Free Write Now

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Portrait of the author by Michael Grimaldi, Affiliated Fellow, AAR

A couple of days ago I received an email written in Italian, with the subject “Good News!”. The email was from a rather important Roman new music society, and it was telling me—using the imperative tense, rather than asking me—that I will be writing a piece for next year’s season.

“Il pezzo che dovrai scrivere non dovrà superare i 7-8′ e dovrà essere inviato agli esecutori […]”

No commission fee or travel expenses paid. Nothing. Just the “honor” of having the opportunity to write a piece. The musicians happen to be very well-known Americans.

Do I accept this so-called commission, or do I turn it down in protest? Should I contact the performers and ask them if they, too, are “volunteering” their services?

At what point in your career can you afford to turn down a non-paying request for music? As someone who is trying to make a living through music, I find it rather humiliating to accept this work: It makes me feel like an amateur. But on the other hand, it would most likely receive a really wonderful performance, and it may begin an important relationship with good musicians.

If I turn it down, and another composer accepts it, this new music society may never adopt a new composer-paying policy.

***

In an aside, it turns out we have una piccola anti-semitic drama in our midst at the AAR. An affiliated fellow, here for a couple of months from Latvia, told one fellow that the war in Iraq and 9/11 are due to “the Jews,” and that the four or five fellows who happen to be Jewish “bought” their Rome Prizes. Kudos to the playwright John Guare‘s suggestion that we all get up at dinner and inform everyone how much we each “paid,” topping off the evening with hearty l’chaims.

20 thoughts on “Free Write Now

  1. Alex Shapiro

    “As someone who is trying to make a living through music, I find it rather humiliating to accept this work: It makes me feel like an amateur.”

    You have answered your own question, Yotam. Why would you want to sit for hours on end slaving over a piece as a gift to this entity, when they have already indicated that they don’t feel your efforts have any worth?

    Clearly, they think highly enough of your music to want to play it. It’s a simple matter to graciously let them know that you’d love to compose something for them, and that you look forward to discussing a contract to determine a fee and delivery date. Another option is that if it suits these particular instruments and your catalog, you can tell them that should funding be elusive at the moment, you would be pleased to create an adaptation of one of your existing pieces that they can premiere in its new edition. I’ve done this many times with ensembles and it’s a win-win situation: you get paid a small amount to do an adaptation that won’t take too much time to create, the ensemble gets a new work for their repertoire, and you get performances/recordings/a new listing in your ever-expanding catalog. For pieces well-suited to adaptation (not all are), this is a very successful strategy and will ensure that your music is heard in an exponentially broad array of venues.

    On the off chance that it’s just a language barrier, perhaps they were indicating that yes, they want you to compose a new piece for them, and are eagerly waiting in line at the bank to find out from you how much you’re going to charge them! It’s not uncommon for negotiations to happen like this: the composer is put in the position of having to make the first pitch. This is a tricky spot to be in, and you have to be sure not to under-price yourself, or for that matter, name a number so high as to end any further discussion. This is where the friendship of other composers is helpful: if you know someone who’s written for the group before, you can find out the particulars of their experience and if needed, alter them to fit yours. Failing that, here’s a helpful chart from Meet the Composer that, while some claim places fees too high, gives very reasonable parameters as to what our efforts are worth. You can use it as a guideline and season to taste.

    “If I turn it down, and another composer accepts it, this new music society may never adopt a new composer-paying policy.”

    That’s simply not true! The only way to get clients to pay for our work is to request that they pay for our work. Art is a supply and demand business. Different composers will receive different amounts. But every amount comes from a composer’s decision that their music is worth something to others. We can never put the blame on the next composer who might do the job for free, when the blame is with us should we decide to. (important caveat: this point is intended for purely professional interactions, not those where the composer is writing for a friend or simply choosing of his or her own volition to compose a new piece).

    You might be encouraged by my article here in the Box: All the Things You Are: Five Suggestions for Composing Your Happiness. It addresses these issues head-on and, I hope, offers a sense of community. None of us are out there all alone, and collectively our actions do foster positive change. Good luck!

    Reply
  2. Daniel Wolf

    If a presenter comes to you without a commission, present them with a copy of your catalog from which they can choose an existing work to play.

    Reply
  3. curioman

    >>But on the other hand, it would most likely receive a really wonderful performance, and it may begin an important relationship with good musicians.< <

    What makes you think so? Do you know these folks? Have you ever heard them perform? Will you have any interaction with the musicians at all?

    My suggestion: Don’t go into this with blind optimism. Get more facts. Talk to other composers who have worked with them. Strike a deal that is fair to you. Don’t accept, “You will write such and such for us, and it might be good for you.” Approach it contractually. What will you tangibly get out of it? If not money, then it could be publicity (ie. your name printed in a circulation of 10,000 and a listing on the homepage of their website for 6 months), 10 CD copies of the recording, or whatever. Get something tangible and specific out of it. Know what you’re getting. Otherwise you could be setting yourself up for disappointment.

    Good luck, whatever you decide.

    Reply
  4. philmusic

    “Do I accept this so-called commission, or do I turn it down in protest? Should I contact the performers and ask them if they, too, are “volunteering” their services?..”

    Don’t even bother to reply. If they then contact you —name your price and if they quible say– “if you pay peanuts you get monkeys!”

    Stephen Paulus told me that one.

    As for jew hating -sorry to say it turns up everywhere.

    Phil Fried

    Reply
  5. CM Zimmermann

    Aesthetic ‘Worth’
    Clearly the fact that musical worth is determined and expressed here in terms of monetary compensation testifies to the unquestioned dominance of capitalism. But, should this be the case?

    Reply
  6. rtanaka

    Clearly the fact that musical worth is determined and expressed here in terms of monetary compensation testifies to the unquestioned dominance of capitalism. But, should this be the case?

    There’s personal “worth”…say, like a gift from a good friend or a craft made by a child, for example. Or in some cases maybe a composed work has no value beyond what satisfaction it gives to the composer themselves. These things can’t really be measured in materialistic terms so monatary value doesn’t hold much meaning.

    But if we’re looking from a broader, social view, then money is probably one of the best indicators of value (or at least people’s perception of it) since it shows that some kind of exchange has occurred. It’s easy to pay lip-service, but without financial backing words don’t really matter all that much in terms of one’s career. Even so-called “unpopular” works exist because of patronage, which is nowadays, largely supported through capitalistic means of writing a check.

    Capitalism’s original conception was merely meant to act as an alternative to the (now largely obsolete) bartering system. Instead of trading goods-for-goods, we now have a medium called “money” that acts as a generic representation of value, as a way of giving its owner more freedom in spending options. It’s just a process — a useful tool, really — so I think it’s a mistake to attach ideological connotations to the concept. I believe that the Cold War was largely responsible for setting up an artificial “commies vs. capitalist” dichotomy in regards to this issue, and the art world proved to be no exception.

    The only real question here, I think, is where the source of funding is coming from, which is a largely an issue of private vs. public. Patronage and so called “commercial” works are both private, so in a lot of ways they’re two sides of the same coin — the only difference being that they appeal toward different audiences. Government money, on the other hand is a collective resource which (at least in theory) should be allocated to the public good.

    Reply
  7. Alex Shapiro

    Uh, you’re all hugely over-analyzing the issue. Repeat after me:

    Chefs gets paid for their time creating meals.
    Lawyers gets paid for their time creating contracts.
    Software developers get paid for their time creating applications.
    Contractors get paid for their time creating permit plans.
    Composers get paid for their time creating music.

    This isn’t about Capitalism any more than saying that those who are paid for their daily work are part of a Capitalist machine.

    It’s about earning a living: paying the rent, paying for groceries, and paying for everything it takes to survive day to day… to continue to work. People in all sorts of professions do creative work that means a lot to them, just as composers do. Yet they don’t appear to have as much difficulty as artists do asking for remuneration for their efforts. Just like anyone else in any profession, artists have daily expenses.

    I find it disturbing when fellow artists make nearly apologetic excuses for why they might deign to ask for money for their labor. Somewhere, some internal wiring went awry that causes them to think that anything having to do with Art is in an entirely separate category from Real Life and that Artists don’t deserve to ask for money to live.

    Think about this. Please.

    We all deserve to be paid for our professional work. And we should never, ever grovel as though it’s a privilege. It’s not. It’s our right to be paid, just like all professionals who create things for others to enjoy and use.

    Reply
  8. philmusic

    “Somewhere, some internal wiring went awry that causes them to think that anything having to do with Art is in an entirely separate category from Real Life and that Artists don’t deserve to ask for money to live…”

    2 things:

    Perhaps they think because they can’t get money for their work-nobody else should.

    Or they have plenty of money from other sources and music is their, well, not their main profession. As their money gives them an advantage they then discount the needs of professionals who are merely “workers.”

    On the other hand

    are the composers who make the most money the best composers?

    Phil Fried

    Reply
  9. rtanaka

    Or they have plenty of money from other sources and music is their, well, not their main profession. As their money gives them an advantage they then discount the needs of professionals who are merely “workers.”

    Ives comes to mind as the most prominent example of this, at least in the States. I don’t think he made much money with his compositions, although he was able to exert his influence upon the the world due to the fact that he made a buttload of money after going into insurance and patronized ensembles to get his works performed.

    While money doesn’t determine the worth of everything, I think it would be a mistake to ignore the advantages that come with wealth — there’s lots of stories to go around about such and such’s work being premiered by ensembles because they made a hefty donation to have their work performed in a “reputable” venue. A lot of the times these works aren’t very good for obvious reasons, and they’re more of an economic pot-hole than anything that generates actual revenue. But maybe it could probably be argued that since the money is being redistributed back into the economy, this provides a win-win situation for society in general regardless if the piece itself is worth anything or not, since its only in exchange of something as superfluous as one’s “reputation” or “legacy”. If the work happens to be good, then that’s just a bonus.

    While I think that money can be a good indicator of the perceived worth of something, it may not necessarily have to do with how much the composer themselves actually makes as an individual. I mean, Mozart and Beethoven are still generating a lot of income for ensembles all over the world right now, but they aren’t seeing a cent of it. But people are still paying good money for it, cenruties later. It probably means something?

    Reply
  10. philmusic

    Ryan –When did Ives every begrudge another composer their commission fee?

    For a while I just thought you were just being “bad” -but your constant misreading’s now lead me to think something else.

    Phil Fried

    Reply
  11. rtanaka

    Ryan –When did Ives every begrudge another composer their commission fee?

    I don’t think that he did…in fact, he did say:

    If a composer has a nice wife and some nice children, how can he let the children starve on his dissonances?

    Yet many of Ives’ works are very dissonant…and the reason being that he could afford to do it because he was wealthy through other means. Mr. Grant’s column last month also addressed some of these issues in regards to Carter, who was also very rich. I don’t think we’re in disagreement here?

    I just wanted to point out that the compensation the individual receives for their work is not necessarily a benchmark of a work’s economic success. Even in pop music, there are numerous stories of rock groups getting skimped by the industry. (If you look at how typical recording contracts are set up in major labels, I think it makes this aspect fairly clear.) Lots of them had fame but no fortune. In a lot of cases, these works end up being money pits for the artists involved…something I think that most of us can probably relate to on some level.

    Lots of composers have become famous after their death, in which they receive no compensation, but it sticks around because society itself perceives it to be somewhat valuable. I think the issue is interesting to look at from a postmortem point of view, because that’s when the artworks are really subject to the “test of time”, away from the politics and personal interests of its present context. For Ives, though, his works are now being performed all the time. Maybe you could say that the patronage of his own music was a form of investment — a risk that he took, and it apparently had paid off.

    Sorry, maybe I’ve been reading too many books on economics lately. I think it shows.

    Reply
  12. rtanaka

    we were talking about Mr. Haber and his dilemma.

    Oh, in that case, I dunno. All the money I’ve made so far with my music was through performances. I get “commissions” from friends all the time but I feel bad charging them because I know a lot of them don’t have any money either.

    Though maybe you could do what some people I know are doing with lessons — crating a personal sliding scale based on the wealth of the other party. If it is a good, financially secure institution, they really shouldn’t have any problems forking over some money for a new work.

    Reply
  13. mdwcomposer

    Hey, didn’t they contact you ? Shouldn’t they pay through the nose for having someone from the American Academy in Rome write for them (as opposed to just some guy in San Francisco, posting a chatter comment)?

    Although I can see making it less about the money (or about less money) if they

    • agree to record it within 6 months of the premiere
    • can guarantee a broadcast of the work on commercial TV, or multiple radio broadcasts (especially outside the US, where the compensation is often much better)
    • guarantee to tour with the piece and give “x” number of performances in “y” number of countries

    or similar considerations (roll your own criteria, depending on what’s important to you). And that you can get such commitments in writing.

        — Mark Winges

    Reply
  14. Lisa X

    Alex, You cant really compare composers with lawyers and other professions where there is a clear path to employment. Independent workers of all kinds are often in these difficult situations of balancing many factors when finding and choosing ‘work’ like gaining exposure, gaining experience, building working relationships, earning money, padding a resume, etc.

    Mark is right to ask for more details and consider everything.

    “As someone who is trying to make a living through music, I find it rather humiliating to accept this work: It makes me feel like an amateur.”

    Its important to consider this a real possibility. Like any other independent worker in a highly competitive and unstable field you have to be willing to accept the good times with the bad. If you are even considering working for free, times must be kinda tough. There are no simple formulas.

    Respect your work and demand that you are treated fairly. But Alex’s comment: “It’s our right to be paid” is just garbage. The world cant afford to pay everyone who is composing any more than it can pay everyone in LA who is acting or every cook who opens a restaurant. Most restaurants close down. Keep cooking. Have a dinner party. Volunteer at the soup kitchen. Cater a friend’s wedding. Open another restaurant. Teach a cooking class. Etc.

    Reply
  15. philmusic

    …But Alex’s comment: “It’s our right to be paid” is just garbage The world cant afford to pay everyone who is composing any more than it can pay everyone in LA who is acting or every cook who opens a restaurant.. ..”

    ” choosing ‘work’ like gaining exposure, gaining experience, building working relationships, earning money, padding a resume, etc. ..”

    Lisa I don’t really understand your point here as an “In Kind payment” such as 12 live performances, is still a payment.

    Also I don’t understand your “acting” or “cooking” analogy. Though it is true that many actors and singers don’t get paid, in fact they pay to get performances, yet on the professional level there is an expectation of payment for which most of these acting folks are working towards.

    For example no one works on Broadway unless they are paid for it. The fact that most actors, or composers will never work there is a very different point.

    Similarly your example of the cook who opens a restaurant as an investment doesn’t seem to have much resonance either– -unless its a one person operation or a co-operative no one works in food service unless they will get paid -not the wait staff not the bus boys and girls etc.

    Charity work aside, I don’t work for ice cream. I do however have partial day rates!

    Phil Fried

    Reply
  16. Lisa X

    Phil, you are missing the point. Forget the analogies, they are confusing you. Here is the point: Composing is a highly competitive business. More people want to do it than the industry can support. Right? Even folks with talent and some serious credentials like Yotam haven’t quite made it yet. (Obviously, he’s considering working for free!) So what? This is true for any amazing profession. If you can make it it is wonderful. If not, it is a long hard road of financial struggles. So what? You really think, in this fucked up world, that WE (of all people) are entitled to an easier life?

    Minor league baseball players don’t fare much better than us: “First contract season: $850/month maximum.”

    Reply

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