Chicago-based chamber music ensemble eighth blackbird has earned the admiration of many a composer over the past 14 years for their electrifying performances, outreach to new audiences, and tireless championship of contemporary programming. That is, until the announcement of their new composition competition earlier this month.

It seems that in order to enter the competition, composers have to pay a fee of $50 per work considered. There is a longstanding anathema towards competition entry fees in composer circles, however, and a post on Sequenza21 drawing attention to the situation has drawn a firestorm of over 100 comments.

It’s bad enough, according to composers, that there’s an entry fee charged at all. When I worked at the American Music Center, there was standard language in our monthly newsletter listing competition opportunities that cast a stern frowny-face on those that charged entry fees. The ones that did were actually relegated to their own section, after the entry-fee-free listings, and preceded by a clear statement that AMC did not endorse the practice. Several other composer service organizations take more or less the same stance. What’s really astonishing about this competition, however, is the size of the fee in combination with the financial reward provided to the winner. Composers are asked to pay $50 for each work submitted (up to two submissions allowed); yet the single prize awarded consists of $1000 cash, a day of rehearsal time with eighth blackbird, a single performance and promotional recording, and $500 for travel, totaling on the order of $2000 in direct expenses associated with this competition. It doesn’t take a math genius to realize that this competition may well pay for itself or even make a tidy profit, a huge no-no from the perspective of composers. I have heard of calls for scores with no prize money at all attracting upwards of 300 submissions; it’s possible that the high entry fee will counteract the effects of the award and the much higher profile of eighth blackbird, but even half that figure would yield 8bb’s members several grand for themselves on top of what they spend on the competition.

In one sense, it’s odd for composers to be angry about paying fees, even at $50 a pop, to have their work considered. The culture of not paying entry fees for composer competitions is, if anything, unusual even for the nonprofit sector; composers’ cousins in music, instrumentalists, have competitions of their own and almost always have to pay high entry fees to enter (as several commenters in the Sequenza21 thread were quick to point out). Fees for consideration are common in workshops, summer programs, etc., not to mention of course the granddaddy of them all, college and graduate school applications. The fact is, sifting through hundreds of applications, work samples, and other materials and giving them thoughtful consideration takes time and has real costs, especially if the sifter is busy with other things. The composer may not always have to pay for this service, but it’s never free.

On the other hand, there are real problems with this line of thinking. The first is that it’s not consistent. As a society, we seem to find application fees for the above situations, especially college admissions, perfectly acceptable and normal. But imagine the uproar if foundations started requiring fees to apply for a grant, or if employers tried instituting a fee for sending in a job application? There’s really no vast difference in the resource demands or relationship between applicant and adjudicator between this curatorial process and the ones mentioned just above – yet the culture around entry fees is completely different. Why? Secondly, I’ve written at length on this blog (and will continue to do so) about how class differences give certain artists enormous advantages in an unforgiving market for their work, and competition entry fees are a prime example of why this is a problem. A commenter on Sequenza21, defending the practice, illustrates the point:

$50 is a lot for an entry, but consider your average weekend. Perhaps you go to out to eat, perhaps with your significant other. At most restaurants your looking at around $25-$30 for dinner for two. Maybe you wanna catch a movie so you can hear that new Hans Zimmer score. Tickets for one or two could range anywhere from $10-$20, plus popcorn, candy, drinks. What if instead of a movie you went to a ballgame? Or a play? Or (most hopefully) a symphony concert?

$50 is not a ton to spend on a weekend if you have a secure, full-time job that pays you at least $40,000 a year. For many composers, however, especially the sort that is still entering competitions to gain exposure, the situation is quite different. I recall a period of time during my days in New York when, because of the money I was losing on composing, I ate out approximately once a month, took girls on dates to pizza places, etc. – and I did have a full-time job. Furthermore, this is not just about one competition. Realistically, a composer has little chance of winning the prize, so she has to enter numerous such competitions in order to contemplate the possibility of making her money back in prize winnings. If all of those opportunities have $50 entry fees, only the composers with a secure flow of cash will be able to persevere.

Finally, we have the differential in the valuation of the composer’s time and the ensemble’s time. By setting up the competition as a potential profit-making enterprise, eighth blackbird implicitly states that its time is too valuable to devote in-kind to this relationship, yet it expects the winning composer to donate, at a minimum, their time spent applying to the competition and their time coaching the rehearsal and being present at the performance, and possibly the time writing or adapting a piece specifically for the ensemble as well. This valuation differential frustrates composer Dennis Báthory-Kitsz so much that it inspired him to create the Báthory-Kitsz Performing Ensemble Competition 2010, wherein ensembles apply to him (with entry fee, natch) for the privilege of playing his music.

What many composers in the Sequenza21 thread miss, though, is that there’s good reason for a power differential in this particular case: i.e., to put it bluntly, that eighth blackbird is famous and they are not. Báthory-Kitsz’s proposal would make more sense and the argument would carry more weight if his name were Osvaldo Golijov or John Adams, but it’s not. This is essentially the argument put forth by eighth blackbird’s administrative director, Chris Richardson, in defending his decision to set up the competition this way:

A few have said or implied that the award isn’t sufficient. I’m rather surprised by this contention. I truly thought being the sole winner of an annual contest personally judged by eighth blackbird, plus having the piece performed, plus travel and lodging, plus $1,000 cash, was rather significant.

But eighth blackbird is not blameless in this scenario either. Richardson explains the origins of the competition as follows:

First, it should be worth noting that the contest emerged as a response to a single issue: a growing number of unsolicited submissions. As David wrote above, there is a large pile of scores and recordings in the studio. The group does not want to simply ignore the hard work of composers, and yet they simply do not have time to review them. The question became, ‘how do we rationally manage submissions?’ Having an annual contest provides just such a system. Now there is a simple and objective determination for whether a score is reviewed or not.

[...]

I argued very strongly there be a fee. I believe it encourages self-selection, and as has been repeated above, it just seems to be the standard model. I’m more familiar with the screenwriting world than that of composing, and I have never heard of a screenplay contest that didn’t have a fee. Further, we wanted there to be a significant prize, so the contest would have to pay for itself….Perhaps we’re naive, but we are anticipating about 35-50, which at $50 per application would be just enough to break even, with perhaps a little bit for our time if we’re lucky. I hope we’re wrong and you’re right. This is the first time we’ve done this, so we really have no idea.

There are two things to talk about here. First, Richardson explains in no uncertain terms that this competition is meant to replace, not augment, the band’s consideration of unsolicited scores. In the past, they would receive hundreds of scores from composers, and devoted their time and attention gratis to seeing whether they wanted to perform any of them. Now, suddenly, they are saying they need to be paid for their time spent doing so. Fair enough – but then it’s disingenuous for Richardson or the ensemble to frame this competition, as they have, as some wonderful gift to composers. It’s not. It’s a business decision designed to cut down on their own costs, and composers are smart enough to realize that and treat it accordingly.

Secondly, it’s obvious that Richardson and the ensemble did almost no research on composer competitions before releasing theirs into the world. If they had devoted even an hour’s worth of time to perusing publications listing such opportunities and talking to colleagues who had organized similar competitions in the past, they would have known that $50 is considered a very high entry fee, that it’s very uncommon to expect composers to fully subsidize the competition’s costs, and that large numbers of composers apply for competitions. That they did not do so is pretty much a public relations/business 101 bungle.

(Update: Isaac at Parabasis weighs in here.)

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  • David Hanlon

    Hey Ian, great post. A very small point: If we take Richardson’s word for it, the competition is not replacing the gratis consideration of scores, because there were so many scores that consideration was not taking place for the vast majority. This raises an interesting question: presumably in 8bb’s old system a score would be looked at if the composer was already known to 8bb, personally or by reputation. Naturally that is a little unfair. Now if you pay 8bb $50 they will take a look whether you are known to them or not. As you pointed out, this is unfair as it favors composers who can afford to be entering competitions. Is one unfairness worse than the other?

    I would say that the competition is less unfair, just in that composers who 8bb are already interested will still find a way to get the scores to them with or without the competition. So the pool is deeper, and access is not gained by having gone to the right school or having the right reputation but by a manageable financial investment. It also might be worth noting there might be benefits even without winning. If I was in 8bb and I liked a piece that didn’t win, you can be sure I would find out who wrote it and would keep that composer on my radar, and mention that composer to friends.

  • http://maltedmedia.com/bathory/ Dennis Báthory-Kitsz

    Thanks for your comments.

    You note that my tongue-in-cheek competition might have more impact were I as famous as 8bb. The truth is, fame is all 8bb has going for them over the hundreds of other new nonpop groups.

    So 8bb capitalizes on its fame to take in a little extra cash — as if they weren’t already paid to do their work. Is there no irony in the fact that they achieved that very fame on the backs of composers, without whom they’re nothing?

    It sometimes seems composers are being oh-so-polite and afraid to offend 8bb because their work might get played by them. They need to be called out, which I’ve been doing for years with every group that uses its fame or power in an exploitive way.

    (And you’re right. I’m not famous (except perhaps as my broadcasting alter ego Kalvos) and I’m not part of the academic network. But even as an independent composer I’ve had 270 compositions performed and been commissioned 182 times. Not everything is about achieving fame. Sometimes it’s just about hard work.)

    Dennis

  • June

    Absolutely fantastic entry. I truly wish there were more people paying attention to class issues in music.

    And yes, I have almost never paid $50 for a weekend’s entertainment, and the comparison you heard between a weekend and the 8bb fee is both ridiculous and (imho) guaranteed to have come from someone in a privileged economic position. That comparison is as insulting as that old cliche in personal finance articles, “just give up your daily latte and you’ll save thousands a year.”

  • Steven Kudlo

    Sometimes there are no solutions to a problem. Without money you can do nothing in classical music. It’s basically now a charity. Composers are on the top of the music making pyramid, but they’ve been usurped by the past (Thank you Beethoven!)–Steve.