Blogging Dance USA Day 3: Opportunities

As soon as I finished my Saturday morning teaching I headed straight over to McCormick Place and arrived at the conference a couple of hours before my panel began. Today there were two signs in the entryway. Apparently there’s also a conference going on for the Neuromodulation Learning Institute. I was tempted to crash it and find out what the heck that was all about but decided to stay the course, so to speak, and head to Dance USA.

This time I spoke with two people who have commissioned music for their dance productions and one person who only works with original music. In her case it was a traditional Indian dance company in Minnesota and they work with a composer in Mumbai for their music and then fly in a tabla player from New York and a singer from Houston for the actual performances. They must have a great budget!

The others told me that they commission music because it’s easier to plan a production when you don’t have to alter the music to fit your plan but can have it designed especially for the show and because it costs about the same to commission a new work as it does to pay a publisher for the rights to use a recording. This idea of tracking down publishers and clearing the rights for a performance was the single biggest thing that people consistently talked to me about. Since it was actually the subject of the panel I was on I’ll have more to say about that later.

Next on the agenda was lunch. It was the first time that I saw everyone at the conference more or less together at the same time and I was floored at the immensity of this gathering. There are a ton of people here! I was also surprised by how many people I know. There are a lot of people in the Chicago music community here who I did not realize were so active in the dance world. I also met an improvising musician who works with a dance troupe called Pegasus. They improvise live dance to free improvisations by the musicians. I’m going to have to check that out!

Great networking all around. I met several other Artistic Directors for dance companies and got their cards. Since I run an organization called Access Contemporary Music that advocates for composers there are tons of opportunities for collaboration. Thanks to Frank for hooking me up with this incredible opportunity!

Next was my panel, called Music Rights – Demystifying the process. This was an interesting group. The Managing Director of the Houston Ballet, the Executive Director of Mark Morris Dance Group, the Artistic Director of another Indian dance ensemble Ragamala Dance, the Executive Director of the Future of Music Coalition and me, representing composers.

There was an overview first on how to find who owns the music that you want to use for a dance production and then how to contact them and pay them the rights. There were several intellectual property lawyers in the room and let me tell you these people don’t screw around. All of the publishers and copyright holders use Google alerts and if you produce a concert with music and don’t clear the rights you will be busted. There were horror stories of people getting charged hundreds of thousands of dollars because they hadn’t cleared the rights.

There were companies in the room like Alvin Ailey who clearly knew the ropes but there were also young struggling companies who were clearly dismayed by this. Enter the composer. I told everyone that I would gladly write new music for their productions and would even consider doing it for somewhat less than hundreds of thousands of dollars. And since I self publish they don’t need to worry about copyright laws down the road. Then several people spoke up and said that they agreed that commissioning new music was by and large cheaper than using existing music as long as the composer would allow them to make a recording they could play for traveling performances. I personally did not see anything wrong with that.

Lissa Rosenthal of the Future of Music Coalition did an excellent job of keeping the conversation moving. We got bogged down for a while on the subject of whether a kids’ recital at a dance school was technically illegal because they hadn’t cleared the rights for the music but it turns out that that’s considered educational and so they don’t have to pay. Also interesting is the fact that publishers charge more for “dramatic presentation” meaning that a symphony would pay less to program The Rite of Spring than a ballet company because the ballet company adds action to the mix and does not simply perform the music.

For recordings there is a provision in the copyright law called “needle drop” which means that if you simply play a commercial recording in a public performance you do not have to pay whomever owns the copyright. But only if you don’t alter it or do a dramatic presentation to it and only if the song plays in its entirety. I joked then that a bar’s blanket ASCAP fee covers the jukebox songs unless some joker plays air guitar and then it’s a dramatic presentation and the bar has to play extra. The lawyers did not smile. They simply said yes, that is correct.

By the end of the session I was glad that I don’t run a dance troupe and I fully understand why they use recorded music and rarely work with live musicians. I do hope, however, that there are opportunities for young composers here. If you’re a young composer and you live in a community with active dance troupes and want to write for them I would contact them. A commission fee that might seem high for a young composer is most likely less expensive than what they deal with for the rights to perform better known music.

I had to leave immediately after the panel to drive to the suburbs and play a wedding which is a shame as I would have loved to stick around and talk more with everyone. Ah the life of a musician. All in all the Dance USA conference was a blast, equal parts informative, useful and fun. And with luck some collaboration opportunities have come out of it too!

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