Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Waiving rights, or boycotting the competition

A competition was announced this morning on the Yahoo! Groups Orchestra List, sponsored by Opera Vista of Houston. I'm afraid that this is another one to skip, as they ask for an entry fee of 75USD against a first and second prizes of 1500USD and and 1000USD. (Compare that entry-fee-to-prize ratio with that of the Grawemeyer Prize, in which an entry fee of 40USD -- already too high, in my book -- is stacked up against a prize of 200,000USD, or the many major competitions without entry fees). Furthermore, they want completed scores and free use of performance materials, they expect that the four selected finalists shall pay their own way to and stay in Houston, and they expect the selected composers to waive all royalty payments for performances during the competition.

This last point, asking a composer to waive royalty payments, is a particularly troublesome development. While grand rights are indeed negotiable between a composer and librettist and the presenter, concert rights are not (at least according to my contract with GEMA, my performing rights organization (which equivalent to ASCAP or BMI in the US)). I have had a few concerts cancelled over the years because the presenter was not prepared to pay GEMA fees, but this example, ostensibly an opportunity to showcase composers, is simply asking the competing composers to cover too much of the costs of the project.

The announcement for the Opera Vista competition was made today, and the deadline for entries is April 14, 2007, a little over a month. Practically speaking, this means that only works that have already been completed will be eligible. In private correspondence with one of the organizers, it became clear to me that, in spite of the best of intentions, the organizers are moving far too fast to do this right, and have clearly made an inadequate effort to find third-party funding sources. Given the fact that competitions have been known to simply disappear -- entry fees and performance materials disappearing with no practical means of recovery, and no winner ever announced -- I would, at the very least, be cautious about sending money and scores to these organizers, and suggest that a boycott is in order, at least until the organizers are able to do it right.


Paul Smith said...


I saw the announcement on the Yahoo! groups list, too. I'm writing here, though, to try to offer a different perspective on entry fees.

We recently announced a composition contest with a $25 entry fee and a $2,000 prize (plus a live performance). I would love to not have to charge a fee to enter. And in fact the state of Vermont forbids such practices, even in "games of skill." (So, you can't enter our contest if you live in Vermont.)

However, your suggestion that the entirety of the entry fee be dedicated to the prize itself might not really work very well in practice. And may even be illegal in states where law requires any contest offered to the public to prove to the state that it already has the prize money before it even opens.

Running a contest has costs associated with it. The prize is just one of the costs. The time it takes to evaluate entries is the largest cost in our contest. (We eliminated sending paper scores and CDs, so copying and mailing costs are now gone. That ate up $800 last year for just over 80 entries.)

You may see it as bad thing for the entry fee to be used as a filter, but I can tell you from experience it is a VERY good way to filter the entries. Our contest was not very well known and we got nearly universally great entries. I think that's due in part to having an entry fee.

You claim that the entry fee for a contest shifts the economic burden to the party least able to afford it. Yet, over 80% of entrants last year had full-time positions at universities, media companies, or in non-music related jobs. On the other side, our organization received NO support to run the contest. Consider this: funders who do support such contests may stipulate that an entry fee MUST be charged. Why? To ensure that their funds go to the winning composer and not to clerical costs!

And another thing to consider ... composers who can't afford the entry fee can always ask for it to be waived. Some contests may oblige them.

I think a good analogy is college admissions. Colleges charge application fees. They're non-profit entities that "ought" to be able to afford to accept applications without shifting the cost to poor students. But they all charge a fee.

It's certainly not a scam to raise funds for professors' salaries. And it's not a way to pay for the costs of an admissions office, although I'm sure it defrays some of those. Rather it's exactly as you describe the contest fees ... a filter.

For better or worse, entry/application fees seem to be accepted practice when it comes to weeding out only serious applicants for nearly anything in our country these days.

I totally agree with you, however, that requiring composers to waive rights they might otherwise enjoy merely to enter the contest is ridiculous. The winner should at worst only "grant" rights to the contest-running entity ... and only those limited rights that will enable the entity to promote and perform the winning composer's work.

BTW, our contest this year includes a people's choice award that is entirely funded via online voting and donations. It turns out that sort of thing is quite legal because the people voting are not the ones entering the contest. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on this.

Stefan Kac said...

"Serious" could mean many different things here. Some contests make you list your teachers, as if to imply that auto-didacts are not "serious." If this is nothing more than a nicer and more effective way of telling us not to waste our time and money, then it's obviously for the better. That this would be the case, however, is just one more phenomenon to suggest that such contests are aimed at trained monkeys. Perhaps the entry fee issue is not as severe, but this might be something to consider anyway if "seriousness" is such a big deal all of a sudden.