Friday, May 21, 2010

Art imitates life:The winners get the losers money

Is art a competitive sport? Or, why music composition competitions can be unhealthy and unfair.

Well, my title certainly tells part one of this blog entry- since when did art have to become a competition? And what are the motivations for competitions and what positive and negative messages do they send us?

Let’s look at this from each side of the equation:

Party of the first part, the composition competition creator:

I think there can be two motivating factors in play here- one would be a simple desire to find new heroic talent by throwing competitors into the Coliseum pit and see who emerges bloodied yet triumphant. Okay, I guess that could work. But for every single “winner” there are far more losers and some of these may be folks whose fragile artistic, sensitive egos may be totally shredded by not winning. So is having one glorious winner worth all this? And, anyway, can we really judge art objectively enough to warrant this kind of general abuse of all the entrants?

Motivation number two for the organizers- lots of public relations attention, a new angle for selling tickets, maybe some cash profit.

Let’s look at the entrants’ motivation:

Well, to win may be prestigious, and the winner probably hopes that wining one or two of these things will build a reputation, open doors, look good on a resume, etc. But once again, do composers need to be judged in this manner, in hand to hand battle with each other? It just seems so unhealthy. And honestly, from my perspective, winning some of these competitions does not really enhance ones career much at all. In the long run, your reputation as a composer will be based (and justifiably so) on your work over a period of time, say at the very least ten or twenty years filled with successful compositions, successful collaborations with great directors and quality publishers, and so on.

Here’s my own history in this area- having not composed for a long time, I felt the need to catch up to some of my age peers who hadn’t stopped composing. So I entered some competitions and won two of them awhile back. After awhile, though, I did see that despite the fact that they looked good on my resume they really weren’t opening too many important doors, and I did start disliking and disapproving this competitiveness in the arts. So I stopped competing in these things and concentrated on only positive things, like writing good music and finding cool people to work with.

So… here is where I am going next: recently a very talented composer and teacher who you may know, Paul Crabtree, felt outraged by details a of a composition competition. The gist of the details was this: the choir’s website plainly stated that all the entry fees from the composers entering (ie, the sweet income pile of cash coming from composers) would be pooled and 50% of that money would be awarded to the “winner”. Paul was outraged that this was stated out loud so blatantly, and when he told this group how he felt, their response was that they thought it was a good thing that this (possibly) big pile of moolah could grow and grow and the happy winning composer would have a great windfall. Apparently the group made no effort on their own part to raise any money to fund a prize! AND this also begs AT LEAST one question… what is the group doing with the other 50% of the money? And in Paul Crabtree’s mind, isn’t this just becoming a lottery of sorts? And doesn’t it seem patently unfair to fund the “winner”’ on the backs of the losers?

In fact, let’s look at the math of a typical choral composition competition:

One Grand Prize: $1,000
Composer entry fee: $25
Break-even point for organization: 40 entries

My example shows that once there are over forty entries there are actually two winners- the organization and the grand prize winner, and 39 losers who are funding the lucky ones. Isn’t there something wrong with this picture?

And truthfully, there are a number of these competitions where the prize is only $300 or $500, not $1,000 or over, and where the winner is expected to find their own way to finance attending the premiere. And here is a real kick in the teeth, and this one is so offensive I am happy to name names: the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) holds a composition competition which encourages entrants as young as five years old, the entry fee is $100(!) AND if you win and cannot attend the premiere performance your prize is rescinded (gee thanks MTNA for treating children like this). Let’s look at the math there:

MTNA Elementary Composition Competition (5-10 year olds)
First prize $500, second prize $250
Entry fee: $100
break-even point for MTNA: 8 entrants!

Now what would some of these organization say in defense of their competitions and their entry fees? They would probably cite the clerical time/expense involved with the event, or perhaps the hiring of experts to judge the entries. But really, does a group doling out a modest $300 prize really need to hire people to adjudicate the entries-- why not trust that your own musical staff or some volunteer judges could do a good job?

Do I think there should be an entry fee for these competitions? Honestly, I think not. But I think someone could argue that a small fee is not totally out of line, something like $10, just to help defray expenses a bit. But I certainly don’t think that composer entry fees should ever be expected to fund the winner's prize. It just isn’t right and I think is abusive to turn a group a profit from the composers, none of whom, I am sure, are rolling in cash.

I will now cite some great examples of groups and individuals who are supporting new music in a big way and without expecting composers entry fees to fund these prizes:The Cambridge Chamber Singers based in Cambridge, MA run a competition yearly. I won that competition in 2003, the first year that they threw out their entry fee and were bombarded with hundred of entries from around the world. The folks there, including director Ray Fahrner, a great supporter of composers, were thrilled with that massive response, and sifted through all those scores gladly. They made no money off of the composers and have continued to this day in running this event without a composer entry fee, bravo, Ray!

A very large competition, the Barlow Prize, awards a $12,000 prize and a number of $7,000 commissions as well. There is no entry fee.

The New York composer/conductor group C4 is currently holding a competition with healthy prizes and no entry fee. You read about it here recently in a guest blog by C4 member Jon David.

Here is my bottom line opinion, followed by an alternate to the competition and composer fee mentality:if you want to run one of these composer competitions for your musical group, please stop and truly examine your motivations. Is this really about finding new talent and nurturing it, or is it about the PR and entry fee money you are hoping to bring to your group? And how will you feel as a group or a board of directors if your winner can’t afford to get to your city for the premiere? Will you find a way to get them there or will you penalize them? And don’t be so crass as to fund your “prize” on the backs of losing composers . Almost anyone’s gut feeling is that this is just not right.

Here is my alternative: find money to fund a no entry fee competition, or even better, do some homework and find a worthy composer, young or old, and commission them to write a piece for your choir. This is a far more respectful way to treat a creative artist and make them feel valued and wanted, and not just an athlete with a number on their back.

If this blog post changes any group’s mind about their approach to composer competitions, commissions and the like and helps them move toward a healthier approach, I will be pretty happy with my lil’ ole self.

[UPDATE from since I first started drafting this blog: the competition which Paul Crabtree found offensive announced a winner, and also brags that there were over 100 entrants. They also have told me that the 50% of the composer's money they pocketed went into their general operating funds and they do not agree with Mr. Crabtree and myself that this is in any way unethical or "not right". So, there you go composers-- you just funded a choir whether you knew it or not, gave them plenty of PR, and all you got out of it was some more rejection of your art- what a pretty picture, eh? Maybe your entry fee could be written off as a charitable donation?]


  1. I just found this post, so I'm way late to the party. But as the founder of an organization that started an excellent composer competition in just the manner that you are admonishing (i.e., funding the prizes through entry fees), I have to respectfully disagree with your sensibilities.

    In our case, the competition that was started on a shoestring using entry fees and small cash prizes grew in stature and participation to attract the support of a foundation so that we were able to offer bigger prizes, travel money, etc. We were able to decrease the entry fees and increase the cash prizes substantially to build a worthy competition that would have been impossible if not for charging entry fees.

    As an alternative to entry fees, you suggest that an organization "find money". I doubt anybody with experience in arts administration would be so cavalier as to suggest that money is simply "found." Every dollar that a small arts group can find is fought for and competed for in the shrinking marketplace of arts funding, I assure you. When you are the executive director of a non-profit, and funding your organization's programs becomes a reality (as opposed to something merely discussed on a blog), you don't just "write a grant," and you don't just "find" money.

    By discouraging competitions with entry fees, in a very direct way you are arguing to limit the already-scant opportunities available to emerging composers. I know that is not your intent, but if your opinion that entry fees are unethical takes root, there will be far fewer competitions for composers. And who would that benefit? Just as a small arts organization has to struggle for every dollar of funding, emerging composers have to struggle for every achievement to put on their bio and bring momentum to their careers.

    Maybe to you, the thought of not winning a competition (and therefore funding the winner) is not worth the twenty or thirty bucks. Maybe you would feel offended that your money was risked and not rewarded, and that the money went either to another composer, or other program expenses of the organization that sponsored the competition. I wouldn't fault you for these feelings, as they are personal. But surely you can understand that somebody else might choose a different perspective? Sure, the vast majority of participants in a composer competition will not win a cash prize (and will therefore be "losers," according to your rather jaded characterization). But don't you think that choice should be up to them?

    As a composer myself, I know that the math of these competitions is not in my favor, and that out of a field of a hundred other composers I am not likely to win, no matter what the subjective standards of the adjudicators might be. However, I am supporting a precious rare organization that is doing the "god's work" of supporting the endeavors of emerging composers. I consider the check that I am writing them to be a small donation to a worthy cause, the competition to be a motivation for me to keep getting my work "out there." And besides, if my work is good I might get lucky and win. And what is wrong with that?

    If anything, your suggestion that these opportunities shouldn't even be offered to me until they "find money" to make it free is what is "crass."

  2. It's certainly not a black and white situation, or argument. It's about balance. A REASONABLE entry fee of say $15 is not the same as an excessive entrance fee of $50, let alone $100 (for a kid's competition!). Just be reasonable, and always look at it from the composer's perspective- as winner and as looser. Avoid an extreme 'lottery' situation; it may also be illegal in certain states!