To Spec or Not to Spec?

There are really two questions intertwined in this subject.  How much time and effort should be invested in “spec” (short for “speculative”) projects? And is it worth it to create original work for contests (or open calls)?

Admittedly, the answer to these questions depends on the stage of one’s career and the medium in which one works.  A poet or writer’s work is essentially fungible: it can be printed anywhere with little change (although something written with a specific audience in mind may have trouble finding a home elsewhere).  A composer who writes notated music, however, still has to get their composition into the hands of performers to bring it to life (a performing composer, or a studio composer who can realize their composition electronically, doesn’t face this hurdle in the same way, of course).  In that sense their “product” is more like the script for a play or movie, and is only finished in performance.  I’m going to speak from my own experience, but I’m interested in viewpoints from other fields, such as film or computer games.  Comments are welcome!

As a composer, I’ve seen this from several different perspectives. I’ve composed pieces that were exactly what I wanted to hear, without any regard to potential performances; I’ve been fortunate to receive offers to write music for specific performers and events.  I’ve had the opportunity to program concert series as a conductor, and been a performing member of chamber groups; in both cases, that gave me the ability to compose or arrange music for a specific ensemble and ensure that it would be performed.  Every piece is different, and not just musically: the known and unknown factors—including the abilities of performers, the amount of rehearsal time, and the nearness of the performance date—influence decisions made in the heat of creation.

When just starting out, almost any work of art is, by necessity, created without knowing whether it will have an audience.*  Art or music schools are, in part, venues where students are expected to create and display or perform, both to develop skills and good work habits and to build a portfolio, a track record for future work.  Whatever you might say about such institutions, I’ve always found it energizing to be surrounded by people with a similar passion for creation and who are actively engaged in projects.  That simple question “What are you working on?” that passes for small talk among artists is a constant reminder that you’re not the only one working to get those ideas that have been rattling around in your head out into the world.  If you’re lucky, you might find a supportive colleague whose enthusiasm for your work can be encouraging when you feel your inspiration or energy flagging.  Whether fueled by competition or camaraderie, motivated people are motivating to be around.

On the other hand, as I mentioned in my very first post here, it’s easy to talk about projects instead of working on them.  Do you know someone who always has great ideas for stories, movies, comics, songs, et cetera?  They want to tell you all about it, but it never seems to materialize.  I’ve been that guy; most of us probably have been at one time or another, and I’ve put myself on guard against talking up ideas that I haven’t put any work into, to the point that I’ve sometimes lost sight of how sharing an idea can build enthusiasm for it.  This is the downside of perfectionism: working in solitude, even secrecy, until everything is just right.  Some of those compositions I wrote with no set performance in mind now reek of the hothouse to me, overwrought and impractical.  At least I was able to cross the hurdle of finishing things, but even that must be learned—it’s hard to let go sometimes.  Again, knowing that someone, somewhere, wants to see or hear your creation is a great incentive to putting a double bar or writing “The End” on your baby.

As I’ve gotten older, it’s harder and harder for me to pick up the pen to write unless I know there will be someone to perform it.  Many of those youthful pieces were written not just on “spec” but on faith, and were driven by internal necessity.  Most of those pieces got performed eventually, but not all, and ultimately I don’t consider a composition finished unless I can at least get a reading, so it’s in my interest to be realistic.  Ultimately, life’s too short.

So what about contests, or open calls for scores/works?  Twenty years ago, when band composer Francis McBeth visited my college and gave a talk, he singled out competitions as singularly worthless attempts to encourage original composition: composers won’t write new pieces, he said, they’ll just pull something old that fits the contest requirements out of the drawer and send it in.  Commissions, he said, encourage new composition directly, but they represent a greater risk for the organizations running them.  I won’t argue those points; I think they are largely true, and McBeth didn’t even go into the fact that some of these contests have an entry fee, effectively asking the losers to subsidize the contest prize and/or administrative expenses.  (The subject of contest entry fees is a perennial bone of contention over at the Society for Composers, Inc.)

Having said that, there have been numerous times that I’ve read the description of a contest, and, totally against my will and better judgment, had an idea pop into my head that would be just perfect.  Most of the time, I have to let things like that go—see that bit about being realistic, above—but if I think I have enough time, and if it’s something that might have legs apart from the contest itself, I’ve been known to try to pull off original work for things like this.  An idea is an idea, and once it takes hold it’s not always easy to shake.

It doesn’t always work—I once overshot the deadline for a call for wind ensemble works by something like a year, but I was already invested in the composition so I just kept going after the deadline passed.  As for entry fees, that’s part of the calculation as well: if I think I have a really good entry, the fee is reasonable, and the rewards are sufficient, I might take a chance.  (So, you’re probably wondering if I’ve won any of these, and if not, what value my opinion is.  The short answer is yes, I’ve been selected for a few things, but nothing so big you would have heard of it.  It’s really another story which I may go into another time.)

So, what are your thoughts?  Where are you in your career, and to what degree does someone else’s interest in your work influence what you create?  What’s your opinion of contests and open calls in general?  Are they for suckers, or have you been inspired by one to come up with something that fits the requirements? I hope to hear from you in the comments!

* Actually, this never goes away, as the shifting sands of taste and the arts economy can derail the plans of even the most established artist, and the more expensive their medium, the more those outside factors can influence what gets made.  Still, if being “established” counts for anything anymore, it’s having some kind of fan base that can be expected to turn out for your latest project.

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