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20 composers X a $50 dollar application fee = a self-funded commission

I have the utmost respect for Eighth Blackbird as musicians and new music advocates. In fact one of my fondest dreams as a composer would be to have them perform my chamber Sextet. But I was very disappointed to learn that the ensemble’s new Call for Scores requires composers to pay a $50 application fee to have their scores considered. While, as one of my colleagues put it, this may convince composers to be ‘a bit self-selective’ in their submissions, it’s also a handy way to self-fund the commission of a new work for the ensemble.

As much as I’d like to have Eighth Blackbird consider my work, I don’t want to participate in a process that feels exploitative.

Thoughts on application fees? The comments section is open!


Comment from lawrencedillon
Time: February 12, 2010, 12:02 pm

I’ve never understood why composers find application fees exploitative. Organizing a competition is expensive and enormously time-consuming. How should an ensemble cover the costs? I don’t know of any grants they can apply for to support composition competitions. Asking the composers to help pay for the process seems as good as any other way I can think of. At least the composers can take a tax deduction for it. It’s not ideal, but nothing is. Maybe someone else knows a better way – please tell me, I’d love to hear it.

Also, finding ways to reduce the number of submissions makes sense. Getting six musicians in a room together to listen to and discuss several hundred submissions steals precious time away from rehearsal. All ensembles have to be in the business of survival, now more than ever, and time is a very precious commodity.

Those are my thoughts.

Comment from Stanley Moon
Time: February 12, 2010, 1:14 pm

of course there are grants they can get for this! they should call it “the people’s commissioning fund #2″

Comment from lawrencedillon
Time: February 12, 2010, 1:51 pm

Please tell me what the grants are — seriously — I’d love to know!


Comment from Anon
Time: February 12, 2010, 2:00 pm

i am choosing to post anonymously because complaining about 8bb could end up hurting me.

$50 is too expensive, but what’s even worse than the expensive application fee is their appallingly low commission fee of $1000 + travel. really insulting. 8bb, you should be ashamed of yourselves.

Comment from Cynthia Hilts
Time: February 12, 2010, 2:22 pm

As a composer, the reason I find application fees exploitive, is that the ostensible purpose is to fund a new work. So wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume that the funders could get it together to fund the selection process while they’re at it? Also, it seems that the amount is also especially high in this case. If there is truly such a glut of applicants, perhaps the selection crew could listen to some portion and select their top twenty favorites. Then get together for judgement day.
But that’s not the way of the 21st century. Nor any other, come to think of it. At least if we are starving in obscurity, we can know we have the best of historical company – Bach, Mozart, Chopin, da-dah, da-dah, da-dah… If kings didn’t pay properly for commissions, why then must these mere citizens?

Comment from Elaine Fine
Time: February 12, 2010, 3:09 pm

Why is it that I should feel happy to have my $50.00 application fee go to pay another composer who has written music considered by a group of people (who need to make their decision by instrumentally-biased consensus) “better” than my submission?

Composition competitions are always a recipe for misery, not for exceptional music. Combine that with entry fees, and you can consider yourself an investor in someone’s misery (even if it isn’t your own). It is more ethical to pool resources from your ensemble (or from your ensemble’s patrons or subscribers) and ask someone who you all know to write something. That’s the way these things usually end up working anyway.

Comment from lawrencedillon
Time: February 12, 2010, 3:43 pm

My experience with 8bb is that they are six musicians who are ethically conscientious and genuinely concerned about fostering new music – as opposed to just scratching the backs that feed them. Without knowing the details behind how this particular competition was generated, I’d like to assume the best – that they are trying to find a way to get the maximum benefit for everyone involved. Despite the fact that many negative generalizations about composition competitions are valid, it’s not really fair to condemn everyone just for making this kind of effort. Just because there is no ideal way to do it doesn’t mean they should not even try.

Comment from paul bailey
Time: February 12, 2010, 4:35 pm

at first glance this seems like a pretty bad idea, but after sitting with it for a bit why not? i think the problem overall is the current patronage/grants/commissions system. i’m sure we all understand the limitations of asking somebody else for permission to create and perform.

the bottom line is that there has to be another way to acquire funding if 8bb wants to do it themselves by cutting out the middlemen than more power to them.

Comment from Christian
Time: February 12, 2010, 5:29 pm


Remember that the only one from the applicant pool who benefits is the ‘winner.’

As I said at the top of the piece, I have great respect for 8bb. I’m not suggesting they are being deliberately unethical. But I think that charging 50 dollars to consider a composer’s music is a misstep on their part.

If they really want to ‘give back to the composers,’ as their call states, they should only allow one score per entrant and get rid of the application fee.

Comment from lawrencedillon
Time: February 12, 2010, 5:46 pm

I guess I don’t agree that only one applicant benefits — and I hasten to add that I don’t have anything I would send to 8bb (as much as I respect them, their musical interests are different from mine) — but any opportunity a composer has to have six outstanding musicians study their music is a huge benefit. I’m sure that $50 is too high a price for many composers, but getting that opportunity without having to pay something for it seems a bit much to expect.

Comment from Steve Layton
Time: February 12, 2010, 6:49 pm

The problem with that, Lawrence, is that it doesn’t really sound like any of the ‘non-winning’ composers will be getting much in the way of feedback or critique. Which is fine; that isn’t what this seems to be about. What it ends up boiling down to is a bunch of composers buying one of their group a good performance, recording and possibly a place in 8bb’s repertory. What is 8bb putting in? I understand all of their effort and time to go through these all and work up the selected piece, but each of the composers has likely also put in more than their share of sweat on composing and readying their work, so that part’s pretty much even-Steven. And since there’s no real limit on how many scores (and their enclosed checks) will be accepted for review, the amount of money could be anything from adequate to an exceptionally tidy sum. There’s just some part of this equation/relationship that just doesn’t seem to balance out . I too think that 8bb are great and conscientious people and performers, but I also have to agree with those who think there’s a bit of a misstep here.

Comment from David Laganella
Time: February 12, 2010, 6:52 pm

This competition will undoubtedly receive hundreds of applicants, a great many by younger (bright-eyed) composers, that still do not have the skills (yet) to compete with their older more mature colleagues. This is why I feel its exploitive. I would urge my students not to enter. Me…. I’d rather spend my $50 having drinks with the performers who already support me.

Comment from Stanley Moon
Time: February 12, 2010, 7:26 pm

Organizations through which performing ensembles can get money for commissioning: NEA, NYSCA, Rockefeller, Meet the Composer, ACF, just to name those that immediately come to mind.

Comment from David
Time: February 12, 2010, 7:27 pm

I’ve had many opportunities to visit the 8bb studios over the years (they used to do readings of my students’ works) and was astonished at the sheet number of scores. Even early in the millennium, before their Grammy, they had several DOZEN large boxes filled with scores marked “Maybe” (and about 3X that many marked “No”). So I think that it’s great that they came up with a way to make sure that all the scores they get can have a hearing. That said, I won’t be entering myself since $50 is a bit steep for me. But I appreciate their efforts to widen their repertoire. (And, as I said to Christian earlier, I think that the price may be calculated to be self-selecting so that composers don’t take a flyer–a way of ensuring that all entrants have seriously considered whether they think that they are a good fit with the 8bb crew.)

Comment from David
Time: February 12, 2010, 7:28 pm

’ve had many opportunities to visit the 8bb studios over the years (they used to do readings of my students’ works) and was astonished at the sheer number of scores. Even early in the millennium, before their Grammy, they had several DOZEN large boxes filled with scores marked “Maybe” (and about 3X that many marked “No”). So I think that it’s great that they came up with a way to make sure that all the scores they get can have a hearing. That said, I won’t be entering myself since $50 is a bit steep for me. But I appreciate their efforts to widen their repertoire. (And, as I said to Christian earlier, I think that the price may be calculated to be self-selecting so that composers don’t take a flyer–a way of ensuring that all entrants have seriously considered whether they think that they are a good fit with the 8bb crew.)

Comment from lawrencedillon
Time: February 12, 2010, 9:19 pm

Stanley, I know about organizations that provide commissioning funds, but that’s not what this is about — this is about 8bb finding new composers they may not know yet. I still don’t know of any organizations that provide funding for competitions.

Steve, I honestly hope that 8bb makes a tidy sum from this, because there aren’t that many ways for new music groups to survive, much less thrive in a way that is commensurate with the amount of work they do. There will probably be some people who will pay the $50 who shouldn’t be spending their money that way, and that’s a shame, but I’m guessing most people who submit works won’t be bankrupted by this competition. And I think keeping 8bb in business is a good thing for all of us, whether or not they play our music. Maybe this competition is a way for composers to help them out and possibly get a shot at a performance to boot.

By the way, everyone, having entered a number of competitions over the years, I can honestly say (and I never would have believed this twenty years ago) that I have gotten more performances from competitions I didn’t win than from competitions I won. Not that I think that would be true with this competition — all competitions aren’t the same — but it’s important not to lose sight of the big picture for the immediate payoff.

Comment from Dennis Bathory-Kitsz
Time: February 12, 2010, 9:58 pm

There is nothing that enrages me more than this behavior (and the increasing exploition, barrier-creation and discrimination that are treated as normal in the new nonpop world).

The composer is the least powerful and most exploited of the new nonpop world. Any group with decent chops is going to get a lot of scores submitted, and performing groups hold the power over composers. This is ugly. This is not about auditioning, not about selecting, not about discovery, not about making composers think twice about submitting, not about any of the other excuses that groups offer.

It is about the simple, pure, and unadulterated ability to demand free money and get it, while reducing their own efforts. I’m sorry, but this is pitiful behavior. This is one more group that I will never support in any way (not that they need me or will ever perform my stuff). If commissioning is that important, they should be really committed and take a tithe from their performance fees to sponsor the competition.

I am stunned by the number of groups that are demanding handouts from the very people they profess to support. I’m disgusted by this behavior of offering high-sounding excuses for simple insult.



Comment from Stanley Moon
Time: February 12, 2010, 10:09 pm

There are programs for varied and general funding for ensembles, aside from those for specific commissions. Not really the point, though. The point is that these guys are successful, fairly well-heeled, ambitious and, apparently, cheap. They are very well-publicized, and this is part of a publicity campaign, much like Bang on a Can’s PCF, except this one is a Composer’s Commissioning Fund. The losers are paying for the winner’s commission. Your experience notwithstanding, not that many losers of competitions see that as a form of winning, especially when, unlike a piano competition, there is no publicity or exposure for the also-rans. It seems like a rather tone-deaf move to me. It has changed my perception of 8bb for the worse.

Comment from lawrencedillon
Time: February 12, 2010, 10:42 pm

Looks like I’ve got a minority opinion here. Oh well, not the first, or I imagine the last, time.

Comment from Mary Jane Leach
Time: February 12, 2010, 11:07 pm

Amen, brother Dennis. So we should feel sorry because a successful group has to spend time looking through scores, but it’s ok for a composer who has spent hours writing a piece to pay someone to look at it? This sounds like self-hating taken to a high level.

Comment from David Laganella
Time: February 12, 2010, 11:26 pm

I’m back…

As a new music presenter, I know that 8bb commands top dollar per performance (especially by new music standards) and they are presented regularly by most arts markets and many universities. This is a financially successful ensemble measured by any arts standard.

The award fee is too paltry to attract a professionally successful composer from entering.
You get one day (day?) to dress rehearse your work. The concert is being presented in a relatively low profile venue (guaranteed one performance). They specifically say that the recording is only for promotional use only.

This competition (to me), is specifically geared at attracting as many inexperienced composers as possible to submit a $50 application.

Madoff, AIG, 8bb….?

Comment from Chris Auerbach-Brown
Time: February 12, 2010, 11:41 pm

Let’s break down the numbers here, shall we?

In my experience, a competition by a high-profile ensemble like 8bb will probably get about 350 applicants from around the world. 350 X $50 apiece = $15,000 profit, minus $1500 for the winner’s fees. The rest goes directly into 8bb’s pockets and funds their needs.

That being said, I have to agree with Elaine’s statement “Why is it that I should feel happy to have my $50.00 application fee go to pay another composer who has written music considered by a group of people (who need to make their decision by instrumentally-biased consensus) “better” than my submission?” Not only that, but since the entry process isn’t anonymous, and since 8bb will most likely act as judges, they are free to pick music written by someone with a political connection to their ensemble, either as a friend, student of a friend, friend of a friend, etc. etc. I’m not willing to help facilitate this process by sending them my $50 application fee.

Comment from Paul Muller
Time: February 13, 2010, 12:36 am

Without speculating on the motivations and intentions of 8bb – I assume these are honorable and they genuinely feel this is a valid way to introduce new music – this sort of competition represents one datum point in the wide imbalance between those writing new music and those who are capable of performing it. Many of us toiling away in the outer darkness, however, are under no illusions about the chances that our compositions will be performed, $50 fee or no.

Galen Brown’s recent S21 article about Carolyn Yarnell’s piano piece The Same Sky should be required reading for upper-eschelon ensembles like 8bb. In a comment posted to the article there was a description of how the piece was recorded by pianist Kathleen Supové – it was a combination of synthetic realization and live performance. Why? According to Ms. Supové the piece would have required a dozen pianists to perform live. In other words, composers are writing pieces that are intended for listening, and not necessarily for performance.

And why not? Any composer with $50 can distribute his work directly to a world-wide audience via the Internet. Local performing institutions such as symphony orchestras are under increasing stress from lack of public support. Sophisticated groups like 8bb and venues like Le Poisson Rouge may be the exception – for now. But extrapolate the trends: huge available audience reachable at almost no cost – or send in $50 to see if a group will possibly perform your piece – and it does not take a rocket scientist to see the direction in which new music will evolve.

Comment from Wendy Richman
Time: February 13, 2010, 2:51 am

I might take issue with the amount they’re asking (I’d be curious to see an expense breakdown), but I think it’s excessively idealistic to ask six professionals to do something like this without an application fee. In a sense, since they’re putting this out there in addition to their regular duties, they’re taking on another job. Also, as a performer who has had to pay much higher entry fees for competitions, I don’t quite understand how it’s any different for a composer. Yes, $50 is a lot of money for a struggling musician–or even a successful musician who just doesn’t make a lot of money. But competitions like Gaudeamus Interpreters Competition (which takes place in a country far more supportive of the arts, financially and otherwise, and which is funded by a well-established music center) charge something like 30-40 Euro per entrant. The money, I imagine, goes toward administrative costs as well as augmenting the prize money. When six people are handling many of their own administrative duties in addition to an extremely rigorous rehearsal/performance schedule, and when there’s not much precedent for the number of scores they might receive, I think protecting themselves with an application fee is totally reasonable.

Comment from lawrencedillon
Time: February 13, 2010, 8:56 am

Minority opinion here again: when I do the math (what is a decent annual income to support six people? And let’s not even think about any of them supporting a family. Now how much more when you include hotel rooms, airfares, cartage for roomfuls of percussion, and storage for what I read above as several hundred boxes of scores?) – I’m guessing that the “high fees” 8bb commands aren’t exactly providing a luxurious lifestyle. New music stars are not in the same financial category as film stars and sports stars, even though I think they should be.

Now the $50 fee. Nobody is required to pay, and anyone can choose to pay. I figure most students will shy away, and most established professionals, as David L. points out, will find the reward not worth the cost. To me, this appears to be targeted at composers who are making a living but not getting the exposure they would like to have.

That leaves the composers who are severely struggling, both financially and professionally (not necessarily the same thing). These composers have a right to be unhappy, and 8bb’s announcement makes things even worse.

But I don’t see any reason why the people in the second paragraph (composers who are making a living, but not getting the exposure they’d like) should complain. For my part, I’ll complain till the polar ice caps melt about how much I have to pay for life’s basics – food, water, a roof, health care – things that should be guaranteed to every citizen — but I’ll never complain about putting money in a musician’s pocket.

Comment from Stanley Moon
Time: February 13, 2010, 11:07 am

One might complain about some musicians picking other musicians pockets! And, regardless of what category they belong to, I would think many musicians would be offended by something that just seems wrong.

Comment from lawrencedillon
Time: February 13, 2010, 11:28 am

I’ve had my pocket picked. It’s not something one would volunteer for. It’s not only financially devastating, it’s emotionally traumatic. I don’t see the parallel.

We are all entitled to our own moral compasses, and you are right that people will be offended by something they think is wrong. The majority of people here think what 8bb is doing is wrong. I don’t.

Comment from zoomflute
Time: February 13, 2010, 1:17 pm

Ok, I need to comment on this thread, folks.

Full disclosure: I’m a performing flutist.

Every single competition I have ever entered or seen has had an application fee. Every competition I have organized through various organizations has had an application fee. Applying to festivals that require auditions (or submissions, my dear friends) have had application fees. Masterclasses often have application fees and require audition tapes or submissions usually…

And so we’re clear. Yes, the fees are sometimes very expensive. I have seen them as high as $100 US, especially when the fees are required in Euros…

Most of these competitions, festivals or classes select based on the audition tapes or submissions they receive. And then those people are invited to attend a course, perform in a festival, or compete in final rounds for prize money.

Competitions are expensive to run. You have to pay the judges time to review submitted materials (recordings or scores) and then you usually have to pay prizes, composer’s airfare, performers, etc…Application fees help to offset these things.

Competitions are in general a platform for showing off your skill in whatever discipline. So you either want to “buy a seat at the table” or you don’t for a given competition.

And no, it’s really not different for performers or composers. Remember this, as performers when we go to competition, they don’t pay our airfare to come compete. They certainly do not pay for accompanists (typically), and once the performance is over…it’s over. It’s an intangible item. We could have played the best we ever played in our lives and no one will ever hear it outside that room in that moment. We may get some prize money and a warm fuzzy feeling, but we don’t get a score that will possibly be performed by dozens of other ensembles around the world.

Competitions are basically a gambling game–poker anyone? You either buy into the game for that round or you choose not to, but don’t get upset at the necessity of fees to participate. That’s about as ridiculous as walking into a game in Vegas and getting upset b/c you have to kick in $$$ that you might lose to another player in the room…it’s all a game of chance.

Personally I think everyone owes it to themselves to give yourself a chance in the game. Everyone has something to offer this world…

this is all just my humble opinion…

Comment from Eric L
Time: February 13, 2010, 1:18 pm

I have all sorts of conflicting feelings about this. On one hand, I don’t think the whole thing has been thoroughly thought out by 8bb, but I don’t think this project is meant to be exploitative.

I do want to clarify one thing however. I know this is an emotional topic for composers, but even then, that’s not grounds for spreading mis-information. Someone above commented that the final choice could be political; on the official competition site, it states that scores will be evaluated anonymously.

“Q: Will members of eighth blackbird know who is applying?
A: No. Applications will not be processed by any members of eighth blackbird and compositions will be judged anonymously by the ensemble.”

Again, feel free to dislike the way the competition is conducted, but don’t led your anger lead you to stating what is patently false.

Comment from james
Time: February 13, 2010, 1:46 pm

great idea, too expensive… Drop it by 40 dollars + whatever mailing fee and there wouldn’t be a complaint – or at least there shouldn’t be.

Comment from ogaguse
Time: February 13, 2010, 2:04 pm

Here is a look from an artist in a different discipline.

I am an architect married to a performing musician and, contrary to what some people may think, architects do not make a lot of money. I know many musicians who make way more than me or my peers.

You have to spend months working on every architectural competition out there while paying fees that are never less than $1,000. Then you have to fly to wherever the competition is being held to present it (of course, travel expenses are not reimbursed). If your entry is not selected you may use it in your portfolio but that’s it. You can’t do anything else with it. Dear composers, if your entry is not selected in a competition, you can turn around and submit it elsewhere. We can’t.

So cry me a river (sorry to be so blunt). Competitions are expensive to run and you can’t expect music ensembles to fund themselves only through handouts from foundations and the government. They are a business and I commend 8bb on their creativity to find a way to cover the cost of running a competition.

Provided the selection process is honest (btw: it is anonymous) I think this is a great way to showcase the work of the chosen composer while providing paid time to the judges. They should be compensated, right?

Instead of just commissioning a piece by a particular composer, they chose to organize a competition. This is an opportunity for everyone that would not exist had they chosen to simply commission a particular composer. If you think $50 is too big to get in the competition, don’t submit.

Comment from Dennis Bathory-Kitsz
Time: February 13, 2010, 2:09 pm

Zoomflute, the big difference is power. Performers hold power over composers. No matter how you justify it, you can play a composer if and when you feel like it, as well or badly as you choose. Composers have no power over you whatsoever. You don’t apply to them over and over to allow you to play. That’s the inescapable reality. You can have a full-blown career without ever going near a living composer.

As for everybody paying fees, that’s a total red herring. One successful performer application and you have a contract, and can swing from contract to contract and ensemble to ensemble until you retire or die.

On the other hand, one successful composer application gets you a one-time event. Then you get to do it all over again, week after week, month after month, year after year for a lifetime — and maybe, just maybe, you’ll stay hip or young or media-darlinged enough to keep performers interested.


Comment from Wendy Richman
Time: February 13, 2010, 2:32 pm

Looking for performers to play one’s music is part of the composer’s job description. In my experience, some composers are more skilled at the networking game than others: some are over-eager, some are not aggressive enough. It’s a finely tuned skill that, in some ways, is of equal importance to the music itself, whether you like it or not. A competition is perhaps a way of bypassing that game, being judged solely on the merits of one’s music. It’s like a blind audition.

I completely agree a composer’s lot is not always fair, but nobody’s is. We all have parts of our jobs that frustrate us–one of mine is that the work is never done, and I sometimes feel my instrument staring at me from the other side of the room, even after a double rehearsal and teaching 6 lessons. As performers, as people, we have to set limits. Why should the performers have to stay up all night sifting through piles of submissions? Yes, we/they asked for it, but what they’re really asking for is, as Christian’s friend suggested, a bit of self-selection. 8bb is fortunate (and has worked extremely hard to get to this point) that many, many composers want to write for them. They know there will be a lot of submissions. Should they decide not to hold the competition because they’ll get too much music? Aren’t they entitled to be compensated for the work of listening to these pieces?

Comment from Christian
Time: February 13, 2010, 3:00 pm


Just a little reflection on your last point. As a writer, I get sent lots of materials to review. Should I be paid by those who submit recordings, scores, or books for my consideration? Of course not. That would be inherently unethical. I view it as an important part of my job, and a time-consuming one, to review submissions based on their merits, not on some kind of application fee or ad-based “pay for play.”

Comment from James Holt
Time: February 13, 2010, 3:16 pm

there’s nothing quite like a discussion about competition fees to get everyone all worked up – it never fails. I feel like the fee in this case is a little high but they should be able to run the contest they want to run… and the composers should make an informed choice about whether to submit or not. best wishes to 8bb and good luck to those who submit. whoever mentioned gambling is right – if my piece is actually chosen would it be worth 50-bucks? Probably, yes. Are the odds of winning very high? Probably not.

Comment from Wendy Richman
Time: February 13, 2010, 3:22 pm

Good point, Christian. But when a writer receives materials to review, there’s no guarantee s/he will review them or even look at them. If you’re swamped, you pick and choose what to look at and ultimately write about, don’t you? An application fee (hopefully) guarantees everyone a chance at having their work listened to.

Comment from Wendy Richman
Time: February 13, 2010, 3:26 pm

Also, a [composer] friend just pointed out to me that submissions for this competition are electronic, thus drastically reducing time and money spent at copy shops and post offices.

Comment from Mary Jane Leach
Time: February 13, 2010, 4:12 pm

I’m still having a problem with the thinking that the instrumental professionals get more sympathy than the composer professionals, that their time is more important. A couple of hours looking at scores vs. maybe months of composition time. I also think the comparison to performer competitions is a red herring – very different situation.

This is also assuming that the judging is open minded, that the compositions will get equal attention. That said, anyone who’s been on a panel knows that it’s usually pretty easy to cull the quality pieces and/or pieces that will work for you, so there’s less to look really hard at.

My advice – save your fees, hire a few musicians, and release a recording on YouTube or itunes. (Or, make a good midi realization, like our pal Steve Layton.)

Comment from Stanley Moon
Time: February 13, 2010, 4:16 pm

Hey, a composer friend of mine just pointed out that no matter how badly he is exploited, it’s OK if he can save copying costs!

Comment from Stanley Moon
Time: February 13, 2010, 4:34 pm

But seriously…Mary Jane has it right on several counts. First, the comparisons are invalid, totally different protocols and customs for performers and composers. Chances are that if a composer writes a successful piece for a performer, the performer will eventually make more than ten times the amount the composer gets for writing it.

But more importantly, most competitions sponsored by performers are a high effort/little return proposition. Now, more than ever, composers should challenge pre-existing hierarchies and business models. Make your own recordings, get them online, publish yourself, become a non-profit. Make your own commissioning opportunities, it’s not that hard! A brief survey of recently successful composers will show a lot of them have made their own way. There are a few more than eight ways of looking at a blackbird.

Comment from Chris Richardson
Time: February 13, 2010, 4:39 pm

Thanks all for your many thought provoking comments. As the administrative director for eighth blackbird, I take full responsibility for having determined the parameters of this contest, including the fee.


First, it should be worth noting that the contest emerged as a response to a single issue: a growing number of unsolicited submissions. As David wrote above, there is a large pile of scores and recordings in the studio. The group does not want to simply ignore the hard work of composers, and yet they simply do not have time to review them. The question became, ‘how do we rationally manage submissions?’ Having an annual contest provides just such a system. Now there is a simple and objective determination for whether a score is reviewed or not.

Prior to this contest, I can safely say that it was very unlikely that any unsolicited submission was ever going to be reviewed. Now, ALL scores submitted as part of the contest will be reviewed. Any composer now has a way to guarantee that their work will be seriously considered by eighth blackbird. To my mind, that is a significant improvement.


Judging from most of the comments above, however, the main point of contention is the fee. First, whether there should be a fee at all, and secondly, what the amount of the fee should be.

I argued very strongly there be a fee. I believe it encourages self-selection, and as has been repeated above, it just seems to be the standard model. I’m more familiar with the screenwriting world than that of composing, and I have never heard of a screenplay contest that didn’t have a fee. Further, we wanted there to be a significant prize, so the contest would have to pay for itself (getting support from a grant wasn’t an option for a host of other reasons).

One post above speculated that we would receive 350 applications. Perhaps we’re naive, but we are anticipating about 35-50, which at $50 per application would be just enough to break even, with perhaps a little bit for our time if we’re lucky. I hope we’re wrong and you’re right. This is the first time we’ve done this, so we really have no idea.


A few have said or implied that the award isn’t sufficient. I’m rather surprised by this contention. I truly thought being the sole winner of an annual contest personally judged by eighth blackbird, plus having the piece performed, plus travel and lodging, plus $1,000 cash, was rather significant.


Chris Auerbach-Brown wrote: “since the entry process isn’t anonymous, and since 8bb will most likely act as judges, they are free to pick music written by someone with a political connection to their ensemble, either as a friend, student of a friend, friend of a friend, etc.” David Langella compared eighth blackbird to Madoff and AIG.

Many of you know the musicians and therefore know how preposterous such ideas are. Laughable, actually. For those of you who don’t: rest assured we’ve done everything to ensure that no ensemble member will see the names of the composers, and that the whole process will be managed by our intern. The contest was intended to solve a problem, not make money.

Again, in our discussions, we anticipated just enough submissions to break even, and even agreed it would be okay to lose a little money. Depending on how this goes, next year we can explore both lowering the fee and increasing the prize.

Finally, I have to say that I fail to see anything exploitive about having a contest that no one has to enter. If guaranteeing your work is reviewed by eighth blackbird, the chance of winning and the award are worth $50, then participate. If not, then don’t.

In the end, we’re all here because we support new music in some way. Several of you mentioned alternative ways to use $50. I’m all for there being as many opportunities as possible. This is just one more.

Thank you all for your feedback. I can promise you it will all be taken into consideration for future events.

Comment from lawrencedillon
Time: February 13, 2010, 4:39 pm

Christian, I think it’s wonderful (and amazing) that you volunteer so much of your time to reviewing disks. In the bad old days before the internet, nobody did what you are doing for nothing – critics were paid a salary for their efforts. On the other hand, if you were awarding a $1000 to the top disk you review and promising to learn and perform the music, then maybe I’d recommend charging an application fee.

Mary Jane, I don’t think there is a parallel between the composer’s work in writing the piece and the ensemble’s work in choosing a piece. The parallel is between the composer’s work in submitting the piece and the ensemble’s work in choosing it. The parallel with the composer’s work in writing the piece is the ensemble’s work in mastering their instruments, mastering their parts, then rehearsing and performing the piece. I don’t feel sorry for either side of that equation – we’re all doing it for love, after all.

And everyone who suggests spending their money on homegrown production instead of competitions is absolutely right. That is, if that’s what you enjoy doing.

Comment from Wendy Richman
Time: February 13, 2010, 4:56 pm

No need to snark. My argument is that it’s NOT exploitative, so I stand by that comment.

Comment from Stanley Moon
Time: February 13, 2010, 5:09 pm

Stand by all you want. It’s an insult, and your friend’s comment is like a sad joke on the whole thing.

Comment from Christian
Time: February 13, 2010, 5:11 pm

I think what’s been really refreshing about the conversation today is that composers and performers have been sharing honestly about their perspectives on competitions and competition fees. I’ve learned a lot from the variety of perspectives offered.

Comment from Brian S.
Time: February 13, 2010, 6:28 pm

I feel like I should disclose, before you read the rest of this post, that I plan on entering the competition. But just a couple thoughts as to a couple of the reasons why people are unhappy with 8bb’s decisions regarding this contest.

First,while this hasn’t been the primary complaint (at least from what I can tell,) is the amount of money required to enter. $50. Now I used to work in “development” for my college (which is of course, a nice way to say i was a telemarketer for alumni,) and we would always ask for money, and typically $50 was the “oh man, let’s see if we can get them to at least give something” level. Now donating to your alma-matter and entering a contest are two very different things I realize, but we were trained to try to combat certain rejections, like “that’s too much money,” and what it really came down to was a twisted application of the law of opportunity cost.

$50 is a lot for an entry, but consider your average weekend. Perhaps you go to out to eat, perhaps with your significant other. At most restaurants your looking at around $25-$30 for dinner for two. Maybe you wanna catch a movie so you can hear that new Hans Zimmer score. Tickets for one or two could range anywhere from $10-$20, plus popcorn, candy, drinks. What if instead of a movie you went to a ballgame? Or a play? Or (most hopefully) a symphony concert? The point we always tried to make to our alumni (or at least imply) is that a $50 donation was easy enough if most people traded in their normal weekend for one at home watching movies and eating leftovers. If they wanted too.

Now, I’m certainly not trying to tell anyone what to do with their money, that’s not my place. But I know for myself personally that $50, or giving up one weekend this month, is worth it to me as the cost of entering this contest.

Secondly, a thought that came up after reading recent posts dealing with administrative fees: how many people wouldn’t have a problem (or at least, less of a problem,) if there was an unnamed independent judging panel instead of 8bb themselves? I would think that most people are okay with their fees going to pay judges, but not if the judges are the same players posting the competition and asking for the fees.

Just a few thoughts that come to mind.

Comment from David Laganella
Time: February 13, 2010, 8:38 pm

How I think the 8bb competition guidelines become more ethical with a $50 entrance fee.

1. Anonymous submissions or a submission with a recommendation from an established

2. No one under the age of 18 should be required to pay the fee.

3. Preliminary panel made up of 8bb members and other established composers (from varied aesthetic backgrounds) to decide top 50 applicants. 8bb makes final decisions.

4. Top five compositions receive a performance.

5. Top five composers receive a small travel stipend and a professional recording of the concert.

6. One composer is chosen as the winner and receives additional performances and double the purse.

This helps take the “greed” factor out of it for me, now off to a show….

Comment from James Holt
Time: February 14, 2010, 12:48 am

I just want to point out that Chris Richardson (administrative director for eighth blackbird) has offered their side of the story. His comments were held up in the system because of length – see comment #41.

Comment from Michael B.
Time: February 14, 2010, 1:10 am

Seems to me they should be paying me $50 to audition my piece.

Comment from David
Time: February 14, 2010, 8:49 am

To Chris Richardson:
Thank you for commenting above (#41). Very helpful to hear word from someone behind the scenes. I am curious as to how many submissions you actually receive. I think that you may have underestimated the desperation of composers and the appeal of 8bb. My guess is that you’ll receive upwards of 100 submissions. If your fee were $25 I would venture that the number of submissions would triple. Just my guesses, but please do forward the final results.

Comment from Corey Dargel
Time: February 14, 2010, 2:26 pm

I went to Meet The Composer’s website and consulted its publication “A Basic Guide to Commissioning Music.” According to that document, which was recently updated, an appropriate commissioning fee for a 10-minute piece for 6 players would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $7500, and that’s the low end.

But let’s assume that’s idealistic and impractical. Here are a composer’s monthly expenses (very conservatively estimated):

Rent/Mortgage = $800
Health Insurance = $300
Food = $400
Bills — Electric/Gas/Water/Internet/etc. = $250
TOTAL = $1750

This is just the bare minimum needed to have a functioning live/work space. This does not take ANY other expenses into account, so this is a composer who never goes to concerts that aren’t free, never buys alcohol, never pays for doctor visits or prescription drugs, and doesn’t own and maintain a car.

8bb thinks that $1000 is a reasonable fee for composing a 5- to 15-minute work for six instruments. Let’s take the middle length and assume that it would take four weeks to compose a 10-minute piece. This is an unrealistic assumption in which the composer has no other obligations, never has a bad idea, and is untroubled by such things as lack of inspiration or the need to make revisions. But let’s make this unrealistic assumption for the sake of argument. 8bb’s fee does not even come close to covering the composer’s living/working expenses.

So this suggests to me the following:

1) 8bb assumes that all composers have other primary sources of income and that composing is really just a hobby, not a career.

2) 8bb considers itself the provider of services to the composer and does not attach much value to the composer’s contribution to 8bb’s repertoire.

There’s not even a sense of mutual respect or equal benefit. It’s a one-way street, made evident by Chris’s attempt to defend of the award fee: “I truly thought being the sole winner of an annual contest personally judged by eighth blackbird, plus having the piece performed, plus travel and lodging, plus $1,000 cash, was rather significant.” That’s not a defense at all. Apparently 8bb gets no satisfaction out of commissioning a new work and thinks it can justify paying a composer well below living wage by making the above assumptions.

The argument that 8bb’s performers aren’t getting paid enough either skirts the issue or reinforces this assumption. We’re talking about the time it takes to compose the piece vs. a single day of rehearsing and a “studio concert.”

Comment from Stanley Moon
Time: February 14, 2010, 2:33 pm

Chris. This is a corporate defense. It doesn’t come from the subjects themselves but from a spokesman, who out of hand dismisses all complaints. You say you want to hear what the public has to say, but make it clear if we don’t like it we can lump it. Rest assured that when you dismiss criticism as “laughable” that your critics are not laughing. You’ve made a mess of this. What might have, if it were handled much differently, seemed like a generous gesture of outreach now seems like a rather paltry “gift” indeed. And the real value of the prize, you tell us, is that some lucky person gets to bask in your brand for a day. Are we wrong to assume you will pay a publicist more than the prize money to get the best coverage for your generosity?

Comment from David Laganella
Time: February 14, 2010, 3:17 pm

Thank you Corey. Your message gives more validity to the argument that this competition is predatory towards younger composers and lowers the value of new compositions in general. Perhaps Chris should do some more research to why music larger organizations such as the American Composers Orchestra, Symphony in C and many other smaller ones do not charge application fees for their contests? Perhaps he should contact BMI and ASCAP and see how many young composers typically enter those award competitions (I know it’s a different scenario but its still a relevant point of reference).

Perhaps 8bb should have had the foresight to try to partner with organizations like the American Composers Forum to off set costs and avoid an application fee.

8bb did partner with the ACF in the past for a FREE composers competition open to Philadelphia area composers.

Comment from Stanley Moon
Time: February 14, 2010, 3:35 pm

david’s suggestions are all good. other suggestions: have 3 (or more) winners, all of whom take part in open rehearsals and concerts. set limits such as no previous major awards or commissions, something to keep it to the emergent (rather than just calendar-young) composer.

Comment from Wendy Richman
Time: February 14, 2010, 3:47 pm

Corey, thank you for making concrete and informed points. I totally agree with you regarding the prize money, though I do think that’s somewhat peripheral to the original argument (if I’m reading correctly). It seems to me that the hubbub is more about the general nature of an application fee, rather than the specific dollar amount. However, if we’re getting into that, I definitely think it’s in bad taste to ask a relatively high individual application fee and offer such a low prize amount.

Comment from Corey Dargel
Time: February 14, 2010, 4:01 pm

Wendy, I have no objection to the entry fee. I generally do not enter competitions with a fee, though I do sometimes apply for residencies that have an application fee. I personally think $50 is pretty steep. As you might guess, I will not be entering the competition.

I don’t think the award amount is incidental; on the contrary, the commission fee is sort of the point of it all (at least for the entrant). So I was disappointed that Chris’s defense of the low commission fee was so anemic. $1000 would be a good amount to give as an honorarium to have a composer assist with the presentation of an already-written piece. But as a commissioning fee, it’s pretty sad.

Comment from lawrencedillon
Time: February 14, 2010, 4:30 pm

Interesting to compare it to a commissioning fee. I was comparing it to prize awards. $1000 plus a performance and recording by an outstanding ensemble compares favorably to me with the $10,000 offered by the Pulitzer Prize.

Comment from Stanley Moon
Time: February 14, 2010, 4:41 pm

Ha, you’ve picked the most notoriously small cash prize among the more famous awards. Would you say the prestige of the Pulitzer is worth a bit more than the 8bb? Shall we compare their 1k to the amount awarded with the Grawemeyer?

Comment from Randolph Pitts
Time: February 14, 2010, 4:48 pm

As an amateur composer who has never (and will never) applied for a commission, I get to speak my mind (not that I would not do so otherwise).

I tend to agree that there is something questionable in the concept of a “self-funded commission.” Back in my preposthumous pecunious days, I once participated in the commissioning of a piece organized by one of the bassoon groups (I am also an amateur bassoonist). The way it worked was that someone (not the composer himself) sent out an email solicitation to people in that (and other) online wind groups. Those of us who said we were interested were later sent another email telling us what our shares would be. I believe my share was under a hundred dollars. All of the commissioners had their names on the score and received a CD. Because I am on the fringes of everything, for all I know this is a common practice. What I thought was fair about this approach was that people with an interest (professional and amateur wind players and fans of wind instruments) were the ones to finance the commission.

One more comment: This particular “competition” reminds me of something you see in my former business, viz. advertisements reading “Have your screenplay read by top industry professionals” — for a fee of $200. Of course the readers are not actually “top industry professionals,” but scam artists. The concept in this case is more like, “for fifty bucks you can bring yourself and your work to the attention of this well-known musical group. It will do your career good — and much more if you win.” The Yucca Valley String Quartet could never get away with it. They wouldn’t receive a single submission — or a single entry fee.

Comment from lawrencedillon
Time: February 14, 2010, 4:48 pm

Well, Grawemeyer also has an application fee, Pulitzer doesn’t. But at least they are both prizes, as opposed to commissions, which tend to go to people the ensembles already know

Hiring six top-notch musicians, a great recording engineer and renting a nice recording space for a day will start at about $5000.

Comment from Stanley Moon
Time: February 14, 2010, 5:16 pm

Yes, the Grawemeyer, which pays $100,000, has an entry fee…of $40, paid by the performing or presenting organization. Individuals may not apply, and I assume few of the applicants are young or impoverished, since they must present the score and recording of an already performed major work.

And no, the Pulitzer has an entry fee of $50, though I think the prestige of that one offers sufficient auxiliary value. I doubt many poor youngsters are applying for that one, either.

So neither makes for a good comparison.

Comment from lawrencedillon
Time: February 14, 2010, 5:18 pm

Good homework, Stanley. So if a performance is involved, it should be categorized as a commission?

Comment from Stanley Moon
Time: February 14, 2010, 5:26 pm

Thanks Lawrence, but as a matter of fact I already knew those things. Don’t you?

As to your question, whose performance of what?

Comment from lawrencedillon
Time: February 14, 2010, 5:29 pm

Sorry if I sounded facetious; You already know those things because you’ve done your homework. It was a compliment.

I thought I understood that since 8bb was going to perform the piece then the prize should be comparable to a commission.

I’m seriously trying to follow this line of reasoning, which I don’t yet understand. If an organization doesn’t have the endowment of a Grawemeyer or a Pulitzer, it shouldn’t sponsor competitions?

Comment from Stanley Moon
Time: February 14, 2010, 6:02 pm

Hmmm…don’t follow that logic at all. I think they should definitely have a competition, but they might want to re-think and retool the thing. What they have right now seems a ill-defined. I think they mightd limit the field to composers who have not had major exposure (define that as you may) so that more really new (and I don’t necessarily mean young) people are encouraged. Would be kind of a drag if a well-known mid-career composer wins it. Nothing against the well-known middie but…

They should find other funding, not have a $50 entry fee, and make the award larger. But also make the event itself larger. As I said before, I think it would be great to raise the profile of the thing more by selecting several composers and having open rehearsals and concerts with audience interaction. Make the whole thing a sort of collegial learning environment. If you’re going to have outreach, you might as well really reach out and effect change while you’re at it.

Comment from lawrencedillon
Time: February 14, 2010, 6:26 pm

Thanks for the serious response, most of which I like. But the part about finding other funding brings me back to a question I asked about 60 comments ago. I don’t know of any grants for competitions. And if they are going to do the things you are suggesting, they will need a heap of funding — unless you are suggesting that the winning composers get no money.

Comment from Stanley Moon
Time: February 14, 2010, 6:36 pm

Well, other organizations usually do this by seeking patrons to cover it, individuals, sponsoring corporations or, in the unusual case of Ban on a Can, making a specific fund drive for “People’s Commissions.” Like anything else, the organization’s zeal and passion to get it done (raise money to create new music) is what ultimately gets it done.

Comment from paul bailey
Time: February 14, 2010, 6:47 pm

as a performing composer who has always had my own ensembles to directly write in and perform with this whole discussion seems sad and archaic.

most of the time i’m just not interested in listening to commissioned art music concerts or recordings is the music they choose seems to be selected more by outside relationships and commitments of their publisher/record company and how it will forward their career (with the exception of the “fred” album) than by making any strong artistic statement.

is depending on patronage really the best you all can do? what would people think if radiohead went out and commissioned (insert name of composer here) for their next album? the idea of composers being work for hire (other than opera and theater) i think is directly related to the way they are treated (just like scriptwriters in hollywood)

at the end of the day patronage from the government or private sector is still not that much different than begging for scraps from the church and king. i know we all gotta do to whatever we can to pay the bills, but i’d rather not beg for my supper.

Comment from Stanley Moon
Time: February 14, 2010, 7:15 pm

hmmm…you might want to look at the history of music and art produced via patronage before you dismiss it as “begging for scraps.” we’re talking most of the western canon up to beethoven, and then there’s that wagner character and mad ludwig. it worked out well for richard. in other words, good patrons can have good relationships with artists and the relationship can produce great works. one might as easily argue that all artists becoming independent sole proprietors can lead to over-reliance on market forces and trends. i think a combination of income streams is best and it can work that way if the composer knows how to make patronage work for him or her. being independent and self-sufficient these days means knowing how to play both sides, having ensembles, doing your own recording and publishing, and knowing how to finesse a grant proposal. that’s not begging, that’s doing business. and of course if you want to write orchestral works, you’re probably not starting your own, so you’ve got to get help somewhere..

Comment from Christopher Bush
Time: February 14, 2010, 7:23 pm

This lambasting of hard working musicians who in general fight the good fight in support of New Music is slightly disturbing. It seems to me that a more constructive response would be “Fantastic! Now, here are some changes that could make this more successful in the long run…” (Some of which we’ve read.) That’s bit more supportive of the general cause (supporting composers and performers of New Music) than attacking individuals’ personal character. This kind of kvetching is exactly why more of these kinds of things don’t exist. (I feel like my Mom saying “This is why we can’t have nice things.”)

As a performer consistently playing new music, I know how hard it is to create even a small structure that encourages the creation of a new piece. Of course these structures start out with flaws. If they waited until everything was perfect, they’d never have any kind of competition at all and all of those pieces you’d submit wouldn’t leave your house. Of course, you could always create your own structure. Speaking of 8bb as if it’s a corporate machine like the NY Phil or IBM seriously overlooks the fact that it’s just a handful of musicians teaching, playing, paying the rent, and trying to find some good new music.

Not submitting your work because it doesn’t pass the cost/benefit analysis makes perfect sense. Attacking those people who are out there trying to do something good for what you say is your cause is probably counterproductive.

(I owe you an email, Lawrence, I know! Soon…Caught up in a very busy schedule at the moment. But apparently I have time to read S21. Oy vey.)

Comment from Stanley Moon
Time: February 14, 2010, 7:55 pm

Disturbing? That’s a good, healthy reaction to constructive criticism! Do you realize you’ve hardly answered anyone’s concerns other than to tell us we have no right to criticize such fine, hard-working people? Most of us, at least, have not attacked anyone’s personal character, but rather critiqued what seems an ill-wrought venture that may not reflect well on you. But I guess you might as well over-react, when you’re not being unresponsive…(well, at least to anyone other than Lawrence.) And your “Oy vey” to S21 sounds just a -tad- condescending (not a personal attack, mind you, just a literary judgement.)

Comment from paul bailey
Time: February 14, 2010, 7:59 pm


i can think many composers in the baroque (bach and vivaldi especially) made their living by teaching instead of composing. i guess it’s easier for you to dismiss most of the aesthetic limitations of patronage as the cost of “doing business” and if we are talking about the present day i would be hard pressed many beethoven’s and mad richard’s that have consistently able to rise above the limitations of “working for the king”

Comment from Stanley Moon
Time: February 14, 2010, 8:03 pm

works both ways. having a good patron can give you great, even total freedom, and having your own group can be a ball and chain.

oh, and bach and vivaldi both had to please church hierarchies, which Bach especially found a real drag.

Comment from lawrencedillon
Time: February 14, 2010, 8:51 pm

Adding up costs to create a more perfect competition:

Let’s say three composer-winners, each getting $8000 in prize money. Open rehearsals and performances with composers in attendance, that’s another $2000 per composer toward travel and lodging. Three days of recording sessions at $500/day for each performer, $1000/day for space rental, $1000/piece for recording and editing. Another $10,000 for administrative costs (you better pay the administrator(s) well, because organizing this kind of thing is a logistical headache and a dreadful bore, and the people behind the scenes aren’t going to get anything much from it besides money).

These are all ballpark figures – your mileage may vary. But they are based on actual road tests.

That all comes to a cool $55,000/year. I still haven’t heard of any grants one can apply for to run a contest, and certainly nothing that would come close to that kind of figure. So, if you want to do it annually, you can ask one of your friends with disposable cash to cough $55,000 up every year. Or you can ask them to make a one-time gift to create an endowment that would generate that amount annually.

A one-time gift of 1.1 million dollars would do it in a decent economy. It would take more in our current recession.

Honestly, given the limited number of patrons who would line up for this kind of enterprise, it still makes more sense to me to charge a modest application fee. And, now that I think of it, the best way to get a patron for this kind of thing would be to show them a successful track record. In other words, run the competition with a fee for a few years, unearth a bunch of outstanding new pieces, then go to your patrons and show them what their generosity could accomplish.

Comment from Mary Jane Leach
Time: February 14, 2010, 8:57 pm

I’ve been thinking about this, and I think a more apt comparison would be if presenting organizations started to charge fees for performance proposals.

I think all of us who are in music do work at times that you don’t get paid for. When I ran XI (a cd label), we received proposals. I would try to get to them and send a reply, but truthfully, since we had a specific aesthetic, many could be eliminated quickly. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz probably received piles and piles of cds when he was running regular shows for Kalvos and Damian, but considered it part of what he was doing, and wouldn’t consider charging. I continually get requests for information about Julius Eastman, but I wouldn’t consider charging for it. I run a concert series, but wouldn’t consider charging to look at performance proposals. It’s called being part of a community, also intellectual curiosity.

Finally, unless you are a performance ensemble that only does a narrow, standard repertoire, there probably is some kind of research that has to be done to find new pieces, so I would consider that part of the whole process. If you’re only performing dead composers, I guess the advantage is that you can’t charge them for looking at their scores. :-)

Comment from Mary Jane Leach
Time: February 14, 2010, 9:00 pm

P.S. Lawrence, if you are paying $5000 to record a piece, I’d be happy to produce a recording for you. Seriously, I’ve produced a lot of recordings, including at the expensive Academy of Arts and Letter, and have never paid that much. Not only that, I have my own space with great acoustics that you can record in.

Comment from lawrencedillon
Time: February 14, 2010, 9:24 pm

Thanks, Mary Jane, maybe I’ll be in touch with you. But the $5000 I quoted way above wasn’t so much for the production (although that was part of it), it was mostly for the six musicians. As I mentioned about 50 posts ago, I love paying musicians well, when I can. I hate paying abstract stuff like the mortgage, or the internet bill — love paying things that have concrete value, like musicians.

Comment from Stanley Moon
Time: February 14, 2010, 9:31 pm

Lawrence, as to those budgets, I’d say the original is too cold and yours is too hot, so ask Goldilocks. It could even be a very low-overhead thing with some changes. Obviously, one change would be to not charge a fee and have 8bb donate their score-reading services. Small compromises across the board could make the whole process feel better. There isn’t really one sticking point, just that the sum of the parts made the competition seem less than generous or welcoming.

Comment from lawrencedillon
Time: February 14, 2010, 9:40 pm

Stanley, I first worked up a low-overhead version, but then I realized I was falling into the trap of insisting that the composer be paid well at everyone else’s expense, which to me is unethical. As a matter of fact, my budget actually underpays 8bb somewhat — if I worked them into the budget at what I believe is their value, it would add another 6-8 thousand.

And besides, if you aim high, you might hit high. If you aim low, you are guaranteed to hit low. So let’s go for all the marbles.

To mix a metaphor.

Comment from Stanley Moon
Time: February 14, 2010, 9:46 pm

Well, it *is* our Monopoly money, after all. (I certainly agree in spirit about the aim thing.)

Comment from Micah Levy
Time: February 15, 2010, 8:14 am

Phooey!!!! I am so disGUSted, I think I’ll eat some worms. No, here’s a better idea. I’m just not going to send any more of my brilliant scores to the Eighth Blackbird or even the 7th. From now on I’m sending my music straight to the magpies, scores will go to songbirds, works will go to warblers and opi will go to owls. AS for 8th Blackbird, they can eat crow. This music writing business is for the birds!!

Comment from Daniel
Time: February 15, 2010, 5:02 pm

My first/visceral reaction to a $50 application fee for a competition with a $1000 prize was laughter. When I realized that I did respect 8bb as an ensemble, humor turned to disappointment. I consider myself an average, working-class composer, and coughing up $50 for a $1000 raffle seems unreasonable. The local Catholic charity can offer me a $50 raffle ticket for a Porsche giveaway, and I still won’t buy.

Is 8bb really behind this decision, or is there a manager-type involved? The contest is too out of balance to justify the fee. I’m sorry, 8bb, you are going to have to explain yourselves to me if you want to regain my trust.

On the other hand, they can do what they want. I don’t care.

Comment from Evan Kuchar
Time: February 15, 2010, 5:11 pm

To all:

This is a tough business and an even tougher genre in which to find success. Anyone who is in it solely for themselves is delusional. They are deluded about the quality of their music and probability of success. Our roles as performers or composers is really spreading the value of contemporary music such that we all have more success, spending less time arguing over minutia and fighting over scraps. Dismissing an ensemble or a composer over such petty matters is counterproductive.

Weighing in on the fee:

I believe the fee is completely appropriate, considering the time and money the ensemble will spend. There is no escaping the symbiotic relationship between composer and performer. Depending on the situation – performance, recording, contest – one is more important than the other; rarely is it perfectly balanced. In the case of this contest, we can argue over the perfection of the balance, but at the very least, it seems mutually beneficial – both monetarily and beyond.

To respond to Mr. Dargel:

Writing a new piece for a competition and expecting it to pay your rent is ludicrous. Simply winning a performance (and the subsequent recognition) should be prize enough to motivate *serious*, up-and-coming composers to enter – yes, maybe up-and-coming will mean younger rather than older. Fame, reputation, and recordings are sometimes worth more than money, butthe monetary prize sweetens the deal, widening the field slightly to ensure that the winning piece beats out stiff competition.

And besides, shouldn’t the truly professional composers already have a handful of Pierrot ensemble pieces that they can just dust off and submit? If not, this is an opportunity to write one. If it doesn’t win, you can always submit it to other competitions.

When will someone make a Downfall / Hitler Meme video of the 8bb composition contest?

Comment from Alex Shapiro
Time: February 15, 2010, 5:23 pm

Corey’s comment, number one starting the discussion off, is spot on. He really nails the issue, and has set a great tone that is educating composers about their worth as creators. Thank you, thank you, Corey.

Along with composers Jennifer Higdon and Stephen Paulus, and attorney/publisher Jim Kendrick, I’m the co-founder of a new touring seminar series that ASCAP is generously funding, titled, “The ASCAP Composer Career Workshop: Things They Don’t Teach You in School.” We go where needed, whether to universities to talk to their comp departments, or to general audience venues in various cities to which many composers would flock. In addition to the usual information about publishing, copyrights, web promotion, social networking and recording/production techniques, one thing we talk ardently and quite openly about is money, as well as something that is too rarely discussed: self worth. Among the many points we have to say on the subject, like Corey, we lay out the “what does it cost you to live per month” concept. So I just love seeing his opening comment, because not enough artists think in those terms. Yes, fees are guided by a “what the market will bear” reflection on a composer’s rate, but the base level certainly needs to reflect that composer’s general living expenses, as well.

Many of our peers– and I don’t just mean the ones who are starting out at age 24, but those far older– are shocked when they hear the truth about what real commission fees are. They never imagined that they could earn that sort of money. It’s off their radar psychologically, and not openly spoken about enough by those of us who are working. The result is that these composers devalue their wonderful work by not asking for proper remuneration (when doing so is appropriate: let’s not flame out here, comrades, about the situations when it IS ok to give someone a piece). And most damaging of all, is that when a composer works for free or nearly so, they are sending the message to the recipients of their music that music does not need to be paid for. Venues: of course. Instruments: sure. Engineers to record the sessions: yup. Sheet music: okay. Printed promotional materials: absolutely. But what about the actual creation of the content, without which none of the above would be necessary?

Corey mentioned Meet the Composer, and I want to make sure that all readers here know that a great way to bolster your request for a proper fee is to point the potential commissioner, be they a patron or a performer, to this very helpful chart that MTC offers:

For those who are a bit shy about asking for fees, it’s incredibly helpful to have a suggested professional range published by a respected outside source to which we can direct people. When they see it in print, perhaps they will realize just how valuable, artistically and financially, our unique contributions are. And perhaps we all will, as well!

Comment from Stanley Moon
Time: February 15, 2010, 6:05 pm

“When will someone make a Downfall / Hitler Meme video of the 8bb composition contest?”

Want to try out for the Neville Chamberlain part?

Comment from Alex Shapiro
Time: February 15, 2010, 7:24 pm

Correction: Until dear Dennis Bathory-Kitsz was kind enough to let me know that this discussion began 50 comments earlier on a now-archived page, I didn’t notice, and presumed Corey’s post to be the first. Mea culpa. Of course, I still agree with all Corey wrote!

Comment from lawrencedillon
Time: February 15, 2010, 8:22 pm

Well, I’m all for the MTC commissioning guidelines, and I’ve used them (successfully and unsuccessfully) many times. But commissions are different from competitions. We wouldn’t use the commissioning guidelines to determine guest speaker fees, or teaching positions, or any of the other things composers do to earn a living.

I’ve outlined a budget, and the funding it would take, to create a more perfect competition in comment 24 on page two of this thread. So now the question that I asked somewhere before that: should an organization that doesn’t have that kind of competition budget ($55,000/year or 1.1 million endowed) be discouraged from sponsoring a composer competition? The answer I am getting from Corey and Alex and Dennis and others is YES – they shouldn’t hold a competition unless they’ve got that kind of money to spend. I disagree, and here’s why.

I’m a great believer in paying people appropriately. I’m also a great believer in the barter system. 8bb is offering, along with the prize money, several thousand dollars of in-kind services. If my local roofer told me he’d like me to write a piece of music and he doesn’t have enough money to meet the MTC guidelines but he’ll give me as much as he can plus he’ll put a new roof on my house for free – you might say No Way, but I’d be ready to talk instrumentation and duration.

8bb doesn’t have a month’s living to offer, but along with their prize money they are throwing in their track record of expertise and prestige. You can take their offer or not, but can you really say they shouldn’t make it?

Comment from Dennis Bathory-Kitsz
Time: February 15, 2010, 9:57 pm

Lawrence, you’re not getting whatever you’re getting from me. And I was about to let this go away until my name was mentioned in vain. :)

First, I love performers. They are dedicated and brilliant. Yet they are blind to their discriminatory behavior.

Here’s the point. It’s not about eighth blackbird. It’s about the avoidance of the power equation. If it were a men-women, white-black, straight-gay discussion, do you think the power issue would be tiptoed around? Never. But the ongoing inequity of nonpop, particularly new nonpop, is a performer-composer discussion still to be engaged. The performer has the power and isn’t afraid to use it. (And that the number of pay-for-play competitions rises when the economy is bad? Tell me it’s coincidental.)

Let me get one specific out of the way first. Being Grammy-winning is not that hard in new nonpop. You have to play good & look cool & have a great name & a good agent. Grammy winning? Now whose backs exactly did they get there on? Oh — composers. Just to be clear. Composers got that Grammy.

(Thanks to MJ in pointing out the Kalvos & Damian didn’t demand cash. We got a little here & there — some good amounts from dedicated people — but we ran the show for 15 years as a volunteer gig to the point of dedicating 20+ hours per week listening to thousands of recordings and prepping for our interviews, which now number nearly 300. And we, too, won awards — such as the ASCAP/Deems Taylor. All true. And all not relevant here. But thanks again to MJ.)

So back to power. Why is this about power? Because ensembles and performers have it and use it. They simply can. A less well-known ensemble wouldn’t dare be so blatant, of course, even if they were “better”. Fame brings power. Let’s turn it around. I have a $50 application fee to look at my scores and then I decide what you can play. Send me $50 each, groups, and I’ll decide which one of you gets to play “Under the Aurora” and you’ll get your fee for the night. And don’t forget you’ll have to re-arrange your personnel to my orchestration. And this will the case every time you want to give a concert. Ever. Feel good? Feel appropriate? Feel like “the normal model”?

Yes, Chris talked about it being the normal model. The model is broken, being all about competitions, networking/nepotism, or box office — and occasionally about art. You want to reduce unsolicited scores? I’ll make it easy. Publish your tastes and biases on your website. Accept only e-scores and e-demos. Require a cover letter with a brief intro and explanation why the submission is perfect. Then actually look and listen — and learn. I’ve never met a performer or ensemble who hasn’t been surprised the second time around at music they dismissed the first time. Provide feedback to every item received that meets the criteria above. And, finally, open up one day per month where any composer who shows up at the door you will play and play well on that day. Reverse the power equation — if you dare.


Comment from lawrencedillon
Time: February 15, 2010, 10:38 pm

Dennis, funny you should mention the idea of composers sponsoring competitions for ensembles to play their music – I was thinking the same thing. Only I didn’t think it was so inappropriate as you say it is. To me it makes sense to ask for what you want. And people can say no, if they don’t want to give it to you.

By the way, K&D’s reputation is legendary and well-deserved – I’m pretty sure everyone posting here is aware of it. Maybe I shouldn’t say that – one never knows. At least I am well aware of what an amazing service you provided.

I spent a couple of days with 8bb about eight years ago. At the time, they were listening to everything that was sent to them. Most of it was completely inappropriate for what they were trying to do, but they took the time to listen to and respond to everything. Sounds like at some point that no longer was practical. We might decry the fact that things changed, but things change for all of us.

For my part, I recognize the power equation you speak of, but I haven’t experienced it as starkly as the men-women, white-black, straight-gay power equations you’ve compared it to. Maybe I’ve been lucky, but the composer-performer equation seems far less life-threatening.

You are right, fame brings power. It also brings expectations, often well out of proportion to reality. More people want more things from you when you have power. I got into music administration because I thought I could help musicians. I got out of it because I discovered I was hated for being powerful, when I really just felt like I was at everyone’s beck and call. That was just my experience, maybe it hasn’t been anyone else’s, but that’s where I’m coming from.

In any case, what I thought I was getting from you and others was that this competition doesn’t give enough to the composers. Was I wrong about that?

Comment from Dennis Bathory-Kitsz
Time: February 15, 2010, 11:42 pm

Lawrence, if it were that simple, that’s what I would have said. Imagine the power balance flipped, and the kind of nonpop world that comes of it.


Comment from lawrencedillon
Time: February 16, 2010, 8:52 am

Must be a trick of perspective. To me, looking at this as just a power equation is too simplistic. To you, my view of the power equation is too simplistic.

We’re probably both right, for what it’s worth.

Comment from Miguel Frasconi
Time: February 16, 2010, 1:59 pm

I’ve been following this fascinating debate and I figure it’s time to throw in my 2¢. First I think it’s absolutely wonderful that this issue has sparked such interest and passion. It almost feels like we are all shareholders in this entity called “new music,” or “nonpop” music, in that so many people take personally what one small ensemble does. In the business world, I would imagine, only the shareholders of a small NASDAQ company would really care about what that company does with their money. This debate shows that we all do feel like shareholders in 8bb and any number of high profile “nonpop” ensembles. Not only do we paying for their CDs and go to their concerts, but they are also figureheads for this crazy art, OUR crazy art, for which we all hold such passion.

Sure, a $50 fee for a $1k award is over the top. But, hey, I’m not going to do it. I’m too busy trying to make a living making this “nonpop” music. But if some young composer wants to work an extra shift at that restaurant down the street, more power to ‘em. I don’t have a quick money job. I did in my 20s & 30s, but now (as I tell my friends) I’m too busy with my music to make any money. It’s incredibly hard being a composer; you can’t drop the ball for a second and you have to hold on to your sense of self-worth. I just have to figure 8bb know what they are doing and who they are attracting with this $50 fee. I’m sure they will find some gems in their competition, but I hope, for their sake, they find a way to fund actual commissions. Being a “nonpop” composer in this country is not getting any easier. Definitely more exciting, but certainly not easier.

There was this experimental musician out in Berkeley, CA, who used to turn his living room into a small concert hall for a few weeks at a time, a few times a year. He called it Woody Woodman’s Finger Palace and he would have international luminaries play as well as locals. The acoustics were great, the seating was comfortable, the wine was excellent. The tickets (which were fruit) were $10, unless you were a student. Student tickets were $15. “Students have access to more money than I do!” Woody would say.

Comment from lawrencedillon
Time: February 16, 2010, 4:25 pm

In case people aren’t aware, 8bb has done a bunch of commissioning in their 14 young years. A short list: George Perle, Frederic Rzewski, Joseph Schwantner, Paul Moravec, Stephen Hartke, Jennifer Higdon, Derek Bermel, David Schober, Daniel Kellogg, Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, and the Minimum Security Composers Collective. I’m sure there will be more. This competition is in addition to the commissioning they already do.

Comment from GB
Time: February 16, 2010, 4:41 pm

Eighth Blackbird are serial organizers of composer competitions with disproportionate entry fees. Daniel Wolf called for a boycott of a similar competition involving Eighth Blackbird in 2006:

Comment from Christian Carey
Time: February 16, 2010, 7:03 pm

Thanks GB.

Frank J. Oteri wrote an article about our Sequenza 21 application fees “brouhaha” over at New Music Box:

He also points out an article Molly Sheridan posted a while back on the subject.

Comment from Phil Fried
Time: February 16, 2010, 9:27 pm

It’s a pity about all those lonely unsolicited scores, Chris. One might suppose there is another pile for the recommended composers. Anyway I’m not included in either pile. A serial composers chances aren’t very good these days.

Even with the best intentions: what you seem to be saying is this:

Your not cool, but if you pay our fee we will show you around the VIP room.

Philip Fried

Comment from Phil Fried
Time: February 16, 2010, 11:31 pm

On second thought

Hey there is an opportunity here–why doesn’t 8BB or another a new music ensemble do a marathon reading of every single work submitted?

Say 100 dollar fee but every work is performed with structured limitations of timing and instruments? recording extra???

that sounds a least win win!!!

Phil Fried stressing the positive.

Comment from Phil Fried
Time: February 16, 2010, 11:39 pm

naturally one expects more than sight reading.

Comment from Wendy Richman
Time: February 17, 2010, 12:03 am

$100 for each piece to be divided among six people. And not sightreading. That had better cover a damn good massage at the end of the marathon.

Comment from J
Time: February 17, 2010, 12:20 pm

As a college student, I wouldn’t apply to any competition that requires an entry fee, mostly because I don’t have a lot of spare money. So, unless the fee is very modest, I probably won’t be involved. Most competitions for younger composers don’t charge, though.

Comment from Chris Sahar
Time: February 17, 2010, 1:51 pm

Great discussion.

If we are going to look at this from basic economics, what composers and performers of new music face is simply an oversupply of music available to perform and hear. We all know this. Unfortunately, many non-composers (yes even some performers!) grossly underestimate the time it takes to write “good” concert music. In fact, as composers we know how often composers in the past recycled their material to meet demand. Composers prior to early 20th century were blessed NOT to have recordings, recording technology and an audience whose general populace were far less literate than our present populace (despite complaints about our falling educational standards in the US at least, the general populace has at least a HS diploma/GED, something that was a luxury over a 100 years ago) .

To compound the situation our copyright laws reduce the supply of new music through restrictions of availability of scores to study. Granted getting printed scores of works centuries ago could be expensive – but by the early 19th century it was attainable by upper middle income European class and you could always copy the scores. The result is an oversupply of music both available in print and recordings before roughly 940 and an undersupply of new music available in print and recordings after 1940.

And the above topics have been dissected in a million words and actions have been taken. Has any of this been successful? Too early to tell in my opinion. Will say I am not confident to quit my non-music day job to be a full time composer.

Denis’ original argument does highlight a point of departure all parties must take: When creating, performing and PROMOTING new music, everyone needs to make a living, a part of which is to have fundamental expenses paid (renting the hall, recording crew, rehearsal time, score prep, etc). The low self worth found in many classical composers and performers does not stem from us internally, rather it is the culture that engenders and inculcates in us.

My post is not too helpful as aside from endorsing Denis’ strategy and, major revisions in the copyright law, I don’t see much else.

Comment from Antonio Celaya
Time: February 17, 2010, 3:03 pm

When I pay a fee for a contest I understand that a Lotto ticket might be a better investment, and more likely to pay a return. Contests, for me, have the virtue of a deadline. If there is no performer waiting in the wings for a piece at least I’m writing and have to get the piece completed. It will probably end up in a drawer but I must keep working or lapse into sense of hopelessness. I know that my chances of winning any particular contest are miniscule, I am sometimes willing to pay a relatively small fee for the privilege of a rejection letter. But $50 is far too much.

As for the honorarium they offer – for most of us the honorarium would be icing on the cake. How many of us would pay to get a performance or recording by an ensemble as well-known and skilled as 8th blackbird? But $50 bucks! Geez! That is certainly beyond a review fee. That kind of fee on a regular basis is for Trust Fund Babies. I hope it’s not the wave of the future.

Comment from Dennis Bathory-Kitsz
Time: February 17, 2010, 5:04 pm

The Performing Ensemble Competition 2010 is now open!

Comment from Antonio Celaya
Time: February 17, 2010, 5:40 pm


I hope you get 20 ensembles to apply. The concept is brilliant.

Comment from Chris Becker
Time: February 17, 2010, 6:05 pm

I’m nearly crying – that’s the funniest thing I’ve seen all day :)

Comment from Mary Jane Leach
Time: February 17, 2010, 6:46 pm

Bravo, Dennis.

Comment from Phil Fried
Time: February 17, 2010, 8:39 pm

Dennis, I think the entry fee should be $1000 , for each band member.

Comment from Cariwyl Hebert
Time: February 18, 2010, 1:33 pm

Application fees are not at all exploitive. Especially in times like these, when most non-profits and most arts and culture groups are struggling, we shouldn’t expect free admission to contests from which we’ll benefit. In fact, I think Eighth Blackbird’s charging $50 per submission is very smart.

Sure, we don’t enjoy whipping out the credit card for things like this, but it’s a necessary part of doing this sort of business in this day in age. I recently paid a $45 fee to have my application considered for participation in a program that would help boost my organization’s stature. Did I want to pay it? No. But I knew it was necessary and I didn’t think it was at all unreasonable.

Comment from John Kennedy
Time: February 18, 2010, 1:40 pm

We have all made our mistakes in navigating how to do our work, but this is shocking. It is the kind of approach one expects from a new ensemble, unfamiliar with the field and working with composers. But then, 8bb has never had particularly strong community interaction, having been guided early on by success-driven agendas. It is very sad though, that a “leading” new music ensemble, one that has been quite rewarded and honored by the field, would set this kind of example for a “Composer Competition”. It is embarrassing, and demonstrates their disconnect with the wider new music community.

Comment from Philipp Blume
Time: February 18, 2010, 1:58 pm

Do we not also pay application fees to get into graduate school, and don’t the competitive places sometimes accept only one student per academic year? How is this different? If you don’t like the odds of this competition, do not enter. Wrong way!

What 8bb is doing is conforming to an economic model, the one that surrounds them here in the United States. Whether that economic model is good for the future and good for the arts in particular I very much doubt, but I’m glad that someone like 8bb is actually following through with the consequences. It’s a valid reaction to the situation (=dire) of the arts in the age of turb0-capitalism.

A second valid reaction, admittedly less effective, is to complain.

A third valid reaction is to set up more generous, more progressive funding mechanisms for things like this, which will always be politically precarious. That is what we do nowadays and could do more of. Precariousness be damned! …even as such band-aids don’t solve the underlying problem.

All three reactions come to terms with reality in their own way. The 8bb solution shouldn’t be demonized, because it’s one way among many and probably the most effective in helping the ensemble thrive at the level it’s at today without sacrificing its commitment to music that’s difficult to bring to life.

Comment from Brian M Rosen
Time: February 21, 2010, 4:17 am

The sad fact is, contemporary composition isn’t a growth industry.

Think of it this way. How many hours have you already spent composing your chamber sextet? Have you been compensated for any of that time?

If you have, then congrats! You’re way ahead of the game. If you haven’t, then the measly $50 entry fee seems like a drop in the bucket compared to the much greater loss of at least $25 per hour’s worth of your time.

Complaining about entry fees feels a little pennywise, poundfoolish to me.

No one owes us anything. Not even their attention.

Comment from Christian
Time: February 25, 2010, 12:36 pm

Our conversation about this topic has been taken up by colleagues from the theatrical community:

Comment from Ian David Moss
Time: February 25, 2010, 2:01 pm

Thanks for the link, Christian (I was just about to leave one here). One thing though, I don’t think I would consider myself a member of the theatrical community! I’m a composer just like all of you, and one of my pieces was even performed at the first S21 concert.

Great discussion, all.

Comment from Christian
Time: February 25, 2010, 6:38 pm

Hi Ian. Sorry, I actually found a link to your post on a theatre blog, and didn’t mean to misrepresent you. Either way, your essay was enjoyable!