To Pay or Not to Pay Entry Fees

One of the hot topics that comes up quite often among composers is the question of whether or not to pay entry fees for competitions and calls for scores (from here on, CFS). I know some people who never enter competitions and CFS which require entry fees, while others consider those who don’t pay fees to be not acting like adults. The opinions are strong!

I can understand both sides of the issue.

On the one hand, running a competition or CFS of any kind costs money. It takes time for submitted scores to be evaluated and recordings to be listened to. One small ensemble I sent a score to received seven hundred submissions; a larger ensemble received seven thousand. Even the smaller number is an overwhelming number of submissions to consider. In both these cases, an entry fee was not required. Of course these groups received an incredible number of submissions! (And how many of them were not of high enough quality to be worth consideration?) A submission fee can help pay judges for their time and help cover the cost of administrating the competition/CFS. A fee can also limit the entries to a more manageable number. One thought is that entry fees will attract more serious composers.

This isn’t necessarily the case, however. Many of the composers I know who refuse to enter competitions with fees are excellent, creative composers. Their problem with fees is one of principle (and perhaps also necessity – I cannot speak to their financial situation.) They believe that entry fees are unfair because they keep out composers who cannot pay the fee. This, of course, limits the pool of potential winners to those with enough money to enter, disproportionately affecting minorities and continuing the cycle of keeping classical music within the realm of the rich and mostly white. Some also hold the opinion that asking for entry fees indicates that the ensemble is not serious enough about their project to do the necessary work without pay, or that there is too little funding for the project or ensemble to be sustainable. I also want to add that by sending in scores (and parts for the pieces that are chosen), composers are already supporting the ensemble, entry fee or not, by providing music for the ensemble to play free of charge. Most of the time, performers need to buy or rent sheet music. Free scores are already saving them quite a bit of money!

Again, both sides have good points.

I don’t have a strict “yay or nay” when it comes to fees. In fact, I have benefited from paying fees. My piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, won second place in the 2020 American Prize for Composition (pops/light music division.) That wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t paid fees. I paid a fee to enter the CFS put on the ensemble that originally performed the piece. That performance, and the recording generated by it, was necessary for entrance to The American Prize competition. I also paid a fee to enter that competition.

Sometimes, I am willing to pay a fee, and sometimes I am not. Of course, I am always happier and relieved when no fee is required.

Here are some things I consider.

  1. If it is a CFS, how many pieces will be chosen for performance? The more pieces that are chosen, the more willing I am to pay a fee. If my piece is chosen, I will get performance royalties, perhaps enough to cover the entry fee.
  2. If it is a competition, what do I get if I win? Money, a quality recording, the possibility of publishing, or performance by an ensemble with a recognizable name are all benefits that may motivate me to pay the fee.

Either way, it is important to carefully consider what the ensemble is asking for, and who the ensemble is. I have come across competitions that, after doing some “vetting” by searching the ensemble on the internet, I’ve come to suspect are scams.

At the same time, I’ve seen legitimate ensembles ask for fees that I consider illegitimate. Recently, I came across a CFS (not even a competition!) in which a student ensemble at a well-known university asked for a $10 entry fee from each composer. At first glance, $10 is not a lot of money. But, on a second look this fee wasn’t even going to the CFS. The student ensemble (which, of course, had some funding from the university) was going to take $5 of the fee and donate it to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU.) The other $5 was going to support their efforts to perform works by Asian composers. Well, I’m not paying that fee! I have nothing against the ACLU or Asian composers, but that’s not the purpose of an entry fee. I appreciate the transparency of the ensemble.

I have felt at other times that ensembles have not been so forthcoming and that a fee was just a front to help them cover the cost of paying an already-chosen winner. I have heard from other composers further down the road than I am that this happens from time to time. This, of course, cannot be proven, but I do speculate when the announced winner and their piece doesn’t quite seem to fit the description of what the ensemble was looking for. Unfortunately, this cannot be known ahead of time, and it’s a risk I take when paying entry fees.

Increasingly, I have come across ensembles asking for a modest fee to cover expenses related to running a competition or CFS, but also saying that they do not want the fee to be an obstacle for anyone entering. In these cases, composers who cannot pay the fee are asked to contact them privately, and the fee will be waived. It does take some humility on the part of the composer to say “I can’t pay the fee,” but I think this is the best of both worlds.

When I come across these ensembles, I happily pay the fee because I can, and I know that this will help offset the cost to the ensemble for those composers who can’t. If I was running a new music ensemble promoting the work of living composers, this is the approach I would take. It acknowledges the cost to the ensemble of running such a project, yet also recognizes that being able to afford an entry fee is a privilege not all composers have.

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A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.

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