We Aren’t Your Selling Point: Thoughts on Tokenism in Publishing

Anyone on Facebook knows and probably despises Facebook’s targeted ads. Sure, on rare occasions they’re selling something you’re actually looking for and genuinely need, but most of the time, they’re either a pain or ridiculous. The algorithm, I’ve found, also likes dredging up brands and companies you’ve maybe had one interaction with and dropping more of their ads in your news feed. When it’s a company you’ve had a positive interaction with, that can be really good. In the case of a negative first impression . . . not so much.

Enter Bandworks Publications.

Bandworks has shown up in my feed for years; I’ve kept them on my Liked Pages list so I can keep an eye on them in the wake of what you’ll read next. They’re a small publisher (like, quite small) mostly focused on band music with a couple side helpings of various chamber things. Their new releases page for 2019 was six pieces. They’re small, and that’s one hundred percent okay. (Even preferred, honestly.)

My first—and, to my knowledge, only—interaction with Bandworks came in 2014, and because this has been weighing on me, I went back and looked up the post again to make sure I get the story right. To put this in perspective, in June of 2014 I was eighteen years old and had just finished my first year of my comp degree. (Pausing here for a moment for everyone who needs to go “aww, baby [Eris]!”) I was very, very in love with wind band music to the point that I expected it to be the driving force of my career, so when Bandworks’s post started with “At Bandworks Publications, we have committed ourselves to releasing at least one piece each year by women composers, whose work is terribly under-represented in our medium,” I was clicking See More literally as fast as I could.

Imagine my disappointment when I read the rest of the post: “This year’s feature is Cecile Chaminade’s CORTEGE, a delightful and energetic work for solo piano, orchestrated for wind band by Patrick Burns. Enjoy!”

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If you’re a little confused as to why I deflated faster than a balloon who’s met a thumbtack, let me show you the complete extent (to date, as of January 2020) of Bandworks’ music by women composers. See if you can find the commonalities:

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(It is also worth noting that the Chaminade should actually be Cortège, not Cortegé.)

Now, at the time, I didn’t realize the entire extent of their commitment to gender-marginalized music looked like this. (This is also me speaking from an incredibly fundamental, let’s-not-even-get-into-intersectionality standpoint.) I didn’t realize they as an organization had chosen to have one man’s retooling, rearranging, and re-orchestrating works by (cis, white) women imply a commitment to women’s music as a whole. At the time, I was an eighteen-year-old composition major looking for women in my field to fall in love with. Perhaps it was a little naïve of me to assume that “releasing at least one piece each year by women composers” would mean “releasing at least one piece each year without a man in the byline.” (It wasn’t naïve. I knew this.) Even still, I tried to take them on good faith. My comment on the post, and their response, lies below:

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So, yes, technically, by the letter of the law, Bandworks is doing what they say they’re doing. However, when anyone with even a little knowledge of intentional programming reads that a company is trying to release one piece by a woman per year (a quota they clearly haven’t kept up, btw), and they follow it up with a statement of how underrepresented we are, the rational expectation is that the works they are putting out wouldn’t serve as continued options for putting money in male composers’ pockets. I didn’t quite know how to put that into words at eighteen years old, but I sure as hell do now.

Because here’s the thing: arranging another composer’s work, especially when it’s in the public domain, is fairly common. It can be a great tool to learn more about how that composer structured their work, and it’s an excellent option for an orchestration study. Publishing these, also, isn’t the end of the world—it’s been done, it is done, it will continue to be done. I take no issue with composers doing this. But for a cis man to publish his own arrangement of a woman’s work and use that as his publishing company’s sole commitment to elevating music by women? When combined with a total of zero representations of women’s music as they originally wrote it, to profit off of a marginalized composer’s work in a way that puts money in his pocket—a large percentage of the profits, since Burns owns Bandworks—is leveraging performative feminism and tokenism and continuing to push for a twisted, self-serving version of “intentional programming” at the expense of actual marginalized people. And that, to put it mildly, is messed up.

Hiding behind an answer of “we’re technically not lying” reeks of a company trying to get an advantage from something they’re not actually invested in. If Bandworks had over the course of the five and a half years since this conversation added gender-marginalized composers to their roster, that would be a sign of growth. They’d get kudos, and this would be an inspirational story instead of a cautionary tale. As it stands currently, though, the company has only three arrangements or orchestrations, all by men, of music by women composers—far lower than the one-per-year quota they laid out in 2014 and inadequate given the drove of men listed on their roster. (I also take issue with their listing of Amy Beach, Nadia Boulanger, and Cécile Chaminade on their artists roster, because to a casual observer it might appear as though those composers’ collections were available through the company, but that’s less my wheelhouse than the rest of this.)

Why is this worth one-thousand-plus words on a Thursday afternoon five and a half years later? Because this was one of the first moments in my adult life when I realized how insidious the continuing marginalization of gender-diverse composers is. And yes, this is just the tip of the iceberg. This doesn’t even begin to cover how trans folks and nonbinary people and/or queer and/or disabled and/or Brown, Black, Asian, and Indigenous composers are treated by music publishers and the industry at large. But this was one of the first moments where the effects of a sliver of that mistreatment became clear. This was the first time I could look at a situation and say, “they’re claiming to elevate women in music by retooling our work in a way that maximizes their ability to profit on it.”

And that’s the mic drop, isn’t it? Because yes, they can (and should!) arrange works by women, and they can publish them, but when your publishing company’s decade-long track record of gender-diverse repertoire consists of three public-domain works arranged by a man and zero works that living gender-marginalized composers profit from, I don’t buy that you’re actually trying to do anything about underrepresentation. Because that marketing doesn’t read as “we’re trying to elevate the music of women composers”—it reads as “we’re trying to profit off the intentional programming movement while doing as little work as possible.”

That, my friends, is tokenism: using (or, in this case, borrowing from) a small number of marginalized voices to justify why you’re not willing to do more. And now that we’ve got our nice big stack of ideas, here’s one more to set alongside it: Bandworks’ slogan is “Artistry Without Compromise.” That’s already a loaded gun supporting elitist mindsets about what “good” music is, etc., but when “Artistry Without Compromise” translates visually to “If A Man Hasn’t Touched It, We Don’t Want It,“ and they back that up with their own social media interactions? That’s proving the mindset isn’t just elitist: it’s sexist, transmisogynist, and plain condescending. And either the people supporting it don’t realize that, or they don’t care.

Because despite the legalese of Bandworks’ reply to me in 2014, they never answered the one question I asked: “Why not just publish a new, original work by a female?” While at the time I still had yet to learn that female is best not used as a noun, the point was made. And instead of giving me an answer, instead of showing any amount of knowledge of the many ways in which women are kept out of composing and publishing, I got dismissed.

When you look at this women’s-work-but-not-quite-women’s-work, it’s maybe easier to see how some men believe it’s okay to choose a pen name like Keiko Yamada. It’s maybe easier to see how tokenism takes hold. But for now, half a decade on, I’m still stunned that a publishing company with five thousand Facebook fans ever thought they could view this as “meaningful commitment” to women in composition despite involving approximately zero women in the process. This is not how we do the work. This is not how we lift up people of marginalized genders.

I’m also sitting here knowing I should post this but not looking forward to it, considering the response my first interaction with them was met with.

And Bandworks, since the band community is small and you’ll probably read this, I’m not here to name and shame. I’m here to name, explain, and ask you to do better. In this one, very tangible way, you were the first people to cement in my mind that my work was somehow less valuable than the work of my male peers—somehow less able to stand on its own. Despite the pride I take in my work and the success I have found making music I love, I will carry that with me forever.

I can only hope that in the next year or two, we see you diversifying your roster. ♦

Thanks to Ashley Killam and Leila Jay for beta reading this post in advance of publication, and thanks to all of you for tuning in! If you’d like more analysis and commentary like this in your life, come back every Saturday at 8pm MST. To follow my ramblings and creative process in real time, or to support the work I do as an artist and advocate, you can find me on Patreon and @honestlyeris on Instagram.