Commissioning A New Work

One of the greatest compliments one can give a composer is the commissioning of a new work. The entire process, from the initial enquiry to the premiere, can be a fulfilling, exciting and engaging one for both parties. The commissioning party will (typically) receive certain ‘benefits’, which may include: the rights to the first performance; the opportunity to have creative input (especially pertaining to the text); and will – in most cases – be honored with a written dedication in the score. Additionally, many new commissions are then published, either by the composers themselves, or by one of many reputable publishing companies in the US or abroad.

It is important to approach the matter of commissioning from a business perspective – at least in the initial phases of the commissioning process. Oftentimes significant amounts of money exchange hands, and the more professional and transparent the contract is, the less likelihood there will be for awkwardness or embarrassment. Most composers provide their own contracts and many request a retainer/deposit upon the return of the completed and signed contract. It is imperative, therefore, that you discuss with the composer every finite detail about the work before entering into a contractual agreement. Frequent questions include – but are not limited to – the following:

What are the costs involved? How much would an SATB a cappella composition of n=x minutes in duration be? (Be sure to discuss aspects that can greatly alter the commission fee, including: voicing; accompaniment; additional obbligato instruments other than piano etc.)

What is a typical timeframe for the process of commissioning, from the initial enquiry to the delivery of the completed work? (Composers can often be flexible on this matter, however 12-18 months is usually appropriate). Bear in mind there needs to be a period of review/editing built in to the timeframe, so it is prudent to create a 3 month ‘buffer’, just to allow for contingencies.

Does the commissioning party retain the rights to the premiere? Most often the composer agrees to allow the commissioning party to premiere the work, provided it is performed in a timely manner after its completion.

Are there opportunities for the composer to be in ‘residence? Might it be possible to have the composer attend the premiere? A residency can be a very special and unique opportunity whereby all interested parties can become more enlightened about the new work. Having the composer interact with singers, or even simply having the composer be present in the room for a Q&A session can shed light on the new piece.

How does copyright work, and what rights or benefits might the commissioning party be afforded? In almost every instance, the composer will include a copyright marking at the bottom of the first page of score (and possibly elsewhere). This legally signifies and defines the work as belonging to the composer. The composer will typically allow the commissioning party to make free copies of the new work for the choristers to use. Such copies then may, or may not be retained in the commissioning party’s library, depending upon the stipulations of the contract. Further copies may or may not be made by the commissioning party upon the elapsing of time, again depending upon the stipulations of the contract. When a composer’s new work is published by a third party, the composer legally signs the work over to the publishing company, and no longer owns any of the rights to it. The publisher will then provide royalties to the composer (typically 10%-20% of sales price), for every copy sold. If you are ever in doubt about copyright, feel free to ask the composer.

It is important to composers that you report or register performances. Each time a performance is reported to the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) or Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI), composers will be entitled to residuals, or royalties. The same is true of any recordings made. Royalties can add up remarkably quickly, but only if performers are diligent about contacting the relevant performing rights organization (which is usually either ASCAP or BMI.

Commission Inquiry

If you are interested in making an enquiry about a commission, please contact River Avon Productions at the email below, or complete the form on the Contact page.

Additional Resources