“Sorry We’re Closed” by Tommy Ironic, on Flickr
“We don’t serve that population.”
“You are ineligible and our policy is non-negotiable.”
“If you look elsewhere, I’m sure you’ll find other opportunities.”
These are words no one wants to hear when applying for an opportunity for which they otherwise qualify except for one thing: they are too old. They are, unfortunately, actual responses I have received from providers of composer opportunities when querying them regarding their age discrimination policy. However, this article is about more than any one composer. It is about a wider industry practice. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate that ageism exists within composer opportunities, to attempt to explain why it exists, and then to propose solutions for operating without age discrimination. We’ll take an empirical approach looking at data related to composer opportunities. We’ll also take a logical approach to examining various arguments for and against ageism. Lastly we’ll look at the issue anecdotally via comments from various composers. The goal of this article is to educate and inspire change for the betterment of the entire new music community.
Discrimination against someone of the “wrong” color, ethnicity, sex, or sexual orientation is generally frowned upon in modern society. Progress has been made on these fronts to change peoples’ thinking and to embrace inclusion. However, progress is still needed in the area of discrimination on the basis of a person’s age. This one is arguably subtler, but it ultimately has the same effect: to exclude someone from pursuing an opportunity for which he or she would otherwise qualify. People usually are not aware that they practice ageism—just as with other forms of discrimination—because their assumptions all point to a certain expectation they believe is true. With respect to composers, said expectation goes something like this: child prodigy enters school already a mature genius; impresses all of his/her professors; then sets the world on fire with his/her youthful vigor, technical wizardry, and creative talent while winning all sorts of competitions; and proceeds to redefine an art form for the betterment of humankind.
There may be examples throughout history where this fairy tale plays out in the likes of wunderkind composers such as Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven; but is this the most accurate representation of a composer’s path? What about Brahms, whose first symphony wasn’t completed until he was 44, or Janáček, who did not make a mark until his early 50s? While the wunderkind may make for a good story, so does the person who fought all stereotypes and began to attain great things at an older age. But, let’s forget about all of these stories and focus on reality. We’ll do this in the context of looking at hard data on age discrimination as it pertains to present day composer opportunities.
Opportunity and Competition
For purposes of this discussion, composer opportunities include anything of a competitive nature which may further a composer’s career. This encompasses juried competitions with prizes including cash awards, commissions, appointments, readings, performances, and/or recordings. While some may argue the efficacy of competitions, the fact remains that they are crucially important for launching a composer’s career in today’s environment. An objective view of the record bears witness to the fact that there are virtually no examples—at least I cannot think of any—whereby a modern composer has attained notoriety without winning a significant composer prize. It’s a dog-eat-dog world highly geared toward recognition gained through competitive means. There’s an underlying assumption that the best always wins and that true talent gets recognized.
Winning competitions puts accomplishments on a composer’s resume which may be weighed at times more heavily than the quality of the music itself, either intentionally or unintentionally. Whether this is good or bad is irrelevant. Organizations need to sell seats to their events and they stand a much better chance of doing this when they can advertise a composer with impressive credentials versus one with zero or few competitions won. It is a complete waste of time and money for composers to submit work to a major musical ensemble for their performance consideration without sufficient credentials to warrant the interest of the organization.
Regardless of whether you agree with the principles behind all of this, the fact is that one must compete—and win—in order to get ahead.
Too Old To Tango
Ageism is very much alive in the emerging composer arena. In short, once you get to a certain age, you’re considered too old to tango. To support this claim, let’s examine composer opportunities as published on ComposersSite.com. After careful research, this site has been identified as containing the most comprehensive listing of opportunities available for composers of classical music. Further, the site is freely available.
There are other sites which list opportunities, including the opportunities page made available to members of the American Composers Forum—which at present has an annual membership fee of $65. The American Composers Forum opportunities listing is well organized and provides a number of good opportunities but they seem to publish fewer opportunities than what is available on ComposersSite.com.
The person behind ComposersSite.com is composer Robert Voisey, who kindly made available the database of opportunities published on his site for this analysis. The following figure shows the types of opportunities listed on March 28, 2013.
For this study, these opportunity types have been further organized as follows:
• Award – monetary award (may also include free pass to important event)
• Performance – no monetary award, just performance
• Position – paid position
• Residency – no monetary award
• Workshops – conferences
For purposes of numerical analysis, I’ll consider the award, performance, position, and workshop opportunities as opportunities which might further a composer’s career. I’ll also break out just the award opportunities.
More than 400 opportunities were reviewed from the ComposersSite.com database as published over a six-month period from November 2012 thru mid April 2013. Many of these opportunities were deemed to be insignificant for purposes of advancing a composer’s career. For example, if the performance opportunity was not offered by a nationally recognized ensemble, it was excluded. Also excluded were opportunities which restricted on the basis of a person’s race, ethnicity, sex, or domicile. Opportunities with application fees of $50 or greater were also excluded on the basis that participation in said opportunities was exorbitantly expensive for most composers. The process of filtering left me with 165 opportunities to examine. For those curious to see the detail behind the filtered and unfiltered lists, they are available for download.
Now for the results. Of these 165 opportunities, 35% are restricted to composers at or below the age of 40. If we filter just the award opportunities, we have 82 total in which 36% are available only to composers at or below the age of 40. Of all the opportunities, there is merely one which is available only to people older than age 40 and that is the Composers Concordance Annual “Generations” Concert and Composition Competition which provides one division for composers over age 65. Noteworthy is that the same competition—which simply provides a performance opportunity—also has a division exclusively for composers under the age of 25. There is not a single opportunity made exclusively available to persons between the ages of 40 and 65.
The moral of this story: in today’s society, you better make it as a composer before you turn 40. Once you pass that milestone, you will need to understand that you are at a competitive disadvantage to younger composers as there are 35-36% fewer opportunities available to you.
Should we be concerned about this disparity? Well, the feminist movement has drawn much attention—and rightly so—to the fact that equally qualified women receive 19% lower pay than men for the same jobs (as has been reported in Time magazine). Our 35-36% numbers are of course much higher, and here the issue is not a difference in pay but whether or not one is even allowed to enter. From this perspective, the 35-36% numbers are huge.
Now that we see who is affected by ageism, the next question is who is responsible. It is very difficult to hold any group or organization accountable since ageism in favor of the young is rampant in so many areas across modern society. However, characterizing the problem as simply a societal issue isn’t a sufficient excuse since, as will be discussed later, ageism hits composers particularly hard.
Arguments Made in Support of Ageism
We will now explore the various arguments made in support of ageism using comments I have personally received via direct email correspondence, phone conversations, and online forum discussions with fellow composers, opportunity sponsors, and leading industry professionals. Quoted assertions in this section represent actual statements made in response to the questions “Why does your opportunity discriminate based on age?” and “Is it not possible for someone over a certain age to be a student of composition?”
Provide More Chances to the Young
“The limit of 39 years of age is set in order to give more chances to the young generation of composers.”
This may have been needed during a time when opportunities were disproportionately offered to composers of an older age. However, the numbers clearly show that today it is the younger composers who receive far more opportunity. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to argue younger composers need more chances when they already have more chances over older composers.
Favor Those with Less Experience
“There are those younger students who by virtue of their age have had less experience in the world. Are they always going to be up against those that may have had the opportunities and time to learn and progress much more?”
The assumption in this argument is that favor should be granted those who, by virtue of their age, have not attained the same level of experience as older people. If an older person wants to begin a new career as a composer, they enter with the same set of skills and experience as the younger person. Should we deny a 60-year- old grandmother the opportunity to start a career in composition due to her age? And if she bravely attempts such a feat, should we insult her chances at success by discriminating against her by virtue of the number of opportunities for which she qualifies to further her career?
One might argue that grandma is wise in her ways by virtue of those 60 years of experience and therefore has a competitive advantage. But what lessons might she have learned in those 60 years which will now help her when she is already restricted from applying to 35-36% of the opportunities? What life lesson can she use to convince people to give her a chance? How does experience help if doors are closed to being with?
Numbers Don’t Justify Helping Latecomers
“For composers, how many people really are we talking about who begin a career or study later in life?”
That seems like a reasonable argument and the number of latecomers are likely dismally low—although we’ll hear from some latecomers later in this article. Latecomer composers appear to be a minority group. The question then is simply whether or not we should ignore this minority group because they are insignificant, or if we should do the opposite and help this group grow. Discriminating against minority groups is generally shunned in democratic societies. If the number of older composers just starting off is low, maybe more, not less, opportunity should be made available to them. For those who contend that the 60-year-old grandma making a go at a career in composition is an unlikely scenario and therefore doesn’t deserve attention, well, maybe there aren’t many of these cases specifically as a result of the current discriminatory practices and cultural thinking which makes such an endeavor virtually impossible.
Older Composers Already Had Their Chance
Another argument put forth somewhat related to the “experience” argument is an assumption that older folks have already had their chance. This one can really strike at the heart of the issue in a manner which can be quite hurtful to older composers who really never did get their chance. Take for example the composer who, due to life events, was not able to pursue a career in composition until after the age of 40, or the person who just simply decided to make a career change later in life. Is it correct to assume that an older person indeed has been given a fair shot in any given field and therefore should not be offered the same opportunity as a younger person?
Young is More Interesting
In many ways there’s a culture of youth driving the marketplace. At play here is thinking that there’s something more sexy, appealing, or exciting about young talent which can make for a better sell in the brochure, on stage, at the donor’s reception, or in the grant proposal, thereby making the sponsoring organization look more vital—and, in some less philanthropic endeavors, helps make more money. I think it’s wonderful that society places so much interest in maintaining appearances of vitality, but I think it’s wrong to associate those characteristics with age. Age need not—and often does not—have anything to do with it. In fact, sometimes less experienced or younger artists—or those still in the process of developing their voice—may find it necessary to utilize stylistic fads and trends to fulfill the image expected of them. Often these attempts die as quickly as they are born. Maybe there should be more of a focus on just the character of the music and less on the age of the person behind it?
Same Old Horse
“Older composers submit older and outdated stuff. Younger people submit newer and fresher material. People are more interested in new, fresh material thus there’s more interest in works from younger people.”
I believe this argument is just plain wrong on various levels. Yes, at times innovation may occur within the younger groups of society. But, as already discussed, sometimes fads and non-lasting expressions also flourish within younger groups. The fact is there are plenty of examples across multiple disciplines, including musical composition, where innovation is attained in older years. Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky and countless other recognized composers continued to innovate their art past the age of 40.
On the point of focusing just on newly composed work, the age of the composer need not factor into determining this criteria. The competition rules can easily restrict submission to works created, premiered, or recorded within the last x years. I see no valid reason which suggests one needs to target young composers in order to ensure the submitted work is actually new. I further find spurious the notion that the best or most interesting work is that which was created recently.
Limit Submissions Due to Purported Resource Limitations
“Unfortunately, there has to be a limit. Every day we get around three applications. If there is no limit, we are not able to devote [our attention to] all applications.”
This argument suggests that the organization sponsoring the opportunity doesn’t have sufficient resources to accept applications from everyone, therefore it only accepts submissions from people under a certain age. I find this argument extremely weak, as it says nothing about why they choose a narrow age range as their filter. They just as easily could limit submissions to people over versus under a certain age. Or, if they really want to restrict their workload, they could limit submissions to composers between the ages of 45-50 or some other silly, arbitrary threshold. This is but one example of how phony excuses are used to justify or deflect away from an underlying prejudice.
Cater to the Young Even Though Not Required Under Organization’s Mission Statement
There are various examples of 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organizations who accept tax-deductible donations and who discriminate based on age even when it is not within their organizational mission statement to do so. For example, one organization sponsoring a composer opportunity states their mission as follows: “Our mission is to enrich the cultural vitality of the region and to offer a unique experience to exceptionally talented musicians.” However, they limit composer submissions to those under the age of 35. Looking at their mission statement, one has to ponder whether or not it is possible for an older emerging composer to “enrich the vitality” of the community. This is but one example of a disconnect between an organization’s mission and their policies, and one which I believe hampers musical progress.
More a Problem for Composers than Others
Ageism most definitely exists in other professions and in some it makes perfect sense. This is why you don’t see many professional baseball players over age 40. But in arts and letters, ageism really doesn’t make sense, even though it is rampant across virtually all music disciplines. One might argue that ageism has the same impact in other occupations and thus there’s nothing special about how it plays out in the emerging composer field. The only problem with this line of thinking is that the way in which a composer establishes his or her career is completely different than the manner in which a person pursuing almost any other occupation establishes his or her career. In most fields someone has a job and is hired by a company which is bound to follow federal employee hiring laws which explicitly disallow age discrimination. The same laws also protect musicians, but only for actual employment opportunities and not for the competitions, performances, recordings, and other opportunities which are the methods by which a composer launches his or her career.
Unless a composer has a full-time position as an employee at a university, he or she generally functions as a freelancer seeking commissions or—in most cases pay-to-maybe-win—opportunities. Working as freelancers and going after the typical freelance opportunities means that composers receive no legal form of protection against age discrimination.
There are numerous examples in other disciplines where someone may embark on a new career in their later years and not face the degree of ageism experienced by composers. Why should there be any obstacles based on age for someone choosing a career path, in particular a path where maturity and experience can bring a lot to the table, such as with music composition?
Beginning or renewing a career in composition after age 40 should not be any more difficult from an opportunity perspective than a career change in other industries. It may be equally challenging from a career training perspective, but there should not be the additional burden of ageism.
Young vs. Emerging
I think that most opportunities seek to identify and assist emerging talent but many use age as their criteria. I believe this is a flawed method due to the unethical and exclusionary issues associated with ageism. I don’t believe age should or needs to be used to determine emerging status.
There are many practical methods a competition or opportunity may use to restrict the scope of applications to just emerging talent without resorting to ageism. An opportunity can prevent prior winners from participating or can limit the number of times the same applicant submits—opportunity organizers may complain about the tracking needed for this, but it’s really not that difficult with modern software. An opportunity can literally define emerging as “not earning a living based on teaching, commissions, or royalties from composing.” It can also be based on the honor system. If composers feel they are emerging, they can apply. Would truly established composers be willing to suffer the embarrassment of winning a competition specifically designated for emerging talent? That’s tantamount to them admitting in public that they don’t believe they are established. They would be shunned and laughed at. But, who knows, maybe even a former big name talent might try to apply to help get their career kick-started again, or maybe even to make a little money to help pay the rent. It may be disheartening to them and to others to see them go through this, but should we deny them the opportunity to renew their career?
Some opportunities list no age restriction but discriminate in private. This speaks directly to the point made earlier that ageism is a subtler form of discrimination. At least one highly sought after and respected composer and contest adjudicator recently shared with me that preference is highly tipped in favor of younger applicants for at least one prominent opportunity, even when no age limit is officially listed. Knowing this, why even bother if you’re considered too old to tango? Why pay the application fee and take on the costs for postage and score duplication if you will not be treated equally?
One significant opportunity for composers to have their works read by an accomplished orchestra announced the winners as “the nation’s top young composers” even though age was not a published criteria for said opportunity. An inquiry as to why their announcement made reference to “young” composers when the opportunity was specifically offered to “emerging” composers was met with no response. Are “young” and “emerging” synonymous?
Then there are the mixed messages, such as those which advertise a student or emerging composer award but also set an arbitrary age threshold—generally somewhere under 30 or 35. Or the competition that doesn’t have the words “young” or “emerging” anywhere in its title or in the mission statement of the sponsoring organization, yet somewhere in the fine print the opportunity-seeking 40-something-year-old discovers s/he doesn’t qualify because s/he is too old. What a letdown.
What is “Young” Anyway?
Then there’s the question of just what is young anyway. Is the 50-year-old person who eats well, exercises, and maintains an active lifestyle and positive mental outlook more of a “young” and vital person than the overweight, junk-food-eating, negatively charged, emotionally distressed 25-year-old? Have you ever been wrong on guessing people’s ages based on their looks and behavior?
I contend that youth and vitality are a state of mind to which any person, regardless of age, may represent a glowing example. Setting an arbitrary age threshold of 30, 35, 40, or whatever for determining the age at which one is no longer considered “young” is a futile exercise and prohibits from participating those who may in actuality possess more vitality in their spirit and art than those far younger in years.
Accordingly, I’d like to see these arbitrary age thresholds die a quick death and for ageism to no longer exist within composer opportunities.
Older Newcomers on The Rise
“I didn’t start at composition in a concentrated way until I was 48 or so. Up until then I was busy playing, arranging, and orchestrating other people’s music. I believe anyone should be granted equal opportunity when pursuing a career change in their later years.” —Phil Orem
“I composed a lot as a teenager then built a career as a performing musician. When I recently turned 40 I decided to pursue composition in a serious manner and am actively writing new work.” —Andy Skaggs
“While I am totally supportive of opportunities aimed specifically at student composers, I question arbitrary age limits; i.e., under 30 or 35. These seem targeted more at keeping mature composers out than welcoming in new talent. Beethoven, Brahms, Verdi, and Wagner wrote some of their greatest works past age 40. Is there something about veteran composers that makes managers and conductors uncomfortable?” —Stanley Friedman
I’ve run into a number of people over the age of 40 who decided to enter the field of composition after many years as professional performers. I applaud this career shift and believe people entering composition this way deserve just as many opportunities for success as those entering at a younger age.
Composer Jim Stephenson is a perfect example of someone who was a working musician for 17 years before deciding to pursue composition as a career. In Jim’s case, he was about 38 years of age. While writing this article and already having pondered the question of why there aren’t any competitions just for older composers, I saw Jim post the following lighthearted status update on Facebook: “So tempted to start a competition for composers OVER 40. Would be interesting, I think.”
Then there are recognized composers such as Joan Tower who didn’t receive an orchestra commission until her mid 40s. Clearly, people are recognizing the need for “older newcomers” to be granted more opportunity in classical music composition.
Goodies from Oldies
Besides the effect on composers’ careers, ageism inhibits diversity and arguably prohibits great art from having a chance to be heard. Remember that guy Brahms who completed his first symphony when he was 44? Now just imagine that composer out there today who is in his or her 40s and who just completed what may be considered an incredible work but who can’t get it heard because a large percentage of opportunities discriminate against people his/her age? It’s not just composers who suffer under ageism; the whole industry suffers.
Ageism wouldn’t be a problem if there were a representative number of competitions to which only composers over age 40 would qualify. But sadly this is not the case. Anyone want to launch a series of Senior Composer, Old Composer, Reborn Composer, Old Newcomer Composer, Gray Newcomer or Goodies From Oldies competitions? There’s always a market for new things, even for “old” people!
The tenets of a democratic society shun inequality and embrace the concepts of inclusion and fair treatment for all. I would like to see these same concepts applied to the emerging composer industry for the benefit of composers as well as the betterment of music in general. I invite opportunity sponsors to re-evaluate their position on ageism, and I encourage all composers to insist upon fair and equal treatment.
Bill Doerrfeld is a composer and pianist of classical and jazz music. For more info on Bill’s music and his writings please visit www.billdoerrfeld.com.