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A Brief Guide to Commissioning

Composers earn income from their creations in three ways: through selling copies of their work (publication royalties); through licensing performances of their work (performance royalties); and through contracts for new work (commissions). For this composer, a successful commission celebrates a meaningful occasion, grants time and license to dream, and results in a work which will have a life after the premiere. In over sixty commissions, I’ve helped to celebrate birthdays, weddings and anniversaries. But I’ve also written for baptisms, in memory of loved ones, to celebrate the centenary of the Minnesota Orchestra, to commemorate September 11, to open a new concert hall, and to re-dedicate grand old buildings like the Saint Paul Public Library and Landmark Center. I have also been involved in residencies which yielded multiple commissions through the American Composers Forum’s Faith Partners program.

Meet the Composer’s Commissioning Music: A Basic Guide is a comprehensive source for information on commissioning. The American Composers Forum can also assist with the commissioning process. You may wish to use a fiscal agent to facilitate the commission.

Key questions about commissioning

To begin, get to know the music of the composer you want to commission. He or she will be happy to provide you with samples. Then consider these questions:

  • What is your timeline? When is the piece to be delivered, or when would you like it to be performed? Building in ample time is essential for a satisfying result. Avoid problematic delivery dates: New Year’s Day in particular (copy services are restricted), but also September 1 (no one’s around).
  • For what combination of instruments or voices will the work be scored?
  • What is the scope of the piece? Naturally, the effort—and therefore the cost—increases exponentially with duration and size of ensemble.
  • Does the commission celebrate an occasion? If so, what would you like to express at that moment?
  • Will the music be performed in concert? What else will be on the program, and where will the commissioned work be placed?
  • What music do you most enjoy, and what elements of music—melody, rhythm, harmony, structure—move you? Tell the composer.

Special considerations for vocal music

  • Is the text chosen by the commissioner, by the composer, or in collaboration?
  • Is the text under copyright, or is it in the Public Domain (P.D.)?

Copyright

Under current copyright law, life (of the creator) plus seventy years is the term of copyright. This means, for instance, that Rilke’s poems in the German are not under copyright, but Stephen Mitchell’s translations of Rilke in English are. The King James Version of the Bible is P.D.; the Revised Standard Version and the New Revised Standard are not. A publisher, poet or translator may charge a fee up front for the use of a text, plus a share of royalties. If there is a fee, the commissioner generally pays, though the composer will make the arrangements. (One publisher of a two-line translation of an ancient Chinese poem demanded a fee of $480, “for a one-year contract covering the U.S.” Needless to say, I found another text!) In addition, poets, as co-authors, generally receive half of performance and publication royalties. Thus, over the long term, a setting of a copyrighted text is not as lucrative to a composer as a P.D. text, though other factors may compensate. For a concise presentation of the Public Domain concept, visit the Public Domain Information Project.

The personal touch

There are many ways of personalizing your commissioned score. As the commissioner, you will write the dedication on the score. There are also time-honored ways of embedding meaning in the music itself—the equivalent of musical “monogramming.” At an additional cost, a title page with musical calligraphy can be executed—though at this time (2015) the hand is getting shakier!

Costs

Like Cheerios, my music is sold by weight, not by volume. As a commissioner, you pay for the result, not the effort. And I prefer charging for the job, rather than per minute of music. Commission fees are based on the length of the work and its performing forces.

  • Fees generally begin at $1,000 for a single song or anthem, though this is negotiable.
  • Copying fees for smaller works are usually included, for larger works negotiated separately.
  • The commissioner customarily pays 50% down, 50% on delivery of the score. Do not expect any music to be composed without a deposit.
  • If the composer is to attend the premiere, or participate in the event as performer or conductor, those expenses are negotiated separately.
  • Not a right, exactly, but a courtesy, and the culmination of the commissioning process: the composer should be invited to hear a rehearsal and help bring the music to its final form.

Good fences make good neighbors

When the time arrives, a formal contract is essential. [Download sample contract]

What are the rights of the composer?

  • the right to retain copyright in the work
  • the right to retain ownership of the manuscript
  • the right to offer the work for publication

What are the rights of the commissioner?

  • the right to be credited as the commissioner on all editions of the score
  • the right to receive a copy of the score
  • the right to the first performance
  • exclusive performance rights within a certain period (usually a year from completion)
  • the right to make the first commercial recording

Commissioning is a risk—like any relationship—an agreement to collaborate, explore and make something new. Imagine concert music without the contributions of Haydn’s Prince Nicholas the Magnificent, Bach’s Frederick the Great, Stravinsky’s Sacher or Bartók’s Koussevitsky. What composer would you commission, given the chance? I can suggest a few.

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