How Commissioning Works
Anyone can commission a new work of musical art. Commissioning is simply a fancy word for a very simple transaction: you pay a composer to create something new and original, according to certain specifications (more on that later).
Why do people commission new music?
The specific reasons are as individual as each commissioner, but common reasons include…
To have fresh, new and exciting repertoire to perform. (A common motivator for conductors, performers, and ensembles.)
To celebrate a particular event (anniversary, festival, inauguration, etc.).
To offer a unique gift to a loved one—maybe a partner, a family member, or someone you highly regard.
To support the work of a living composer, and gain recognition for it. (The commissioner’s name is forever immortalized in the written score.)
To be a part of the process of creating new musical art.
As the commissioner, you can specify the work adhere to a certain set of guidelines. For example…
What Commissioners Can Specify...
The specific instrumentation is the most common stipulation of a commission, especially when a particular ensemble will premiere the work.
Specifying the length of the work (in minutes) helps manage expectations on both sides. A larger piece is more work to compose... and for the performers, it requires more resources, planning, and rehearsal time to perform the piece. The length is almost always stipulated in the contract.
This may come into play when writing music for young ensembles. The piece must be playable by the group. On the other side of the spectrum, a world-class virtuoso may want something that showcases her remarkable abilities.
Type of Work
This may or may not be stipulated. For example, a commissioner might want a march, waltz, fanfare, dance, sonata, or concerto, etc. If it is important to you that the music be appropriate for a specific type of event (say an inauguration, or wedding anniversary), that can be communicated in general terms.
Character of Work
I always ask my clients/patrons what kind of character they’d like the piece to have. For example, it could be lyrical and beautiful… exciting and energetic… rhythmic and groovy… etc. When I wrote Huapango de los Muertos, for example, the commissioner wanted a more upbeat and energetic piece to balance out a program full of beautiful, lyrical music.
To some commissioners, it is important that the work deals with a particular theme or subject matter they care about or are interested in. Any kind of theme can serve as inspiration for generating musical ideas. This still leaves a lot of room for interpretation to the composer, but will certainly influence the work and the titling of it.
If it is important to you, you can even specify the title of the piece!
These kinds of specifications still leave a lot of room for the composer to produce something creative and original without feeling “stifled.” In fact, I can attest that I actually find it easier to compose and generate ideas when there are certain boundaries in place. They help narrow down the infinite range of possibilities into… well, at least a smaller set of infinite possibilities!
If you’ve never commissioned a piece of classical concert music before, there are a few things to understand beforehand…
What First-Time Commissioners Should Understand...
First, it's important to understand that commissioning a piece of music does not grant ownership of the work to the commissioner. It remains the intellectual property of the composer. The composer, therefore, retains ALL rights to the music produced under the commission, including copyright, publishing rights, performance rights, synchronization rights, mechanical rights, etc.
In the commercial world, a composer may choose to sell the copyright to the client for an extra fee, but in the world of classical music, this is rarely, if ever, done. However, a commissioning contract will typically grant performing rights to the commissioner (ability to perform a work publicly) without paying anything extra. And if the commissioning ensemble wishes to record the work, there will be a provision for a mechanical license, with royalties to be paid based on sales.
Other rights (such as synchronization rights—attaching music to film/video) are negotiated on a case-per-case basis depending on the needs of the commissioner.
For the particularly patient and methodical, there are a handful of organizations that offer grants for commissioning projects. But what many organizations are doing now is organizing commissioning groups, or collectives, to help break up the cost of commissioning and spread the cost around, making it more accessible to each member. Each member of the commissioning group will receive recognition in the score and be granted performing rights, often exclusive performing rights for a certain period of time.
Sheet Music vs. Sound Recording vs. Live Performance
Unlike most commercial music projects (which is a package deal that includes production), the deliverable product of a classical commission is ultimately sheet music, not a sound recording (though a computer-generated demo is typically included to aid in learning the piece).
If you’d like to have a sound recording of the work you’ve commissioned, (or have me organize a performance), that can certainly be arranged for an extra cost. (Not all composers do that, but since I also work on the commercial side with experience producing recordings, as well as putting ensembles together for special events, I can make it happen to a high degree of professionalism.)
Here’s what you can expect by working with me…
Professionalism and “good vibes” from beginning to end. I’m a big believer in karma, so I try to maintain positive, healthy relationships with everyone I meet.
Communication. If you’d like to see the progress of the work as it unfolds, I’m more than happy to share with you. Just keep in mind that progress will almost certainly not be “linear,” unless yours is the only project I’m working on. For example, days or weeks may go by with little to report on. Then, as I allocate time to work on the piece, there will be a sudden explosion of progress.
Commissions completed on time. If there is a hard deadline, I will do whatever it takes to meet it. If I don’t think I can meet your deadline, I will tell you before we even sign the contract.
High artistic standards. It is a matter of personal pride to do my absolute best on every composition, and treat each work as if it were going to be my best work yet.
So where do we go from here, and how does it work?
If you'd like to explore the possibility of commissioning an original piece from me, it all starts with a simple, no-obligation conversation. We can consult vía telephone, Zoom, or in person. You’ll have the opportunity to ask questions, get my input and suggestions, and communicate everything that’s important to you.
Once we come to a determination of the scope and parameters of the commission, we will start talking price and budget. It's not possible for me to publish a fixed price for my work because every project is different and has its own considerations. If you have a particular budget in mind, I'd be happy to consider it and present options that work with your budget.
Once we decide to move forward (it is a joint decision), we will also agree on a time frame to start, as well as a deadline, which will be written into the contract.
Half of the commissioning fee will be due upon signing of the agreement (which puts the agreement into effect), while the other half will be due upon delivery.
I will keep you apprised of my progress throughout. Just keep in mind it will probably not be “linear” and continuous, due to other commitments, but it will be completed on time.
"We recently recorded Aaron Stanley’s Metamorphosis that he composed for my group, Imbroglio Sextet. What an amazing, beautiful piece! It’s an extremely musically moving work, and the entire group really loved performing it! I truly enjoy working with Aaron. He is very professional, yet approachable."
Dr. Cara Pollard / Trumpeter & Director of Imbroglio Sextet
Aaron is an incredible composer and musician. When I asked him about writing a piece for me, we setup a phone call where we discussed what I wanted out of the work and he definitely delivered! Huapango de los Muertos is such a fun and exciting work and was the perfect complement to my program! Premiering Aaron’s Huapango at the International Trombone Festival was a great experience! I loved playing and learning it, and the audience loved hearing it! I’m looking forward to playing it again on my next faculty recital. I would recommend Aaron without hesitation for any project, and am looking forward to commissioning other works from him soon!
Dr. William Haugeberg / Trombonist & Assistant Professor at
University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley