Musical Patronage – A Question from Marc Yeats and an invitation to others to debate this here

The process by which musical patronage is exercised has long been somewhat shrouded in mystery, and certainly very far from open and transparent, at least as far as the most elite and prestigious forms of musical opportunities are concerned. Personally I believe this is a highly unsatisfactory state of affairs which affords far too many possibilities for favouritism, nepotism, old-boy and other informal networks, or sometimes corruption and exploitation (as I alluded to in a recent article for Music Teacher). In the UK and elsewhere in Europe, classical music is a field of activity reliant in large measure upon public money, and I believe that the processes by which some are able to advance within this field thus deserve a degree of public accountability and scrutiny. But that is just my view, others may sharply differ.

The composer Marc Yeats has framed an excellent question, previously posted on social media, which is a good starting point for discussion of this. This is as follows:

Musical Mysteries: An open question. I believe that the BBC orchestras are publicly funded. How then are composer-in-association posts advertised; is this an open and transparent process, is there opportunity for any qualified composer to apply? I only ever see the posts announced and filled, never requests for applications. Am I missing something?

I would like to invite all those in the music world (and others) to give their thoughts on this question and the associated issues in the comments section below.

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15 Comments on “Musical Patronage – A Question from Marc Yeats and an invitation to others to debate this here”

  1. Marc Yeats says:

    Thanks for posting this, Ian, and I hope more people with experience of this or an opinion [there must be many] will contribute. To get the ball rolling I’m going to post a few of my comments on the original thread to ad an element of context to the exchanges so far.

    My primary concern [and this is not levelled at any composers but at the BBC system that supports them in composer-in-association posts [c-i-a] posts] is that whilst we understand composers who are appointed yo a c-i-a are talented, many other talented composers out there who could benefit from such a fantastic opportunity [a dream come true for many] have absolutely no chance whatever of succeeding to a post like this. The reasons are clear – appointments come through a closed system that is supported by people of influence, publishers with vested interests, recommendations from elite universities, family connections, friends of friends and many other factors, too many of them ultimately nepotistic and self-gratifying for comfort. If you are NOT on this radar initially, and lets face it, most of us are not, no matter how talented you are or how much you’d benefit from the opportunity of a c-i-a, you will never ever get one. It’s all about who you know or who knows you and not about how talented you are. And what makes this far worse is that you and I are paying our taxes, namely through the license fee to support such exclusive activity. There are so few opportunities for composers to work with orchestras and be commissioned by orchestras that c-i-a post are like gold dust and should, in my opinion, be handed out purely on the basis of merit and talent. All the other factors, dubious at best that I mentioned above should not qualify. The best use of public money is to search out and support the greatest talent in our country, not share out these great opportunities between very limited private and vested interests and friends’ networks. I realise that the system is well and truly broken – Proms commissions are a reflection of exactly the same practice. This does not promote quality and equal opportunity. I am naive for wanting change and I know the vested interests, especially with publishers remain very strong, but if we don’t question these institutions and their practices, challenge the sweet deals that are made behind closed doors to agree such opportunities, we are ultimately squandering a huge number of amazing composers whilst promoting the chosen few.

    I realise that the there are different stories for composers who have had c-i-a posts and it is difficult to generalise but on the whole and to the vast majority of composers who have not had and will not have a c-i-a, the system remains very closed and this is, I believe, fundamentally wrong. If there were an open call, anonymous or disclosed, the net would be cast so much wider and include those many talented composers who are currently excluded. And yes, the BBC are also obsessed with the young – they promote them and then very often drop them in favour of the next bright young thing – you see this a great deal.

    For someone like me who came into composition at 32, and had a very successful orchestral stint, it still remains impossible because I don’t move in those circles. Even getting an appointment to discuss a performance on an existing orchestral work is impossible – for instance, my conversations in recent years with the BBC SSO to talk about performances were completely ignored on every occasion, no response at all, even with the total and enthusiastic backing and advocacy of the Scottish Music Centre who share the same building! OK – I could be a totally shit composer so need to be ignored, but I’m not convinced this is the case based on past orchestral performances and reviews etc. I cite my own case because [apart from the very late start] this ‘being ignored’ is part and parcel of most composers’ experience with the BBC orchestras. This is not a healthy state of affairs.

    It would be great to hear from any other composers with experiences, concerns and perspectives on this situation.

  2. Graham Lynch says:

    In the past the BBC have been open about the fact that in selecting recent pieces for performance, especially at the Proms, they’ve done this in dialogue with the major publishers. The same goes for the commissioning of new works. In the last couple of decades publishers have almost stopped signing up new composers, and as a consequence the ‘gene pool’ from which new orchestral works can emerge has shrunk. This leaves many talented composers, and important pieces, outside of the process, and with absolutely no entry into it.

    As far as performers go I suspect the situation is even worse. Youth is at a premium.

  3. Edd Caine says:

    It would be tempting to utter the phrase “this old chestnut!” and walk away from this. Truth be told, the whole idea of patronage, trying to get paid for composition work and even unpaid opportunities causes me deep despair, to the point where I have yet to have mustered the optimism needed to fill in the various application forms. It’s true that the proms is a london-heavy event (I would be surprised if anyone that organises it knows me or any of my colleagues further up north), and nepotism is regrettably alive and well, as I have found out by frank confession from parties un-named. I must confess, I don’t know what this BBC post is, or what the requirements are for the job. Given that the requirements for public funding should be representative of the people that pay for it, it’s surprising that any of it is allowed to be spent on contemporary music, given as it is such a minority interest. It’s quite unlikely that my music would suit the BBCs needs.

    Pessimism aside, a while ago I sent out a questionnaire to the various composers I know asking about commission fees, as I was unsure what to charge. I didn’t receive a representative enough sample but there were some very interesting answers. The most common theme was “bit of money would be nice, but usually I just do it for free” which to me is endemic of our chosen area. There just aren’t the resources around, and it seems pointless haggling over the tiny scraps that are handed out. It almost makes me forget the main reason I do it.

    The best advice I can offer is make your own opportunities and maybe someone will take notice. Unfortunately, not easy to do in orchestral composition. I’m quite relieved that I have had my one orchestral piece performed, and my experience is that most PhD composition students end up shelving theirs to gather dust for decades.

  4. Marc Yeats says:

    I agree; being self reliant and making your own way through building networks, collaboration and opportunities is essential for a composer to thrive. Expecting ‘legacy’ organisations [pre social media; pre notation software and self publishing democratisation] that still carry influence like publishers, managers, agents and even, regrettably, the BBC, to support composers’ work through a framework of equal opportunity and openness is currently unrealistic. And yes, it was ever thus. But with the BBC we are paying for the privilege to be excluded. I’m not convinced about the rationale around popular or unpopular streams of work being supported financially or not by the BBC as that’s a different discussion again, but the sums of money that are spent on commissions and performances of the chosen composers is not insignificant. The point remains that unless we challenge the mechanisms of these decisions and seek to make them transparent and open we are excluding a very large body of exceptionally talented composers in favour of the few who get handed all the goodies with c-i-a’s and often Proms commissions as well, over and over again, for no other reason than their connections and patrons. If we want to keep our cultural institutions and cultural life fresh, encourage and support talent from young and older composers, there needs to be some clean, clear water let into this stagnant, nepotistic pool.

  5. Graham says:

    Who actually makes the choices these days at the BBC? Kurowski in his prime was a figure of some expertise and fairly wide reach but I’m not sure who his equivalent is in 2015. Roger Wright had an impressive track-record (BMIC)but ultimately disappointed. Enterprising conductors (Volkov) can occasionally over-ride these tendencies ie. repeat commissions for Meredith, C.Matthews etc. at the Proms.

  6. […] Musical Patronage – A Question from Marc Yeats and an invitation to others to debate this here (14/5/15) […]

  7. Marc, your experience is absolutely familiar to me as a composer. And your remedy is entirely sensible: both what I aspire to, and what I recommend to my students.

    On the more general issue of patronage, I could say quite a lot. The executive summary would be that I think it’s a lot better now than it has been in the past. The principle of transparency is pretty well established (eg Sound and Music’s open calls for Embedded schemes etc). At least these mechanisms mean that composers from a rather wider pool now get introduced to major organisations, and in general the ‘gatekeepers’ of cultural organisations are visible and appointed only for a finite term. My concern is that as opportunities inevitably become scarcer, those who measure their importance/power by their capacity to influence and offer patronage will become more assertive, and these (small) advances will be reversed. In an increasingly competitive environment, it’s understandable that young composers are so desperate for career advancement that they willingly submit to client status, even when that means providing narcissistic supply to some pretty damaged individuals. But I suppose this is common in many fields of endeavour (one thinks of Cage’s famous exchange with the botanist).

    I long for a thorough ethnography of the British contemporary music scene. Hettie Malcomson did a very good preliminary study a few years back. Someone needs to build on it, and shine a light into those murky corners.

    • Ian Pace says:

      There certainly needs to be a proper study of the workings of the British contemporary music scene. Putting to one side a general scepticism of some of the ‘journalism/tourism with jargon’ which calls itself ‘ethnography’, Malcolmson’s study is very far from being good, and I was surprised it got through peer review. No attempt has been made to actually understand the meaning or history of some of the musical and stylistic terms bandied about (e.g. ‘experimentalism’ or ‘new complexity’), she is completely oblivious to the fact that new music scenes do not exist in isolation and many of the musicians concerned are also linked to others abroad, and the whole thing reads like little more than a tick-box exercise to win favour within the community of ‘soft’ ethnomusicologists. Her scholarly and methodological limitations are blindingly apparent when the question of whether the leading British composers run the major festivals come up – all she is able to do is say that some of the people she asked there say yes, but a few not. It would take less than half an hour of Googling to find who were the directors or artistic directors of the most high-profile festivals (of which there is little evidence that she is aware of the identity), but Malcolmson does not even do this.

      This type of study reminds me of those I sometimes encountered at a previous institution from weaker students, who would just send out a questionnaire to a group of their friends and make far-reaching claims on the basis of their replies. It is not a scholarly method.

      • Ian Pace says:

        To study the workings of patronage requires some access to information about what goes on behind closed doors, which might be available historically (where there are minutes of meetings, etc. – this sort of thing has been studied by historians of various cultural institutions), or through accounts by some who were involved in decision making (a somewhat less ‘strong’ form of data, depending on its quantity and what might be the other agendas of those providing it). Simply reiterating what a handful of far-from-disinterested composers claim to be the case, as Malcolmson does, shows very little. She did not even seem to look at the internal workings of the BMIC, its funding, administrative structure, earlier history, or anything like that. That would all take some serious work and time, though.

        • Richard Baker says:

          Whatever its methodological shortcomings, it was a start, and can be built upon/finessed and/or its findings contradicted by others. Has anybody done this, to your knowledge? Would be v interested if so.

  8. anonymous composer says:

    I think what bothers me most is that it often feels like no store is set in the artistic merit in the piece(s) you submit as part of an application. When you look at most opportunities at S&M, major ensembles, competitions, and so on, almost none of them requires anonymous submission (which means that if you do not already know someone on the panel, you can forget it!) and a great many of them require the submission of a CV, which creates a catch-22 situation, since those with a history of having previously had residencies etc. are at a further advantage against those who are writing equally good music but have not had such opportunities. When you consider that many of the earlier opportunities are not open-application (even S&M is not innocent here, since its Higher Education programme is wholly opaque in the manner by which the lucky few composers are selected), it becomes apparent that even those opportunities that are open to application are biased in favour of the networked.

    In my view, I think a very simple step would be for every compositional opportunity to absolutely require anonymous submission, just as reputable academic journals operate on a principle of blind peer-review, and just as reputable orchestras conduct auditions behind a screen. Of course, the ‘gatekeepers’ will never let this happen, because there is the risk that the ‘anointed few’ might then be missed by the panel. There also needs to be far more robust protocol for conflicts of interest — even with anonymous submission, there is always the risk that a panellist may recognise a piece (possibly a piece which the panellist ‘encouraged’ the composer to enter…). Finally, I think that decisions on whom to award an opportunity should be made on the basis purely of TMI, and not of a CV or of a ‘proposal’.

  9. Speaking personally, nothing makes me happier than when I hear something really interesting by someone I’ve never encountered before. That’s the case when I interview prospective students for academic places, and also on reading panels. So I really can’t agree with the previous poster that ‘if you do not already know someone on the panel, you can forget it’. However, I’d also be very happy to read anonymously (as in the old SPNM days). I’ve said to SAM that I would be happy to select on that basis, and I’m sure enough others would to make it viable.

    • anonymous composer says:

      It is all very well for Dr Baker to say that he likes hearing ‘something really interesting by someone I’ve never encountered before’, but the fact remains that an already-known candidate would still have an unfair advantage when it comes to the brutal and practical task of selecting a composer for a position, something which requires a great deal of detachment from what might make us personally happy as listeners. Supposing one were comparing two composers with moderately, but not ‘really’ interesting pieces (and let us face it: a piece that is genuinely ‘really’ interesting is a very rare beast, even when limiting one’s purview to published work by notable composers), one of whom is a student of the panellist/another panellist/studying at the same institution as that in which a panellist is a teacher, and the other completely unknown to the whole panel. Who would get the position — undoubtedly, it would never be the unknown in those circumstances.

      • Richard Baker says:

        I can assure you that professional people with integrity can and do manage that level of detachment. I can think of several instances when a position/opportunity has gone to somebody not known to anyone on the panel, even when there have been applicants who have been. I don’t doubt that corruption happens – one sees it happening all around one all the time – but I also don’t doubt that lots of good and honourable people are trying to do their best to ensure it doesn’t.

        As a matter of interest, how would you design a selection process for a professional development opportunity with a particular ensemble/festival? One that mitigated as far as possible against the possibility of the bias you describe?

    • anonymous composer says:

      I seriously doubt that S&M would impose an anonymity policy unless there were a general boycott from applicants and panellists. The fact is that its current management has many agendas beyond the purely artistic, as anybody who has met Susanna Eastburn (notable for advocating positive discrimination at every level) in person will attest.


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