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The Future of Newly Composed Music is at Risk…

The British 'Sound and Music' stated recently in their 2014 Commission Survey Report "The future of new music is at risk if we continue to undervalue composers... Professional composers are being asked to create new pieces for ‘shockingly low’ fees."
Is the situation different in North America?
 
Sound and Music reports–
• The average fee per commission in 2013 was £1,392
• Only 15% of those surveyed earned more income than previous year
• 49% of composers feel that there is less rehearsal/preparation time for new works.
 
You may read more about this situation at
http://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2014/aug/18/future-new-music-composers-report-pay 

Download the report (pdf) or at   http://www.soundandmusic.org/projects/sound-and-music-commissioning-report
 
It’s a bit of a shocker, but at the same time a wake-up call…
 
Thanks for reading this! And thanks to those far-sighted choral conductors who have commissioned new works recently!
Maybe you could tell us about them... How were they received? Was it a rewarding experience? Do you recommend commissioning generally? ...
 
Donald Patriquin
Composer, conductor
 
Replies (10): Threaded | Chronological
on August 20, 2014 3:33am
I'm amazed that the average was as high as £1392. I've earned that much for a commission once so far. And rehearsal/preparation time is definitely a problem.
 
(Choral conductors reading this, I'm open for new commissions, have excellent feedback on the ones I've done, and I'll probably charge you a lot less than £1392... http://www.hutchingsmusic.co.uk/commission/ )
Applauded by an audience of 1
on August 20, 2014 8:11am
Specifically addressing the perception of "less rehearsal/preparation time for new works," I wonder if there is simply a disparity between the composer's investment in the process and that of the conductors/performers. This is not a matter of carelessness on anyone's part, but rather it is more about the realities of available rehearsal time and the ability levels of the singers. Composers often view their works almost like their children, and obviously they know them inside and out. It is very difficult for both the conductor and choir members to achieve a similar level of intimacy with the music. 
 
Perhaps some conductors are simply unaware of just how much more preparation is involved with premiering a new piece. But as a conductor myself I know that the amount of rehearsal time we have to invest in any new piece has it's limits; we have an entire concert to prepare. As a composer, I know I will probably never get as much rehearsal time as I would like.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on August 20, 2014 9:47am
Let's approach this question another way, in addition:
 
American Choral Directors:  
1. What is your annual budget for commissioning new work?
  When doing research for a program ("I need an upbeat level III SATB piece about pumpernickel with an opportunity for a tenor solo!")
2.  Do you research new music?
3.  How do you search for new music?  
4.  If you do commission a work, who do you commission?
5.  Where does your commissioning money come from?  Is it from a grant, or a donor, or is it a regular part of the operating budget?
on August 20, 2014 10:34am
Thanks for bringing this article to our attention
Applauded by an audience of 1
on August 20, 2014 1:12pm
Your's is a very good point, Brad, and one I have personally encoutered and heard echoed by various conductors. It IS a reality!
 
However, what precisely would be the difference between the approach to a commissioned work and ANY new piece of music- i.e. new to the conductor, perhaps, but certainly new to the choir? How can the process of commissioning a new work become more 'secure' from the point of view of the conductor and choir? Is there some sort of mechanism that would allow a conductor to view a commissioned work in progress so as to be able to advise "oops- this is looking a bit too difficult", or maybe even- "we have a great soprano section so do feel free to use divisi!) Has anyone found a workable work-in-progress feed-back process?
 
On occasion, particularly when working on multi-work commissions such as Reflections on Walden Pond ('original' and 5 movements) or World Music Suites Two and Three ('arrangement' and 6 & 9  movements) I have sent the commissioning conductor a movement or two as they were written- even if not 100% complete. The feedback has been useful, and I'll have to say NEVER at all negative. Another technique that I have used – and am using it more and more, especially with arrangements – is to have a workshop with the commisisoning choir. Of course this is not always possble, but I have always found it tremendously useful when it was. I also get to know the choir's repertoire, favorite works, not-so-favorite works, sight-reading ability, and so on. I think this is very important.
 
Essentially, how can the composer and conductor keep in touch during the writing process? I know some composers would definitely not want this, but I am also sure others would, and they may just be the ones who land the big fish!
 
Does any one know of a listing and description such practical guidelines that would make the commissioning process less 'chancy'? I think fear plays a role here somewhere!
 
Donald
Applauded by an audience of 2
on August 20, 2014 2:57pm
I'm glad this is being examined/publicized.
Though I am far from a full-time composer, I have close friends who are, and I'm aware of most of the issues.
Is it possible that there is now more "competition" because technology has enabled so many to write their creativity faster and clearer, and to be self-publishing?
I think when pencil and paper were all that was abailable, many aspiring composers simply did not have the time to write frequently.
Perhaps this [accidentally, or intentionally?] causes the "going rate" to fall slightly, as there is generally someone (another composer or two)  who also does quality work, who wishes exposure enough to accept less money?
I realize that there are also many more choirs and groups.  it is good to examine the conductor's choices as to classics, recently-composed, etc.
-Lucy
on August 21, 2014 6:50am
I have a music budget at my church of $500 a year (not sure what that translates to in British pounds or Euros). I'm thinking about commissioning for a new sacred piece but I'm afraid that would wipe clean my entire budget. 
 
In a different vein, Mr. Hutchings does very good work. I directed a community chorus that he volunteered to write a piece for. Unfortunately we were unable to premier the work but I was excited for it none the less.
on August 21, 2014 7:00am
I found this site/paper after Googling, "commisioning new music":
 
 
This paper is very thorough in its explanation of the commissioning process.
 
Craig
on August 21, 2014 7:39am
Hi Donald:
 
Perhaps the basic problem for composers is a fundamental "return on investment" appraisal by the ever-shrinking group of organizations that might still have enough money in their budgets to commission a new work.  In these still excruciatingly difficult economic times, a decision maker must first believe that a new work will, at the very least, pay for itself in terms of ticket sales -- that the financial outgo will be balanced by the income.  Funding for "the arts" is still way down from the highs of the 90's, and budgets are still being cut.  It's nearly impossible now for any creative artist -- composers, writers, painters, etc. -- to make any kind of decent financial return on their investment of time and effort, especially those just starting out.
 
Here are a few interesting items that will provide a broader perspective on the issue:
 

http://pndblog.typepad.com/pndblog/2014/04/infographic-charitable-giving-in-the-us-vs-the-uk.html:
In the US, 4% of charitable donations goes to “Arts, Culture, and Humanities,” while in the UK only 1% goes to the “Arts.”
   
on August 21, 2014 2:14pm
Good points, Julia. thanks!
 
Let's not forget that the music industry is a huge and highly profitable business. And let's not forget that more people are involved with choral singing than with any other endeavour, which should give the choral world a lot of clout; in any event choral singing does an enormous amount in getting people to to enjoy and to purchase what the the music industry is producing. Perhaps, just perhaps, more of the profit being made could somehow filter back to our many choral composers. Keep this in mind when you read the last few lines* of the following:
 
SOMETHING IS IN THE AIR...
 
Some may not believe this; others recognize we often create our own 'coincidences'…
 
A few hours ago I found myself in the presence of a conductor looking to commission me to write a work for Quebec’s fine professional choir Le Choeur de Chambre du Québec, and one of our leading poets, Hélène Dorion, who’s recent acclaimed book Coeurs, comme livres d’amour (Hearts, like Books of Love) may well provide the text for this work. This commission, conductor Robert Ingare advised me, would allow me to write at ‘peak level’: each of the sixteen performers is an incredible musician; the choir is totally capable of singing in sixteen parts. Singers arrive at rehearsals knowing the music they are about to sing, so that no time at all is spent on notes, rather interpretation. There would surely be an ‘experimental’ aspect to the commission. Talk about fear! I was not visibly quaking, but I was both astounded and relieved when Maestro Ingari asked of both poet and composer “What would you think of a work-in-progress workshop at some point during the process. My instant reply “I can not believe you are asking me this!” threw him for a moment until I explained that less than twenty four hours before I had proposed exactly this possible way to lessen the ‘chancy’ aspect of commissioning. And so it shall be! So let’s add some more ‘checks and balances’ to the process.  Anyone out there – composer or conductor – have further ideas?
 
Conductor-composer Jon Washburn, some years ago initiated Interplay http://www.vancouverchamberchoir.com/interplay.htm> – “an interactive workshop for Canadian composers who write for chorus…(which) provides them with the opportunity to workshop their in-progress – or recently completed – choral works and ideas with Canada's outstanding professional vocal ensemble, the Vancouver Chamber Choir” under Mr. Washburn’s direction. It is free for (Canadian) composers, being funded by the performing rights organization SOCAN. Are there equivalent organizations in the USA? It could be interesting to have something like this linked in some way with commissions. Wouldn't it be win-win if one or more of the music publishers – traditional/digital – *or some very profitable branch of the music industry – were to fund such valuable endeavors?
 
Not so incidentally, “The Vancouver Chamber Choir and Jon Washburn…have commissioned and premiered over 250 choral compositions by North American and European composers.’
 
Now THAT’s dedication!
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