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Composers and Contracts

August 3, 2012

Contracts? We don’t need no stinkin’ contracts!

You’re a composer who has been offered what seems like a golden opportunity to write a 25 minute-long work for French nose flute soloist B. Low Gently, with oud, diggeridoo, and brake drum accompaniment. You’re promised $5,000 (the most you’ve ever received for one piece), and a premiere in Carnegie Hall at the height of the season. You’ve even known B. Low for a long time. What could possibly go wrong?

Hmm. How about everything? What happens if the premiere is delayed or cancelled? Or the musician dies (G*d forbid) or the ensemble goes out of business? Or if you get sick (again, G*d forbid)? Or you hand in the music only to find out the musicians hate it?

I was once commissioned to write a concerto for Baroque lute by a British lutenist who shall go nameless. A nice person and wonderful performer to be sure, and someone I had thought would “have it all together” when it came to  explaining to me what was required. I sent recordings and scores of my music for the lutenist’s study, to make sure  the player knew the kinds of music I tended to write at the time (and still do, but even better I think); I received a letter saying “Wonderful!” and all sorts of other positive feedback. So we settled on the specifics of the piece to be written (timing, instrumentation, etc.), drew and both signed an agreement, and I got to work.

Long story made somewhat shorter: I finished the concerto, sent off the score to the UK, and waited. Two weeks later I received a transAtlantic phone call (still a big deal then). “Steven,” the lutenist said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t perform your concerto.” When I asked why I was told “Well, because it doesn’t sound like [J.S.] Bach.” I thought it was, literally, a joke, so I kidded around: “But you made the check out to me, not Bach.” But the lutenist was serious. So here I was, stuck with a concerto for lute of all things. At least the check cleared, and then only because we had a written agreement which both parties had to honor. The concerto sat “in the desk” for some years until last year, when conductor Ivar Lunde, Jr., did a fabulous job of conducting the premiere with the Eau Claire Chamber Orchestra with lutenist Dieter Hennings as soloist. (And Dieter was/is just amazing!) The moral of the story? Make sure you have an agreement/contract whenever you have a commission — especially when money or a high-profile premiere is involved.

The next post or two (or more perhaps) will focus on what goes into such an agreement. This will merely be fodder for your own agreements, and shouldn’t be taken as written in stone. Also, if the gig is important enough or the money big enough, or both, you should absolutely get an attorney to look any agreement over, especially if it’s presented to you to sign. Oh, and because agreements are not written in stone (at least until they’re executed by signatures by all parties), they are negotiable. Just to start you off though: Contracts can be initiated by either you or the person asking you to write the music.

All good contracts begin by defining certain things: The date on which the agreement goes into affect, the parties involved, and the briefest possible description of what is to be done (with the details described in the contract proper). You don’t need to use “lawyer jargon” (aka “boilerplate”) like the Marx Brothers do in their films (Groucho: “The party of the first part…”, Chico: “Hey, I no-a like-a that party.”), but you do need to define who is whom. For example:

Composer: That’s you. Once that is determined, the agreement will refer to you in third person, as in “Composer will compose a work for….”

Commissioning Party or Commissioner: That would be the person/persons/business entity paying or otherwise initiating the commission.

There’s lots more. Stayed tuned.

©2012 Steven L. Rosenhaus

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