Category Archives: New Composition News

100% Australian made podcast

Julie Simonds has been around Australian Music for many, many years. I first met her Julie she was working for the ABC, who (at the time) was running the state orchestras (Sydney SO, Melbourne SO, Tasmanian SO etc.) For many years Julie has been a regular presenter on Fine Music, a volunteer-run classical radio station in Sydney.

Julie has begun a new series called 100% Australian Made, in which she features Australian composers talking about their history and their music, together with excerpts of their music being played.

Logo of the Fine Music 100% Australian Made podcast/program

I am honoured to be the first guest on this important program, syndicated across the classical-music public radio stations in Australia.

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.


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:

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.

It is better to be feared than loved – Premiere Performances

I have completed a new, large work for the Sydney Philharmonia Festival Chorus and the Sydney Youth Orchestra, which will be premiered in the Sydney Opera House on 8 and 9 October, 2014.  The lyrics come from the writings of Niccolo Machiavelli, whose image is placed above this post.

Following are the program notes.  Or go here for information from Faber Music on the instrumentation and choir sizes.

There is nothing quite like singing in a choir, as so many people in Australia and the world know so well. Even more special is singing in a massed choir of 400+ voices. In performance, each chorister combines to create such a powerful sound to raise the roof of a venue like the Sydney Opera House.

This year I was commissioned by the Sydney Philharmonia Choir to write a new work for massed choir and orchestra. When I say the Sydney Philharmonia Choir, I really mean the members of the Sydney Philharmonia Festival Chorus. Many of the singers in this group put forward their own hard-earned money to enable the construction of a brand-new piece of music.

Talk about putting one’s money where one’s mouth is! This is really crowd-funding at its best. So when I set out to write this new piece, I was imagining each of these choristers producing sounds, phrases and melodies that, if not for their own foresight and generosity, would not exist.
When writing new choral or vocal music, the starting point for the actual music is usually the text. Good text will dictate its own rhythm, and indeed sometimes the music itself.

Another starting point for me was contemporary events and society. To me there isn’t much point in writing music that isn’t relevant to contemporary musicians and audiences. Especially when lyrics are involved to make the intention very clear.

So after a long search, and given what’s been going on in Australian politics recently, the writings of Niccolo Macchiavelli (1469-1527) were the best choice. It may seem strange to use texts from 500 years ago, given what I say above. But how can one go past such choice quotes as:

“It is better to be feared than loved[, if one cannot be both]”;
“Politics have no relation to morals”, or even:
“The promise given was a necessity of the past, the broken promise is a necessity of the present.”

Did Machiavelli has a crystal ball to see into contemporary Australian politics when writing the above gems? Or is it rather something more fundamental to the human condition?

In the end then, It is better to be feared than loved (the title of my new work) deals with contemporary politics of governments, politicians and the pursuit of power. As such, it is often musically bombastic and overblown – which was tremendous fun to write.

And, I hope, to sing.

Premiere of “Resonance” at Synaesthesia+, MONA (Tasmania)

Imagine writing a piece for orchestra where the players are in different rooms, can’t hear one another, where there is no conductor for everyone and where you can’t predict where the audience will be at any one time. That was the starting point for “Resonance”, a new 18 minute piece written for the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra to open the Synaesthesia+ Festival in August, 2014.

Here is an article from the Sydney Morning Herald on the new piece, and the festival.

And here are some images from the performance, which went extremely well indeed. Images courtesy of MONA/Remi Chauvin.