Commissions: My advice as an “emerging” composer (Tool #35)

This post was prompted by an inquiry by Sakari Dixion, another composer/musician whose blog you should check out, especially if you’re looking for new music to listen to (she has a “Cool Stuff I’m Listening To” series):  (As you know, listening is vital to any musical activity, especially composing.  Her music is also “cool stuff to listen to”.)

Onto the topic: commissions.

Commissions were really scary for me at first.  I had just graduated from Hartt, and so I was feeling extreme responsibility for every note I wrote–after all, there were no more professors judging me, and so I put that judgment on myself.  It took a while, but I eventually gained confidence to not be hypercritical (and only be regularly, constructively critical), and my work has benefited from that.  So, in this vein of being critical, when one is commissioned there are elements to keep in mind:

  1. The aesthetic of the commissioner (eg. if it’s a more Cage-ian ensemble, a performer who specializes in the Baroque period, a South American-influenced duo, etc.), and what makes them unique–do some “research” (even if it’s just talking to them or visiting their website if they have one).
  2. The specifics of the piece that you can estimate, such as total length, instrumentation, formal divisions, if the performer(s) has any special requests to incorporate, setup issues (eg. if you’re using percussion, electronics, spatial elements, etc.), the audience to whom the performer(s) will be playing, and many more elements that hopefully will come up.
  3. The production: how often you will ask for feedback (I recommend asking for feedback at least a couple of times throughout composing and editing), the deadline (if there is one), possible performances, if you will be asked to travel with them to performances, if you are asked to be present at specific performances, etc.
  4. Logistics: exchange contact information and know which method is preferable for them, know if they will be busy during certain times of the year (eg. end of semesters, or during summer traveling).

Ideally these four items would be somewhat complete, but oftentimes only one or two may be determined at the beginning of a project.  These are items that I’ve found really help, and I wish I did all of them for each commission because they help immensely.

For emerging composers, the first commissions you’re most likely going to get are unpaid.  Don’t dismay; unpaid commissions are good for:

  1. Getting acclimated to collaboration and feedback,
  2. Acquiring experience tailoring music for a person, ensemble, or theme,
  3. Getting credentials (pieces written, ensemble connections, venue connections, etc.) so you can get paid commissions.

When you move to paid commissions, I suggest you consider that you’re a professional musician, with education of some sort, probably hundreds of hours of studying, practicing, and composing in your history, and looking to make a living off of music ideally.  Treat your pay scale like you would if composing were a full time job–because ideally that’s what you’d like to do (to compose full time).  So, I have two strategies for payment:

  1. By the hour: I charge $30 per hour of composing, editing, and score cleanup.  I keep an up-to-the-minute log of each composing/editing/cleanup session so I have a record that I can present to the commissioner when time comes for the end payment.
  2. The by-the-hour method is good for smaller projects where you can estimate your hours spent composing (prior to composing), but when you’re trying to keep the price range reasonable for relatively low or middle income commissioners, I prefer a flat fee.  I basically take the number of hours I’d estimate putting in and set that as the flat fee (so $30 x H number of hours), but this means I can go over the number of hours and not worry about overcharging the commissioner.
  3. Other options: Other composers charge per measure, or per minute of music composed, so it’s up to you and can really depend on the project.   It’s typical, for example, for a composer to get $500-600 for 3 to 4 minutes of film music (so $125-$200 per minute of music).  If you’re writing a chamber opera, then per the minute might work best.  If you’re composing a symphony, per measure might work (because you have a huge number of measures, which include every measure for every stave or instrument; so for 2222 4331 3perc. Timp. Hp. Strings, you might have 500 measures with 29 staves x the 500 = 14,500 measures).
  4. Even more options: Grants: I’m not very knowledgeable on grants, but they are another widespread way to get paid for writing music–this often happens by co-writing a grant with the commissioner so you and they get paid for time spent composing, rehearsing, getting a venue, promoting the piece, buying software/hardware/equipment, etc.  However, my knowledge on this is limited, so I won’t speak further than I know (although I think this is my next step in getting further commissions).
  5. Keep in mind: Don’t forget to get reimbursed for printing costs (and gas/travel if they’re willing to pay for travel expenses)–just save all receipts.

So, how does one get commissions?

Network, network, network!  My advice is:

  1. Ask an instrumentalist or vocalist if they can spend an hour or so with you and their instrument explaining everything they know about it.  Take notes, ask questions, and get as much out of that session as you can.  If they specialize in a certain area (eg. extended techniques, period performance, folk uses of their instruments, new music, etc.) ask them to divulge their expertise in that area.  Spend some time compiling your notes and assimilating your thoughts, and ask them (after some time has passed) if you can write a piece for them.
  2. Get to know an ensemble by talking with its members, going to their concerts, and getting to know them and their scene.  If you interact with them enough they might ask you for a piece if you haven’t asked to write one for them already.
  3. Ask your musician friends if they know anyone interested in getting new music written for them.  Many times it’s about who you know more than how much self-marketing you do.
  4. Send off works to festivals, ensembles, or individuals who have score calls.  Even though chances are they’ll be flooded with other qualified applications, these both get your name out there to the judges or ensembles, and they might ask for a new piece if they like your submitted work.  (It’s a crap shoot, but in the very least your name is seen).
  5. Talk with your current and former (as applicable) professors about local projects that need submissions, for example installations, events at art galleries, new music festivals, etc.  Professors are most often very well connected locally and on a broader scale, because chances are they are settled in the region and have travel experience throughout their life (which is experience that you might not have had time to attain yet).
  6. In my experience most people don’t win competitions, so getting commissions is a grass roots experience.  Don’t give up, and just keep writing and trying and trying and writing.  Some people will blow you off, but others will be genuinely great collaborators (and people).

In general:

  1. Don’t feel like you have to give into cheapskate demands when it comes to money.  You are a professional musician and deserve to be compensated as one.  (I cringe at those two words next to each other; I prefer “artist” instead of “professional musician”.  I only use those two words to convey that you are on par with a businessman/woman or someone who is paid normal or above normal pay for their craft in which they have trained and invested.)  You will most likely start off with unpaid commissions, but once those are established and completed then you should have enough experience to justify getting paid for working.
  2. Sometimes the payoff is equivalent to getting paid; scoring a film trailer for free when you’re starting off (if they don’t have a budget for the trailer) will allow you to post the finished trailer online and may lead to working with media artists or getting into scoring for broadcast or popular media.  You can argue for the next media gig that you deserve to be paid because you have experience and do a solid job (and you can refer them to evidence of both with that trailer).
  3. It can be daunting to ask for money in return for your art.  It still retains some of the foreign quality to me–I mean, I do it because I love it, and I don’t like to impose on people in general, so setting a price for music was a huge leap of faith for me into advancing my career.  If you’re ever unsure, ask someone who has been in your shoes what they think of the deal you’re about to propose.  That’s a great way to make sure you don’t over- or undersell yourself.

Questions?  Comments?  Please let me know what you think.

Happy composing,


2 thoughts on “Commissions: My advice as an “emerging” composer (Tool #35)

  1. Jacob

    Hello! I’m a fourteen year old boy who’s been composing for 3 years now, and I’m now looking to get small and simple commissions to pay for some software and equipment upgrades. I don’t know where to start, and I can’t talk to ensembles or individuals since I don’t have a ton of contacts. Where do I start now?

    1. Thanks for reading! I would suggest starting with anyone at a local music preparatory academy or pre-college music lessons studio/shop. That may be a good way to get to know people and connect with performers your age. Another avenue to pursue is your school system; talk to the music teacher(s) there, and maybe they can give you pointers on your compositions to get them ready for sending out to the teachers’ peers. Most music teachers are very well connected. They might even like your material enough to perform your work! Please note that most of your first commissions when starting out will be unpaid. But, having a finished score, performance, and ideally a recording can really help you find paying gigs, especially if you have tapped into the networks of local musicians and teachers. Hope this helps!

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