Informed consent is essential for successfully collaborating with writers. In my previous article, I introduced “The Talk,” a targeted discussion you and a writer should have before beginning a partnership. The Talk’s purpose is to ensure you both fully understand what is involved in the collaboration and how you will work together. It involves establishing compatibility, negotiating both interpersonal and logistical concerns, and arriving at the informed consent necessary for an effective partnership. However, what each person must be informed about and consent to depends in part on whether the partnership will be transactional or more collaborative.
Purely Transactional Partnerships
A basic type of partnership between a composer and a writer is:
- The composer finds an existing text and requests permission to use it.
- The copyright holder agrees.
- The composer writes the piece.
This is an example of a purely transactional partnership. These involve fewer total interactions, and those interactions are less artistically impactful. That means personal compatibility is less critical than in other types of partnerships. Transactional text-setting can thus be a good way to test the waters with someone you might like to work more closely with in the future. Or, this hands-off approach may be your preferred modus operandi.
For transactional partnerships, you can likely skip the interpersonal aspects of The Talk discussed below and start with getting permission from the copyright holder. The writer usually owns the copyright for unpublished texts (unless, for example, they are under contract with a publisher for a forthcoming book). The situation is more complex for published texts. Depending on when the text was published, the type of publication, and what agreement the author made with the publisher, the copyright may reside with the author or the publisher.
In any case, the best first step is to contact the author. They should know who can license your setting, and more importantly, you want their approval for your project. If a writer is invested in you setting their words, they can give you permission if they hold the copyright or can help you secure permission from their publisher.
Start by sending the author a short, polite message introducing yourself and expressing your interest in their work. Ask if they might be open to you setting their text and if so, could you discuss licensing. If you don’t hear back, wait a couple weeks and follow up. If you don’t hear back again, you may choose to send a third and final message. If they never reply or you couldn’t find any contact information for them, you might try the publisher directly.
Once an author responds positively to your inquiry, you can discuss licensing with them/their publisher. The next article will cover what permissions you need and what you should offer in exchange, since those topics will be applicable regardless of whether your partnership is transactional or more co-creative. For now, we’ll turn to non-transactional partnerships and the interpersonal portion of The Talk.
Collaboration exists on a continuum. Purely transactional partnerships like those described above exist at one extreme with integrated co-creation at the other and a variety of possibilities in between. The type of partnership you choose will depend on your preferences, those of your collaborator(s), and the nature of the project.
Beyond being purely transactional, some partnerships may involve low levels of creative interaction. For example, a composer may ask the writer questions about their intentions or get a sense of the text’s pacing, structure, and tone by hearing the author read their work. Increasing levels of collaboration might involve: the author and composer working together to determine which text(s) will be set or the order of texts in a cycle, the author making alterations to the text at the composer’s request, the composer bouncing ideas off the author, or the composer getting feedback from the author about in-progress music. These activities increase both the amount of interaction between the composer and author, and the impact of those interactions, since they will affect the resulting music to greater degrees.
When an author is creating a new text, the possibilities for collaboration expand even more. The author and composer can discuss themes and artistic considerations before the words or music are written. Additionally, if both are willing, they can share input on one another’s work as it progresses. These deeper types of engagement move toward the far end of the collaboration spectrum—integrated co-creation—which involves the composer and author working extremely closely on both words and music.
Partnerships that are more collaborative will require a higher degree of compatibility between the composer and writer to be successful, as will those that are longer term or otherwise more intense. The compatibility between you and a potential partner thus can inform what type of partnership you try. Conversely, being clear on how much collaboration is required in a specific project can guide you in choosing the right author. Either way, compatibility is an important consideration if you want anything other than a purely transactional partnership.
A big part of The Talk is assessing your compatibility and talking through any roadblocks to collaborating effectively. The questions below can serve as a starting point. The answers to these will be very individual, so it is worth considering them on your own before talking to your potential collaborator. Think not only about your responses but also what you would be comfortable with in a partner. You may have hard limits on these questions or could find a range of possibilities acceptable.
- What are your artistic goals/vision for the proposed collaboration?
- Will you be continuing to explore techniques/themes/ideas found in your previous work?
- Are you looking to go in a new direction for this project?
- What interests you in your potential collaborator’s work?
- Is there something you are hoping your partner will or will not do in this project?
- What is your working process?
- How much interaction do you want with your partner?
- What types of interactions do you prefer?
- How much time do you need to complete your work?
- How do you handle deadlines?
- What would happen if the author decides to revise the text after the music is started or after it is finished?
- How much input do you want to give about your partner’s work?
- How much input do you want to receive about your work?
- How and when will feedback be offered?
- How much are you or your partner obligated to incorporate each other’s suggestions?
- What are your preferred media for communication?
- How quickly will you need responses to any questions?
- How quickly will you be able to respond to your partner?
- If talking in person or via phone/video chat is preferred, does your schedule allow for that?
- Do you have any communication pet peeves or quirks that may impact the collaboration?
- Have you worked with a writer before, or has the writer worked with a composer?
- If so, how did that collaboration go?
- What agreements did you have in place for your prior collaboration(s)?
- What expectations do you have based on that prior experience?
- What might you like to do the same as before?
- What might you like to do differently?
Once you’ve thought through these topics—or others that are important to you—have a frank discussion with your potential collaborator. Focus on those issues that directly relate to your proposed project. You may be on the same page, or may find that some problem-solving or compromising is necessary to head off potential problems.
You don’t need to agree on everything in this portion of The Talk, but you both should be comfortable with your compatibility and your plans for how you will interact. You also absolutely need to agree on deadlines, permissions, compensation, and any other details that go in your contract. The rest of The Talk deals with these elements.
Setting deadlines is both an interpersonal and logistical issue. Unless you are using an existing text or are proposing an open-ended project, your schedule and approach to deadlines must be compatible with each other’s and with the requirements of the project.
Scheduling can be a deal-breaker especially if the author is creating new text, so check availability early in the process and then discuss specifics. If the project has a firm deadline, ensure due dates for any intermediary steps, such as finalizing the text, fit the writer’s schedule while allowing you enough time to complete the piece. Build cushions into your timeline, and be clear about what deadlines are not moveable. Also discuss whether text must be completed before the music or if there will be any overlap or simultaneous creation. If a certain project doesn’t work out because of timing but you are otherwise compatible, plan to work together in the future and find another text of your current project.
Assuming scheduling works out and you both feel compatible enough to collaborate, the next step is negotiating permissions and compensation. These are important topics that are often not clearly understood, so they will be the focus of the third article.
1. Stephen Paulus’s Before You Set Those Words to Music is a good resource on this topic, and I’ll revisit the idea of which permissions you need in my third article.
2. Before the Copyright Act of 1976, authors generally sold their copyright in full to the publisher. After it took effect in 1978, authors could license their copyrights or sell them, either in full or in part. From then on, it was in an author’s best interest to negotiate publishing contracts where they license or sell only the rights needed for a certain publication while retaining the others, if possible. For more info on copyright, see The Writer’s Legal Guide, 4th Ed. by Tad Crawford and Cay Murray.
3. See Dale Trumbore’s No More Zombie Poets, Part 2: Finding Writers Who Aren’t Dead for more on this.
Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.