The 8bb Controversy

(Current photo of 8bb)

A few days ago, eighth blackbird announced their first-ever Composition Competition. (They seemed pretty excited about it.) If chosen the winner, you receive:
  • $1000 cash
  • A day to work with eighth blackbird on the piece you submitted
  • A performance at a Chicago studio concert
  • A recording for website or promotional use (yes, this means you CAN use this on your personal website) AND
  • $500 travel & lodging reimbursement
All in all, not bad. Supposedly, there is one catch: you must pay a $50 application fee.

This has sparked a bit of controversy because, well, I suppose composers don't like spending money if they don't have to. We can be a cheap bunch.
Frankly, comparing this practice of charging an application fee to extortion is a bit extreme. I believe there are reasons why 8bb is charging $50/score submitted. According to Chris Richardson, here are the reasons.
Thanks all for your many thought provoking comments. As the administrative director for eighth blackbird, I take full responsibility for having determined the parameters of this contest, including the fee.


First, it should be worth noting that the contest emerged as a response to a single issue: a growing number of unsolicited submissions. As David wrote above, there is a large pile of scores and recordings in the studio. The group does not want to simply ignore the hard work of composers, and yet they simply do not have time to review them. The question became, ‘how do we rationally manage submissions?’ Having an annual contest provides just such a system. Now there is a simple and objective determination for whether a score is reviewed or not.

Prior to this contest, I can safely say that it was very unlikely that any unsolicited submission was ever going to be reviewed. Now, ALL scores submitted as part of the contest will be reviewed. Any composer now has a way to guarantee that their work will be seriously considered by eighth blackbird. To my mind, that is a significant improvement.


Judging from most of the comments above, however, the main point of contention is the fee. First, whether there should be a fee at all, and secondly, what the amount of the fee should be.

I argued very strongly there be a fee. I believe it encourages self-selection, and as has been repeated above, it just seems to be the standard model. I’m more familiar with the screenwriting world than that of composing, and I have never heard of a screenplay contest that didn’t have a fee. Further, we wanted there to be a significant prize, so the contest would have to pay for itself (getting support from a grant wasn’t an option for a host of other reasons).

One post above speculated that we would receive 350 applications. Perhaps we’re naive, but we are anticipating about 35-50, which at $50 per application would be just enough to break even, with perhaps a little bit for our time if we’re lucky. I hope we’re wrong and you’re right. This is the first time we’ve done this, so we really have no idea.


A few have said or implied that the award isn’t sufficient. I’m rather surprised by this contention. I truly thought being the sole winner of an annual contest personally judged by eighth blackbird, plus having the piece performed, plus travel and lodging, plus $1,000 cash, was rather significant.


Chris Auerbach-Brown wrote: “since the entry process isn’t anonymous, and since 8bb will most likely act as judges, they are free to pick music written by someone with a political connection to their ensemble, either as a friend, student of a friend, friend of a friend, etc.” David Langella compared eighth blackbird to Madoff and AIG.

Many of you know the musicians and therefore know how preposterous such ideas are. Laughable, actually. For those of you who don’t: rest assured we’ve done everything to ensure that no ensemble member will see the names of the composers, and that the whole process will be managed by our intern. The contest was intended to solve a problem, not make money.

Again, in our discussions, we anticipated just enough submissions to break even, and even agreed it would be okay to lose a little money. Depending on how this goes, next year we can explore both lowering the fee and increasing the prize.

Finally, I have to say that I fail to see anything exploitive about having a contest that no one has to enter. If guaranteeing your work is reviewed by eighth blackbird, the chance of winning and the award are worth $50, then participate. If not, then don’t.

In the end, we’re all here because we support new music in some way. Several of you mentioned alternative ways to use $50. I’m all for there being as many opportunities as possible. This is just one more.

Thank you all for your feedback. I can promise you it will all be taken into consideration for future events.

Here's what I have to say: if you think the price is too high, fine, don't enter. If you believe this is extorting young composers, encourage them not to enter also. Keep in mind that a Grammy Award-Winning ensemble WILL look at your score instead of chucking it to a pile.

I believe the points that are mentioned above are valid. 8bb is one of the top new music ensembles out there. That being said, will I be entering this competition? No. Why? In general, one of my composition professors instructed us students that yes, we should enter lots of competitions, but we should be able to discern which ones "smell right." This one, for me, does not smell right.

  • No age limit. I'm not quite 30; my chops went a little rusty when I took 4 years off from academia; I don't have super-fantastic chops; you get the idea.
  • If I don't have the chops, then $50 is a bit steep.
  • I actually don't have a piece for sextet. I'm also not going to drop everything and try to whip one out by May 1. I have other projects to work on.
There you have it. If there is another young composer who has the same issues as I have, they also should not enter. If they want to, they will probably lose the competition and probably learn from their mistakes. I used to apply to a lot more competitions a few years ago, and I've learned to scale back. Did I lose money? Probably, but I've learned how to spend my (competition) money wisely.

Of course, maybe I'm lax about this because a month ago I saw *the most exploitative composition competition ever.* You think $50 is bad to have a Grammy Award-winning ensemble perform your piece? Wait until I tell you about a new competition that charges the applicant TWICE. I am serious. More on this later.