You’ve been tossing around the idea for some time: I want to commission a piece of music.  Maybe it’s just you; maybe it’s a committee at your church or school, tasked with honoring an important milestone or anniversary for a musical ensemble, or a staff member, or the organization itself.  One thing you’re sure about: you want to commission a piece of music.  Everything else, you’re, well, not-so-sure about.

What Does It Cost, and Who’s Going to Write It?

Inevitably, these are the first questions that come up, and one answer often drives the other.  With extensive experience as both commissioned composer as well as commissioning client, I can honestly say that each occasion brings a new experience.

To shape logistics of the “business” discussion, the “creative” discussion has to consider forces (are you asking for a full symphonic work, or a simple bell arrangement?), not to mention timetable (I’ve had requests for commissions with lead time spanning literally three months to three years).

Some composers neatly put all of that into a little box.  I’ve seen rate charts, and I’ve seen spreadsheets. I’ve seen not one but two different computer modules that ask you to enter your data, and it spits out a price.

At the other end of the spectrum, some composers veil their price in mystery, forcing clients into a stressful time of guesswork and haggling (it’s music, not a used car!).  Still others have a stated minimum figure which requires acceptance before the conversation even begins.  Everyone’s process is different, and musicians find what works best for them. I use a general figure to start, to ensure we’re “in the ballpark,” and the conversation begins.  After I know the client’s needs and what kind of piece they’re after, I can narrow the figure and make sure it works.

Things to consider when you’re choosing a composer are generally what would probably have already come to mind: what’s his/her “style” and “flavor” like?  Research composers’ works to see what kind of stuff they’ve created.  Composer X may have written a piece you absolutely love, but it may have been a severe departure from his typical style (which may mean that he would love to do it again, or it may mean that it was a “one-off” kind of thing).  Since you’re asking the composer to create something brand new, consider if you want to take a risk on something that is too far a departure from her “comfort zone.”  Set up a “blind tasting,” and ask friends and colleagues to play you several dozen sample clips of various composers’ works, without sharing the names with you.  Jot down your opinions on them, and when the names are revealed, see whose work captured your interest best.

Sharing a Vision for the Piece, and Providing Feedback (If You’re Allowed To)

In discussing what the composer needs to know, I cannot stress enough the importance of frequent and thorough communication.  I experienced a situation with an early commission whereby a client said they “really loved” when I shared early sketches, but when it was finally done (after six rounds of revisions!), they decided that they “still loved the piece, but it wasn’t exactly fitting the occasion,” and could I start something else, please? (!!!!)  We resolved it amicably and all is well now, but the process wasn’t without headaches.  Had I had that information earlier, it would have saved a lot of time.

Don’t frustrate yourself or your composer. Communicate!

Don’t worry about sparing anyone’s feelings.  Music is art, and you wouldn’t hang a painting on your wall if you were lukewarm about it; you have to love it.  To that end, I prefer to involve the client in the commission’s creative process, sending sketches and drafts as I go, getting open, honest feedback and criticisms, to tailor the work to be something they love and I’m proud of.

Be advised: not everyone works this way.  Some composers will present you with Hobson’s Choice when your deadline arrives: they’re done, and you “take it or leave it.”  Some clients are okay with that, but I don’t think it’s fair to just say “here it is, send my money.” The commission is a source of the composer’s livelihood, yes.  And clients do need to be reasonable, sure.  But if there’s passion in the craft, the project needs to be driven by music, not money. If you get the vibe that someone values the paycheck more than the creation of your music, you may want to re-evaluate that relationship.

Thomas Hobson, an English livery owner whose customers got to “take the horse nearest the door, or take none at all.”  (National Portrait Gallery, London)

I cannot stress this enough: understand upfront if the composer will expect you to have feedback on sketches along the way, or if you’re expected to just set the wheels turning and later exchange “final piece for final payment.”

What I now ask for in starting commissions is a brainstormed list of adjectives that, when the piece is finished, will be fitting descriptors for it.  If you say “playful, bright, silly, fun, energetic and happy,” it will send me in a very different direction than if you say “lyrical, elegant, sublime and breathtaking.”  (Not all terms are mutually exclusive.  Observe the crossover: words like “intense, chromatic, heavy, wild,” describe one of my pieces; “intense, chromatic, fun, jazzy” describe another – and they are very different pieces!)

If you have other specifics, please share them with the composer/arranger.  Do you have visions of what the form of the piece will be?  What length do you want?  Do you have an inspiring story or a photograph or a quotation that fits?  I’ve received photos and Scripture passages before that “sum up” what the piece should embody, and they are incredibly helpful, especially in memorial commissions.  Remember, anything that inspires you may inspire the composer.  Any specifics you have to have should be shared — but be careful not to get too specific (e.g., “we want a piece in D Major, 4/4 time, with a not-too-difficult AB5 position and mallets in the C4-G5 range…”), or you may hinder the creative process.

Don’t forget also to share what you do not want, which can be just as important.  If a group hates rondo form and just has a miserable time trying to count a piece in 5/8, it’d be good to share this information early on.

In that same vein, it helps to share with the composer pieces which you really have enjoyed as an ensemble, and why.  Be careful, however, not to lead them astray in confusing what you like with what you want for this particular project.

Critical Things to Keep In Mind

Contract.  Putting all of the details in writing is definitely advisable.  Many composers have a standard contract from which we work, customized to each project.  This should include all of the objective key points about the work (deadlines, forces used, level, duration, cost, ownership, etc.)

Deposit.  Expect to pay a deposit (generally half of the amount due, save for large-scale works which may have several, more incremental, payment dates) when the contract is signed, with the balance due upon delivery of the final manuscript.

Ownership.  Typically, unless it’s a much more costly “Exclusive Work for Hire,” the composer maintains the copyright and has permission to seek publication at will.

Exclusive Performance Rights. I think it’s only fair that the group commissioning the piece has rights through a predetermined date (I use a year from the receipt of the work) to perform the piece before anyone else gets to do so.  (Bear in mind that the composer may seek publication before that date, as long as the piece is actually published/in-print after that date.)

Dedication.  The client has a right to expect that when/if the piece is published, it will bear a dedication indicating who commissioned it, and why.  Include the verbiage in the contract, if possible (though clients must understand that some “tweaks” may occur based on a publisher’s “house style.”

Publication Edits.  Speaking of publishers, commissioning clients need to expect that if they commission the piece for their forces, some things may have to change to make the piece marketable to additional [or fewer] octaves, and the form may change slightly.  I think that it’s reasonable to request “first rights of refusal” on the dedication line if the final product isn’t something the group wants identified with it any longer, but it’s unlikely that a composer/publisher would hold a piece from publication because it’s not being published exactly as it was performed by the group commissioning it.  I ask that clients allow me to make the determination as to whether or not the piece has changed significantly enough to bear asking them for a pre-publication review (otherwise, it can really hinder progress).

Now, start sending some e-mails and making some phone calls!  (Really, it’s that easy.  Just be clear as to whether you are “seeking information from several composers” or officially asking someone to begin working with you.)  Keep in mind that any composer you approach about your commission should be honored and humbled to be considered for it, regardless of their stature, name, CV, etc.  If selected, that composer/arranger should be expected to work hard to create a piece that you are not just “happy with,” but proud of; and assure you that deadlines will be met and communication will be stellar.

Good luck, and enjoy the process!

Michael J. Glasgow has created more than 30 commissioned works for handbells and/or chorus, with instrumental forces from single-lines to full orchestration. He is proud to have served as the inaugural conductor for the annual “Anthornis” and “Anthornis North” advanced-ringing events in Minneapolis and Fargo; and to have conducted in England, Canada, and on a cruise ship in the Eastern Caribbean. Michael will make his Carnegie Hall debut, conducting his “Requiem,” in June 2017. He also serves as the editor for the Handbell Musicians of American Area 3 newsletter, “The Bell-O-Gram,” and is a member of ASCAP, American Composers Forum, Mensa and several other professional organizations.  Additional information and samples of Michael’s work may be found at www.michaeljglasgow.com.