Sunday, July 01, 2007

Royalty-driven trade secrets

When the definitive history of late 20th century music gets written, there are a few royalty-driven factors which have contributed to musical practice that ought to be noted. The following are based upon my experience of German institutions (GEMA, radio stations), but will be more-or-less true in several other countries.

The first have to do with duration: anything 10 minutes or less in length will be paid poorly, and a duration of slightly more than ten or twenty minutes is probably optimal, pushing the piece into the next compensation bracket (a nine minute or nineteen minute piece, representing only slightly less labor, is stuck in the lower bracket). There is a lot of pressure out there to make twenty minute pieces; to the best of my knowledge, there are no artistic arguments for a twenty-minute piece being intrinsically better or more more significant than a twelve minute piece. At the other end of the duration scale, pieces that don't fit easily in a broadcast schedule -- allowing time for station i.d.'s, top of the hour news, program notes, or commentary -- will be less likely to get broadcast, and the same is true for pieces with extended silences, as some national radio regulations forbid extended "blank" airtime.

Another consideration has to do with electro-acoustic music: a piece for recorded media is paid very poorly, but if the piece "requires" a live performer for its broadcast or concert playback, the use of live mixing, for example, can elevate the work out of the recorded media category and it will be better compensated as a concert work. So if you encounter any of those famous photos of Stockhausen or Nono facing a mixing board, looking very stern, they may well be adding monetary value to their pieces.

Finally, a reminder that no composer or publisher outside of the mass sales of the band and choir worlds makes significant money from sheet music sales. Sheet music is a vehicle for obtaining performances, recordings, and broadcasts. No royalties are collected by rights organizations for sheet music sales which are a private arrangement between a composer and a publisher. A publisher makes money from their share of royalties and, for larger pieces, from score and part rentals. Publishers can help with handling sheet music and parts, and should help with promotion, but every composer should calculate very carefully whether the cost of sharing royalties (usually 50-50) with a publisher will even potentially be matched by benefits. The presence of new music on the web is still being sorted out, but it looks more and more clear that placing perusal scores online is beneficial, actually generating interest and performances, while the compensation for online recordings or performances remains unsettled. As a composer who depends upon royalty income from live performances, I have decided that to place scores online but for the time being will not upload recordings. (I've toyed with the idea of discouraging -- if not exactly forbidding -- the recording of my scored pieces intended for live performance but that's a subject for another day).

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