You Don’t Pay, We Don’t Play? Questioning Entry Fees

Skimming a listing of composer competitions, you can’t help but wonder about announcements like this one:

“The composition must be for solo flute and string orchestra, 10-15 minutes in duration. There is a cash award of $500 plus a premiere performance by the ABC String Ensemble. There is a $50 application fee. Composer must be available to attend the premiere.”

Even if your background in economics is limited, a skeptical alarm bell begins to ring—loudly. It doesn’t take a math wiz, after all, to figure out that the first ten applications through the door could effectively front the prize money. Now, there are also issues of paying for staff time, a score review processes, and all the costs that go into the actual performance, but this all leads quickly to a very basic question: Is it fair to ask composers to fund the entire process so that their work has a chance of being performed?

Living in a capitalist society with limited funding for arts organizations, the realist understands that even new music organizations with altruistic intentions need to raise competition funding from somewhere, but as an industry we need to look closely at when competition entrance fees are appropriate and what amount is reasonable to help offset those costs. Shifting the financial burden onto already underpaid and under-appreciated composers is not a fair or viable solution.

To charge or not to charge?

Tellingly, both ASCAP and BMI, composers’ rights organizations that each hold their own internal competitions, have a policy against charging any entry fee whatsoever, though a SASE is requested to defray the cost of returning materials to composers.

“At the BMI Foundation, we wouldn’t launch [a competition] until we had enough money to make it happen. It doesn’t make sense to do it otherwise,” says Ralph Jackson, president of the BMI Foundation, assistant vice president of Classical Music Relations, and director of the BMI Student Composer Awards. “My feeling about it is that if you’re going to run some sort of competition for composers, that if you don’t have enough money to pay for the cost to run it and to give the prize, you shouldn’t give it.”

Fran Richard, vice president and director of Concert Music at ASCAP, expresses identical concerns. “We do not ourselves do this [charge for entry] and we hope that those people who hold out such opportunities to composers find the means to fund that effort without resorting to making the composers chip in various fees that cover the cost. It isn’t just the administrative cost but it is particularly onerous when the prize money itself is generated through these fees.”

An Acceptable Gamble?

Jeffrey Nytch, composer and managing director of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, sees a distinction between competitions that are worth the price of entry and those that are clearly a fundraiser for the parent organization. Nytch offered this look into the operations of PNME’s Harvey Gaul Competition to illustrate his point. An excerpt of our conversation is included below.—MS

MS: I’d like to hear your thoughts on how competition entrance fees should be determined in general and how specifically they are used by your organization to support the Harvey Gaul competition. Do they cover your expenses or only defray a portion, etc.?

JN: I’m happy to say that the Harvey Gaul Competition is a situation where I can honestly justify the entry fee of $20. In the case of PNME, whose prime mission is to support the commissioning and premiering of new work, we have always strived to make the payoff for the competition something significant. We receive funds from the Harvey Gaul endowment that cover the administrative expenses of the competition; these expenses are nominal anyway, and any organization that claims it must raise several thousand dollars to cover the costs of mounting the competition are either not using their money very well or are just plain fibbing. In 2004 I’ll spend a few hundred dollars sending out postcards to our mailing list, we’ll take full advantage of Internet postings and newsletters, and we’ll pay a modest honorarium to our adjudication panel. Total costs: about $500. We feel strongly that 100% of entry fees should go towards supporting a nice commission fee (though they only fund about 60% of the commission amount). In addition, since the PNME Artistic Director serves on the adjudication panel, non-winners are often asked to write new works for PNME as well or have their existing work performed by the company.

Until now, the first prize has been a $3,000 commission and premiere from PNME. Travel and accommodations for the premiere are covered. Still, we felt that we wanted to make the winning award even more significant, because we recognize that even $3,000 was not likely to attract the finest composers — and therefore would keep us from fully accomplishing our mission. I short, we want to perform the best music possible, and we want to compensate composers at a level worthy of their talent. So, in 2004, the next Harvey Gaul competition will be announcing a $6,000 commission for the winner. We feel this will raise the stature of the competition and begin to attract the “top drawer” talent that we wish to showcase during our seasons.

In addition, [the entries] will continue to be a pool from which other commissions and performances will arise, something that benefits composers and PNME alike. For a $20 entry fee, that strikes me as a reasonable trade-off. I would be against raising the fee any further, even if it meant we had to contribute some operating funds to keep it going. The Harvey Gaul is not in any way a fundraiser for PNME; we consider it a fundraiser for composers, and one that results in significant new works being added to the repertoire.

MS: I know some people don’t submit scores to competitions that charge a fee. In your experience, do you think the fee effectively keeps some composers from applying? Is that a necessary/acceptable risk from PNME standpoint?

JN: Again, I think that’s a function of the size of the prize and the stature of the competition. I’m sure our fee keeps some from applying (either because of financial limitations or just on principle), but I think that may be more than offset by those who might not normally enter a competition but will give us a try because they know that, 1) they’ll get a first-rate performance and, 2) the prize money is considerable. We’ve had several composers tell us that they don’t normally enter competitions but they did so with us for one or both of those reasons. So I think it varies.

MS: Some of the people I’ve been speaking with take exception to entry fees of any kind. But how would you respond to a cash-strapped composer who asked why he/she should be responsible for contributing to raising the prize money?

JN: Well, it depends on how much you want to gain. If paying a reasonable fee helps raise the pot for the winner, I may view that as an acceptable gamble. I’m also making a contribution “to the cause,” even if I’m not the winner. I’m very practical about these things: if I think it’s a reasonable gamble then I’ll pony up my $20 and takes my chances. I realize and respect the principle that we composers already are under-paid and our success is due almost entirely to our own ability to promote ourselves…it’s a rotten deal and it doesn’t say much for our culture. But, that’s the way it is. A lot of composers like to sit around and complain about it, but I’ll just go with the practical side: Hey, I don’t have to enter. If I want to, and I want a shot at the award, then I’ll pay the price of admission.

Also, there are a lot of competitions out there with no fees—especially for younger or emerging composers. So it’s not like their voice is being shut out entirely. I would certainly not be in favor of all competitions charging fees…that would be counterproductive. But, as part of the range of available options, I think some competitions with no fees and some with fees but larger prizes is a healthy mix.

MS: I’m interested in the fact that non-winners are often asked to write new works for PNME as well. Was this a stated goal of the competition when it started or just a side effect?

JN: A pleasant side effect, I believe, although I was not around when the competition was inaugurated. But since we are constantly on the lookout for new talent, the competition is an excellent way to become acquainted with all sorts of people who might not otherwise cross our paths.

Jackson agrees. “Sometimes you get the feeling the money involved in these application fees is going to be the prize money, and what that’s doing is creating a prize off the back of the losing composers.”

The system of fees does have its ill effects. There’s no shortage of disgruntled composers who have abandoned the competition circuit completely, or at least the fee-based ones.

When I asked for a reason, one young composer responded, “Do you mean stories like paying $60 and receiving tapes back which obviously haven’t even been opened? And when, out of hundreds of “anonymous” scores, somehow the winners lists of particular competitions are always name composers and/or students affiliated with the particular organization or school?” Though his answer hints at perceived problems with competitions that stretch far beyond the cost of entry, with money and music on the line, the impression of the situation was one of adding economic insult to artistic injury.

Buying Your 15 Minutes

Composer representative Howard Stokar acknowledges the reality that young composers just starting out might feel compelled to pay some fees to have their music reviewed by colleagues and performing ensembles and to pick up some measure of initial recognition through these types of awards and commissions. “There are exceptions one can make, but you have to be careful,” he cautions. Ultimately however, he sees fees as a fairly slippery slope. “It’s screwing young people, that’s how I take it, composers who feel they wouldn’t get something otherwise. And composers are basically so badly treated in general as opposed to other people in the arts because there is so little money in it,” he says.

In an effort towards education, composer advocacy organizations such as the American Composers Forum and the American Music Center have adopted a policy of cautioning composers when advertising opportunities with entry fees. For example, the AMC’s Opportunity Update carries the note that the organization “does not encourage the charging of entry fees” and that it “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.”

When Carnegie Hall announced a call for applications to the John Harbison/Dawn Upshaw Workshop for Composers and Singers, some in the industry questioned the $30 non-refundable application fee. Though this opportunity does have a workshop and commission attached to it and no tuition is to be charged, the question arose as to why a large budget organization was asking for money from the emerging career composers the workshop was aimed at.

Hollis Headrick, director of the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall under which the organization’s education programs fall, explains that the fee is a standard for all the professional training workshops offered at Carnegie Hall and helps defray overhead, but accounts for “only about 3.5 percent of the cost of the project.” Headrick equated it to college admission application fees, and though Carnegie Hall did receive one complaint from a composer about the cost, that individual applied. Though he realizes that cost may prevent some from applying, he also suggests that fee has significance. “There’s a subtle message,” he says, “if you have to pay for something, you get something of quality.” For the 160 composers who sent in their checks and their applications—which included biographical information and letters of recommendation—each had their work and their names in front of Harbison and Upshaw for a least a little while during the review process. Whether that opportunity was worth the $30 was left to each composer to decide.

Meeting The Bottom Line

No fee policies may be a fine philosophy for large organizations, such as ASCAP and BMI to follow, but smaller organizations that want to hold such competitions face a number of financial considerations.

Still, planning and intelligent fundraising seems to have helped Music at the Anthology, founded by composer-performers Lisa Bielawa and Eleanor Sandresky. The organization regularly commissions new work for an annual festival and solicits work samples from potential composers, but charges no fee for consideration.

“Eleanor and I have always felt that the expenses of preparing scores and materials are already so high that composing is already a financially treacherous field,” explains Bielawa. Charging fees would feel antithetical to their conception of MATA as an advocate for young composers just starting their careers. According to Bielawa, they raise the needed funds from other sources. “When foundations make grants to us to support the commissioning program, we write a portion of our own honorarium into that budget, since our time is part of the process of commissioning,” she says.

Michael Reese is the executive director of Composers, Inc. which hosts the Lee Ettelson Composers’s Award. For a fee of $25 for single entrees and $20 each for multiple entries, composers are considered for one of two $1000 awards and a performance on Composers, Inc.’s San Francisco concert series.

The fee, Reese says, “is a modest amount that helps us meet the considerable costs of holding the competition but does not make it inaccessible. The large amount of staff and board time we spend as well the printing and mailing of contest announcements makes the actual expenses of holding the competition larger than the fees provide.”

He acknowledges, however, that each composer needs to weigh carefully the award offered and the reputation of the host organization and the performing ensemble, and then should make an informed and considered decision.

“For Composers, Inc., the $25/20 fee provides a functional balance that allows us to continue holding the competition,” says Reese. “Generally what’s appropriate is charging a fee to help defray the costs and ensure the quality of the performance that usually accompanies the award. Ideally, a competition should exist for recognition of outstanding work and not as a source of revenue.”

Composer Pierre Jalbert is no stranger to the competition circuit, including the Lee Ettelson Composers’ Award, BBC Masterprize, BMI and ASCAP Awards, and the Rome Prize. He feels that ideally competitions should not have an entry fee, but he can also understand the difficulty of raising the needed funding to administer the competition. “I would say anything over $25 should be looked at carefully to see whether it’s worth entering. Many of the important competitions don’t require an entry fee,” he says.

Though he no longer enters competitions (“At a certain point, you are no longer a young composer and the music has to speak for itself.”), he says he would still encourage up and coming composers to apply, “but only after considering those without fees first and looking at the overall importance and history of the competition. In general, competitions are useful for getting your name and your music in front of other musicians. This may lead to other connections and possibly commissions.”

Reese illustrates that that is indeed true for Composers, Inc., noting that they usually program additional works that are sent in as entries.

In some respects, charging a fee is a double-edged sword. Those composers who have already won competitions and had some success may be much less likely to pay an entrance fee. An ensemble looking to attract the hottest young talent may be passed over by these composers who feel confident enough in their career to keep their wallet closed.

Others who are searching for a break may feel that writing a check is the way through the door. In the end, Jackson says its up to the individual composer. “If they want to pay an entrance fee in hopes of winning that’s their decision. But composers ought to think about it. And there are always going to be composers who feel that it’s worth it, no matter what. And that’s true even if an ensemble says we’ll play your music for $100. There will be some composers out there who are going to pay the $100.”

Change, please.

There are many different types of opportunities that composers apply for—straight recognition for works already written, a shot at a future performance, or the chance for a commission, not to mention educational and residency opportunities. Opinion varies on what fees are appropriate in each situation. Overall, there is a call for an education initiative to make composers and competition hosts aware of the perceived problem and enlighten patrons who support such composer opportunities so that they provide adequate funding.

Though the questions and concerns over entry fees may seem obvious to composers who have been entering (or not entering) competitions for years, comments from those running fee-driven competitions betrayed no sense of incorrect behavior. And oddly enough, ASCAP’s Fran Richard says that it is often composer run initiatives that are taking advantage of other composers. “In sympathy you could say these guys were putting in their own time and money. It cost them out of their pocket to get this ensemble running, sometimes even to rent the concert hall, and they just say it’s a collective here, kick in your share. They don’t see it as a pernicious thing.”

Compared to 25 years ago, Richard says some improvements within the field have been made. With new competitions coming along all the time, however, the industry needs to keep watch and continue to educate and police the community.

For instance, when she first heard about the Masterprize competition in the UK and noted the $50 application fee, she said she couldn’t support the competition. “I told them ‘you’re offering a global competition, you have strong supporters, you have fancy posters and everything else, why do you have to take it out on the backs of these composers?’ Now they’ve done away with that entry fee charge.”

Maybe it will take a kind of “so you’re planning to start a competition” conversation between composer advocates and competition directors. When each new competition comes along and wants to reach the composer members of various organizations, the standard response is to discuss their policies with them: Will they charge a fee? What will it pay for? Many organizations may be under the impression that they are doing right by the new music community by even offering the opportunity to composers. They may not have even considered the fact that they are funding their competition through the bank accounts of participating composers.

“They don’t look at it that way now,” says Richard, “but we have to show them a different way to look at things, I think.”

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