Anatomy of a Commission: Transcending a Capitalist Valuation of Commissioning Fees

Designed for both music creators and their collaborators, “Anatomy of a Commission” is a digital resource that aims to increase transparency about the commissioning process. For more information about the initiative, visit American Composers Forum’s website.

“Oh my God, don’t tell them what we get paid! They’ll never pay us a real commission.”

My composer colleague was alarmed when I told her that I was writing an essay about commissioning, which gave me pause. I hadn’t considered that calling for an honest discussion about commissioning fees would mean sticking my finger right into the wounds of precarity and privilege.

In the United States, composer commission fees tend to be far lower than the actual cost of making the work, and they don’t take into account the relationship between culture and economy. Because an orchestra cannot normally expect to profit from a new piece by a living composer — and because there are thousands of composers hoping to do the work — the fee that a composer will accept is usually much lower than the true cost of creating the work. In this distorted, neoconservative environment, the price of a commission is falsely determined by those who can afford to do the work and perpetuates extreme power imbalances, forcing composers to take work where they may ultimately lose money, and shutting out others altogether.

The pandemic exacerbated this inequity. If you had money and time, you could keep making music even when every venue in the country was shuttered. If you didn’t, and you held on financially by finding other ways to pay rent outside of music, you lost two years’ worth of experience and industry connections. We all want to believe that we live and work in a meritocracy, but if I can subsidise my composition career and my colleague can’t, my privilege advantages me in a capitalist system where commissions make up 80% of my work but only 40% of my income.

We have built an artistic ecosystem in the United States where new creative work is subsidised by the artist, and the people most likely to be able to subsidise this work are those of us with privilege. We act surprised when, year after year, 95% of orchestral commissions go to men, but the patriarchy is designed to benefit white men the most, and classical music hierarchies distort this even further. Composers with social and financial safety nets can take risks and work for far less than it costs to produce a new piece, while most of us go years losing money to compose, subsidising our work with day jobs, partners with day jobs, teaching positions, university stipends, or inherited wealth.

After engraving and printing ate up more than a third of an early orchestral commission (which took me three months to write), I started to work up the nerve to negotiate my commissioning fees. Now I build in time (and have the courage) to do my own engraving, and I ask for more money to cover travel costs so that I can be at the premiere without losing money. My most recent orchestral commission fee was almost three times that early one, and because I asked for more money, the commissioners looked for additional performance opportunities for the piece. When I asked for more money, they saw the piece — and my time — as more valuable.

Two decades into my career as a composer, however, I still struggle to answer when someone asks how much it would cost to commission me. I could work out an hourly rate that would cover my time, resources, healthcare, childcare, transportation, loan repayments, rent, food, utilities, insurance, retirement savings, and a contingency to address the variable income of freelance work, arriving at some kind of estimated living wage. I could also look at what a funding body has previously granted composers for comparable work — maybe a couple thousand dollars for a small chamber music piece — and reverse engineer the amount of time this would buy me to work on a piece. Or I could guess at the expectations of the commissioner — searching the internet for an organisation’s annual budget, donor base, ticket prices — and add into the calculus my experience and name recognition (or lack thereof). And of course, if I came up with the real price, I would risk never hearing back from the commissioner. But all of these options suggest a purely capitalist valuation of creative work, precluding a valuation that would take into account the societal worth of the creation of new artwork.

Music reflects and enriches the experience of being human. It is a uniquely communal artform that, like all art, has cultural value beyond any commercial viability.

Commissioning fees usually ignore what economists call the “positive externalities” of music: the benefits society gains from production of art. For many of us, music reflects and enriches the experience of being human. It is a uniquely communal artform that, like all art, has cultural value beyond any commercial viability. Shared cultural experiences are extraordinarily valuable and fundamentally human. In 2020, waves of pandemic lockdowns, ill-health, and grief wrenched us from each other, separating us from our communities and from the beautiful catharsis of shared arts experiences. As the industry collapsed, the societal value of artistic creation — its ability to reveal us to ourselves and to lift us from the prosaic into the sublime — became starkly clear.

Taylor Swift fans have reported a form of amnesia following her recent concerts; scientists explain the phenomenon as a natural response to a deeply cathartic experience. Some of my most transcendent concert experiences have been with enormously famous artists (Radiohead in Berlin and way too much alcohol, Bon Iver at an abandoned factory in Vienna). I’ve had equally powerful experiences with Philadelphia-based vocal ensemble Variant 6 in a small local church performing deeply weird, beautiful, ancient and modern songs, and watching Vicky Chow perform Tristan Perich’s music. The closing moments of Julia Wolfe’s Fire In My Mouth brought me and my concert buddy to tears. My favourite response from an audience member to a performance of my own music was, “I could listen to that forever.” I wasn’t paid a fee for the piece.

Excerpt from Surface Image by Tristan Perich, performed by Vicky Chow

Many composers spend their entire lives never making enough money from composing to survive, even while producing extraordinary work. It is a life of constant flux, and such instability amplifies the social and cultural inequities that intersect our identities. Much of the issue stems from the vast gap between the actual cost of making a new work and the amount of money organisations are able or willing to invest. The result is a completely unpredictable monthly income.

So what should organisations with a limited budget do to ensure fairness in commissioning? Transparency in commissioning fees could redress some of the power imbalances between organisations and individuals, and between different composers. Knowing what organisations have paid other composers for similar work would force us to acknowledge the extreme wealth disparity between the most highly-paid and the lowest-paid composers. Seeing the lower end of the range in compensation would also underscore how difficult we have made it to survive in a country where there are no protections for freelancers, no guaranteed access to healthcare or childcare, and skyrocketing rents.

We need to find ways to incentivise commissioning fees that truly take into account the worth of the work; the cost of making the work, a living wage for the maker, and the cultural value of the work being done.

My composer friend who baulked at the idea of writing about commissioning was worried that shedding light on low fees would give organisations permission to continue to underpay composers. In New York, it is now illegal for employers to ask about a prospective employee’s salary history. The idea is that having access to this information allows employers to perpetuate the chronic underpayment of women and people of colour in particular. Employers in New York state must now post the salary band of any job listing so that employees can set their expectations accordingly and know whether they are being paid fairly compared with other employees. A freelance composer’s union could deploy similarly progressive tactics to even the playing field, adhere to living wage protections, and protect the professionalism of our industry.

We need to find ways to incentivise commissioning fees that truly take into account the worth of the work; the cost of making the work, a living wage for the maker, and the cultural value of the work being done. If we can wean the industry from its reliance on subsidisation through privilege, we can radically change who can be a composer in the United States, and the music we all get to listen to, for decades to come.

Anatomy of a Commission is supported, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional support is provided by Augusta Gross and Leslie Samuels, and Rob Mason.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, and is made possible thanks to generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF.

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