A Brief Guide to Commissioning Music

Commissioning 101

By commissioning music—paying composers to write a new piece for a specific purpose or event—individuals or organizations become active participants in the creation of a legacy of music for the future. Anyone can commission a new work. It doesn’t have to be an artistic director, or a well-established performer—it can be anyone who is motivated to enrich the world with a new piece of music.

Commissioning is a process. From the moment of inspiration to the exciting premiere performance, there are decisions to be made, ideas to explore, and memorable moments when the commissioner, composer, and performers collaborate to give birth to the new work.

Commissioning a piece of music doesn’t take any special skill or knowledge of music. You don’t have to be a musician, play an instrument or be able to carry a tune. All you need is a love of music. There are as many reasons for commissioning a new piece of music:

  • You know a specific composer and have the desire to support their creative activities;
  • You have a favorite music ensemble or performing arts organization and would like to give them a new work to perform;
  • You want to commemorate a birthday, anniversary, friend or family member with a new piece;
  • You are intrigued by new experiences;
  • You are excited to hear something you helped bring to life be performed;
  • You want to support the talented people who have enriched your life.

If you are interested in learning more about the process of commissioning a new piece, please contact me at carnacraig@gmail.com and I’ll be happy to speak with you.

If you’re intrigued and want more insight into the commissioning process, please read on.

A Brief Guide to Commissioning Music:

I want to commission a new piece. Where do I start?

  • The process usually begins with identifying the composer you want to work with, as well as the musicians who will be performing the piece you’re commissioning. You may already have a composer in mind, based on music of theirs you’ve heard, or you can solicit recommendations from the musicians or conductor who will be performing the piece.
  • After you’ve identified some likely candidates, today’s technology makes it easy for you to familiarize yourself with their music. The vast majority of composers have websites that include sound files and sample scores, as well as contact information. A simple search on Google will also yield considerable information that will be helpful for you.

How much does commissioning cost?

  • You don’t have to be rich to commission a piece of music. Commissions can run from several hundred dollars to many thousands. The cost depends on the size of the new composition (whether it is written for a soloist, chamber group or large ensemble), the length of the composition, and the reputation and career level of the composer.
  • You should be aware that the commission amount will often include the composer’s fee for writing the music as well as a second amount for the copyist/engraver who prepares the final score and performance parts.
  • It’s also important to remember that this process involves negotiation between you and the composer, so don’t be afraid to initiate the conversation. You might learn that the composer is too busy to take on another commission, or that you can’t agree on the fee for the project, or some other information that will impact your final decision—but you’ll still have benefited from organizing your thoughts so you can articulate the project you have in mind as well as hearing the composer’s perspective and reactions.

Is commissioning tax deductible?

  • It can be, but only when a nonprofit organization is part of the project. Individuals often arrange for a Fiscal Agency through a non-profit like the American Composers Forum, and I can provide more information about that process.

How long does the process take?

  • It depends on a number of things. A simple song for a birthday gift might take as little as a few days. A large orchestral work for your local symphony might take two years—but regardless of the size, planning in important. A good rule of thumb is to allow 18–24 months from the signing of an agreement until the work has been completed and is ready to be given to the musicians to prepare for performance. Another factor to consider is how soon the selected composer is available to begin work on your project, which is an important topic for your initial conversation with the composer.

Who actually owns the music?

  • It is standard practice that composers retain the rights to their own work, and so the legal ownership of the piece (the copyright) remains with the composer. However, the commissioner is acknowledged in many ways—on the first page of the musical score, on any official recording, in the performance program and often in other written materials. It is customary that the commissioner is given a presentation copy of the completed score, almost always specially inscribed by the composer. An archive recording may be provided as well. Most of all, the commissioner experiences a satisfying sense of participation in the creation of a new work of music.