Pride Isn’t A Reason To Exploit Queer Composers

Greetings, y’all, and welcome to another episode of This Wasn’t Supposed To Be The Post This Week!

Pride’s coming up next month, and partly as a result, I’m starting to see an influx of “oh, we’re looking for LGBTQ+ [insert item here]!” both in my inbox and on socials generally. Sometimes friends forward me opportunities, which is incredibly kind, but some of these so-called opportunities come with demands that fall beyond the boundaries of reason and are better deemed exploitative. Though it varies from one posting to the next, many of these “in search of…” ads that find their way to me are calls for scores, and as someone who’s been on both the submitting end and the judging end of these, wow, I have thoughts.

The composing community frequently has these conversations in earnest on multiple platforms, but many folks miss the discourse entirely or brush it off as the complaints of a small contingent. Today, you’re not getting that lucky. For just a moment, I’d like to tell you about a call for scores I came across today; see if you can spot the red flag(s) from the Instagram ad:

  • performer is requesting scores for a specific solo instrument and piano; performers are specified
  • specifically seeking scores from LGBTQ+ identifying composers (submission requirement)
  • music is for a new album
  • work cannot be previously recorded or performed
  • 5-20min
  • $500 prize for each work chosen, plus a copy of the studio recording
  • no entry fee, June 1 deadline

I’ve read a fair few of these over the years, and a lot of the initial questions I have tend to come from what isn’t listed in a call or an ad. This post on Instagram was very clearly an abridged infographic, and there was a link to the soloist’s website for more information, but before I clicked over, here’s what I was noticing:

  • no prior recordings or performances means they’re looking for commissions, but rather than seeking specific composers, negotiating, and paying them accordingly, they’re trying to get as many pieces custom-written for them as possible (because it disqualifies anything that’s even seen a composition recital playthrough)
  • re: no prior performances: soloist never specifies the piece will be performed, just recorded. why is this necessary?
  • no mention of mechanical rights, royalties, etc. (and again, because this isn’t a normal commission process, that’s not a discussion they’ve already had with their composers)
  • $500 is a pretty low honorarium for a work of up to 20min

Now, that’s already a significant laundry list of qualms. While I do actually have a piece for the instrumentation they specified, it’s had a couple performances and some SoundCloud-level recordings, so I couldn’t submit anyway (and I’m not about to write a piece in two weeks). But because a friend had passed this on to me, I a) messaged the queer-composers profile it had been shared from to ask why they were pushing it, and b) decided it was maybe worth a look at that website to see what the rest of the call said.

I’m glad I did, because there were a couple . . . supplementary details that definitely were left off the ad for intentional reasons. First, composers need to not only fall under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, they need to be comfortable being identified as such in promotional materials. (There’s no indication as to the level of specificity the soloist plans to use here, which would likely be really helpful to folks considering submitting.) The call requires, along with the score/parts/MIDI mockup, a quick summary of your “story;” I’ve reworded that phrase here to prevent a quick and easy Google search, but the call heavily implies some kind of coming-out story, experience with queerphobia of some kind, or similar inspiring-or-trauma-porn blurb.

Additionally, composers can only use the recordings of their own music for press kits and promoting, which I guess would be fine except for the large detail at the end:

these performers want exclusive performance and recording rights for THREE YEARS.

And that’s where this changed from a “not for me, but maybe worth pointing the right person to” to “what. the. fuck.”

I’ve navigated people wanting to record my work for an album, and I’ve dealt with a couple dozen commissions, both contracted and not. I’ve NEVER had performers ask for three years of exclusivity, especially not for an album due out at the end of 2021. That’s thirty-six months where no one else can touch the piece—not students who want to program it on their senior recitals, not dear friends who want to play it at a coffee house gig, not the principal [insert instrument here] of a major symphony who might happen to stumble across the work and love it. This performer is very clearly trying to facilitate the creation of works by queer composers, but in the very same breath, they’re ensuring anyone who hears their performance and loves our music is unable to access it for the length of an entire graduate degree.

I don’t even like my own music for that long! (joking. kinda.)

And folks, sometimes this comes up because allocishet people are ham-handedly reaching for a single bunch of diversity to cover them for awhile, but sometimes it’s because others in the community maybe haven’t considered how their call for scores is taking advantage of (overwhelmingly young and/or early-career) composers who don’t know how to negotiate for things like mechanical rights and royalties. While I appreciate that this person is trying to represent several LGBTQ+ composers on a single project, it’s hard to buy in when there’s a very good chance some undergrad is going to bust their ass to write a spectacular fifteen-minute piece and get paid $500 for it, with zero chances to give that awesome piece to any other performers until at least 2024 (maybe 2025 if it’s three years after album release).

This isn’t even all that uncommon. People write exploitative calls for scores that should be calls for proposals all the time. Every single one of these that shows up further incentivizes composers to accept starvation wages in exchange for excellent work. The particulars of each are a little different, but needing or wanting music and not being able to pay composers appropriately for their time and labor shouldn’t just mean you gloss over it and hope enough of them take the bait.

By year three of something like this, it’ll be in the “you should do it for the exposure” category. And just because June is right around the corner doesn’t mean it’s okay to put queer composers in your sights and hope they’ll go for it.

We deserve better. Thanks for reading.

Thanks for reading! If you learned something from this post and would like to tip me, head on over to my Ko-fi page. For more analysis and commentary like this in your life, check back again soon, and consider subscribing to my mailing list (at the bottom of the page or in the sidebar) for quarterly update emails on my biggest projects. To support the long-term work I do as an artist and advocate, you can find me on Patreon and @honestlyeris on Instagram.

I’ve written a couple other posts on calls for scores. Read about performance restrictions here, age limits here, and how to call for scores here.