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Artistic Directors, Stop Application Fees in Your Calls for Scores

August 19, 2017

Musical ensembles neither run nor flourish on an abundance of passion, nor talent, nor charitable good will when they lack financial means.  Everything these groups need- a hall to play in, insurance, scores and parts for the musicians to play, concert programs to distribute to the audience, and ushers to seat them (not to mention paying the administrators, players, and composers)- has a steep financial cost.  The reality is that orchestras, choirs, and chamber ensembles are complex organizations that require a lot money to operate, and until money is abolished from society all together, there will be no adequate substitute for a generous budget.  

 

The myriad ways in which ensembles overcome their financial hurdles are just as diverse and ingenuitive, if not more so, than any commercial enterprise.  Let there be no doubt that the grit and determination with which these organizations advance their work is admirable, and given their typically limited means, even heroic.  However, there is one common practice in this world that stands in stark contrast to the goals of the music community.  Although it seems innocent, it is a practice that ultimately hinders diversity, perpetuates elitism, stifles the creation of new ideas, and at its worst, systematically exploits some of the most disadvantaged people within the music world.  This practice, which I assert must cease unilaterally and immediately for the benefit of all, is the application fee demanded of composers in calls for scores.

 

In the art music market, performing ensembles and composers face similar problems: both must stand out in an over-crowded field of competitors.  There is an overabundance of artistic supply in the market, and even worse than having limited demand, that demand must often be created from scratch. Considering the problem from the composer's point of view, basic economics tell us what to expect in such a situation: in order to reach market equilibrium either the price of the supply (in this case, new music) must be lowered, or the demand for the product (groups performing new music) must increase until the supply happily meets it.  However, the perverse situation in which we now find ourselves is one in which the overabundance of the supply has caused supply value to cross well below the zero mark and into the negative, such that the cost of creating music has become almost exclusively the burden of the composers.  The burden has shifted so much in fact, that composers must frequently pay upwards of $30 for the simple privilege of even having the title of their work glanced at for what is often only a few seconds by a score selection committee.

 

To the organization seeking new scores, an application fee of  $30 seems like a modest and reasonable request.  The score selection process takes valuable time and money, and the selection committee will likely be facing the unenviable task of sorting and commenting on dozens, hundreds, or in the case of more well-known organizations, even thousands of applications.  The small fee seemingly ensures quality control from at least one end of the process.  After all, what cash-strapped composer would be willing to fork out the cash for an application unless they were absolutely sure of the quality of the work they were submitting?

 

The idea that the fee will help separate the wheat from the chaff, and perhaps lubricate the machine doing the separation, is a critically mistaken assumption.  The flaw is that instead of ensuring that composers submit their best works, the fee in action merely ensures that only those composers with the most disposable time and income will submit whatever work they choose to, to however many calls they wish, regardless of the quality of the score. This confers an advantage to subsidized, young composers who are still studying and/or living off of their parents' income. Furthermore, in this case the fee also although unintentionally excludes the composer who, by necessity or choice, does not have the $30 to spare.  And while $30 may seem a token amount for a cosmopolitan city dweller, for those who live in more rural areas of the country, outside the country, or for whatever reason have limited income to work with, it is an unreasonable cost.  And because the composer must eat the same cost not just with one organization, but over and over again with every organization that charges an application fee, a modest $30 fee can quickly become a $3,000 investment.  

 

Now you must see that this critical exclusion the fee causes incurs a massive hidden cost on the artistic community, one that is in direct contradiction with the its oft-touted values of diversity and inclusion.  This is because the fee, by tacitly ensuring participation by those with the most disposable income, perpetuates classicism and elitism by tacitly stifling the voices of those with little income to spare.  Most unfortunately, those voices mostly likely belong to women and people of color.  In an artistic world which is already dominated by upper class white male privilege, the need for new artistic voices could not be greater.  And so clearly, the application fee is a clear obstacle to diversity.  It is a shackle created by the mechanism of privilege which must be cast off immediately.

 

Let's put the diversity card aside.

 

In the United States, agricultural subsidies amount to more than $25 billion dollars a year (incidentally, it spends about $2 billion on art).  This agricultural subsidy is wise, and just.  It buffers farmers from failed crops, stabilizes agriculturally-dependent industries, and perhaps most importantly, ensures that Americans will never go hungry.  Thankfully, the government has gone out of its way to incentivise food production over food consumption.  But imagine if instead of subsidizing agriculture, the government decided to heavily tax farmers' crops.  What do you think would happen?  Instead of producing in abundance, farmers would have an incentive to produce the bare minimum of food needed. Naturally people would starve, and the society would be in chaos.  It would be a nightmare- yet this is exactly what the music world does.

 

Instead of food, the art world is completely driven by, and thrives on, new ideas.  It is new ideas that attract new audiences, move the art forward, and bind art to culture.  Ideas are the food of the artistic world.  Without new ideas art ossifies into dogmatic practice, and dogma is where art goes to die. Dogma is where the same ideas get recycled in a reverberate echo chamber, and the great artistic ideals of inspiration and creativity fade into hollow imitation.  Thus it is in the best interest of the whole art world to avoid stagnation by stimulating the creation of new ideas.

 

How the application fee inhibits and discourages the creation of new ideas is obvious.  Its mere existence creates an unnecessary burden on the composers who create the community in the first place. In this way it is incredibly short-sighted, and even stupid.  The fee is the of cutting of the nose to spite the face.  It is an unjust tax that on the hope of every composer wanting to collaborate with a new ensemble.  And make no mistake that composers are tired of it.  In fact they are so tired of the application fee that many consider it an immediate disqualification to any call for scores.  And for the ensembles we must ask again,  how many voices are they silencing with their application fees? How many rich collaborations wilt before they are even planted?

 

If you're not yet convinced to quit application fees, it is probably because you see no alternative to replacing the hole that would be left by that line in your budget.  Even in this case, on moral grounds, you must now see that it would be better for your organization to eat the cost than to contribute to the collective injustice that is wrought on the music world by the application fee.

 

But you still need money to run your organization.  It is here that the most ingenuity and inspiration is required.  In the immediate moment, performing arts organizations must look outward, rather than inward, for financial support.  Perhaps this means being more politically active, and mobilizing audiences to demand financial support from local, state, and national governments.  Perhaps the solution is a new donation model where the audience directly pays to commission new work.  Whatever the solution may be, it will surely require solidarity, collective action, and organization in a way that would be novel in the current climate.  But I assure you that such actions are of the utmost importance and must start right away, because not only will the elimination of application fees immediately create a more fertile artistic environment, but it will also pay dividends in the future as the new voices that come to the scene take music to new and unexpected places, for the benefit of all.

 

Finally, I assert that the application fee and accompanying game created by "calls for scores" has, in itself, created a warped collaborative artistic process that discourages both the creation of substantive long-form pieces, and the enduring long-term artistic relationship.  It discourages the long-form because a search committee typically spends less than a minute evaluating most of the entries.  Longer pieces are weeded out quickly.  And it discourages long-term artistic relationships because it makes finding new 'competition-winning' composers easier than investing in one composer over the long term.  Both the long-form piece and the long-term relationship are the fields where great works of art are sown, and ultimately these are the ideals that we must encourage between composers and performers.  The truth is that composition is a slow game, and composers need time and experience writing all kinds of pieces to hone their craft.  The world doesn't need any more competition winning pieces.  It needs pieces worth knowing.  Eliminating entry fees is a good first step.

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