Are some competitions scams?

December 4, 2018, 2:02 PM · I've recently been poking around the internet and I ran across some competitions that look a little funky. I'm not talking about allegations of jury-rigging at the big competitions. I'm talking about a brand of smaller on-line only competitions, which generally offer a paid concert and management to the winners.

Four examples that I found recently are:

Three of these seem to be supported by the same Alink-Argerich foundation, and they all have the exact same web site. They seem to be selling the online application pretty hard, and it seems like it could be a good business opportunity if enough people apply.

There is also this competition in Japan, which charges ~200 dollars for entry, and another 300 for people who make the finals, while most of the prizes in the finals are only about 500 dollars.

Is this another iteration of the classic "pay for exposure" scam or am I just being paranoid?

Replies (37)

December 4, 2018, 3:58 PM · I don't know if any competitions are scams, but I know many music schools are.
December 4, 2018, 4:30 PM · Welcome to the musical-industrial complex.
Everything's a scam.
December 4, 2018, 4:37 PM · Given that these websites promote themselves more than their winners...
December 4, 2018, 4:40 PM · It's called "pay to play."

A number of the so-called competitions have winners lists as long as their numbers of applicants. So a dozen people are "first place" and another dozen or so are "second place" with a handful of "honorable mention" and whatnot. Makes for good resume material.

Edited: December 5, 2018, 12:47 AM · I don't know whether they are scams but I smell that they are. At least they are good for resumes.

But in Australia there is a very good pay-to-play model in community orchestras. Orchestra members (mostly professional students and amateurs) pay money each year to practice for and to take part in real concertos. From one community orchestra I know, members pay $600-700 per year to take part in 3 concertos in the same year.

The concertos sell tickets to, unsurprisingly, mostly orchestra members'friends and families.

All the money (selling tickets and members'contribution) goes to conductor hiring plus venues hiring for practice and for performance, and for buying dinners during their practice time of 6pm to 9:30pm, averaging 2 times per week for a member who register for all the concertos in a year.

The good thing about this model is that it is non-profit. And then more importantly it provides a great performance opportunity and resume decoration for aspiring musicians who are not yet ready/lucky enough for professional orchestras.

Edited: December 5, 2018, 6:48 AM · Scott nailed it. Now, a for-profit enterprise is not necessarily a scam. Maybe, just maybe, you get what you paid for: The opportunity to compete for a piece of paper that might be worth your entry fee. After all, if you're the winner of the XYZ International Violin Competition, you can write that on your web site and the parents of small children needing lessons might be impressed. If that nets you a client or two, then the return on your investment will accrue in a matter of weeks.

I thought of some good names for fee-only competitions:
The King Elizabeth Competition
The Abraham Stern Competition (you know, Isaac's dad...)

oh, I could go on.

Edited: December 5, 2018, 2:11 PM · Thanks for all the responses. I chuckled at those competition names, Paul, and they reminded me of a supposed "scholarship" I was offered through the mail after I was accepted to college. It was a while ago, but as I remember it was from one Albert Nobel, offering acceptance into an "elite" high school honors society (for a small fee...)

It seems like people are in unanimous agreement that these are "pay to play" schemes, but differ in opinion as to whether "pay to play" schemes have some value for the customer. My somewhat cynical understanding of them up to this point has been that anyone skilled enough to benefit from them is also skilled enough to benefit from other free or paid avenues, and that less-skilled players who do "pay to play" don't stand to benefit from it anyway due to said lack of skill.

I'm now wondering under what conditions it would be worthwhile to participate in competitions like these. I'm kind of thinking out loud here, but as resume padding it seems like it would only go so far, although Matt makes a good point that the experience of playing as a soloist with an orchestra can be hard to come by. What type of player needs these?

December 5, 2018, 2:22 PM · From the musician’s perspective it may or may not be scam, depending on the amount of fee charged, how the competition is held, and what you get in return.

But from the parent’s or employer’s perspective who hires the musician, they could be considered scam as they could mislead them about the true credentials of the musician, especially when compared against those who don’t pay for entry and prizes from these ‘competitions’.

December 5, 2018, 2:51 PM · Don't forget that it can be valuable to get third-party commentary on your playing, too. And that sometimes it's very useful to do low-stakes competition in order to get experience. Or as a self-motivator.
Edited: December 5, 2018, 2:53 PM · Well, one of the most common pay-to-play experiences is the "performance in Carnegie Hall" one, which is offered by any number of companies. While I understand that it may not have the cachet of being invited by say, a major orchestra to perform with them in the hall, I think that having the opportunity to play in such a wonderful space is worth it for any music student, regardless of their career aspirations. Now that they operate them with festival-like parameters including coaching and feedback, certainly the educational component of such a trip is much better than it was in the past.

What I don't particularly like is the misrepresentation that "so-and-so is the first prize winner of such-and-such competition." Well, that's true, but what they neglect to mention is that there are a half dozen other "first prize winners." This is the illusion of musical prestige where none exists.

Edited: December 5, 2018, 9:14 PM · It's not a scam if people know what they're getting themselves into. Exposure is extremely important.
December 5, 2018, 9:48 PM · For a reference point: Here's the 16 year old winner from the Manhattan version of this contest, competing (but not placing) at the 2016 Menuhin Competition:

December 6, 2018, 1:08 PM · I've been told never to enter my kid in any competition that yields a performance at Carnegie (he's not at a level where it would ever be legitimate). These competitions may be resume builders and you may get to play in a nice hall, but you are basically just paying to rent out the hall, which anybody can do anyway. To me it is unbelievable how they get money out of you. Here's the general plan:

1) You pay to enter. Everybody wins.
2) You pay to travel to New York and for your accommodations.
3) You pay for an accompanist in New York or fly one in.
4) You must pay an additional fee to play in the recital -- and these are hefty. If you would like to play for more than the allotted time so you can actually finish your piece, you pay an additional fee PER MINUTE of your piece...and it is usually something like $100 a minute.
5) You must also pay to attend the concert (parents/siblings) typically.

You get no coaching, no mentoring. Most don't even give you comments.

Edited: December 6, 2018, 1:57 PM · There's a NY Times article about this very practice from back in 2005:

And an NPR article from 2012 with more detail about the rental activities of the three different performance spaces in Carnegie:

And a 2017 article from the Wall Street Journal:

December 6, 2018, 2:12 PM · It's somehow similar to buying a degree. You pay some 6,000 dollars to some non-accredited online institution, being sent a pack of powerpoint slides, then answer some 15-20 min quiz then get a bachelor's / master's degree.

Not a scam for those who 'buy' the degrees since they obviously know what they are doing. But surely a scam for employers who hired people based on these fake degrees.

December 6, 2018, 2:42 PM · Similar things can happen in the fiddle-making world. One might brag about their competition wins, but fail to mention that these wins were at the local county fair violinmaking and chili-cooking competition.
December 6, 2018, 3:35 PM · Collusion between sellers and buyers to exaggerate the buyer's credentials or to mislead someone else may create negative externalities to the violin community.

It's somehow similar to buying a degree or hiring someone to write your graduation thesis.

If Cargenie Hall decides to sell their hard-earned reputation through gouging musicians that way then it's up to them. I wouldn't do that if I were them. The Hall must know clearly pay-to-play musicians would make sure their CVs imply it's because of their talent, not because of their money. Those talented musicians who aren't willing to pay or not able to pay will be put at a disadvantage.

It's profitable and lawful business model for sure. But may not be as ethical.

Edited: December 6, 2018, 8:17 PM · What Susan Agarwal has described sounds awful. Almost as though the activity was created by someone who honed his business acumen launching products the likes of wine, steaks, spring water, and fragrances.
Edited: December 7, 2018, 12:53 PM · Susan Agrawal said,
"Everybody wins ... You get no coaching, no mentoring. Most don't even give you comments."

So, who are the "judges" in these so-called competitions? How qualified are they? Since coaching and mentoring appear to be a rarity, are the judges in fact allowed to give advice etc, if they are qualified to do so? On second thoughts, what advice could you possibly give to a "winner" at such a competition, other than how to spend their "winnings" ? :)

If a judge in such competitions is indeed qualified should not he/she be "considering their position", as is frequently asked of politicians and other highly placed persons in doubtful ethical positions?

December 7, 2018, 9:50 PM · I looked up a few of the bigger ones and they don't list the judges. One listed an honorary head of the competition but said judging would be a "qualified" panel. It could be anyone.
December 8, 2018, 2:20 AM · I think it's unfortunate that music competitions have to exist at all, but in a dog-eat-dog world we just have to accept that and try not to get eaten by an even bigger carnivore.
December 8, 2018, 5:34 AM · Competitions themselves are a good thing, until there are those you just pay to win. It’s outright dishonest.

Accepting or following that is just letting a race to the bottom feed itself.

While true competitions lend wings to the best talents, the scammy ones work against just that.

December 8, 2018, 2:07 PM · Judges in a competition not named? That is indeed suspicious. Whether they are unqualified, or qualified but do not wish to be publicly associated with the event, I really don't know which is worse.
December 8, 2018, 4:07 PM · Anne Luisa Kramb, the winner of that Manhattan Competition Julie was talking about completely deserves that price. I'm not saying that this kind of competitions are not scams, some of them might be so. But normally the winners of those competition are really high level players, not just someone who paid more than the rest or was lucky enough to have their teacher in the jury. Anne Luisa didn't get a high position in Menuhin 2016 but she got 1st prizes in many other important competitions, not only Manhattan.
Edited: December 9, 2018, 2:51 AM · How long do you think it will be before violin-playing becomes an Olympic event? I can see why they're needed in today's global marketplace but I believe competitions tend to subvert an important ethic of music-making, that music should be a inclusive endeavour, not all about "me, the great soloist". I well remember one televised competition where the popular favourite was rightly (in my view) denied the prize because their ego just got in the way of the music
December 9, 2018, 4:01 AM · Maybe this is another reason to switch to viola, lol!
December 9, 2018, 7:14 AM · Olympic violin playing would be HUGE! It could be modeled after the biathlon, with the competitor cross-country skiing to a designated spot, whipping out their violin, playing an excerpt, then skiing on to the next spot.

Playing quartets while bobsledding could be interesting too....

December 9, 2018, 8:14 AM · Fact check. I disagree with the posters above talking about Anna Luisa Kramb "not placing" or not getting a "high position" at the Menuhin.

She won 5th prize in the Menuhin Junior 2016 competition.

December 9, 2018, 10:56 AM · Sorry Frieda, thank you for correcting the record.

My point was that the competition referenced in the post isn't being populated by random violinists who can pay an entry fee- these are competitive players.

December 9, 2018, 11:29 AM · Maybe olympic violin playing could be the next chapter for USA Gymnastics. After Chapter 11, that is.
December 9, 2018, 4:03 PM · The demographics of Menuhin 2016 winners still managed to surprise me ...

Steve, I think violin playing is more about 'executing' than making music. Too many people are qualified for doing the job, so competitions are just nature running its course.

December 9, 2018, 9:33 PM · Demographics, you say?
December 10, 2018, 3:07 AM · Matt - I've certainly played alongside some executioners... But you're right, people will always be competitive and properly conducted competitions are necessary in order to give the best young players an internationally recognised emblem of their stature. The last winner of the Leeds piano competition, Eric Lu, was the first to play in the final and left me truly gobsmacked. Could the others even come close? No they couldn't.
December 10, 2018, 2:36 PM · @Paul how else you interpret it to be? (shivers down my spine)

@Steve maybe it feels better if you think competitions aids in music making too. But I don't like competitions as well, as they show how oversupplied classical violinists are.

Edited: December 16, 2018, 2:44 PM · In Greece there is a violin competition organized by a most reputable institution .The judges are a veteran violin teacher that offers a considerable amount of money for 1st prize and some of her former students that she has chosen .We cannot talk of real scam here of course ,but criteria of success are totally arbitrary for the participants.Everything depends on mostly non musical factors and not the best player wins ,not the most talented but the one that conforms to the commitee criteria (nobody knows exactly what to expect).The same story goes on for some years ,the commitee is really the opinion of one person only ,the chosen mediocre usually get 1st prize and the really good players only a chance to play in a luxury hotel room .
December 17, 2018, 8:30 AM · "Competitions are for horses, not artists" Bella Bartok. Actually, I would rewrite that as "Competitions are for technicians, not artists" because flawless playing is essential before musicality becomes even a factor. This is diametrically opposite from playing to an audience where the occasional slip is ignored but boring music is despised. Or as Beethoven put it: 'To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable.'

When art (or anything really - I came up with the same thing in science) is judged by 'experts' it is (almost) inevitably judged on a historical perspective: its what the 'experts' think is good and, hence, what they learned. For the same reason, few 'experts' are able to appreciate new ideas and real creativity. The outcome to my mind is the supression of new thought and original approaches. Small wonder that each new superstar is too often just a younger version of the previous ones..

December 17, 2018, 9:33 AM · Although it's notable that most of the young players are both technically flawless as well as musical.

I don't blame the players for the limited extent of individual musical character, by the way. I blame the critical consensus that today's musicians should strive to reflect and not distort the composer's intentions within a fairly narrow window of what constitutes good taste.

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