When do you stop writing music for free?

Finally, a new post! Since my last post, I’ve moved from Fort Worth, Texas to Terre Haute, Indiana. Why have I moved? I’m getting married next year (06/19/2009) and I moved here to get a place with my fiancee and her two children. Everything’s been great so far, except for the job situation, which leads me to this post.

The question I ask in this post is directed at composers – and the question is, “when do you stop writing music for free?” The point we all want to reach as composers is that point where we’re writing all, or the majority of our music on commission. That means that some one, or some entity is paying us money to write music for them.

As a student composer, more than anything else you need experience writing for all the various instruments, and you need good performances and recordings of your music to build up a portfolio. Often in this situation, composers will write music for their friends and colleagues to play and record, and that’s totally how it should work. The tough part comes when you finish school, and you’re suddenly out in the world, and you’ve still got people that want new pieces written for them, but under the same circumstances as when you were both students – they want you to write them new music and consider a performance and/or recording as payment. The tough thing for composers just out of school, who don’t have commissions coming at them from all sides yet is, when do I start charging for my music?

I’ll start out by giving a personal example. I was recently approached by a duo to write a chamber work for them. They seemed generally excited about it, and also really liked my music. I said, “Awesome! Let’s talk about commissioning fees and see what we can work out.” At this, the person was like, “Oh, well…. uh…. We’ve never paid for a new piece of music before.” I wasn’t at all surprised to hear this, because somehow over the years, it has become standard practice to not pay composers for new pieces, and to consider a performance as a perfectly legitimate form of payment, even by professional ensembles – and many, many composers who are not students anymore still consider this form of payment completely legitimate themselves. If you’re in the position of simply needing more experience, or more recordings, then again, I think this is perfectly fine. But there has to come a point in a composer’s career when they have to stand up and declare themselves professional, and not write music for free anymore.

I gave an example to the person that I mentioned that wanted a duo. She was telling me about how her husband often performs on movie scores of John Williams at his personal request, and that he makes double scale, etc. So, as an example, I presented this scenario: John Williams’ people approach your husband about playing in the orchestra for the new Harry Potter soundtrack. They tell him “Now here’s the deal. The music is all new, and quite difficult, so it will likely take you 1-2 months practicing 6 hours a day to learn. We can’t pay you anything, but you’ll be recorded by the best sound engineers in the business in one of the most technically advanced studios available, and your performance will be heard by millions across the globe!” I think his answer would probably be no.

The other issue that composers need to grapple with is, when are we professionals? Especially now that the University jobs have all but dried up in the current economy, it’s not like we can mark a hire as a sign of becoming professional. Most of us just have to kind of declare ourselves to be professionals, and like the performer in the example I used, expect to be treated like a professional. The bottom line is, if we can’t be paid for our music, then we have to spend most of our time doing something else to pay the bills, which will make most composers perpetual amateurs, since the bulk of our energies will be spent elsewhere.

This is just an issue that’s been on my mind lately, and I never really hear it discussed too much. It seems to have a kind of uncomfortable, taboo aura around it. However, I think it’s an issue that should be discussed openly, especially if you get a commission from someone. Usually, if they are really into your music, you can all work something out, and a fair payment can be negotiated.

Now, back to revising 🙂

2 thoughts on “When do you stop writing music for free?

  1. There is an in-between point here, Anthony. I have done commissioning for new music and orchestra in two of my workplaces in the past decade. Often what happens is that the composer and ensemble (or presenter) agree on a fee for the work and then work diligently together to approach funding bodies for the budgeted money. With any luck the work is fully funded at the agreed price. It is much easier to give the nod to a newer composer if he or she is agreeable to signing a contract that stipulates that the agreed fee is contingent on successful funding… opening it up to a new negotiation if applications are rejected. If your organization and grantwriter has a record of success in getting commissioning grants from foundations and individuals, this well might be a gamble worth taking.

  2. I have been thinking about this subject a lot lately, having made a decision a year ago to make all my newly-written music available for free rather than selling it through a publisher. I don’t think that this changes my status in the profession of music. We tend to use the term “professional” and “amateur” as signs of quality, when they are relatively meaningless terms, in the long run.

    If my life changed significantly, and I had to rely on making money exclusively from writing music, the music that I would write would probably change significantly. I would also probably think differently about why I was writing in the first place. I would probably move to a metropolitan area and do my best to befriend people because of the influence they might have on my livelihood. I would probably draw upon everyone in the professional music world I know or knew when I was a student, and use those connections to try to get ahead in the world of commercial music.

    These are things that I am just not willing to do. I live in a place where I can write, and I write what I want to write. People do commission music from me, but I couldn’t make any kind of a living from commissions. I very much appreciate the idea of third-party commissions: music paid for by organizations rather than from individual musicians. The hypothetical Williams-related example of having music rehearsed and played by a (paid professional) orchestra, recorded by (paid professional) sound engineers, and being incorporated into a film that is seen by millions of (paying) people, is, indeed, a scenario of exploitation.

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