Treading Lightly: Composers and Commissions

There are few topics that I cover in my interviews with composers in which I feel the need to “be careful.” I’ve never worried about a reaction to an inquiry about one’s own creative process, history and background, or teaching philosophy. There is one topic, however, that I do feel the need to tread lightly around, and that is the concept of commissions. There are several reasons to be cautious when discussing commissions with composers, not the least of which is that it is the closest you are going to get to discussing their own personal finances. But there are other aspects to the commission issue: what constitutes a commission for each individual; how they work with different commissioning parties; how a commission may affect the work itself; and how they feel about colleagues who may have different concepts of working on commission. In any case, the topic is an important one to be aware of, whether or not you are a composer, performer, arts supporter, or audience member.

Most young composers hear about these mysterious commissions sometime during their studies and may or may not pay attention to the idea—for the most part, they are still at the point of asking (see: begging) performers to play their works, so the concept of getting asked, much less paid, to write music can be foreign. If lucky, they will be asked to compose something by either a fellow student or a prescient faculty member who recognizes the value of affording performance opportunities to student composers. Sooner or later, an internal switch will be thrown in the mind of the young composer pertaining to the birthing nature of their music. Before, they only had their own creativity, tastes, and imagination to contend with. With a commission, however, they now have to triangulate the work against both their own personal ideas and those of the commissioners. This triangulation can be challenging to deal with at first, but with many composers it ends up becoming a creative catalyst in its own right.

To balance one’s own creative instincts with those of a second party may be challenging, but not nearly so much as when a third variable is brought into play: money. From what I have found so far, the concept of remuneration for composing a work exists on a sliding scale that can be form-fitted to the individual composer’s own personal needs and philosophies, as well as the specific and varied situations at hand. Some composers will rarely if ever take on a project without a predetermined commission fee that must be agreed to or else the project does not go forward. Others may have a set fee structure for certain types of commissions, but allow for flexibility when working on special projects. Still others may be happy to get paying commissions when they come along but feel comfortable in working on other projects without a fee, usually if working with close friends or if the project can be seen as an investment for future, more serious endeavors. While the employment status of each composer had a good amount of effect on how strict they were on commission fees (most freelancing composers are much less flexible than those who have salaried positions in academia or elsewhere), there were enough variances to demonstrate that there is no one correct way for a composer to confront the issue.

The touchy subject of music-plus-money can be both a simple, cut-and-dried idea as well as a multifaceted, ever-changing concept to composers, and hopefully more public discussion and awareness can create a more lucrative situation for composers, performers, and supporters alike. Proof of this can already be found here at the Meet The Composer 21st Century Patronage site, which many feel has been the best tool for educating composers and commissioners alike on what goes into commissioning and what appropriate levels of funding for projects should be set at.

What success stories or challenges have you had in the realm of commissioning, either from the viewpoint of a composer or a commissioner?

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4 thoughts on “Treading Lightly: Composers and Commissions

  1. Lawton Hall

    The MTC guide is a great jumping-off point for discussing dollar amounts, etc., which can make the initial stages of commissioning difficult.

    From what I gather, consortium commissions are fairly common in the wind band and choir worlds, and I wish they would catch on more among other ensembles, as well. It seems like a win-win for everyone involved — ensembles only have to front a fraction of the entire commissioning fee, composers get multiple performances of their new work right off the bat. The only downsides are that no one ensemble gets to exclusively call the work their own. Plus, it reduces the one-on-one collaborative aspects of working directly with an ensemble.

    Still, I think the benefits of having a new work played in multiple locations (and multiple interpretations of a new work) far outweigh these small downsides.

    Reply
  2. William Anderson

    Thanks for the comment about consortium commissions. I am very interested in that model.

    I respect composers who do so because they have to do so. I tolerate those who always want money only if they are decent composers.

    Reply
  3. J. M. Gerraughty

    I have been recently started to refer would-be commissioners to that site, at which point they choke up at the prices. It is interesting to me what people think a commissioned piece should cost; not many people see it as months of work. I often put it in terms of what someone would earn with minimum wage. If the average McDonald’s employee earns about $3,800 for 3 months of work, why shouldn’t I?

    Reply
  4. David Saperstein

    Very pleased to be commissioned by Payton MacDonald for a work for solo marimba. Payton is an emerging young virtuoso performer as well as composer in his own right. This project has now come to fruition with the release – on Equilibrium Records – of Payton’s new CD. This CD is available for downloading from Amazon.com and other websites. I found the “Meet the Composer” guidelines very useful – and it is important to remember that flexibility is the key.

    Reply

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