At What Price?

Rather than make an extravagant and probably indefensible claim about the history of music or alarmist predictions about its future, I’d like to pose a question to the NewMusicBox readership this week—specifically to my fellow graduate students, although I welcome responses from composers at any stage of their careers. I’m wondering what kind of rates you charge for commissions of various lengths, sizes, etc.

I’ve never raised this subject with my colleagues here at Illinois, but I think most of us work for free; I certainly do. Nevertheless, I know graduate students who have elaborate pricing scales, and I’ve wondered whether I should hop on the bandwagon. Maybe it contributes to an aura of professionalism or something—has anybody received commissions more frequently than they used to after posting a pay scale? How do you determine an appropriate price point? Do you charge by the duration of the piece? What if it’s a piece like Cage’s 103, which probably took him less time to compose than it takes to perform? Would that arouse suspicion? Do you charge different rates for individuals (i.e. personal request from a performer) than for institutions (i.e. state-funded commission)? Under what circumstances would you work pro bono?

This is a part of the field with which I have no experience, so I’m very curious. Please share.

7 thoughts on “At What Price?

  1. JKG

    Composer charges
    I would charge according to the circumstances involved. For a full-blown symphonic work, one which would be included as part of my “life’s work” and not merely one for hire, I would charge a minimum of $3,000 (fifteen minutes). For a chamber orchestra or stage group, depending upon the circumstances, I’d probably charge more like $1,000 if it were a topic I liked. Band pieces, such as a simple march, start at $300 if I know the director and the work is custom-written for the players (for medium-level high school). Commercials generally garner $3,000 per 15-second spot, but I always offer at least four options. Music for video games is paid-out according to milestone, each milestone in increasing amounts, totalling something like $12,000 for a non-royalty buy-out. That runs about $2,000-$4,000 flat fee with running royalties. Film budgets include production costs, only a portion of which goes to the composer. The best deals include royalties, obviously, but there’s usually at least $10,000 up front for an original score – it can get quite technical. In some cases, I still do gratis work, but that is strictly because my heart is in it, such as the Concerto for English Horn and Theater Organ for hornist Thomas Stacy of the NY Philharmonic. It may come as a surprise, but I still write music occassionally for fun. With technology the way it is today, especially using Sibelius and computer mock-ups as running proofs (as in the printing industry), its’ pretty easy to meet any client’s needs and interests. The value of a work often depends on who is listening to it.

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  2. coreydargel

    Personally, I’ve received commissions ranging from $350 to $10,000, and I’ve written some pieces for friends as gifts.

    This is a direct link to a PDF version of Meet The Composer’s “Commissioning Music: A Basic Guide.” (right-click or ctrl-click the link to download) It’s a great resource, and it comes in handy as something “official” to show commissioners during the negotation process.

    There is a trend of ensembles and organizations offering lower and lower commissioning fees. In fact, some ensembles believe that just performing the composer’s work is payment enough! What if the composer said to the performers, “I’m taking all of your performance fees, because the fact that I wrote a piece for you is payment enough?”

    Thanks in no small part to Academics who could afford to accept low or no commissioning fees because they lived off of their teaching salaries, commission fees got lower and lower, and now almost no one expects artists to make a living creating art! It’s an unfortunate progression (or regression) that seems very difficult to reverse.

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  3. sgordon

    Me & Julio Dinero
    I’m generally pretty easygoing about it, I’m still in the “it’s more important just to get it out there” mode, so credit is actually more of an issue. My general rule is “if they’re making money, I’m making money” – but how much depends. I’ve had paychecks range from $50 to $5000. For the work I’ve done on films, that which hewed closer to sound design I was fine with a small flat fee for, especially since they were all little student / indie things that went nowhere and probably lost the makers money in the end. I don’t think a one of them ever found a distributor or had an official release. But for commercials I’ve done and the one film I actually wrote a full piece for – which had a DVD release – I insisted on royalties, and it paid off well.

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  4. coreydargel

    Let me qualify my earlier post by adding that, although I did receive some commissions when I was 21-or-so years old, when I moved to NYC I didn’t know many performers and was totally self-sufficient for a while. I didn’t rely on performing ensembles or organizations to “get my work out there.” I did everything I could myself. In that respect, I was working differently than a lot of composers. Unless you’re really lucky (or shameless and incestuous), you won’t be able to get significant commissioning fees for a little while, so it’s necessary to maintain a day job or a substantial freelance arrangement. I still have a day job myself…

    Anyway, if a composer approaches a performer or ensemble, that creates a different dynamic than if it’s the other way around, but if a performer, presenter, ensemble, etc., approaches the composer, I think the composer should require a fee. There are many different strategies to go about negotiating the fee, and it naturally depends on the career-level of the composer (and the performer(s)), but if you negotiate a reasonable fee for where you’re at career-wise, you can keep raising the bar until you’re at a point where you can survive by making your music, with a minimum of freelance work on the side.

    As an aside, there is also the strategy of having a performers pay you a fee and then donating a portion of that fee back to the performers. This means that you can refer to past commissions as what you were payed, even though some of that money was donated back. I find this approach to be a bit disingenuous, but apparently it works for some people.

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  5. kmanlove

    Up to this point, they’ve paid enough by the end of the performances, so I don’t charge. In my piece for oboe, accordion, and live electronics, the accordionist had back pain for a week after. He’s paid enough.

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