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Tips for Commissioning

On Commissioning a New, Extended Work
By S.K. Hill

There are few greater risks than taking on the commissioning of a major work. And by major work, I am talking about a 50-minute piece designed to take up one entire half of a regular concert. The trash pile of history is littered with failed commissions that are performed once and never performed again. Careful consideration of the process by which the commission is undertaken can help avoid some of the pitfalls.

  1. Timeline: The composer/lyricist should have the project outline and be able to start the composition process one full year from the anticipated date at which the chorus needs to start rehearsing the music. This means a LOT of preparation by the Artistic Director (AD) prior to handing the project over to the composer/lyricist.
  2. Cost: As this is a project which can span more than one budget, it is imperative that AD accounts for budgeting the project over at least two seasons. Other considerations beside the normal BMI/ASCAP costs, would be mechanical and/or synchronization licensing if the piece is recorded and/or videoed. The cost of instrumentation; this must be defined in the contract prior to the project being started and budgeted for. Special effects, staging, choreography, costuming, guests, dancers, etc. All elements of the performance of the piece need to be budgeted, not only for the one concert at which it will premiere, but for subsequent performances. Be realistic. Full-Act commissions can start at $15,000.00 and go to over $100,000.00. But, depending on the relationship between the composer, lyricist and AD, sometimes a deal can be struck.
  3. Where to start: The AD must know what he wants from the piece before searching for either a librettist or composer. The best way to do this is to convene workshops with groups of singers to ascertain what they want the piece to say. It is, after all, they who will be singing it and if it has no connection with the singers, it will fail. I have often brought the composer and lyricist out to meet with groups of singers so that the composer and lyricist can get a more tangible feeling for what the singers want. However, there must be an impetus. The AD must have some kind of idea about a general theme, or issue, or outcome for the piece. If the AD cannot visualize the piece, he will not be able to adequately communicate the piece to the composer and lyricist.
  4. Occasion: New commissions that are presented only at single concerts, do not often get performed again. New commissions that are premiered at a GALA Festival, or ACDA Festival or have a larger audience tend to have “legs” and are performed more often. Multiple performances are very attractive to composers and librettists so keep in mind where and when the piece will premiere and for whom.
  5. Be engaged: Insist that the librettist submit ongoing ideas as they are written. Do not settle for a final draft and be stuck with it. The AD should be a part of the creative process and work with both the composer and librettist to make sure go guide the project in the direction the chorus wishes. Some composers and lyricists appreciate this. Some vehemently resist this and just want you to accept whatever they write. This means that the working relationship between the composer/lyricist and AD is essential. It is a working collaboration. Do not buy pig in a poke, so to speak.
  6. Share a lot: Assemble from the beginning a Commission Commission. This is a group of individuals in whom you have implicit trust in their ability to tell you the truth and be honest in their assessment without drama, hysteria or snarling and gnashing of the teeth. (It goes without saying that some of these are unavoidable, but you really need to be able to lean on the ears of those in the chorus you can trust). Share with them some of the ideas that were submitted to them. Not necessarily all of them, but let them know the progress of the work. If you can get a core number of singers really excited about the new commission, this will spill over the chorus as a whole and the piece will be much more successful.
  7. The contract: As professional as many Executive Directors are, many of them are not able to draft a contract that includes all of the essential elements that you, as the AD, need to be included in the contract. We have included some example contracts here. One clause that you need to consider is the penalty clause. In the initial negotiations and in the contract you have specifically stated when you need the final, completed choral scores in your hand, ready to rehearse. (you can negotiate as to when you need instrumental parts, full scores, etc). However, you must also be prepared for the very real situation that you do not have anything to rehearse with on the first rehearsal. Therefore, I suggest a penalty clause. This is not designed to be either punitive nor arbitrary, but is insurance that you and the organization are protected should either the composer or librettist not deliver by the date specified in the contract. So, after sitting down with the composer and librettist you establish dates by which you need the completed scores, you then negotiate a penalty of non-compliance with the terms of delivery of the work. The standard penalty clause I have used in the past if $50.00 per day, past the delivery deadline, to be deducted from the final payment. Remember that the payment schedule is usually divided into two or three major components. There is a percentage due the composer upon the contracts being signed. If you are contracting a separate librettist and composer, each will need a separate contract.