This petition, about ending excessive audition fees for opera singers applying to Young Artist Programs, has been floating around my facebook feed of late. Those of us who are composers of the not yet fully “emerged” variety can probably relate to the frustration, since we are constantly faced with calls-for-scores and competitions that have similar entry fees. Unfortunately for both us and the singers, there’s basic economics of supply and demand working against us here. There are far more singers seeking to get into Young Artist Programs than there are positions. Similarly, there are far more composers eager to have pieces played than there are ensembles looking to play our pieces. In both cases, the opportunity is worth far more to those of us applying than those receiving the applications; hence, the folks offering the opportunities can get away with making us pay for them. And not only can they get away with it, but they probably even feel like it’s fair. They’re providing an opportunity we want, they have to organize it, sort through all the entries, listen to our sometimes crappy music…maybe they deserve some money for their troubles.
Sometimes, the entry fees fund the prize and/or the costs of administering the competition, which seems reasonable enough. It is my understanding, however, that often the entry fees actually fund the costs of running the organization itself which feels…a little unsavory to me. I mean, of course no one’s getting rich off of our entry fees, it’s not that, but it does seem like there ought to at least be some disclosure about what the money is in fact going to. I might actually be more inclined to apply if the organization just out-and-out admitted that the fees were going to cover their performance and administration expenses, that we composers were effectively funding their season.
Anyway, this has all been hashed out before, and wasn’t meant to be my main point. My real point was to try to ask, objectively, whether or not the fees are worth it for us composers. Are we getting something for our money which is worth what we’re spending?
That largely depends on whether or not we actually win, of course. If you win, then it was all worth it, right? Well, maybe. If you’re a composer who tends to win the big ones, the ones with significant prize money or commissions, then it probably is. I, like many composers, have had only a very small amount of success with these competitions. I’ve never won the ones that actually give you prize money, but I have gotten my pieces selected and performed in “calls for scores” on several occasions. As long as I get a few performances out of it from time to time, then it probably is worth it in the end, right?
That would indeed be the case if there were no trade-offs. But there are trade-offs: that money I spent is money I no longer have. And what did that money buy me? In nearly every case, it bought me, at most, one decent-but-not-amazing performance of one piece, usually one that I had already had a better performance of previously. Because, in my experience, the quality of performances I’ve gotten in these situations has not been great. It’s a group that doesn’t know me, that I usually don’t know much about, and that’s committed itself to learning and playing a whole bunch of new pieces. It’s not an ideal situation for generating quality, committed performances. So, what then is one okay performance of a piece worth? Frankly, not all that much — especially if you consider the trade-off.
The trade-off is: what else could I have done with that $25 it cost me to apply? It may not be obvious that there’s anything I could have done with it that would have made a better performance of my music a likely outcome. But if we consider our time to be worth something, then that $25 plus the time it took me to apply (15-20 minutes maybe?) could be worth, say, an hour doing something else. Is there anything I could have done for an hour that would have been more valuable to my career than applying for that competition? Absolutely! I could have used that hour to research groups out there that might be interested in music like mine, and then send it to them. There have been a few times in my life when I’ve gotten on little self-promotional binges and emailed tons of ensembles with links to pieces that I hope they’ll play. The response rate is tiny, but the cost is $0, and a few times the payoff has been quite large. Because if a group does bother to respond or perform the work, they’re doing it out of genuine interest, which likely will translate into a far more committed and effective performance.
So, from now on, I am going to systematically stop applying to money-costing competitions, and every time I see one that I would have applied to before, I will instead spend one hour trying to get my music played in other ways. There are still some things that cost money that I’ll apply for if the potential payoff is high enough — for example, I’m planning to pay the $50 to apply for the Pulitzer Prize this year, because even thought it’s an absurdly long shot that I’ll win, the payoff of winning is also absurdly high. Worth a $50 gamble, I would say. But $25 for the very unlikely chance of having one semi-decent performance of a piece that’s already been played? $40 for the very unlikely possibility of winning a $200 prize? No thank you!
It’s hard — there’s something about competitions that’s appealing to the brain: it’s something that seems “official,” we imagine prestige and opportunity associated with it, it’s straightforward how to go about it, and, perhaps most temptingly, we feel productive and active and “in-the-game” when we send in that application and check that box. There isn’t the same sense of satisfactory box-checking when, two months after you’ve sent your piece out to 100 people asking if they’ll play it, one emails back and says “sure!” But my bet is that dollar for dollar and minute for minute, it’s a far better investment.