What's My Time Worth? - A Looking at Charging Money for Compositions

Composers spend a lot of time composing music. What is that time worth?

Dennis Tobinski recently posted "The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: The Benefits of Entrepreneurship" where he talks about the need to charge for compositions because of the investment of time, materials, education. He posits composers should operate like a business. Everything he says makes a lot of sense and he says it well. But he's speaking to the composers.

What about speaking to the performers? Do singers and instrumentalists realize how much effort a piece takes to compose? Performers know the time they spend in learning a piece of music; when a composer asks musicians to play a piece, pay is nearly always a topic. "What's my time worth?"

I've had performers charge $50 to play a single piece and tell me they are doing me a favor by charging so little. If I have them play three or four pieces in a concert, the money per piece is less, but the total figure is higher. The charge is understandable. Everyone in the industry understands how much time musicians take to learn a new piece, the hours practicing it to make sure the performance is good. Erica Sipes has mentioned numerous times on her blog "Beyond the Notes" how much time she devotes to learning a new piece and the struggles she has when a composer changes the music on her late in the game. Musicians spend a LOT of time learning new music, and if all that practice is only for one performance, that's a lot of time for the 5-10 minutes they're on stage. It makes sense for them to charge what they do for their time. It's not time on stage, it's the time off stage that really matters.

But, if it is the time off stage that matters, composers also make that investment of time. The problem, I think, is that it's less obvious what we do. When performers ask for a piece of new music we're expected to just "know" what works, what will sound good. There is little understanding of the process of inspiration --coming up with the initial idea. Once we have an idea, a concept, we have to start putting that concept into creation. It doesn't always come out on the page they way we conceive it in our heads. Then comes the process of craft --honing the idea into something workable, playable. J.S.Bach was a master craftsman, composing hundreds of pieces on a deadline, working for three different organizations late in his life. This kind of craftsmanship isn't common, and getting to that level isn't easy. For most composers, the crafting of a single piece takes hours, days, even weeks to get right.

Composers then hand the music to the performer and for some reason performers think it ought to be note perfect. Why? Good college papers aren't done well in a single take. Yes, some people can just toss off something the night before, but anyone really serious about the paper generally writes a first draft, edits it, writes a second draft and then polishes that into the final paper. Anyone who has ever written a dissertation will testify a single take isn't possible if you want to do it right. Composing music is much the same. If you just want us to "toss off" something for you to play, then perhaps we can jot something down in an evening and won't care if it sounds any good in performance. But we take pride in putting our name at the top of the page, having in the program. It's not just the performer on stage; we composers are there too. As such most composers put the time in to make sure the music is right.

Performers, when you get a piece of new music, ask questions, offer suggestions, talk over ideas about what you like AND what you don't like about the music. Let the composer make changes, come up with a second or third version of the piece. Composers, this means you need to get them the first draft early; you cannot expect to deliver it a week before performance! Stephen Sondheim speaks of writing two to three songs in his early days for every song actually included in the final performance of a musical. Some music works, some doesn't. I'm not suggesting performers ask composers to start all over again with a new piece. But this does suggest that the first idea may not be the right one.

Considering all these factors, coming up with an idea, honing it, presenting it and then re-working it, composers will spend numerous hours on a single work. The time they spend will vary greatly, (film composers are notoriously fast, where as others like Aaron Copland and Brian Ferneyhough speak of laboring months over a single passage), but talking with your composer about time-lines can help you get a handle on how long it takes them to complete a single work. Regardless of the composer, I've yet to see anyone I admire write a piece in less time than it take performers to learn it. If the performer spends 10 hours practicing a piece to get it ready, figure the composer spent at least three or four times that writing it. More complex music may take longer to learn, but it will also take longer to write and perfect.

To get the music right, a composer will spend many hours on the process of creation. So, what is that time worth?


Anonymous said…
What are you asking, exactly? A given item is "worth" what the market will pay for it. With today's extreme over-saturation of talented composers vs. performance opportunities, composition is not a seller's market.
Chip Michael said…
I guess what I'm saying is that performers get what they pay for. If you think my compositions are not worth paying for, then seek out another composer. If you're not willing to pay me for my time and effort, I'm not willing to put the time and effort into music for you.

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