The culmination of a long association with pianist Matthew Mills, Bagatelles represents some 30 years of piano music by British composer Bernard Hughes.
As a composition tutor at Trinity Laban Conservatoire, I receive a lot of emails about competitions and calls for scores, many of which represent great opportunities for both students and staff. However, a competition I received recently left me feeling particularly irate, and compelled me to write to the organisers to express my view.
The competition required composers to submit a previously unperformed piece for large symphony orchestra (triple wind, three percussionists) on a particular theme, and with a maximum duration of 12 minutes. The next stage of the competition would see four pieces shortlisted and the chosen composers expected to produce parts for the orchestra. The winning composer, chosen from these shortlisted four, would then receive £1500 and a public performance.
I found this particular competition to be at best poorly thought through, at worst grossly unfair. All of the above represents only the application process, meaning that by definition the vast majority of composers entering would be forced to work for many months on a large scale piece for absolutely no money and with little chance of being selected. Moreover, as any composer will know, producing parts for a large symphony orchestra is time consuming (two to three weeks of work), costly (I estimate £250 or so) and one of the most stressful, laborious and downright boring parts of being a composer. If even four composers applied for this competition, three would receive no public performance, no commission fee, no payment for the time they spent writing the piece (likely many months), no refund for the money they spent making parts and, frankly, little recognition of the time and effort they had put into applying for this competition. How many thousands of hours of unpaid work does this represent?
I decided to post my letter on Twitter with very few expectations of a response. And yet, to my surprise, the post received hundreds of retweets, likes and comments, as well as reposts on Facebook and elsewhere. A whole range of composers and musicians seemed to agree that the normalisation of competitions which expect composers to work for free is unfair, immoral and bad for the industry.
Sadly, the response I received from the orchestra was less than constructive. I was accused of writing a letter “not exactly brimming with alternatives” (even though my last paragraph was entirely dedicated to suggesting an alternative way to run their competition). I was called “patronising” and told “I have not heard of you or your work” (strangely, for someone sensitive to being patronised, this seemed like quite a patronising comment.) I found this a really disappointing response from an organisation claiming to be putting on a competition specifically to help young composers. Why not listen to the voices of those you claim to be so keen to help? I tried to start a conversation, letting them know that hundreds of composers had responded positively to the letter on social media, but was informed that they were “not interested in dialogue” since they were offering a “little competition not a socialist exercise.”
Their response seemed to rely on the idea that competitions had always been structured this way, and therefore change was unnecessary – a position they further supported by referencing an older, well-established, male musician who “[has not] not voiced any negative comments as to our intent”. But of course, tradition alone is a terrible reason to sustain any kind of practice, and there are real differences between the experiences of musicians who were educated in the 1970s and those completing degrees today. It’s likely that musicians in their 60s and 70s would have studied at university for free, many even receiving maintenance grants which they never had to pay back. There’s a good chance that they were able to afford the rent on a flat in London, perhaps even buying a house whose value they would watch increase substantially over the next few years. All the while, it’s possible they were able to pay into a pension that (whether double- or triple-locked) the government has shown real commitment to protecting as part of their allegiance to a demographic considered a powerful voting bloc.
How much of this is true for young composers and musicians starting out today? The undergraduates I teach at Trinity Laban will leave university with at least £40,000 of debt and little assurance that they can afford to continue living in London, let alone save for the deposit to buy a house. While I certainly do not assume that life for musicians in former years was without economic hardship, there are unique and systemic financial pressures on young musicians today which make their lives particularly difficult and which, to my mind, render competitions like this so unfair. The recent furore over the (frankly obnoxious) job advertisement for Tea House Theatre sums up all of these themes quite nicely.
I mention these issues because this competition seemed to be targeting ‘young’ composers specifically, and also to point out the hypocrisy of older musicians insisting that the structure of the industry has ‘always been this way’. But the facts remain the same whatever age you are. Writing music takes time and skill and asking people to do this work for free will not only serve to devalue our industry as a whole, but also create an environment in which you must be independently wealthy to pursue a career as a composer.
Moreover, being told that they hadn’t heard of me or my work seemed to suggest that my position in the industry was not lofty enough for my criticism to be taken seriously. This is a pretty depressing notion. Let’s not forget that those at the upper echelons of classical music are hardly a diverse bunch (overwhelmingly white, male, middle class and older). As a result, if it’s only the most powerful voices that have the right to be heard, are we really likely to get a diversity of opinions? And in any case, you may well have never heard of me, but 450+ composers and musicians responded enthusiastically to posts about this issue on social media, so it might be an idea to take that seriously.
Despite a few requests, I made a conscious decision not to release the name of the organisation running this competition. Directing the ire of angry composers and musicians at a fairly small organisation did not seem particularly productive, and in any case this is not about a witch hunt, but rather a broader conversation about a number of key issues in our industry. In particular we should be asking questions about how we value the time it takes to produce great art; how we tackle the social and financial pressures that make a career in the arts particularly challenging; and how we respond to criticism from voices that might be among those less heard.
If you see a competition that has an expectation of work for no fee, I would urge you to discourage those you teach or work with from applying, to write to the organisers and explain the reasons you are opposed to such a competition and encourage your friends to do the same. It’s only by receiving direct feedback like this that ensembles will begin to understand that musicians and composers have a right to be paid for their work. Going forward, I hope that there is a powerful role for organisations like MU, BASCA, ISM and Sound and Music, all of which could lead the way in publicising opposition to such requests for free work. We do not need to be ‘grateful’ for any opportunity passed our way, we have a right to be respected, to be heard and, at the very least, to be paid.