The Rise of Predatory Contests

Posted by DannyFratina, 12.07.2013 There have been 0 comments

I got an email today promoting the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival, a 4-day event located in Rockville, Maryland in mid-February. I hadn't heard of the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival, but the roster looked pretty good. I was mainly intrigued by their first annual "'Jazz Voice' Vocal Competition." I am not a singer, though I have many friends who are. Maybe this was something I could pass along to them? After checking out the fine print, I decided not to. Here we have yet another jazz contest that borders on a scam. I've seen several similar contests this year, and they seem to be the new trend. Why is the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival "Jazz Voice" Vocal Competition so bad? Let's take a look:

- $75 entry fee. Right off the bat, that is a high fee. Don't most contests with fees start around $10-15? $75 is more than most state college application fees. Yikes. What does the applicant get for this non-refundable fee?

- Well, before that, applying includes making recordings, posting Youtube videos, and sending in an application with your picture. The only reason I can think of for wanting a photo is to weed out people by non-artistic and non-talent criteria. This is a huge red flag for me.

- A panel of judges will select six finalists to compete live. So let's get this straight: You throw down $75 and jump through hoops with audio and video recordings, and a panel of random judges may not even let you into consideration (and possibly on, say your photo alone)?

- Well, the $75 could be worth it because if all goes well, you get live feedback from real judges! However, during the submission period, these judges have not yet been selected/named. It could be anyone at this point. You may not even be judged by vocalists. You may not even be judged by jazz musicians. I competed at the Foxwoods Casino jingle contest several years ago. I don't recall any of our judges being musicians or having any feedback beyond "wow what a talented group of people you are!" (Online voting got us in the door but a panel of judges had predetermined which 10 out of the top 50 would become a finalist. Amusingly enough, pop stars Karmin, in their early days, received plenty of popular vote but were not chosen as finalists. The eventual winner was the band that put on the most animated show. Are you starting to get a sense of what you'd be getting into?)

- If you are selected as a finalist, you'll be one of six. Only six people will be considered.

- If you are selected, you must go to Rockville for the festival to compete in person. You are not compensated for travel expenses. You'll also have one month between the date they announce finalists and the date of the festival. They do offer a hotel room if you live outside of 100 miles of Rockville at least, but you'll need a major credit card to stay. Failure to make it to the festival in person disqualifies you entirely.

- The judges only make up 75% of the vote. The other 25% comes from an audience vote, a crowd of strangers. A portion of this crowd may or may not be hundreds of high schoolers for the high school jazz band festival portion of the event.

- If you win you get $2,000. 2nd place gets $1,000. The first three places get a plaque. Place 4, 5, and 6 get nothing. You, of course, must pay taxes on that amount.

- Everything you submit to this contest can be used until the end of time for the promotion and profit of the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival (you won't get royalties, of course, and recognition is a complete maybe).

So what we have here sounds like the worst parts of American Idol, The Lottery, a Pyramid Scheme, and a social network voting contest, all mixed into a single exploitation cocktail. After you submit everything along with the $75 payment, you are at the mercy of the mystery judges, who may or may not rule you out because of the poor angle of your photo or the quality of your web cam. Can't get a better computer microphone? Sorry, better luck next year. Thank your for your payment!

Assuming you are part of the 99% of the country that lives outside of 100 miles of Rockville, Maryland, you'll need an airplane ticket. Hopefully you have the spare cash to buy the ticket now, because that 30 day notice you were given is basically when airfare peaks. And don't forget the rental car! While the nearest airport (30 minutes away) does have a Metro Rail connection, you'll probably need to get between the station, the festival, and the hotel. So start saving the $400+ you'll need to compete.

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Hey, maybe you can afford all of this. The age range is 16 and up, so I'm sure that all the older people with job security will help the MAJF rake it in a bit. But if you are 19 and attending college, that airfare might mean that you can't visit your family over the summer. Or maybe in November you preemptively canceled your Christmas vacation home, just in case you needed to take this trip in February. Not everyone understands what it's like to make a decision like that, but I do. And many young musicians I know did, and some still do.

And here's what that $75 entry fee can get you instead:

  • a phone bill paid down
  • two week's worth of really healthy groceries
  • a lesson with a really amazing voice teacher, who can give you more feedback than the inevitable "you really look like you are loving this!" live feedback.
  • an application to attend the University of Texas or any number of colleges.

For many people, this is nothing. But it's still a gate. The fees and eventual expenses are a toll booth, keeping out anyone who cannot pay the tax. A healthy contest should be about talent and skill, not about who can buy their way into the process. Not only that, but the photo you must include is a giant warning sign that tells me this is not really a contest about making music, but about image, stage presence, and how well can you put on a show (though even here you will be at the mercy of a rhythm section of strangers), adding more arbitrary factors that prevent you from focusing entirely on the music. Even American Idol does not require a fee up front, and the sheer size of the whole thing makes it's perfectly reasonable that they don't pay for travel. Of course, if you get onto the show, they would never expect you to pay your own way each round...

This financial barrier is in place in many other contests, with similar sets of rules (public online requirements, middling prizes, entry fees). I won't list them because I don't want to send them any traffic. A New York-based contest even made the fee into the common home rule of Monopoly: the more people that submit (you can submit as many tunes as you want, each with a fee, of course), the bigger the pot for the eventual winner who, through online voting, stumbles across free parking.

And the thing is, these are aimed at jazz musicians, who, let's face it, are probably on average less financially secure (especially early on) than other kinds of target audiences of these contests. And because the jazz community is relatively smaller than, say, the rock or pop worlds, this feels like neighbors taking advantage of neighbors. It feels incredibly exploitative to me. Right now jazz and music in general needs more nurturing environments, more healthy arenas for critique. We need a safe place to grow and learn, and this is not it.

And in the MAJF it actually gets worse: there is a High School Jazz Band contest with an entry fee of $175, which is tough, but normal (Though tell that to my hometown schools in Texas where they are operating at 1/4th of the budget they had even a couple of years ago, where they have to have to sell coupons for Burger King just to raise the money to go to a single festival).

What gets ridiculous is that while the festival is technically free to attend for students competing, to get an "all-access" pass, which gets you into the shows in the main two venues, each student and chaperone must pay $125 each. For an average sized high school jazz band, lets say 20 kids, with a handful of chaperones, you're lookin' at over $3k just to see a few shows. And again, throw in travel expenses...

They hook you with the contest but gut you with the arbitrary fees. While wealthy schools find no problem with this price tag, normal high schools will have to sell candy and wash cars for three months to get close enough to afford this. At my old high school, the budget got so small that the kids and their parents were being asked to directly contribute to the festival fund.

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For comparison, the ASCAP Young Jazz Composers Contest requires no fee, and they choose several dozen winners and even more finalists. You pay for postage. If only there were more contests out there like it.

It can be done, and if we all join together and fight against these predatory contests we can even the playing field for ourselves and each other. You don't have to boycott the MAJF, just the contest. Ultimately our goal should be to support each other as a music community, and eliminating fee- and image-based contests, we only get stronger.


This post was posted in Notes from the Arranger and was tagged with Commentary, Contests, Jazz, Music Industry