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Competition Fees: How Much is Too Much?

Competition Fees: How Much is Too Much?

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A few weeks ago, I was scrolling through some composition contest applications. One caught my eye; it was a perfect fit for a new piece I’d written this summer. A perfect fit, that is, until I saw the entry fee: $50.

I view that as an exorbitant amount for such an opportunity, and yet my frustration upon seeing this particular contest stemmed not just from the amount, but from how helpless I felt looking at it. How can a composer productively communicate to contest organizers that their fee is unreasonably high?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

8 thoughts on “Competition Fees: How Much is Too Much?

  1. Robert Voisey

    Submission fees are a complicated subject where fees can be legitimate or exploitative. I think things will change for the better when composers support those calls and organizations which feel constructive and productive rather than be tempted for the prize “jackpot” of cash or awards.

    There are so many calls out there which are free or low cost for musicians and organizations that are really trying to make it happen. I think if composers submitted to them more and supported those groups, it would be much better for the entire community.

    As you know Dale, there are projects like Fifteen-Minutes-of-Fame which are geared specifically for composers to get their work and aesthetic heard. I think that composers should concentrate more on supporting the positive projects out there and less on complaining about the negative projects.

    So I agree with you completely! Stay clear from the high submission fees and keep submitting to projects like Fifteen-Minutes-of-Fame.

    And remember you can always find composer opportunities without submission fees on ComposersSite.com

  2. Danvisconti

    Hi Dale and thanks for your insightful post. I’m totally in agreement about how absurd and dishonest some of these opportunities are; but that said, I keep returning to a few conclusions each time someone complains about competitions:
    1) If you don’t think a particular opportunity is worth your while, don’t enter.
    2) Just as composers have the right to enter or not enter anything they like, competition organizers (while I certainly wish they’d be more open and have fewer barriers, as you state) certainly have the right to hold whatever kind of competition they like.
    3) There is no way to really lower any of these fees as some competitions want high fees for a)selfish collecting of funds, b) as a barrier that induces self-censorship and reduces number of entries for the more prestigious prizes, and most of all c) because as long as SOME composers keep entering the bad ones, there is no incentive to change.
    4) The best antidote, in my humble opinion, is for those that criticize these competitions to organize a composition competition of their own that they feel IS run properly. This is much harder than just pointing out how unfair it is, but it seems like the only real way to change the game.

    I don’t mean for this to come off as callous because I agree that this is a big issue, but to my mind the even bigger issue is the way that many composers think these things matter enough to get so upset by the injustice of it all, when they could be directing their energies elsewhere. I certainly don’t mean to imply that you share this sentiment, but I have come across many composers who seem to take the line of “Why can’t other people’s opportunities be a better fit for ME?”and, again, not that I in any way disagree with the incredible injustice of these things, but that attitude seems to place far too much power in waiting for others to create more hospitable opportunities for us rather than composers taking charge and creating opportunities themselves. A $25 or $50 or $X fee is only unfair compared to doing nothing; I know a few composers who had money to burn on hundreds of dollars of entry fees who came up with nothing, while others who spent that time developing their own opportunities (at no or little financial cost to themselves) were the true winners.

    Again, don’t mean to sound dismissive of these very real concerns, I just think the solution lies in composers ceasing to give these competitions so much importance and control over our destinies, by making our own opportunities or by creating just and attractive competitions of our own devising. Thanks again for your post!

  3. Paul T. Jackson

    It would seem that the only way for a contest to be run (and someone else to make money) is to have those entering the contest pay money into the pot.

    Writers have this issue as well. Academics even, in order to get published are paying Elsevier and other publishers money just to get published. Those who can’t or won’t end up not having access to being published, nor being referenced in subsequent articles…leaving access to their work invisible to the population.

    Yes, we now have more self-published books and e-books than those published by the 5 major publishers who control much of the market. Some of these are god-awful writing, and they are published by those who have the bucks, while those who don’t, but may have something better to say and say it well, languish in the slush piles of the top publishers; probably never to see publication.

    We used to frown on those writers who paid for their work to enter the market. It seems to be a turn-around now. Writers and other creative people are frowning on those that require us to pay or wait two or three years for a market to open up.

    Getting loans or crowd-funding to mount a project or publish seems the only way to go legitimately any longer. I’ve seen legitimate authors earn $10,000 in just a few short months after having paid their own way into publishing. Other ‘good’ books with the right themes do indeed make it; one I was told the other day is selling at least 20 per day.

  4. Bill Ryan

    In the end, I support this great climate we have that allows for free choice–by both composers and organizations. In this environment there will be competitions with outrageous entry fees. There will be competitions that are looking to profit from these fees. However, there will also be opportunities to be discovered; opportunities to share your music with new audiences; opportunities to work with professional ensembles; opportunities to travel; opportunities to highlight a minority community; opportunities to become published; opportunities to get recorded; opportunities to do what you love; opportunities to increase your opportunities. I try to teach my students that they are entitled to nothing. They must be self-reliant, appreciative, and take advantage of every opportunity that might come their way. When nothing does, or an opportunity isn’t to their liking, instead of complaining they need to go out and make their own. So composers–skip the contests with fees, or determine a threshold that works for you, or keep paying them. But please, rather than spending your efforts complaining about an organization or a contest or an ensemble or a label or a grant requirement, take action, put yourself out there, and bring your own ideas to life.

  5. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    I am very cautious about which competitions I enter, simply because I don’t have too much cash to blow on bad bets. The way I do it is to simply try and balance the different factors which I imagine play into determining the fee.
    • who is judging? Very large competitions may require high fees to pay for their judges, or they may have an endowment which allows them to offer the entry for free.
    • where does the money go? Is it used to pay the judges, create a pot for the winner, or fund the performance/recording of a new work? All of these are valuable, but there are some groups whose operating costs I don’t care to compete for the right to fund.
    • what message is the organizer sending by establishing a fee? Some fees are used as deterrents, others as signs of legitimacy, and others still are played down entirely.
    • will there be further expenses if I win? Many competitions require that the winner travel to the premiere, and may not provide support in this area. I consider this part of the fee. I would rather pay $15 to apply to a competition in CA (I live in Boston) which funds air travel for the winner, than submit to one in Washington DC which is free but offers no support.

    I think something important to consider is whether we make our choices about entering competitions with the intention of protesting those we deem unfair. Inaction in this area is not proactive, and only serves to reinforce my own convictions.
    What I want most is for competition organizers to plainly state where the money will go. Judges require payment, concerts are expensive, and operating costs never go away. I just want to know how my money is going to be used.

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  8. Maikil Herndon

    Highly interested to see if you are still around to monitor the comments. I feel for some competition or contest the fee deterring some artists is a good thing. Some people when a competition is free just submit away. Some times the higher the fees the more exclusive it is. Also if I am paying for the prize and giving people access to it for a reasonable rate I should be able to make the money back I spent building the platform and what I paid for the prize.


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