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Enjoy the Ride: Commissioning Music Part 2

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Francesca Tortora | 09:00 UK time, Thursday, 5 July 2012

In yesterday's blog, Ed McKeon, Co-Director of ‘Third Ear’, shared with us some motives for commissioning music, and now he contributes further knowledge on how to go about the process.

"Key Principles
The key relationship is that between the music director and the composer. S/he has to be both a champion for the commission within your group and a critical friend for the composer. The music director should reflect the group’s self-awareness, understanding what’s going on underneath the bonnet and openly acknowledging weaknesses as well as strengths. If possible, you should include workshops as part of the creative process for the composer to try out ideas with the group, and invite them to join in rehearsals with the group. This is an opportunity to get to know, to acknowledge and even to love the group’s quirks and idiosyncrasies.

For all the notes of caution and moments of stress, the process should be great fun. This begins with finding your composer. ‘New music’ sometimes has an aura of danger about it, but only in the same way any space that doesn’t receive much positive light can seem dark and forbidding. An hour spent online will reveal the wealth and diversity of music being made today, both by early career and established composers. There are some links at the end of this blog article giving places that you can begin your search.

It’s worth doing your research first so you have an idea of what you like, and what kind of experience you need from the composer. You might not feel safe with someone driving your coach if they’ve only ever driven a family car (unless, perhaps, it’s Lewis Hamilton), though they might be fine if they’ve got a HGV licence.

Whilst research can help find a good match, you always have to bear in mind that you are commissioning the composer’s next work, not re-commissioning their last piece. This is a mystery tour and the final destination will remain secret – possibly to you and to the composer – until the journey has begun.


Commissioning music should be creative and surprising. At the same time, it’s also a practical process: it’s important to define these issues in the commissioning brief and separate them from stylistic and aesthetic preferences. Practical issues include: duration; line-up; pitch range; ability level; the workshop and rehearsal process and time available; the timeframe for completing the piece; how the piece should be provided (in score, as audio file etc.); and the context for the first performance.

Other details in the brief should include:

•    The agreed fee and payment schedule (commonly 50% up front and 50% on completion, with copying and printing costs added separately);

•    Details of any other obligations (e.g. meeting your audience, providing photographs and copy for promotion, or being available for press and media interviews);

•    Clarification of rights and responsibilities (e.g. if the composer chooses to use a text, the rights for this need to be cleared, and the group’s exclusive rights to the first performance etc.);

•    Ownership of the score, parts and/or recording (usually stays with the composer);

•    The form of credits and acknowledgements in the score or recording; and

•    The means of resolving any disagreements.

There are no guidelines to fees as each piece is unique, so you will need to negotiate the cost of the commission with the composer. Composing is a professional job, and artists need to be paid fairly. Nevertheless, you will find that most fees are quite modest in relation to comparable services.

Useful Links

NMC Recordings
Soon to launch their innovative music map, this has the most comprehensive guide to new British music and composers.

Sound and Music
Profiles of composers and experimental musicians, and pages on featured composers (link is below)

Ed will be rounding off his series of blogs with Part 3 centred on how to get the most out of the commissioning process.



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