Author: Dale Trumbore

Competition Fees: How Much is Too Much?

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A few weeks ago, I was scrolling through some composition contest applications. One caught my eye; it was a perfect fit for a new piece I’d written this summer. A perfect fit, that is, until I saw the entry fee: $50.
I view that as an exorbitant amount for such an opportunity, and yet my frustration upon seeing this particular contest stemmed not just from the amount, but from how helpless I felt looking at it. How can a composer productively communicate to contest organizers that their fee is unreasonably high?

The issue of contest fees is, granted, a complex one. As I discovered when I turned to Twitter and Facebook to express my frustration with this issue, most composers or administrators fall into one of two camps when it comes to fees. The first: competition fees are a total scam, using the losers’ money to fund the winner’s purse; an organization should not hold a contest if it can’t do so without an entry fee. The other? Competition fees can be a worthwhile, even necessary expense that allow smaller organizations that wouldn’t otherwise be able to do so to promote excellent new music.

NewMusicBox covered both sides of this issue in an in-depth article back in 2004; since then, not much has changed in the way of competition fees. Composer Dennis Tobenski also has a very thorough, six-part blog series decrying the many flaws with composition competitions, and the first of these addresses his problems with entry fees.

As both articles point out, the problems are many. A $30 entry fee for a contest that awards $250 to the winner seems downright dishonest; assuming the contest receives 50 entries, where is all of that money going? If an organization can’t afford the cost of holding a competition on their own, should they be holding a competition in the first place?

Applying to contests is something like gambling, a poker game with 50 players. A composer must ask before entering each contest with an entry fee: Do I believe my piece is a strong enough contender to justify the cost of entering? Is this particular contest worth betting on?

Sometimes, at least for me, the answer is yes. In those cases, I have to feel incredibly confident that my music is a great fit for that particular opportunity, and while I’ve increasingly been limiting the number of opportunities I apply to that charge fees, I will occasionally pay up to $15 or—rarely—up to $25.

In some cases, though, the cost of entering is not only not worth the odds, it’s downright exploitative, taking advantage of the very artists the organizing ensemble is purportedly trying to promote. For some composers, even $25 entry fees can prevent an application; if a composer applies to the majority of opportunities for which he or she is eligible, the entry fees plus printing and mailing costs can add up quickly to hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars a year.

A composer’s wealth is not an arbiter of talent; why, then, must it function as a barrier? And how might composers encourage contest organizers to lower or eliminate fees?

When I took to Twitter to ask this question, composer Nicholas Omiccioli proposed an interesting solution: A respected, professional music organization such as Chamber Music America or New Music USA (the organization which publishes this magazine) could create a set of standards for composition competitions (including fees), representing composers’ thoughts and concerns through those guidelines.

This potential rubric could be much like New Music USA’s guide to commissioning. While the guide doesn’t necessarily fit every composer or organization’s budget for every project, and every composer is going to have her own personal policy when it comes to putting a price on her music, it does provide a rough set of guidelines that encourage a composer-friendly industry standard. Such a rubric for organizers of composition contests could potentially prevent the current price gouging aspect of several competitions.

What do you think? Where should one draw the line when it comes to application fees? How much is too much? And when it is too much, what is the best way to communicate that to the organizers who determine the fees? I’d love to hear your thoughts and solutions in the comments. Meanwhile, I’ll be steering clear of any contest with a fee over $25.