Caveat Compositor

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.

About Dennis Tobenski

Dennis Tobenski (b. 1982) has been hailed by the New York Times as a "dynamic vocalist" and a composer whose music is "distinctive and engaging". He has studied with composers David Del Tredici, Chester Biscardi, Daron Hagen, and Stephen Andrew Taylor, and has received fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Prairie Center of the Arts, and the Ucross Foundation. Dennis is the co-founder of the Tobenski-Algera Concert Series, whose mission is to present and promote new music by young and emerging composers, and the founder of, an online digital distributor of scores by self-published composers. (
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