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

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

“Horror stories” of how composers and their publishers have obtained concert tapes and used them in the wrong way are legion. Though most every composer who has pieces played by professional orchestras has something to say, many refused to be quoted on the record about their difficulties.

“It’s an on-going problem,” says Ralph Jackson, BMI‘s Assistant Vice President of Classical Music Relations and President of the BMI Foundation. “I’ve heard many stories where a tape was refused or an orchestra just didn’t record a concert. More often than not, a tape is made but won’t be given to a composer because union agreements won’t allow it. But certain mid-size orchestras understand and set it up.”

Three mid-size East Coast orchestras that specialize in contemporary music, the American Composers Orchestra, the Albany Symphony, and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, each have good track records with composers on many fronts, including concert recordings, but their internal practices vary widely.

At the American Composers Orchestra (ACO), composers receive a recording as a matter of course but it wasn’t always so.

“At the ACO during the time I was there, it went from the musicians wouldn’t let us do it to it being in the collective bargaining agreement, so now it’s a standard practice there,” says Jesse Rosen, who was Executive Director of the ACO from 1987 to 1996 and now serves as Chief Program Officer of the American Symphony Orchestra League.

“The ACO does pay a premium to players because of who we are and what we do and we are happy to do it because we believe our players are the best,” adds Michael Geller, who is Rosen’s successor at the orchestra. Asked if part of the higher union rate is due to the practice of making recordings available, he replied: “I wouldn’t blame it on any one thing. The compensation is laid out for the whole of the services.”

The ACO builds into its commissioning agreements the stipulation that a recording will be provided to the composer for specific purposes, which include promoting his or her music and promoting additional performances of the new work, but it prohibits duplication or broadcast.

“We would love to be able to do the maximum possible,” continues Geller. “The ACO’s long term goal is ideally to be able to record every performance the orchestra makes and to make it available in one way or another to the broadest possible public.”

At the Albany Symphony Orchestra, concert recordings are handled slightly differently but are still a matter of course. General Manager Sharon Walsh provided a copy of the orchestra’s one paragraph agreement, which is independent of a commissioning contract. It allows for use of the recording by a composer in grant applications and in seeking additional performances of the work, and concludes: “The composer accepts total financial responsibility to the musicians of the Albany Symphony Orchestra for any other duplication or broadcast.”

Things are different still at the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) where the local union, the Boston Musicians’ Association Local 9-535 of the American Federation of Musicians, must approve the making of an archival tape for each performance.

BMOP’s Managing Director Catherine Stephan explains: “We actually file paper work for each performance. Ninety-five percent of the time we are able to get permission from the union. We do have a collective bargaining agreement, but for whatever reason our local union prefers to do the archival recordings on a case-by-case basis. They like to keep a close eye on it.” She further explained that both the composer and the orchestra can only use up to three minutes of recorded sound of the archival tapes for such purposes as grant applications and promotion.

John Grimes, Vice President of the Boston Musicians’ Association, was contacted to find out more about the procedure for BMOP. Grimes discussed at length a range of agreements, both national and local, that apply to concert recordings. In the Boston jurisdiction, to make an archival recording requires the submission, at least two weeks before the concert, of a relatively simple one-page request form. Grimes points out that the document has an aspect unique to Boston which allows for a one-time local broadcast of the concert by a noncommercial radio station—without additional remuneration beyond the standard performances fees paid to musicians.

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

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