The Advantages of Paying Your Composer

The Advantages of Paying Your Composer

Some recent comments on these pages regarding the future of streaming and downloadable music have reminded me how difficult it can be for composers to convince normal, right-thinking people that their work deserves payment.

To paraphrase Phil Fried’s comments on Brian Brandt’s Spotify article, our society doesn’t have a problem with valuing art as much as it has a problem with valuing artists. The recognition that an artist is talented or even personally significant to the consumer doesn’t always translate into consumers being willing to compensate the artist fairly, as they would surely expect to do in any other economic transaction.

Certainly, there are times when artists do and should work for free: for apprentice work, mainly, and also for projects in which the artist is being compensated in some other way—sometimes it is wise to let an enthusiastic school orchestra that otherwise couldn’t afford it to rent parts for the cost of postage, or to do some uncompensated work in order to gain needed experience or create work that will generate income down the road. But there are many who balk at the idea of compensating artists at all, or worse, who are completely unaware it’s even something they should consider. I’ve composed my share of free pieces, but more than once I’ve been miffed by people who liked my music enough to want to premiere a new work, but expected me to be grateful enough to work for several months without compensation.

I can’t speak much for downloadable music since I’ve yet to make a dent in that area. But perhaps if our supporters had a better sense of how paying the composer is a better deal for them they’d be far more generous. So what’s in it for those who choose to pay composers fairly rather than robbing them blind?

—We all know composers can be somewhat unreliable, disheveled beings, and many a composer has finished their project late or not at all. Paying your composer is a signal to them that you mean business, and that they will be expected to deliver; without that payment (and the potential threat of its withdrawal) commissioners have very little control if a composer walks. Business relationships where only one party has something to lose rarely end well for either.

—If you’re dealing with the kind of composer who composes often (usually the kind people want to work with!), they’re likely to have busy schedules filling up months or years ahead of time; offering a composer even a modest commission (as opposed to “requesting a piece”) will cause your composer to lock that composing time into his or her schedule. Otherwise, there’s no reason that composer shouldn’t take on any conflicting project that comes along with the promise of fair payment.

—A good commission is both a piece of music and a product, tailored to the needs and desired effects requested by the commissioning party. By paying for the music, you telegraph that it’s something of value and by extension that the commissioning party has done something of value, too. A commission is an investment that will pay many dividends down the line if it garners attention for the performer/s and helps focus attention on their unique traits and skills. When our supporters try to get work for free instead of properly commissioning it, the joke’s on them as they lose the chance to tell a powerful story about their passion for music; likewise, they forfeit any right to direct the composer to the kind of work that will present the performers in the best light.

I could go on and on about why composers deserve to be compensated, but in some ways I find it more effective to make the argument above: namely, that from the commissioner’s perspective there is much to be gained by paying composers for their work, even from the perspective of pure self-interest. Funding may be scarce, but letting a composer know that you’d like to pay them fairly but need time and help finding a way to raise the money is a great way to begin, and will inevitably lead to the composer taking the project more seriously than had you began by dismissing his or her right to expect compensation.

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5 thoughts on “The Advantages of Paying Your Composer

  1. phil fried

    Here is the study I referenced. Thanks to Vickie Benson of the McKnight foundation for finding it for us.


    To put this into perspective for myself I do not let the lack of a commission interfere with my artistic vision. Sometimes I do compose highly impractical works by type, operas for example, or content, political, because I needed to.

    Then again I do sell, yes sell, a bit of sheet music. Mostly the sheet music for my most popular comedy song the soprano’s lament.

    Add improvisation and you see that as a composer/performer I have a diversified portfolio.

  2. danvisconti

    Thanks for the link–great summaries as well ad charts–and I shudder to think how the 2007/8 crash has impacted some of these figures.

    I hope that no composer would ever refrain from composing something they felt they *needed* to. That’s the artist’s perogative; I just don’t like it when the community that is supposed to patronize composers and other artists expects to plunder our talents. Being asked to do gig work–someone elses’s artistic vision–with the attitude that we should shut up and be grateful for the “opportunity” is something no one would think to ask a practicioner of any other profession.

    Your “Soprano’s Lament” is a hoot! And just the kind of work that lets singers connect with their training and traditions. Glad you posted this.

  3. Dr. Lynn Job

    Composition is highly skilled labor (often accompanied by many professional certifications, apprenticeships, industry training, and great investment). Labor is work and only so much work can be accomplished within a day. Each day money must come into the household to pay the material necessities of life. Most of us need to work every day to survive. If part or all of my day is taken up with music composition, and it is not being funded, I lost hours I needed to use for the pursuit of the necessary materials of life. Unpaid labor is either done voluntarily (on spec for later return), or, compulsorily (slave). It is the moral and ethical and legally right thing to do to pay the music composer for her labor. This is just the tip, the beginning of what would be due to her, the base wage for the actual labor of creating the unique intellectual property–follow-on projects and publications resulting from this initial labor is a separate topic. Let us agree that accepting a negotiated labor wage for a composer to compose for a patron should be completely normal and expected, as with any labor done in our society. Why is this such a hard fight for us composition/writing laborers to put across? Just because some have been coerced into agreeing to speculative or to slave labor, does not make it right to coerce this kind of labor. It is just cruel and amoral. Also, the finest voices among us have been lost to penury, and the American letters and arts are the worst for it. (Buckthorn Music Press, ASCAP/MPA)

  4. El Johno

    My favourite these days is how much ensembles are turning toward competitions. The entire “pay to have us take a look, then all that money goes to one person” makes it so composers are really just pitching in so one person can make money. I even saw a recent release that was “free to submit” but if selected, the composer would have to pay a “processing fee” for the group to play it. Sorry, but I paid that fee when I printed the score and parts and mailed it to you.

    The least I work for anymore is guaranteed performances and a nice recording. Most days, however, I feel like it’s some sort of favor, that the performers are throwing me a bone by performing my music. I’m happy to finally be getting enough collaborations and work where that mentality is falling by the wayside, but look at any website’s call for scores, and you’ll see how composers of all ages are treated–pay to have someone look at the score, pay the performers to play on the festival, pay pay pay. If you’re not independently wealthy, it’s incredibly difficult to get those first opportunities that’ll get you the recognition to start getting commissions. This is even more true if you don’t go to school in a particularly well connected program (of which there are many–and this is not a screed against those programs. I used to say “to hell with nepotism! musicians should be judged on their music!” But since it’s become apparent there’s no such thing as a meritocracy in American capitalism, I now say “Way to go professors! You’re providing careers for your students!” Maybe that’s just the angst talking…)


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