Competition Guidelines - A Composer's View

by Barry Drogin

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Running a competition in a fair, just and moral manner is expensive and time-consuming. Anyone thinking of establishing a new competition who doesn't understand the difficulties, frustrations and passions involved is foolishly naive, good or bad intentions notwithstanding.

From a composer's viewpoint, competitions are very mixed blessings. The rewards come only in the winning: some money, a line in the resume, perhaps a performance and a little publicity. Some undesirable aspects of competitions are the cost of entering, the waiting, and the losing. Since all participating composers must enter and wait, and all but one will lose, it is easy to see why most composers do not like competitions.

Philosophically, competitions turn the musical world upside down. Posterity judges a musical composition by two criteria: audience reaction, and influence upon composers of a future (and hence younger) generation. But who are the judges of competitions? Conductors, music critics, older composers, music teachers, etc. I don't have anything against conductors, music critics, older composers or music teachers. But, in the entire history of music, have they ever been reliable judges of which composer or piece would be remembered, and which forgotten?

Many competitions have an avowed purpose, but in no way achieve that purpose. To encourage and assist composers of a certain age, region, or whatever? But what of all the composers who fit into the entry category but lose --- haven't more composers been discouraged than encouraged? To encourage the composition of a particular type of music? But how many composers write a piece after hearing of a competition (and meet the deadline)? Other intents, like guaranteeing world premiere performances for an ensemble, or establishing the appearance of a commitment to modern music, or fulfilling the terms of a charitable individual's donation (whatever his or her reasoning), have little to do with a composer's wants or needs.

What a composer wants is personal, not collective: a good performance, an appreciative audience, financial compensation. To the extent that a competition appears to meet these desires, a composer is enticed into entering. But by entering, a composer agrees to be injured. Perhaps it is an inclination to treat the composers entering as a collective that results in rules which add insult to injury. A discussion of these rules follows.

I. Entrance fees - There is no justification for an entrance fee of any amount. The costs of sponsoring a competition are enormous: administrative costs, advertising and publicity, judge's time, and then cash awards, rehearsal and performance costs, parts, composer's transportation and lodging, as may apply. It is possible that some organizations use entrance fees to offset all of these costs, which is damnable, turning the competition into an illegal lottery, disguised public relations and maybe even fund raising. Others only use entrance fees as an incremental cost: if 200 composers enter, they will have to pay for twice the judge's time than if only 100 composers had entered. The reasoning is practical, but not moral. Judging is the heart of the competition, it is what that sponsoring organization is sponsoring, and therefore what they should pay for. A professional composer should not have to pay to be judged, to be performed, or to be heard.

What's more, by entering the competition, the composer has already paid more than most entry fees. First, since the work was not commissioned, the hours of composition went uncompensated. The finished score must then be inked, because any composer who wishes to win a competition would not submit xeroxes of an original pencil score. The inking must be done by a professional paid copyist ($5 - $15 per page), or by the composer himself/herself (who then becomes a professional unpaid copyist). A copy of the inked score must be made, usually using an expensive music paper copying process (15 - 25 cents per page). Then there is the cost of a large envelope and postage --- perhaps double for SASE purposes ($5 - $10). Only a handled, and thus unsellable, full score might be recovered if the composer doesn't win.

II. Performance

A. Provision for parts - Except for solo instrument, piano, piano/vocal (song) or choral works (a cappella or with piano), in which the full score is the performance score, it is unreasonable for an organization to "award" a performance of a piece and make no provisions for extraction of parts, either by insisting that the composer provide parts or by failing to mention parts extraction in the competition rules. On the other hand, it is also unreasonable for a composer to expect an organization to handle all aspects of the process, from hiring, supervising and paying the copyists to checking for errors in rehearsal. The organization should consider the following:

1. The composer should not be expected to use a portion of a cash award towards the creation and reproduction of parts.

2. Unless the organization is big enough to have an in- house copyist, the composer should be expected to locate and supervise the copyists.

3. The organization should in some way assist financially in producing parts, if they do not already exist. This may mean providing a flat fee, a percentage of the actual cost, or acting as a sponsor in applying for a copying assistance grant.

4. Between announcement of the competition winner and the performance date, there must be sufficient time for copying and rehearsal.

5. If parts already exist, the organization should pay a fee to borrow or purchase parts for performance.

B. Premiere (first performance) - Many organizations wish to "award" a composer with a performance, but also award themselves with the prestige of a premiere. On the other hand, competition rules may call for unperformed scores because it is the specific intent of the organization to help composers get a first performance. The line between unreasonable requirement and commendable service is not a fine one: the other competition rules usually make it quite obvious. To insist that the performance be a world premiere, and yet also insist (or even suggest) that the composer provide with the score a tape recording and, after winning, supply parts, is ridiculous and something of a mockery. At the other, nicer extreme, there are competitions in which the award is an open or closed reading --- in other words, a first hearing for the composer, and an opportunity to make a tape recording.

C. Performance rights - An organization sponsored a competition in which, after the "world premiere," every member of the organization received free performance rights for a limited span of time; i.e., every member of the organization could perform the award-winning piece in any venue without paying royalty fees to the composer. Supposedly, winning the award would result in publication, and members would be able to obtain the score from the publisher. The intent and logic of the organization appeared to be that performers who had never performed modern music would thus have additional incentive to buy and perform the piece. However, this also means that the same performers who had never performed modern music, and by obvious extension never worried about royalties, would continue to believe that simply buying a score carries with it the right to performance. A cash award should not be considered compensation for costs of copying, profit from sale of parts, or royalty fees. Agreement to waive any of these costs should be at the discretion of the composer, and not a requirement.

D. Attendance - For a premiere, the organization should pay for transportation and lodging of the composer to attend the performance and at least one rehearsal. For non-premiere performances, the organization should be willing to apply for a Meet the Composer grant at the composer's request.

E. Performance quality - An organization has a right to expect a composer not to create negative publicity before a performance resulting from a competition, and the performers have a right to expect tact and respect from the visiting composer during rehearsals. Though every composer wishes the directions placed in a score to be followed, an award-winning composer should not use the circumstances of the award to become arrogant and rude, but instead act with extra humility and forgiveness. A composer is not responsible, and will not be blamed, for a bad performance. Entering the competition implied assent.

III. Cash Award - A simple cash award of any amount, with no obligations on either party, is always appreciated. It has already been noted that the cash award should not be considered compensation for costs or fees generated by the competition itself: parts, copying, royalties, transportation and lodging, etc. If there is an awards ceremony, or a performance, the sponsoring organization should set up a reasonable expense account for the composer to cover taxis, dining, and so on.

Recent (sic) changes in the tax law make prizes for "past accomplishments," previously tax-free, taxable. This unfortunate change does, however, have a possible advantageous effect: an award for having written a piece will net the composer the same money as an award to write a piece (a commission). Personally, I would rather be encouraged to write another piece than be, in the past tense, the composer of an award-winning piece. There are...


I. Commissions - A commission is money given to a composer to create or complete a piece of music. Composers should not compete for commissions; they should apply, and be selected. Some reasonable application requirements are: resume, list of performed and/or unperformed compositions, tape of previous works, letters of recommendation, excerpts from uncompleted work in score form. These requirements border on the unreasonable: tape recordings of excerpts from uncompleted work, sponsorship by a performing organization that agrees to perform the work (unless it is the performing organization that is being selected, and it is their right to pick the composer, in which case the composer is not and should not be judged). For further information on commissioning music, refer to the handbook, "Commissioning Music," published by Meet the Composer.

Note: An organization sponsored a competition in which complete scores had to be submitted. The winners would be "awarded an honorary commission" and a performance. All of the competition rules were reasonable, but "commissioning" a completed work is like claiming to have composed Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" because you copied out the parts: the resulting performance and profit are nice, but the applause is undeserved and the public is deceived.

II. Solicitation of scores - An open call for scores is an honest, uncompetitive way for a performing organization to express an interest in modern music, help composers, and, yes, perform world premieres. The initial cost to the composer is the same as for a competition (with no entrance fee), but the composer is apt to feel better about sending the score, knowing that a music director is interested in programming and performing music, not turning over artistic policy to a judge who will proclaim piece B unperformable because piece A is, in some way, better. There would be no deadline, and thus no pressure to read scores by a certain date. Performing organizations could even build a library of scores for future consideration. If the composer has enclosed a SASE but the organization wishes to hold on to the score, payment to the composer, at least for postage and reproduction, should be paid by the organization.

I suppose there will always be competitions, especially since there will always be those who sponsor competitions for ulterior motives (for example, the competition open to members only that asks for a membership fee along with the entry). There will always be strange entry requirements as long as non-composers form committees and, through a combination of strange logic and misunderstanding, invent anew their contest rules. There appear to be strange definitions floating around for "world premiere," "commission," and "reasonable entrance fee" (a contradiction in terms). There must be a prevalent ignorance of the cost of entering, and of winning. My intention, though highly opinionated and influenced by disbelief and anger, has been to educate not offend, and in so doing perhaps restore some dignity to this lonely, trying business of composing.

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Last Updated: August 4, 2007