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

Nobody said being in the music business is easy. It wouldn’t be hard to argue that there are as many demands and pressures on orchestra players—not to mention administrators—as there are on composers.

Todd Vunderink, at Peer Southern Music, was one of the few industry professionals from the composer/publisher side of things who spoke sympathetically of orchestra players and their need to protect their work and be guaranteed proper compensation.

“What they’re saying is ‘you all are going to make money on this piece by sending it around and getting new performances. Why can’t we get a piece of that?'” said Vunderink. “That needs to be build into an agreement.”

Such generosity of spirit has been hard to come by. This is not to say that among the nearly two-dozen composers and administrators interviewed that there was an attitude of anger or dismissal toward the musicians. But rather there is the general view that a concert tape is an artifact not an on-going viable product.

This is in sharp contrast to the views of union executives. “There are entities in this country who feel that musicians should not be compensated for everything that they do,” says John Grimes of the Boston AF of M. “We feel that when sound is out there it’s our intellectual property. A lot of people can sit down and tell the difference between the Philadelphia Orchestra and the London Symphony and now if that’s not your signature sound, then what is?”

But one might wonder if such discerning listeners could distinguish between the great orchestras when the music is a brand new score rather than a chestnut from the orchestra canon.

“We’re not threatening people that we’ll go to court, (but) we point out that we have agreements,” Grimes continued. “Most of the time people simply stumble into situations and push the boundaries because they want to get away with things they sort of know they shouldn’t be doing.”

Grimes then gave an example. A young composer recently posted on his website a piece in a performance by a Boston ensemble. “The group may have even told him to go ahead,” Grimes admits. “I have to contact him and tell him to cease and desist.

“What’s he going to gain from having the piece on there? Somebody’s going to like his music and say ‘let’s commission him.’ He will then in the next commission maybe make $5,000, or whatever they pay for a young composer, and so that came directly out of the fact that he used that product.”

By this chain of logic, commissioning agreements might have to start being revised so that commissioners and performers could share in the composer’s income stream thereafter. But if a premiere goes poorly, could a composer seek damages on account of lost future wages?

Such conjecture aside, there are plenty of examples of when supposedly discrete uses of concert tapes obtained through questionable means became not so discrete—to the embarrassment and liability of composers and publishers.

There’s the time a composer wasn’t supposed to have a concert tape of an orchestra premiere but did and he passed it on to his publisher. A few years later, as part of an effort to get a second performance of the piece, the publisher approached the orchestra that premiered the work and presented the recording.

Recently a composer was scheduled to get a prominent second performance of a two-movement piece by the orchestra that commissioned it. In advance of the concert, his agents sent an important critic the score and an unauthorized recording of the premiere performance. At the concert, it was announced that the orchestra would only be able to perform one of the two movements, due to the demands of the piece and the lack of rehearsal time. This raised the ire of the critic who in his review attacked the orchestra for its disrespect of the composer and his piece—which the critic proudly stated that he had already come to know and love because he was given a tape of the premiere. The orchestra, publicly embarrassed by this negative review, threatened the composer with a lawsuit.

“It all depends on each individual agreement. You have to figure out who you trust,” says Monica Selkel, who as Director of Artist Management at Young Concert Artists has helped a series of young composers gain orchestra performances. She added that the same difficulties arise in getting concert tapes of performances by soloists. It’s that old catch-22, you can’t succeed until you’ve shown you’ve succeeded.

Obviously all of this is what leads to the legal jargon that Derek Bermel bemoaned. But there is another topic that can expand the domain of a discussion in no time: electronic media. Beyond radio and television, there is the Internet: MP3s, live and pre-recorded webcasts, sound samples, and the list goes on.

“Electronic media is far outpacing what any five or ten people can come up with in a room that will control how you pay people,” says Grimes.

With so many options in the world of cyber space, it’s understandable that musicians and their unions fear where a recording may sooner or later end up—no matter how much goodwill there is with a composer who just wants to let other conductors hear his or her music.

One composer ended an email by stating: “The situation in regard to publishers and composers ‘rights’ to promote and/or make copies of taped performances is vague and it would be better for it to remain that way.”

from Red Tape: The Difficulties Orchestra Composers Have Obtaining Recordings of their Works
By Joseph Dalton
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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