Red Tape: The Difficulties Orchestra Composers Have Obtaining Recordings of their Works



Joseph Dalton

“We should just start paying orchestras twice for playing a new piece—once for the first performance and again for the last performance.”

It’s a good line and one that Frances Richard, Director of Concert Music at ASCAP, has used many times. But beneath the flippant humor is a truth. As American orchestras perform an increasing number of premieres each season, it is all the more difficult to obtain that elusive second performance. A major roadblock toward that goal is the frequent inability of composers—and their publishers and agents—to secure recordings of concert performances for use in promoting new works.

Recent conversations with composers, orchestra managers, union representatives, and music publishers reveal a sea of high emotions that often go unspoken out of fears of retribution or the worsening of an already bad situation, and an intricate and confusing web of legalities that vary from region to region and ensemble to ensemble. As a result there are numerous look-the-other-way and hope-for-the-best uses of recordings that are obtained from a variety of back-channel sources.

What ultimately determines whether a recording is provided to the composer—or if a concert is even recorded at all—are industry forces far beyond the influence of composers: namely, the often-tumultuous relationships between orchestra players (as represented by unions and membership committees) and orchestra managements. And add to the mix two powerful forces outside the music industry yet which have a deep influence upon it: a poor economic environment and a plethora of inexpensive options in digital audio technology.

In such an environment it may seem remarkable that any music gets performed at all. But it is precisely because so much fine contemporary music is being performed and at such high standards that the lack of live recordings is so critical. Granted, it’s fair to say that with the majority of performances of new works today, the composer is given a recording of the concert. But evidence shows that the more prominent the performers, the less likely it is that a recording is available.

“It’s like a custody battle in a dysfunctional family,” says Tom Broido, President of Theodore Presser, the oldest continuing music publisher in the United States. “Mom and pop are the musicians and the management. Caught in the middle of the battle are the kids—the composers.”

“It is often an appalling situation which we have no control over, even though the piece played is written with our blood,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Aaron Kernis.

“It’s everybody’s favorite topic,” deadpans Michael Geller, Executive Director of the American Composers Orchestra.

As with any legal matters, language is crucial. In the research of this article, several important terms were often tossed about with their precise meanings unclear.

Archival tape: The term implies that it sits on a shelf. Can others hear it only when they visit your archive? Or does archival simply mean the opposite of …

Commercial: which would mean on a professionally released CD—though to label professionally released recordings of contemporary music commercial is a misnomer by any standard.

Marketing vs. Promotion: The former connotes the pursuit of earnings and income while the latter suggests the development of a reputation, but the distinction is particularly vague in a field like music. Sometimes when an agreement says that a tape “cannot be used for marketing purposes,” that sometimes means that it cannot be used in commercials, an unlikely possibility.

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