again. The only reason it bothers me is that it overlooks this little thing that a couple of composers have started doing, called “self-publishing.” Fortunately, nobody has ever been successful with such blatant vanity projects.

Yeah, ok, I’ll stop being bitchy and admit that the point of this language is to exclude works that are published by a company with established national distribution channels. These works already have the advantage of being more easily discoverable by performers and ensembles on a national or even international scale than self-published works, and are presumably less in need of whatever boosts these competitions may have to offer.

I really just want to see better language here. Something along the lines of, “Submitted works should not have received publication by a company in which the composer does not have full or partial ownership.” It’s a relatively minor point when put side-by-side with rights grabs (3 years exclusive performance rights and 6 years exclusive recording rights with no additional compensation to the composer?? with an application fee!), but it acknowledges the legitimacy of self-publishing, as well as the fact that composers aren’t shackled to a particular way of handling their careers.

I have a few more posts on competitions that I’ll publish in the coming weeks, but these past few installments are the major, salient points, and constitute my biggest issues with the way that they’re currently run. I appreciate organizations that want to champion new music and give voice to composers’ works and recognition and assistance to composers themselves, but many of them fall prey to outdated modes of operation that do more harm than good to composers and the musical community at large.

Stay tuned for the conclusion to this mini-series: my excruciatingly humble opinion on how I believe that competitions should be run.

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