Pay the Composer: How Royalties Work (and don't work) in our Current System

Musicians are taught in university to ask for money when playing a gig, but no one talks about how composers get paid

Universities all over the US pay a fee to ASCAP and BMI once a year for the pieces their ensembles perform. They also send a list of programs verifying what music has been performed. ASCAP and BMI then go about funneling that money into the hands of composers, or at least into the hands of the people who own the rights to the music. This is done without the participation or awareness of the musicians in the program.

Composers at these universities are taught to find musicians to play pieces. It is rare for instrumentalists to have a requirement to include new music in their recitals, so composers must negotiate for players without formal support. Most times, the instrumentalists are paid for their time out of the composer's pocket. Because there is no requirement to play new pieces, but there is a requirement to have your pieces played, an uneven dichotomy is established.

Part of the problem with the system in the universities is that too often the same musicians that learn to always charge a fee for playing, are taught that new music is free to play. Worse, they too often learn to feel they are doing composers a favor by playing their pieces. This is why so many composer/musicians resort to writing pieces only for their own instruments or for small ensembles. It is much easier to form an ensemble than to convince the university orchestra to play one of your pieces. The devaluing of the composer's time leads to a stunting of the composer's voice. Those composers who wish to write for large forces are left curiously adrift, unable to afford to pay large ensembles.

Background on Royalties/Performance Rights

There is a difference between performance royalties and written music royalties. If someone records a piece of music, they have "performance rights" to it. However, the person who wrote the music has rights to the written music. For any subsequent performances of the music, the composer should be getting something.
When songwriters write songs, they are automatically copyrighted as soon as they are in a tangible form
As the owner of the "song" composers have the right to perform it, record it and distribute it as they see fit. Anyone else should pay the composer (or the owner of the rights to the song) for the privilege to perform it. To get the performance rights to perform a piece in public or record it, permission should be obtained (generally through ASCAP, BMI or the composer).

There are thousands of pieces performed at universities across the US and so ASCAP has taken to doing a "lottery" system for their members. If you're name is lucky enough to be drawn, you'll get a check that quarter based on the number of pieces you had performed and the money they brought in. I've been a member for several years now and have yet to be lucky in this lottery and receive a check. Other composers I know do occasionally get checks and the money is enough to afford a night out with their significant other, and that's about it.

Many nightclubs and bars that hire live music pay a similar royalty fee to cover the basic assumption they will be playing music of other artists, and those artists deserve their cut. Sometimes they leave this up to the artist to pay, but either way it identified in the contract who is paying the royalty, or both parties are potentially in violation of copyright laws. Professional symphonies and chamber ensembles pay royalties, similar to universities. But they also commission works. Commissions are a way entities can know they are paying for the right to play the music of said composer. This way, the composer won't come back and say, "Hey, I want paid."

Even if the work in question isn't a commission, it is possible to deal directly with the composer to establish a performance fee. The nice thing about this method is the composer gets 100% of the money as opposed to it being divided up among several parties. You do need to be careful, however. If the piece is registered with ASCAP or BMI, they're going to want to be involved.

Moving Forward
If you want to play a piece of music and the composer is living, contact the composer!
IF the composer says the piece is registered with a licensing agency, contact the licensing agency to obtain rights.
IF the piece is NOT registered, come up with some agreement with the composer about what you're willing to pay for the performance.
If you teach, educate your instrumentalists to value new compositions.

Composers are human, and we understand the strains performers are under to try and balance the budget. We're also musicians and we have a right to earn money from our efforts, writing music.

On a Personal Note
I have written a number of pieces of music for friends and never asked a penny for the performance. I've also written music for others where a nominal fee was paid. When pieces I've written have been performed with little to no money changing hands, I was consulted first.

Musicians sometimes will take a gig for free, if there is other benefit to be gained by playing in it. Composers will often provide music for free, if there is good exposure, a recording or prestige to be gained.

In any case, it is important that we as a musical community do not set 'Free' as the standard for new compositions.


Anonymous said…
Change is coming:

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