Why is no-one vomiting in timpani any more?

The last two Tuesdays I have been mentoring composers as part of the Ku-Ring-Gai Philharmonic Orchestra’s Australian music program.  This is an excellent opportunity for emerging Australian composers to hear their orchestral pieces workshopped by a community orchestra.  It’s a long-standing commitment to Australian music by a community organization that understands the importance of nurturing an art form.

One of the composers, Solomon Frank, is a 2nd year student at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.  He wrote a piece in which the orchestra players are required to grunt, groan, slap their cheeks around + other assorted bodily sounds, in addition to playing their instruments in a ‘normal’ fashion.

It sounds a bit 1960s, right? But no-one is writing this type of music any more, at least, not in the orchestral world.

I remarked to Solly that it would be best if he didn’t write this sort of music when he inevitably moves to the professional orchestra sphere.  He immediately responded, “why not?”

Good question.  My thoughts were shaped by my own and my peers’ experiences as more established composers: that the orchestral players would absolutely crucify him, that he likely would never have another piece played by them in his lifetime, that he should try to master foundational concepts rather than going ‘wild’, and most importantly, that he wouldn’t be making use of the considerable expertise of the players in the orchestra – i.e. playing their instruments extremely well, rather than blowing raspberries.  It would be a wasted opportunity.

However, upon reflection, we live in an extremely conservative, risk-averse age. Yes, emerging composers have to pay off their iPhone like everyone else. And hence they perhaps shouldn’t aim to bite the hand that feeds.

But there must be more to life (and art) than money.

The best and most striking thing about Solly’s new piece is that it contained numerous sound worlds that I had never ever heard from an orchestra before.  That’s a very rare thing indeed.  The last time I felt like this was hearing the orchestration in Carl Vine’s Violin Concerto – in 2011 – a long time between drinks.

Solly took risks. I’m so pleased he did. He forced the orchestral players outside their comfort zones. And in this case, the risk paid off with entirely new sounds. It was totally worth it.

There are so few people taking risks these days, not least in the field of orchestral music.  We composers are more than aware of (1) the competition for few orchestral opportunities for composers, and (2) the cost of having an orchestra there, doing your bidding, and the subsequently responsibility: you’d better make the best use of it!

And yet, when the typical results are technically very competent but lack originality, we can’t help but be disappointed.  Why is it that middle-aged men such as myself and Paul Stanhope are amongst the youngest composers out there getting regular orchestral gigs? Where is the fire, the brimstone, the energy, the boldness, the extremism, the drama of orchestral possibilities from the younger generations? Where are the emerging composers out there making statements?  Taking things to the limits? If the young and emerging composers aren’t doing it, then who will.

A few years ago, the eminent music education guru Richard Gill lamented to me in conversation, “why is no-one vomiting in timpani any more?” Maybe it’s about time we started.

After all the 1960s were half a century ago.

“How much?” A guide for commissioners and composers

How much? A guide for commissioners and composers

I am often asked how much a commissioner should expect to pay a composer for a new piece of music.

For example, a recent email:

“Dear Matthew,

I was wondering if you happened to have a copy of the current Australia Council suggested commissioning rates?  I am looking at launching a Commissioning Project for our Centenary and need to pull together a budget for the Executive.”

A few of things about this. First (& most important) it’s wonderful that this organization wants to commission new music to commemorate their centenary. There are many reasons as to why this is a good thing – though of course I would say that.

Second, there is the reference to the “Australia Council suggested commissioning rates.” Back in the day, the Music Board of the Australia Council for the Arts had a guideline of what composers should charge per minute of music. This was dependent upon how many ‘lines’ of music were used in the piece. So a string quartet would have 4 lines, and an orchestra might have 24 lines. More lines = higher rate per minute.

There are problems with this, particularly that it was largely irrelevant to genres of music outside the Classical/Art Music and Jazz idioms – and even then, the improvisation side of things was problematic. Also, it was a pretty blunt instrument in terms of who it was targeting. For some composers, the rates were too low. For others, they were very generous.

So during my time as the Chair of the Music Board, the suggested rates moved from being a quasi-Award Rate to instead the maximum amount that the Australia Council would contribute towards a grant application.

In other words, the “Australia Council suggested commissioning rates” ceased to exist some years ago. Any rates that are published or available are now often misunderstood as to their purpose because of this history.

Third, as my colleague Paul Stanhope has rightly pointed out, there are many reasons for a composer writing a piece: the money on offer isn’t necessarily going to be the driving force. The artistic rationale is often even more important. What a good thing!

So where are we at today?

The rule is that everything is up for negotiation. This is a good thing in my opinion.

In lieu of any other further concrete information, here are my suggestions.

The rate for a commission is dependent on several factors:

  1. The status and experience of the composer in question;
  2. What they are asked to write for, i.e. the complexity or otherwise of the brief;
  3. The financial resources of the commissioner;
  4. How much the composer needs the money;
  5. The interest of the composer in writing the proposed piece of music in question and/or how available they are, together with what is on offer beyond writing the piece itself.

The status and experience of the composer.

There are three main categories for consideration.

Premium composers. These are very established composers who are regularly commissioned, performed and recorded by the best and most prestigious music organizations in the country and internationally. They may have an international publisher.  They may be the rarest of breed: a freelance composer, though more likely, like everyone else these days, have a portfolio career. Typically they are booked up a few years in advance.

The starting point for these composers I would estimate at about $2000 a minute.  They have a lot more competition for their limited time, and/or they are doing it for their living in a lot of cases.  There is little point haggling for less than this unless they want to do you a favour. The idea is that there will be prestige for you in commissioning them. Such commissions in theory have a better chance of having a ‘life’ (repeat performances) due to the track record of the composer.

The $2000/minute of music figure probably won’t vary that much despite the size of the ensemble and/or size of the ensemble for whom it’s being written. For less you might get an arrangement of an existing piece, which isn’t a bad thing in itself.

Established composers. These are again composers who are regularly commissioned, performed and recorded by high standard music ensembles, though possibly not as often. They probably will not have as much work booked into the future as the Premium composers – meaning that there may be increased availability, though very often pretty busy.

I would budget for around $1000/minute in general.  There is room for negotiation here. Start at the $1000/minute and work up or down.  These composers may well be very busy doing a range of things but may have time here and there, and/or university jobs meaning that they are willing to do something they are interested in for a bit less.

Emerging composers. The Australia Council defines an emerging artist as someone in their first 5 years of professional practice. This doesn’t work for composers as it typically takes a great deal longer to become established. I would state that composers who aren’t regularly commissioned or performed by the top-notch ensembles would fall into this category, and typically they may be in the process of developing a personal and distinctively recognizable style or voice at this stage.

Here I would suggest between $200/minute (for someone still at or just out of Uni) to about $500/minute.  The size of the ensemble here will make a big difference.

You don’t want to rip such composers off. However in reality, they need you more than you need them. The prestige of a commission, the standard of performers and the potential audience listening to the performance matters a great deal here in terms of the negotiations. And hence there may be flexibility.

What they are asked to write for, and the complexity of the brief

It stands to reason that a 90 minute chamber opera with multiple collaborators should demand a lot more money than a 10 minute vocal sextet. A desire by the commissioner or composer to approach new forms of music making, to extend the discipline, to write a piece that could be seen as falling within the string quartet canon, for example, may require a lot more time, effort and brain power than a miniature to celebrate a birthday. And hence more money.

(Note that the added complexity will NOT ensure a higher standard piece. In fact, often quite the opposite.)

The financial resources of the commissioner

There are corporate organizations who don’t sneeze at spending $100k on their end of year Christmas functions. There are others who sell raffle tickets to raise money for new commissions.

If an organization can’t afford the going rate for a composer, they can negotiate, but if they can’t afford it in the end, there are many other composers who may be able to do it. And do a good job.

Note that if the commission is tax deductible, some commissioners are much more inclined to take it on, particularly if it they are in the top tax bracket.

How much the composer needs the money

Supply and demand works here too, just as in every other field of endeavor.

The interest of the composer in writing the piece of music

When I needed a roof repair done, it was fairly obvious that the roofing contractor giving a quote wasn’t that interested in doing the job, as he quoted $12000 for something that would take 2 days.

A composer’s interest in doing a commission can be piqued further by raising the commission rate – especially if he or she is busy. A higher commission rate may result in other commissions being delayed to make way for this one.

The performers, recordings and so forth aligned to the commission will affect the willingness of the composer to take it on. I ensure that all my commissions will be recorded, and I will be furnished a copy of the recording. Otherwise there is little point in me spending months writing it.

A composer may be particularly interested in writing for a particular ensemble. For example, I am always down to write new works for string instruments, even if the money on offer isn’t what I would usually charge.

It is often worth the commissioner discussing with the composer what sort of piece the composer wants to write, rather than come with a pre-conceived idea. Personally I find this more challenging, preferring more information and restrictions up front – the more parameters are given, the easier the piece is to write! But composers vary in this regard.

Additional costs

The commission fee to the composer isn’t necessarily the end of the matter. Typically, the following should be budgeted for:

Production of parts

For a large ensemble such as an orchestra or wind symphony, someone has to prepare the parts. It could be the composer or it could be someone else. Then they have to be manufactured. This can cost a fair amount of money.

Hire fees

It is usual for some published works to be hired out to performers. Performers pay a set rate per performance. This may or may not include the commissioned work’s premiere. In the UK, commissioners pay double the standard hire fees for the privilege of giving the premiere performance, in addition to the commission fee for the music itself. This is much more negotiable in Australia, in general. Often the hire fees are included in the commission.

Attending rehearsals, giving workshops etc.

Some composers want to be paid for attending rehearsals and performances of their music. Some don’t want to be. There may be costs involved. It is a good thing to get the composer to the work’s premiere if possible, and thus pay airfare and accommodation costs if they are not local, and particularly if it is a prestigious commission. These should be negotiated.

For educational institutions such as schools, composers should be paid if they are giving workshops to students or the like, just as any teacher is paid for doing so.

Negotiating

It may be tempting to ‘go in hard’, and try to get a bargain rate for a commission.

In most cases, this is false economy. There is little value in the end in not paying the composer what they’re worth. I have heard the results of this first-hand, in a situation in which a composer was insulted by the amount offered, decided to do it anyway and obviously tossed off the quickest piece they possibly could to fulfill the brief. No-one wins in this situation. Certainly not the audience or the commissioner. It is highly unlikely that pieces such as this will go on to have a life beyond the first performance.

So what do I charge?

Contact me and find out. 🙂

 

See also the following articles:

https://partialdurations.com/2015/06/01/how-much-does-it-cost-a-guide-to-commissioning-new-music-in-australia/

http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2004/01/06/1073268021582.html

http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/commissioning-music-and-stuff/

The 5 Cs of (arts) grant applications

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From 2009-2013, in my role as Chair of the Music Board of the Australia Council for the Arts, I assessed over 2000 grant applications. This included reading thousands of pages and listening to countless hours of support materials – which was a rare privilege, and extremely illuminating re. the vast range of musical activity occurring around Australia.

Based on this experience, many people have asked general advice as to how to write grant applications. There is no magic bullet. However, the following points should be borne in mind: what I call the “5 Cs”.

  1.  Clear

Ensure that your written text is to the point. The entire proposal should be easily understandable to a musician from a genre or background unrelated to your own. Or even better, to a member of the general public. Avoid technical jargon as much as possible. If assessors can’t understand the written application, will they be likely to support your project in the meeting?

  1. Concise

There is nothing wrong with information presented in a matter-of-fact, readable manner. More words does not equal a better application.

I recall one round that had 1200+ pages of applications to read. In addition there were hours and hours of support material to listen to. So: avoid waffle – assessors may not have time to appreciate it.

  1. Comprehensive

As an assessor, it’s pretty easy to tell a project that is well considered and of an overall excellent (i.e. fundable) standard. It will typically be achievable rather than speculative. All information necessary to make the project achievable will be included. If there are parts of the application that are vague and/or missing, it’s not helpful to the proposal’s chances.

It is worth trying to imagine the sort of questions you would have about a project if you were an assessor: for example, “who is going to do the arrangement of the string parts”, “who are these ‘Musicians TBC’ and how do we know they will be of an excellent standard”, “what is the recording venue for the project and why is it a good choice for this proposal.”

Budgets are a good way to ensure that you have covered all relevant details necessary for the project to be viable. (And they should be balanced).

Confirmations are important. While it’s often difficult to have venues, artists etc. confirmed when the application is due, another application in the same round probably will. So they will score higher on the Planning criteria, thereby putting your application at a disadvantage. And therefore you will be less likely to be funded.

  1. Criteria

The criteria are always published prior to the grant round closing. Peers are instructed in and before the meeting to assess applications according to the criteria. So, in essence, the funding body is telling you what they are looking for.

Ensure that your application addresses the criteria in a clear and convincing manner. There is no harm in being obvious in this. Use the other questions in the grant application to address the criteria. For example, if you are asked to name the artists you are working with, and one of the assessment criteria is “Quality of key personnel”, explain why these artists are the best people for the project in addition to saying who they are.

(And in case you were wondering, “quality of written expression in application” was never on the list of criteria. So we never funded an application on the English language skills of the applicant.)

  1. Convincing

Typically, grant rounds will be extraordinarily competitive. You may have a fantastic project being proposed – but so will the majority of other applicants. So it is worth making the value of your proposal obvious and explicit. Why is this project worth funding? What is valuable about the proposal in the broader context? (i.e. beyond that you want to do it). Modesty is not necessarily a virtue in grant applications.

If something you are applying for is extremely important, convince the assessors that it is so. Otherwise they will fund something else.

And don’t presume that all assessors will automatically be familiar with the importance of the proposal you are submitting, nor with your history. Don’t take anything for granted.

 

There are a lot of other suggestions I could make:

  • this is hugely important – ensure that your support material is of the highest quality and is relevant to the proposal;
  • talk through the application with the staff prior to submission to ensure it’s all going to be fundable according to published guidelines;
  • see what has been funded in the past including amounts funded;
  • register to be a peer so you can have first hand-experience of what happens in assessment meetings, and get personal experience of the process (and other applications);
  • if not successful the first time, try again after taking any feedback into account and changing the application if necessary.

Please note: these opinions are purely my own, and do not represent any sort of official Australia Council policy or official direction on how to write grant applications.