Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Pay for play

The following message was in my in-box this morning:
Hello, Composers!

Several of my conductor-clients are interested in performing a short piece by one of you during the coming season.

Some of you have already participated in this program and have had your works performed/recorded in Romania, Russia, and Ukraine. If you have new pieces ready for next season or wish to have the same old compositions performed in other cities/countries, please submit your application materials at your convenience.

Bear in mind that none of these orchestras are on the same level as professional ensembles in the US or Western Europe. Consequently, do not expect perfection in the performance of your works; most importantly is that your music be heard in new places.

The fee for this program includes rehearsal time for your work (appropriate to its lenght and difficulty), a DVD copy of the entire concert, and a semi-professional audio-recording of your composition in concert. If you plan to be present during the week your music will be performed, remember that all other expenses--such as travel, visas, accommodations, and meals--are your financial responsibility.

Thank you for your past business. I look forward to arranging opportunities for your music to be performed this coming season.

Here's how it works: This message is from one of several agents who contract between cash-strapped Eastern European orchestras and young conductors who want practice with an orchestra and are able to pay for it.* So far, so good: conductors need to train with orchestras and all orchestras should provide training opportunities to young talent, so long as everyone is clear that this is not resume-level professional experience. The conductor has not been selected over others on the basis of her or his artistic merits; the concert often takes place in a problematic cultural context in which the conductor is an alien actor and a problematic economic context in which neither the conductor nor the orchestral musicians are advantaged by the contract; the objectivity of any reviews of the concert will always be questionable. Presenting such a concert as anything other than practice places it into the category of vanity publishing.

This particular agent has now piggy-backed the arrangement with conductors with an offer to composers who are, of course, already at the low end of the musical remuneration feeding chain. I don't know how the money being charged to composers is divided between the agency, the conductor, and the orchestra (as well as any other middlemen -- and, having lived myself for five years in a former Soviet Block country, the assumption that there will be middlemen is a modest one), but given the fact that the countries in question return little and usually no license fees to non-local composers, this is a gig with absolutely no possibility for a composer to earn income.

Let's be clear about things: Yes, it's damn tough to establish oneself as a composer of concert music. And yes, programming decisions may sometimes be the result of bad, if not corrupt, processes. But the best programmers do try either to be objective in their selection processes or to be frank and upfront about their biases and preferences, thus selection, performance, and reviews generated by these processes can reflect upon the music itself in ways that a pay-for-play gig cannot. Moreover, as professionals, we have to insist on being paid: for the commission, for use of performance materials when required, for our presence at a first performance, and for all appropriate licenses and royalties for performances, broadcasts, and recordings. As a budget item in concert planning, fees for composers are not a lot of money; not paying any of those fees and insisting that the composer subsidize the concert is plain wrong.
* A related topic is the outsourcing of orchestral recording gigs, especially for film scores, to Eastern Europe; but the problem in these cases is one of a globalized labor market and our responsibilities to both local musicians, in our own communities, and to musicians in other communities who may sometimes live and work under the worst imaginable conditions. Another post...

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