Two people photographed from the back walking on the left and right rails of traintracks in the country.
Sealing the Deal: Signing the Contract and Completing the Collaboration
Image by Jonathan Pendleton via Unsplash.

Sealing the Deal: Signing the Contract and Completing the Collaboration

The previous articles in this series discussed how to find a writer to collaborate with, what to consider when deciding to work together, and the permissions and compensation that form the core of a text-setting agreement.

Assuming you are setting a completed text in a transactional partnership, you’re now ready to write up your contract, get it signed, and start composing. If the author is creating new text or your partnership is highly collaborative, you may want to discuss one final item to include in your written agreement: what happens if something goes awry?

Contingency Plans

If your partnership is highly collaborative, you may want to discuss what happens if something goes awry.

When new text is involved, the most important question is how to handle a complication in the delivery of the words. Though unlikely, it is possible that illness, incapacity, or other circumstances might delay your partner or even prevent them from writing the text. Should they be delayed, you could agree to an extended deadline and amend the contract accordingly. However, if an extended deadline is not possible within the constraints of the given project or if the author cannot complete the text even with an extension, you need a plan for how to dissolve the partnership.

Just as music commissioning contracts typically have a failure to deliver clause, agreements involving the creation of new text should have a similar stipulation. Essentially, such a clause states that if a person doesn’t provide the contracted materials by the agreed deadline and no extension has been granted, they will return any compensation they have received to date and release the other party from their contractual obligations. This creates a clear path forward in the unfortunate event that the author cannot finish the promised text.

Similarly, you should discuss what would happen if the composer is unable to complete the music as planned. While this doesn’t impact an author the way a problem in text delivery affects a composer, it does have implications for the life and profitability of the author’s work.

If the composer is given non-exclusive permission to set the text, the author/publisher is able to license other settings at any time—so one composer’s inability to complete their setting doesn’t render the words unusable. However, in cases with exclusive permission, failure to deliver the promised composition could mean those words might never be used in a musical work. To avoid that possibility, your contract should outline the circumstances—for example death, incapacity, or extreme delay—in which the author is free to license the text to another composer. You should also discuss whether those circumstances necessarily will entail a revocation of all granted permissions or simply convert the composer’s license to a non-exclusive one.

Failure to deliver the planned composition also has financial implications. If the agreement includes payment of upfront fee, the author/publisher would be compensated for their work regardless of whether the composer ever writes the music. When compensation comes as a share in future sales/rentals and/or performance royalties, the author/publisher would miss out on any income from the composer’s planned use of the text. So it is important to think about these possibilities when negotiating compensation.

A final contingency to consider applies to projects involving high levels of interdependency: how will you deal with communication delays or disagreements? Discuss what each person might do if the other is late in sending feedback or in responding to questions. Also figure out what you will do if you and your partner disagree about some aspect of each other’s work or about the project as a whole. It is best to decide up front who has the final say about the words, story (for dramatic works), music, or other aspects of the project should you be unable to reach an agreement about something.

An unidentified hand signing a paper contract on a table.

Image by Cytonn Photography (Nairobi, Kenya) via Unsplash.

Drafting the Contract

With any necessary contingencies discussed, you and your partner are now ready to formalize your agreement in writing. While an author/publisher may have a standard contract they use, I recommend composers have their own template ready. Even if you don’t end up using it for a given collaboration, it can be a handy reminder of points you may need to negotiate when using someone else’s template.

While an author/publisher may have a standard contract they use, I recommend composers have their own template ready.

If you’ve never worked with a writer before and aren’t sure what to include in a template, you can use the sample text-setting and collaboration agreements I’ve put together as a starting point. (Disclaimer: I’m not a legal professional, and I encourage you to consult a lawyer to look over your contracts!)

At a minimum, your contract should include the following:

1.) Names/contact information for all parties
2.) Which text(s) the composer will be setting
3.) What permissions are granted
4.) What compensation is promised in exchange
5.) Signatures from all parties

If the text is already written and the partnership is more transactional, nothing else would be necessary. When the author will write new text, details about their planned work (subject, length, form, genre, etc.) and deadlines for delivery should also be included, as should contingency plans. For more collaborative partnerships, points related to working process, communication, how artistic decisions will be made, and similar considerations also may be listed in the written agreement.

Always consider the first version of a contract to be a draft. If using your contract, give your partner time to review the agreement and consult a legal professional as desired. If someone else sends you a contract, you should similarly read through everything carefully and seek advice as needed. Commonly, additional discussion will be needed to clear up any questions or concerns about the first—or second or third—iteration of the contract and to revise as needed.

Finalizing the contract may be completed quickly, or it could take weeks. Make sure to allow time for this part of the process. Once everyone is satisfied with the terms, the parties will sign, and the agreement will become binding. Any changes after that point must be agreed upon by all signees in writing.

Navigating the Collaboration

After having “The Talk” and formalizing your agreement in the contract, both parties should have clear, realistic expectations about their responsibilities and how the collaborative process will play out. The contingency plans you’ve put together should help if things don’t work out as anticipated, and with any luck, you will have a satisfying, successful collaboration.

It is natural to encounter minor annoyances, conflicts, and other difficulties when working closely with another person.

However, that doesn’t mean everything will necessarily be perfect. It is natural to encounter minor annoyances, conflicts, and other difficulties when working closely with another person. If—or more likely when—something bothers you during your partnership, weigh the benefits of bringing it up against the possible waves it could create. Like in other personal relationships, you’re better off not sweating the small stuff.

If you do decide something is worth discussing, bring your concern to your partner in a respectful, non-accusatory manner. Listen to their thoughts on the issue, and work together to resolve the conflict. Similarly, if your partner comes to you with something that bothers them, don’t become defensive. Take some time to think it over and try to see your partner’s point of view. Then discuss the situation calmly.

Always handle bumps along the road with professionalism and compassion—balanced with a reasonable amount of self-advocacy. Remember, you respect each other as artists and people, and you are both committed to the project. Handle any difficulties in a way that gives your work the best chance for successful completion. Any lingering issues can be addressed when considering whether or not to work together again.

Two empty chairs on opposite sides of a table with place settings: water and wine glasses, silverware, and folded cloth napkins.

Photo by Matthieu Huang (Paris, France) via Unsplash

After the Collaboration is Done

Once the project is completed, you will need to manage certain on-going responsibilities. Where possible, you should notify authors of performances of the piece and share relevant materials such as recordings, promotional posts/articles, reviews, etc. You should also work with presenters to ensure the writer is acknowledged in publicity materials and concert programs.  Additionally, you should make sure that any performances are being reported to your PRO and credited appropriately, so that the author can receive their share of any royalties. Finally, if you agreed to share a percentage of music sales/rentals, you need to distribute those funds as outlined in the contract.

I recommend taking time to reflect on the collaboration once it is done.

Beyond keeping up with those duties, I recommend taking time to reflect on the collaboration once it is done. Each experience can reveal important insights about what to seek and what to avoid in future partnerships. You can get a better sense of who you are compatible with, what you want in an artistic alliance, what makes you uncomfortable, and what your deal-breakers are—all of which can help you be more aware and better prepared for successful collaborations in the future. You may even want to have a post-mortem discussion with your collaborator, so that you can benefit from their insights into the working process.

When reflecting (alone or with your partner), think about what you did and how you felt throughout the project, as well as how compatible you were with your partner. Consider questions like: What went really well and why? What can you do to help that happen again in future partnerships? What could have gone better and why? Is there anything you can do differently in “The Talk” or any changes you should make in your contract to improve your next experience? Approach these questions constructively, rather than looking to assign blame for anything that might not have turned out the way you wanted.

Based on your reflection and/or post-mortem discussion, you may decide you’d like to work with your collaborator again or that you want to try working with someone new—or both, since composer-author partnerships don’t need to be monogamous. You might tweak your contract template or note additional issues to bring up the next time you have “The Talk” with someone. You also may identify signs that you would or would not work well with someone, and be able to watch out for those when interacting with possible partners.

Collaborating is a lot like dating.

Collaborating is a lot like dating: you won’t want a serious relationship with everyone you meet, but there are compatible partners out there. The more you work with writers, the better you will get at finding those you will be compatible with and setting yourselves up for a mutually satisfying experience. Though it may take several attempts, you will find one or more people that turn out to be your soulmates. And finding those people is rewarding enough artistically, professionally, and socially to make trying and trying again worthwhile.


Jessica Rudman is a Connecticut-based composer whose recent works engage with contemporary social themes through realistic or fantastical frames. Described as a “new music ninja” (Hartford Advocate), her style unifies melodic development and narrative structures with extended techniques to create an intense emotional expression. Her pieces often differ in language and approach, with the common thread being expressivity. She believes that the ability to evoke an emotional response in one’s audience is of extreme importance in our current social, economic, and political environment.  Jessica’s music has been performed by the... Read more »


NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

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