Ageism in Composer Opportunities
“We don’t serve that population.”
“You are ineligible and our policy is non-negotiable.”
“If you look elsewhere, I’m sure you’ll find other opportunities.”
These are words no one wants to hear when applying for an opportunity for which they otherwise qualify except for one thing: they are too old. They are, unfortunately, actual responses I have received from providers of composer opportunities when querying them regarding their age discrimination policy. However, this article is about more than any one composer. It is about a wider industry practice. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate that ageism exists within composer opportunities, to attempt to explain why it exists, and then to propose solutions for operating without age discrimination. We’ll take an empirical approach looking at data related to composer opportunities. We’ll also take a logical approach to examining various arguments for and against ageism. Lastly we’ll look at the issue anecdotally via comments from various composers. The goal of this article is to educate and inspire change for the betterment of the entire new music community.
Discrimination against someone of the “wrong” color, ethnicity, sex, or sexual orientation is generally frowned upon in modern society. Progress has been made on these fronts to change peoples’ thinking and to embrace inclusion. However, progress is still needed in the area of discrimination on the basis of a person’s age. This one is arguably subtler, but it ultimately has the same effect: to exclude someone from pursuing an opportunity for which he or she would otherwise qualify. People usually are not aware that they practice ageism—just as with other forms of discrimination—because their assumptions all point to a certain expectation they believe is true. With respect to composers, said expectation goes something like this: child prodigy enters school already a mature genius; impresses all of his/her professors; then sets the world on fire with his/her youthful vigor, technical wizardry, and creative talent while winning all sorts of competitions; and proceeds to redefine an art form for the betterment of humankind.
There may be examples throughout history where this fairy tale plays out in the likes of wunderkind composers such as Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven; but is this the most accurate representation of a composer’s path? What about Brahms, whose first symphony wasn’t completed until he was 44, or Janáček, who did not make a mark until his early 50s? While the wunderkind may make for a good story, so does the person who fought all stereotypes and began to attain great things at an older age. But, let’s forget about all of these stories and focus on reality. We’ll do this in the context of looking at hard data on age discrimination as it pertains to present day composer opportunities.
Opportunity and Competition
For purposes of this discussion, composer opportunities include anything of a competitive nature which may further a composer’s career. This encompasses juried competitions with prizes including cash awards, commissions, appointments, readings, performances, and/or recordings. While some may argue the efficacy of competitions, the fact remains that they are crucially important for launching a composer’s career in today’s environment. An objective view of the record bears witness to the fact that there are virtually no examples—at least I cannot think of any—whereby a modern composer has attained notoriety without winning a significant composer prize. It’s a dog-eat-dog world highly geared toward recognition gained through competitive means. There’s an underlying assumption that the best always wins and that true talent gets recognized.
Winning competitions puts accomplishments on a composer’s resume which may be weighed at times more heavily than the quality of the music itself, either intentionally or unintentionally. Whether this is good or bad is irrelevant. Organizations need to sell seats to their events and they stand a much better chance of doing this when they can advertise a composer with impressive credentials versus one with zero or few competitions won. It is a complete waste of time and money for composers to submit work to a major musical ensemble for their performance consideration without sufficient credentials to warrant the interest of the organization.
Regardless of whether you agree with the principles behind all of this, the fact is that one must compete—and win—in order to get ahead.
Too Old To Tango
Ageism is very much alive in the emerging composer arena. In short, once you get to a certain age, you’re considered too old to tango. To support this claim, let’s examine composer opportunities as published on ComposersSite.com . After careful research, this site has been identified as containing the most comprehensive listing of opportunities available for composers of classical music. Further, the site is freely available.