Call me paranoid, if you want, but I’ve had too many experiences with people not being who they present themselves to be. It’s made me a bit suspicious and cautious. That doesn’t mean I’m immune to being duped. It does mean, though, that I will do what I can to check people out from afar.
The internet is a great tool for this. Being married, I’m not in the dating scene. But if I was, I would definitely make use of those sites where I could get access to all sorts of public records relating to things like marriage, divorce, and arrests, for one dollar. As it is, it’s easy to find information like parents, siblings, addresses, and even political party affiliation online for free. I don’t go out of my way to find this stuff; it’s just interesting what comes up when you search a person online. This is information I generally don’t need, and really don’t care about, since I’m usually not trying to find out if someone I know is criminal. (However, I did search my kids’ private music teachers before hiring them, which I think is reasonable.)
I don’t investigate everyone. My inquiries are related to how much I am investing. If someone begs me for money on the street and I have some change, I will give it. What they do with it is their business, but I’m not out much. However, if I was investing in stock, it would behoove me to examine the companies I am investing in.
As a composer and pianist, my personal work – my compositions and the performance opportunities that help build my career – are extremely valuable to me. I am careful about who I work with and where I send my scores. So, what I generally search for is career information. I believe that my default position of not trusting what I see on the surface has protected me from some questionable, and possibly harmful, situations. What do I look for?
The first thing I check is the history of the individual, ensemble, or organization. Everyone has a history, even those just starting out on their career path. If none is presented, I see a red flag.
I come across calls for scores all the time. Some are posted by individuals and ensembles that are just beginning, or are even still students. If they are legit, they explain the situation. I once sent in scores to a woman who was a saxophone student. Her story included where she was attending school, what year she was, and who her teacher was. I could check her facts (and I did.) I didn’t care that she was a student; I just wanted to know she was real. Student ensembles also list the school with which they are associated, and often mention the yearly performance schedule and previous works/composers the ensemble has performed. Most school ensembles also have a proper name.
One time, though, I came across an ensemble with a name of a supposed string quartet (I can’t remember the name), claiming that it was made of “highly skilled players from well known music schools.” Uh, yeah, sure. No names were listed, no schools were listed, no dates of graduation. If I graduated from a well-known music school, that would be information I would want to advertise! A brand-new graduate still has a history! But, to be fair and to consider that perhaps these “youngsters” were just ignorant about how to post a call for scores, I went ahead and searched the internet for this ensemble. I found nothing, and concluded that it was a scam. (As a side note, I can’t imagine anyone knowing enough about calls for scores to set up one to scam composers other than another composer who decided to make money illegitimately.) That particular scam was tempting because it was only $5 to enter. I hope no unwitting composers were taken in by it.
If an ensemble is just starting out, it should say so. Otherwise, I expect a list of concerts with dates, pieces performed, and plenty of video and audio excerpts. Regardless of the history of the ensemble, each member should be listed with a full bio and pic; a link to a personal website would be a nice addition. However, in my opinion, no ensemble should be asking for scores when just starting out. If they want to perform new music, they should go find the composers they know personally to get started. I have to find my own performers; it’s an ensemble’s responsibility to prove their merit by starting with the composers they know to create a resume. I am unlikely to send work to a group that hasn’t done this because it appears to me that they are lazy, don’t know composers, or are unwilling to work with local people, all of which indicate problems.
The second thing I look at is the stated goals of the individual, ensemble, or organization. Here, I do not mean what kind of piece is requested; I am referring to the purpose of asking composers to send in scores. Why do they want new pieces? Why do they want to work with composers of new music? What are they going to do with the pieces? How will these purposes help the composers who send in scores, have their pieces performed, or win a competition? If the answers are not satisfactory, I see a red flag.
One time, I came across a call for scores for a youth orchestra in California. They dared ask composers to not only send in brand-new, unperformed full orchestra pieces that this ensemble would world-premiere, but to pay a twenty-five dollar fee to do so. The ensemble wasn’t offering any prize money and didn’t even promise a recording of the performance. ARE YOU KIDDING ME??? Again, I hope no unwitting composers fell for this. I am not giving a full-orchestra piece (with parts!) to a youth ensemble I’ve never heard of, and no recording for my efforts, to boot! My son played with the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra for a few years. If this group in California is nearly as well-funded and experienced as the BPYO, then prize money and a recording is a more-than-reasonable expectation; if they aren’t, then they shouldn’t be asking to world-premiere a piece.
On the other hand, I have come across publishing companies that explain not only how they will assess submitted scores, but outline their payment amounts and processes to composers, describe their approach to marketing, and provide a sample contract to review. These are the companies that make me feel good about submitting something to an open call for scores.
The final thing I look for is reviews and testimonials. This really is self-explanatory, but still essential. It is that last piece of the puzzle which, if missing, mars the whole picture.
Today I came across a call for scores from a publishing company wanting to put together an anthology of new American art songs. The purpose was explained, musical bios of the publishing team were presented (with pics, no websites), a sample contract was provided, and there is no fee to enter. It all sounded good. So what’s the problem? I couldn’t find anything online about this company except for the website provided in the call for scores. I checked three different search engines (the website listed in the call for scores didn’t even come up!) The problem with the website is that there was no information there except what pertained to this particular project. There were no products for sale. There were no testimonies from composers who had worked with the publisher. It seemed this might be the very first endeavor, like a group of musicians who got together and said, “Hey, here’s a great idea! Let’s make this anthology and lots of singers will buy it!” I have no idea if they have any business acumen, or if they are just musicians. I’m sure they are nice people, but I don’t want to send a score into a dead-end, especially if I sign a contract saying that I will not agree to submit my piece to another publisher until six months after the anthology is published. What if it never gets published? That happened to one of my composition teacher’s friends; his piece ended up in in the realm of lost scores. I didn’t write off the company, but I did ask questions; I am waiting for answers.
I know composers who simply refuse to enter anything that requires a fee, but even then some opportunities are not worth pursuing. I believe my three-fold examination of opportunities provides a full picture and helps me to know if an opportunity might be a good one, even if there are fees attached.
I get vetted all the time, and my work is constantly examined, whether through auditions, interviews, or score submissions. It is a normal part of being a musician. Those who wish to collaborate with me in some way should expect the same and should provide information and benefits that would entice me to work with them. My time and work is too valuable for anything less.