Choral Music Never Had It So GoodThe Official Blog of Octarium

4 Composition Competition, not Cash Cow

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We are in our third year of sponsoring a composition competition.  Our first winner, Steve Danyew, is a composer with all of the regular accolades on his resume;  a B.M. from Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, an M.M. and Certificate in Arts Leadership from Eastman and time as a composer fellow at Yale.   This year’s winner, Brad Kemp, has gone a slightly different route, studying at Columbia College Chicago and serving as assistant musical director at PH Productions, an improv troupe in Chicago.

Both have written music worthy of notice.  Danyew’s winning piece, “On Green Mountains,” is featured on our 2009 release Modern Masters and was hailed by arts critic Paul Horsley as “fully worthy to appear on a program of the best living American choral composers.”  Kemp’s piece, an arrangement of Debussy’s “La fille aux cheveux de lin,” will receive its world premiere at our February 19th “Listener’s Choice” concert and will be featured on our Should Have Been Choral recording, scheduled for release in 2012.

While I am sure that winning our small competition does not single-handedly pave the way into the successful future for these composers, it does give them a good performance of their piece, possibly a good recording and, perhaps, more exposure than they would have gotten otherwise.  They get a small $500 prize.   Octarium pays for them to come hear the premiere and spend a weekend enjoying Kansas City.  They might go home with some good press in their back pocket to use as they market themselves in the future.

This is why Octarium sponsors the competition; to help composers find an audience. To help worthy music find an audience.  To further the choral art.

So imagine my shock when I got taken to the mat in a conversation with a colleague about not charging an entry fee for composition submissions.  In this colleague’s opinion I was lessening the vocal art by not putting a price on the luxury being allowed to enter.   Another colleague shared with me her pleasant surprise at the discovery that a composition competition could become a hefty source of cash flow; a cash cow.

So, yet again, I am doing things “wrong.”  I am again causing a controversy because I do things that seem logical whether or not they have solid precedent in the music business.

I have been sternly lectured to change my structure and charge a fee for entry but this quid pro quo seems backwards to me.  You give us money and we’ll sing your music?  Maybe?  Well, actually, it’s kind of a long shot that we’ll ever sing your piece.  But give us your money anyway.

Shouldn’t it be the other way around?  Shouldn’t choirs support composers with commissions and competitions that don’t require a financial investment from a group of artists whose struggle is as epic as our struggle?

We are all struggling artists, true.   I guess I understand charging a small fee to pay someone to administer the competition fairly.  However, Octarium chooses to build the competition costs into our regular budget and fundraise through our regular channels to cover those costs.  We all know that raising funds for arts nonprofits is a mine field in this current economy and, certainly, twenty-five bucks a pop for the 250 or so entries we’ve received in the two years we’ve sponsored the competition would be extremely helpful to our budgetary bottom line.

But that’s not why we do this. It’s a composition competition, not a cash cow to help us pay our bills.

This is yet another way Octarium is turning the business of choral music on its head.  Composers like Eric Whitacre and Paul Carey have written in their blogs about competitions and entry fees and, being composers, they fall in line with my opinion on how things should be done.

We will not charge an entry fee for our competition.  Ever.  It’s part of our mission and vision to support choral music, choral artists and composers.  Our competition is one small way we do that.

Interested in entering?  You can find information here.

posted by Krista Lang Blackwood, artistic director

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  1. Sean Ivory says:

    Bravo to you. In my opinion there are many things in the music business that are not logical, self-serving, or even parasitic. Paradigm shifts are healthy and necessary. Keep it up!

  2. I agree with Sean; Bravo! One of the very first things that my first grad school teacher told me was to never enter a contest that asks for an entry fee. I never have and I never will.

  3. Joseph Gray says:

    Do you except Masses? I’ve written a mass for a full orchestra.

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