‘Write’ of Passage: Deconstructing the BMI and ASCAP Young Composer Awards

‘Write’ of Passage: Deconstructing the BMI and ASCAP Young Composer Awards

Ed. note: Before asking Barbara Jepson to contribute the following article to NewMusicBox, we did a lot of soul searching. Our role as the web magazine from the American Music Center has always been to serve as an advocate for American composers. There are few things more satisfying than writing or talking about something you believe in. However, sometimes reality is a little bit more complicated.

For a long time, composers have asked us to take a closer look at how various awards are adjudicated, specifically the awards for young composers at our two most prominent performing rights organizations, ASCAP and BMI. It needs to be said here for the record that staff at both ASCAP and BMI have served on the Board of Directors of the American Music Center, AMC board and staff-member composers (including NewMusicBox staff) are members of these organizations, and that the Center receives financial support from these organizations as well. Therefore, to assuage any possible inference of conflict of interest, we believed that the only way we could include such an article in this publication was to hire an outside writer who had no affiliation with either organization.

It should also be stated here that as advocates for American composers, we greatly value the ongoing work of both ASCAP and BMI on behalf of their members.

Barbara Jepson
Barbara Jepson

Thirty years ago, the introduction of screens during orchestral auditions helped gradually swell the ranks of women hired by major American symphony orchestras. It might be expected that an anonymous competition for young composers would, over time, show a similar increase in female winners. After all, there is no shortage of role models today, from the Pulitzer Prize winner Ellen Taaffe Zwilich to the rising star Jennifer Higdon, and any unofficial barriers to women’s acceptance into advanced compositional studies programs have vanished.

But in the case of the prestigious BMI Student Composer Awards, the opposite is true. For the third year in a row, no women were among the eight or nine individuals selected by the judges. In fact, since 1998, only 3 out of 61 BMI winners, or 5 percent, were female. During the same period, 20 percent of the 158 recipients of the ASCAP Foundation’s esteemed Morton Gould Young Composer Awards were women (excluding “Honorable Mention” and “Under-18” winners, which further elevate the percentage).

What’s going on here? The BMI submissions are “blind.” The ASCAP entries are not. Are there breaches in the BMI procedures? Is ASCAP unfairly favoring women out of a commitment to diversity? Both possibilities have been raised in an outpouring of forum posts on the subject to NewMusicBox after the 2003 and 2004 awards were announced.

Such serious questions about two organizations that do so much to help composers and new music warrant careful examination. What factors determine who submits to these awards? What percentage of current composers are women? Are a higher proportion of them submitting to ASCAP, and if so, why? Are there characteristics of the BMI contest that unintentionally work against women? Are there improprieties in the way either competition is conducted?

Both performing rights organizations collect licensing fees on behalf of the songwriters, composers, and music publishers on their rosters. Although ASCAP, founded in 1914, predates BMI by 26 years, BMI has a significantly larger number of affiliates. The two entities have been rivals for decades, vying for the opportunity to represent as many composers as possible. The awards, workshops, and programs offered by both are designed to serve their constituencies and attract new members. Indeed, some composers contacted for this article said they were discreetly lobbied at the awards ceremony itself or contacted afterwards. This courting process is viewed as a coming-of-age ritual, an important step in becoming connected to professionals in their field.

The primary factor influencing whether or not young composers apply for these awards is the interest shown by their composition teachers or departments. The real go-getter schools are reportedly Indiana University, the Eastman School of Music, Yale University, the University of Southern California, the University of Michigan, and The Juilliard School, the latter more so since composer Samuel Adler left Eastman to join its faculty. Although both ASCAP and BMI do large annual mailings about the competition to music schools, many do not participate. “We get too few entries from the large Midwestern universities like Ohio State, or the Southern colleges,” says Adler, who has served on eight ASCAP juries during the last 20 years. “We get a lot from the conservatory at the University of Missouri-Kansas City because [composer] Chen Yi encourages her students to send them. And Michigan—they swamp us!”

In a typical year, between 400 and 500 scores meet the eligibility requirements at both competitions. A majority of those submissions are from men, since composition remains a predominantly male field. One of the most striking examples of that reality comes from Chester Biscardi, head of the composition department at Sarah Lawrence College. “Men make up only about 25 percent of our student body,” he relates, “but last year I had ten composition students and six of them were men.”

According to statistics supplied by Frances Richard, who oversees the ASCAP awards as Vice President and Director of Concert Music, 15 to 17 percent of some 445 to 490 applicants in each of the last three years were women, judging by obviously female first names only. These numbers jibe nicely with the actual percentage of women on ASCAP’s concert composer roster, informed estimates by other sources, and estimated percentages of women in leading composition programs. Ralph Jackson, who administers the Student Composer Awards as President of the BMI Foundation, cited periodic, informal surveys which found that 10 to 15 percent of student composer applicants were identifiable as women. (In his response to forum posts from readers of NewMusicBox in 2003, Jackson put that number at 8 to 10 percent.)

If these figures are accurate, this might mean proportionally fewer female submissions to the BMI Awards, but it still leaves women under-represented as winners in recent years. Chen Yi believes that more women would win if more were encouraged to submit their works. Are mostly male composition faculty members more likely to encourage their male students to submit? Or does the paucity of women serving as jurors on BMI’s final panel—3 out of 34 during the last seven years—feed a perception that ASCAP is more hospitable to women? One young female ASCAP winner reports that “anecdotal discussion with other composers my age about attention paid in general to male or female composers, in terms of interest in their music and helping them find opportunities, led me to join ASCAP [rather than BMI].”

This did not deter her, however, from entering the BMI competition. In fact, jurors and students contacted for this article report that most entrants submit to both, and a quick perusal of recent winners shows that some win both as well—Michael Djupstrom, Vivian Fung, Martin Kennedy, and Daniel Kellogg, among others. “They’re both free, and there are so few opportunities for composers,” says 29-year-old Kati Agocs, a doctoral candidate at the Juilliard School who received an honorable mention in the 2002 ASCAP Morton Gould awards. “We have nothing to lose.”

How they submit is another matter. BMI applicants must use a pseudonym to identify their scores; only their ages are revealed to the jurors. “It’s an open secret that many men use women’s names for their pseudonyms because they think they’ll win,” says the 26-year-old Kennedy, an Indiana University graduate and doctoral candidate at Juilliard. “It’s gotten to the point where all the men put their names down as women and all the women put their names down as men.” Jackson confirms that “the vast majority of the ‘Jane Does’ are men.”

Although many of today’s successful composers never received (or pursued) these prizes, their usefulness is undeniable. “If a student has won an ASCAP or BMI award,” says Adler, “that counts a great deal towards the furthering of their career. If they’re undergraduates, it’s very helpful to get into the best graduate programs. If they’re graduate students, it looks good on their curriculum vitae for getting [teaching] positions.” David Little, 25, a two-time BMI Award winner who enters the doctoral program at Princeton University this fall, believes the awards “give a young composer a certain amount of credibility among musicians, presenters, and peers.”

But there are significant differences between the two contests. The BMI Awards, established in 1951, solicit a narrower range of applicants by virtue of their eligibility requirements: the cut-off point is 26 vs. 30 years old for the ASCAP Young Composer Awards. Interestingly enough, Jackson observes that if there’s any notable characteristic of female applicants to the BMI awards, it’s that they’re younger than their male counterparts. If more women composers are late bloomers, as were those of an earlier generation like Joan Tower, that might also contribute to the disparity between the two competitions’ results. Yet women are currently winning the “Under 18” component of the ASCAP awards in healthy numbers.

Another important distinction is that the ASCAP Young Composer Awards, established in 1979, allow performance tapes to accompany scores. BMI does not, unless the work is electronic, for acoustic instrumentation plus tape, or so experimental in notation as to preclude a full evaluation of its merits. In some quarters, the BMI awards are regarded as the more musically conservative of the two. “At BMI, I feel that there’s a certain narrowness of style,” says Tower, who has served on both the preliminary and final panels for those awards. “But that also goes for ASCAP, because they’re still not including people I’m thinking of, like the full gamut of the ‘Downtown’ crowd and the whole West Coast crowd.” In a forum post to NewMusicBox on the awards, composer Anne LeBaron wrote that “broadening the aesthetic purview of the competition might indeed increase representation by women in the prizewinners circle.” And one wonders if the restriction on performance tapes works against more unusual works by either gender. As composer Derek Bermel puts it, “the more original the premise, the more likely that a traditional score is inadequate to suggest the work’s final sound.”

Finally, BMI gives far fewer awards—eight to ten out of a similarly sized qualified entry pool of 400 to 500 vs. ASCAP’s profusion of up to 40 each year—some 22 to 25 Morton Gould recipients plus “Honorable Mentions” and “Under 18” awards. That makes the BMI Awards more selective and therefore slightly more coveted, an aura enhanced by this older contest’s higher number of well-known composers and subsequent Pulitzer Prize winners among former recipients. One might say that ASCAP’s primary mission is to encourage; BMI’s, to anoint. And these complementary features help serve a wider pool of budding talent.

There are telling differences, however, between the jury panels. Both organizations choose jurors from their respective membership lists. But since 1989, when Jackson replaced Barbara Petersen, BMI’s Vice President for Classical Music Administration, as overseer of the awards, he began relying heavily on the same three jurors for the preliminary screening process: composer Bernadette Speach, guitarist/composer David Leisner, and composer Biscardi. Occasionally Shafer Mahoney, a former BMI award winner, has served as a substitute. By contrast, the ASCAP panels—three pre-screeners, three final judges—rarely contain more than one repetition from the previous year’s jury. Typically, the pre-screeners are accomplished younger ASCAP composers like Bermel, Chris Theofanidis, and Higdon. According to BMI’s Petersen, the preliminary panel during her tenure was chaired by the noted African-American composer Ulysses Kay, and jurors including Bruce Adolphe and Frank Wigglesworth were alternated more frequently.

Alternating jurors is important for several reasons. First, the BMI pre-screening jury exerts greater influence on the awards than its counterpart at ASCAP, typically forwarding only 35 to 50 out of 400 to 500 qualified entrants to the final jury, whereas ASCAP’s preliminary panel earmarks 100 to 150 out of a similar entry pool for the final panel’s scrutiny. (On the subject of what disqualifies a score from consideration, Jackson named an absence of teacher certification and other deficiencies, such as the unaccompanied pop lyrics he receives regularly from a Texas prison inmate.) Once the entries have been processed and numbered by Jackson and his secretary, identifying documents are placed in a sealed envelope attached to each score. The preliminary jurors typically go to BMI headquarters individually to peruse the scores in February, then meet in March to decide which entries go forward. This makes the final BMI jury’s day of deliberations more manageable—a plausible consideration where only scores are permitted—but enables the preliminary jury to wield more influence over the final results.

Second, rotation of jurors helps avoid having a particular set of musical preferences hold sway, no matter how informed the panelists. “Having the same preliminary judges year after year can lead to stagnation,” wrote LeBaron, a former BMI award winner, in the aforementioned forum post to NewMusicBox. Even Milton Babbitt, who chairs the BMI Student Composer awards as a non-voting member, acknowledged perplexity over the lack of variety in the preliminary jury. “I have nothing to do with that,” he says. “That’s determined entirely by the BMI people.”

Complicating this issue is the relationship between Jackson and Leisner, who have been partners for over 20 years. Jackson sees the true identities of the entrants. Even with the strictest of “fire-walls” between him and Leisner, this raises the specter of conflict of interest. And it is not questioning the integrity of either individual or the qualifications of Leisner, who has served as juror for other noted competitions, to say so.

“David and I…never discuss the issues at hand,” responds Jackson. “…And in the preliminary jury, specifically, it is difficult to find people who, number one, can read scores well—and I am talking about operas, brass quintets, guitar pieces, vocal music—and who are in or near New York City. It adds a certain stability to have a group which knows how to do it, knows the situation and is willing to devote the time. I personally see no conflict of interest.”

Certainly jurors who have served on both the preliminary and final BMI juries attest to the integrity of its deliberations, among them Tower and Zwilich, no shrinking violets if they believed that women were being discriminated against. Only after the scores are totaled and winners chosen are the envelopes unsealed, revealing the true identifies of the winners.

Similarly, those who have served on ASCAP panels say there are no quotas based on gender or ethnicity. “I would oppose that,” says Adler. “The diversity happens naturally; there are always some excellent female and Asian composers. Unfortunately, there happen to be many fewer African-Americans writing concert music because their interests lie elsewhere.”

Both competitions require jurors to inform their colleagues if they recognize the work of a current or former student—difficult to avoid these days when students receive instruction from faculty members, master classes, and special programs like those at Aspen or Tanglewood. Neither ASCAP nor BMI requires jurors to recuse themselves in that case, though BMI forbids such jurors to cast the deciding vote in such deliberations. (Since ASCAP gives more awards, that precaution is unnecessary.)

ASCAP does allow final jurors to see a list of all scores submitted and request that a previously eliminated entry be re-evaluated. “The pros [of that] are that the preliminary jury might have overlooked something,” says Tower, basing her comment on experiences with other panels. “It’s a lot of work, and they might have overlooked somebody. The con of that is that jurors play games—I’ll support your student if you support mine. It becomes a network of teacher-student negotiations.”

“If anybody tried that, they wouldn’t be back,” says Richard. She and several jurors maintain that the opposite more likely occurs—a juror reviews an eliminated score and decides it doesn’t measure up to the final candidates. But she did volunteer that she occasionally inserts herself into the deliberations. “Sometimes, there might be some magnificent piece I may have looked at and I see the jury is bleary-eyed,” she explains. “I might say, ‘Hey, take another look at this,’ or ‘Tomorrow, take a look again,’ because I don’t want them to be embarrassed that they missed something good. But I can’t vote for them, and in the end they have to decide.”

It would be fascinating to see how the winners would look if ASCAP and BMI did rule reversals for a few years, with ASCAP evaluating scores anonymously and BMI allowing recorded tapes to accompany all scores. It would also be gratifying if the decision to re-examine any eliminated works were left solely to ASCAP’s jurors, and if BMI’s selection of preliminary jurors utilized a wider variety of its roster. As Adler aptly put it, “BMI is not hurting for excellent composers.”


Barbara Jepson writes on classical music for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and other national publications. She is on the board of the Music Critics Association of North America and won an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for music journalism in 1985.

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