A step-by-step guide to commissioning new music

Research conducted by Making Music shows that on average 400 new works or arrangements are commissioned by our members each year. Commissioning new works can be a hugely enjoyable and rewarding experience for voluntary music groups – and one we encourage all our members to look into. 

This guidance provides a step-by-step guide on how to commission new music. The guidelines are designed to help you choose a suitable composer for your group’s needs, negotiate the commissioning process, raise funds, market your piece successfully, and ensure future performances of your commission. Throughout the guide you will see links to various websites and other guidance – the full URLs for these can be found in the appendix.

Contents

Step One: Six good reasons to commission new music

Voluntary ensembles are the lifeblood of (British) music-making, from steel pan bands to brass bands, orchestras to rock choirs. I truly believe that if you are a composer, you should want to write different sorts of music for ALL members of the community to perform. I find it hugely rewarding, when visiting rehearsals or performances, to see singers getting stuck into sometimes quite unusual vocal textures. Composing is a living, breathing art form, and there is no better way for voluntary ensembles to realise that than by performing something new - and even better if it's by a composer that they can meet!

Kerry Andrew, composer: ‘Composers Talking: commissioning new music for voluntary performing groups

There are loads of great benefits of Commissioning new music, too many to list here but to get you started, a new commission can:

  1. Provide music group members and audiences alike with a special new experience
  2. Allow group members to be part of the creative process
  3. Provide the kudos of mounting a world première and the associated PR opportunities – and the access to funding opportunities that can give
  4. Create a piece of music particularly suited to a specific audience, for example young people, or for a special occasion (such as a significant anniversary for your group)
  5. Amplify your group’s repertoire, and musical repertoire in general
  6. Give your group new focus

Step Two: Understanding the commissioning process

The commissioning process is concerned with managing relationships between composer, artistic director, and performers.  This can be a rewarding and productive process. The chart below gives an overview of the commissioning process.

Step Three: Choosing a composer

Someone in your group may already know a composer.  One of your members, or your Musical Director, may be interested in writing a work, although this should be approached in the same manner as any other commission.

If you have heard the music of a composer that you particularly like you can most likely find out how to contact them in the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors (BASCA) online directory of members.

Other useful routes to finding a suitable composer include:

  • The tried and trusted grapevine: ask other music groups you know if they can suggest a composer who they have worked with successfully. You can also contact Making Music for advice.
  • Sound and Music exists to promote the work of living English composers, in particular emerging voices. They also offer help and suggestions regarding the selection of composers and hold a database of newly created works from emerging composers.
  • Scotland, Wales, and Ireland have Music Information Centres which exist to promote the work of their national composers. Centre staff will be happy to put together an information pack with details and samples of composers’ music.  
  • If you are interested in finding a local composer you might hold a competition, offering a valuable opportunity for local composers to have their work played. You could also advertise in a local conservatoire, university, or schools.
  • Music publishers can recommend composers from their own ‘house’ and also keep tabs on new talent. Ask to speak to someone in the repertoire promotion department.
  • You may also find the Making Music ‘Composer Talking’ brief useful. This was written by composer Alan Bullard and is chiefly aimed at composers looking to work with amateur groups – but will  be of value to amateur groups, too, in helping to understand the composer’s point of view

Here is a checklist of useful criteria to bear in mind when choosing a composer to approach:

  • Do they write the sort of music that you and your members like and find interesting, engaging and stimulating?
  • Do they have experience of writing for amateurs?
  • Do they have experience of writing for the forces you need?
  • Do they have a track record of delivering work on time?
  • Will you be able to reach agreement with them over changes and work-in-progress discussions?
  • Can you afford them – are all necessary fees covered?
  • Have they got time to write the piece in the timescale you have identified?
  • If you are working on a workshop basis how skilled are they at managing such events?

Step Four: Fundraising ideas

Funding new commissions is one of the easier fundraising tasks facing amateur groups. Many sources of funding are keen to support the development of new work although there is a great deal of competition for limited funds. Here are some sources you might like to try:

National government funding bodies: the Arts Council of England, Creative Scotland, Arts Council of Wales and Arts Council of Northern Ireland all have grant programmes. Check whether or not your commission meets the current grant application criteria. Funding central is also a good website to look for sources of funding.

Charitable Trusts: see the appendix for details of several charitable trusts which are known to have an interest in commissions.

Local Authorities: Although many local authority budgets are being cut, some authorities have special funds available.

Local companies may be willing to sponsor the première or make a donation on the strength of the publicity it will attract, and the boost it might give to their image.  When you approach them, give them some facts and figures about how much coverage they are likely to get for their money.

Crowd-funding: individuals and organizations are invited to buy ‘shares’ in a new work. In return, each contributor has the opportunity to be involved in the creation of the commission.

  • Some funders may stipulate that they will only help if there is matching funding and/or at least two performances have been arranged.
  • You might find it helpful to seek the collaboration of other groups in your area to co-commission a work and present the first, second and possibly third performances of the new piece within a short period. This can have added publicity appeal to all concerned and may help to procure funding from other sources.
  • Remember that an external funder might have specifics which it wishes to see on a contract, such as acknowledgement of their assistance on all associated print.

Making Music: we have a number of resources on fundraising.

Our Adopt a Composer scheme for member groups is fully funded and a great way to get involved with new music – see the next page for more details

We also run events on fundraising – look out for emails promoting events in your area and check the events page on our website.

Step Five: Negotiations and contracts

We cannot stress enough the importance of having a formal contract or exchange of letters with the composer whom you are commissioning. If you are working via a publisher (many composers handle all their work this way), they will almost certainly issue you with a contract which you would do well to have a lawyer examine. 

Making Music members have access to the BACSA model contract for use when engaging a composer. As with all contracts, there will be some negotiation involved and it should only be signed once both sides are happy. It is also a good idea to have a lawyer look over the final version before signing. Some of the key things to think about and include in the contract are: 

  • The composer’s fee: BASCA carried out a survey in 2011 of what their members have historically been paid which can be used as a guide. ISM also carried out a commissioning fee survey in 2015. However, please get in touch with the composer or their agent/publisher to negotiate an appropriate fee. Most composers will not be liable for VAT but check this when calculating the commission fee. 
  • Deadlines: Ensure that there are clear deadlines by which your group must receive copies of the music (by section or as a whole), and that the contract specifies any penalty in the event of the composer not meeting the deadlines.
  • Performing rights: Ensure that the contract specifies who possesses the rights to the new piece: in other words, who owns it legally. It is normal practice for the composer to retain the rights. It is also common to agree on your group having exclusive rights to the first performance. Composers and publishers will also look at extending a period of exclusivity beyond this, to allow you to programme repeat performances before it is made available to other groups. One to two years is usual for this. Whatever you decide, it is important to make sure any periods of exclusivity (including any terms such as the number of performances within a certain period) and ultimate ownership of the rights are clearly stated in the contract.
  • Parts: The cost of producing and/or copying parts can run into thousands of pounds for large works. There are a number of options of how the cost will be covered and who owns any copies. It is best to negotiate this with the composer/publisher as part of the initial contract. Some of the common approaches are:
    • In the case of a published composer, this bill is usually met by the publisher although you may be asked for a contribution. In this instance you may be able to retain copies for any future rehearsal or performances – but may have to be return/destroy them after this.
    • Composers without a publisher may agree to provide the PDFs for you to print the parts from – in this instance it would be reasonable for you to retain the parts in perpetuity.
    • Alternatively composers may provide all printed parts for an agreed fee. It is also reasonable for you to retain the parts in perpetuity in this instance.
    • If you do retain any parts in perpetuity and wish to hire them to other groups you will need agreement from the composer to do this, you could also look at sharing income from any hires.
    • Some composers prefer to hire the parts to you, just as a publisher would. Again, any fees and the terms of hire should be agreed up front.
  • Additional commitments: If the composer is to attend rehearsals, or give a talk at the première, it will be important to establish whether he/she will receive an extra fee for this.
  • Recordings: Recording the premiere of the work will assist the composer's own self-promotion, as well as providing you with a permanent record of your commission.  Bear in mind, however, apart from the costs incurred, that this can increase the pressure on the performers. Any professionals taking part will need to give permission and they might also insist on extra fees.  If you wish to sell or give away recordings of the work, you must contact PRS for Music to obtain the correct licence

Step Six: Marketing and promoting your commission

Programming

Consider the context in which the first performance will take place, and what the experience will be like for the audience. Programming a popular work alongside a new work should bring a larger audience into contact with it, as long as this makes sense in the programme as a whole. The composer may want some input into the programming of the performance, as he or she may feel that the piece would sit well amongst other specific works. If a short commission is programmed alongside an earlier work by the same composer, the composer could point to how his or her style has developed between the two pieces.

Publicity materials

  • When marketing the event include detailed information about the composer, his or her inspiration, and the themes running through the new work.
  • Minimise the use of musical jargon and intimidating language.  Use your publicity to turn negative preconceptions (the work will be difficult to listen to, the audience don't know what it will be like) into positive ones (the work will be surprising/thought-provoking) and raise the curiosity of your audience.
  • It’s an exciting event. Emphasise its uniqueness. A world première should have a great sense of occasion, especially if linked to the community in which the piece is being performed.  Distribute a press release to all local newspapers and radio stations and follow them up with a phone call.  You can also announce a première in national media such as Classical Music magazine’s listings section, BBC Music Magazine’s ‘What’s On’, Classic FM’s Concert Diary and Backtrack.com

The première

  • If the composer or Musical Director introduces the new work to the audience, with musical examples if appropriate, the audience is likely to gain more from the experience. However, this only works well if the composer does a good job – make sure they are a good public speaker and right for the job. 
  • Instill pride and enthusiasm in your group members, so that they will be encouraged to bring their friends. This is a piece of music specially created for them!
  • There is enormous potential for the creation of a specialised repertoire which directly address the needs and experiences of young audiences. You could use the new work as an education and audience development tool.
  • Involving the audience as participants in the work in some way may increase the sense of a creative act taking place.
  • It may be worth holding a reception after the concert, particularly if you want to commission another piece some time. Invite the press, local dignitaries, and potential funders. See Making Music Information sheet 79, Top 10 tips on approaching the media, for more guidance on this.

Subsequent performances

Making Music will give you as much help as possible to ensure that the work has a life beyond its première; who knows, it may be the next Dream of Gerontius; a commission from a voluntary group entering the mainstream repertoire.  Take the following steps to ensure your new piece gets the widest possible exposure.

  • Be proud – commissioning and performing a new piece of music is a great achievement:
    • plan repeat performances to help to establish it in the repertoire.
    • tell everyone you know -  one of the best ways to ensure the piece lives on is to encourage other music groups to programme it. Think about other groups/performers you know who might like the piece and get in touch.
  • Tell Making Music – we can help in a number of ways:
    • send us the details of your commission so that we can make it available within the Music Bank on our website.
    • write a short blog about the piece to encourage other members to programme it. Make sure you include information about the forces required and think about the accessibility/difficulty.
    • send a short review of the premier to Highnotes (Making Music’s magazine) for possible inclusion as a news item.
  • Collect feedback from the first performance and pass on positive comments to the  composer and publisher for use in their marketing literature.

If the commissioning process has been a happy one, make sure it is not your last. Consider delving deeper into the commissioning process:

Obtain feedback from your members about whether they enjoyed the commissioning process, and whether they would like to work again with the same or a different composer.

If the relationship with the composer is successful, and you feel comfortable with his or her music, you may wish to work with this composer fairly often. You could either elevate him or her to ‘Composer in Association’, or simply maintain a looser connection.  A composer whose work has been happily performed at or by your group before will need no special pleading, and each further commission could be seen as the logical (and very special) extension of your previous association with him or her.

Appendix – useful links

BASCA
www.basca.org.uk/directory/
Survey results: http://basca.org.uk/2014/02/27/commission-fees-survey-201011/%20%20%20an...

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
www.bcmg.org.uk
info@bcmg.org.uk

PRS for Music Foundation
www.prsformusicfoundation.com/
info@prsformusicfoundation.com

Scottish Music Centre 
www.scottishmusiccentre.com
info@scottishmusiccentre.com

Sound and Music
www.soundandmusic.org

Tŷ Cerdd - Welsh Music Information Centre
www.wmic.org
enquiries@tycerdd.org

Bach track
www.bachtrack.com

Funding

Arts Council of Wales
www.artswales.org 
info@artswales.org.uk

Arts Council England
www.artscouncil.org.uk/
enquiries@artscouncil.org.uk

Arts Council of Northern Ireland
www.artscouncil-ni.org

Creative Scotland
www.creativescotland.com

Funding Central
www.fundingcentral.org.uk

Irish Music Centre
www.cmc.ie/

The Britten-Pears Foundation
www.brittenpears.org

The Hinrichsen Foundation
hinrichsen.foundation@editionpeters.com
www.hinrichsenfoundation.org.uk

The John S Cohen Foundation
8 PO Box 21277, London, W9 2YH
020 7286 6921

The RVW Trust
www.rvwtrust.org.uk
helen@rvwtrust.org.uk

The Michael Tippett Musical Foundation
www.tippettfoundation.org.uk/index.htm
 


We hope you find this Making Music resource useful. If you have any comments or suggestions about the guidance please contact us. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the content of this guidance is accurate and up to date, Making Music do not warrant, nor accept any liability or responsibility for the completeness or accuracy of the content, or for any loss which may arise from reliance on the information contained in it.