The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Commissioning Consortia

Consortia. Such a great word. Consortia. Don’t you just love Latin plurals?

Commissioning consortia have been on my mind a fair amount lately, not just because they’re another source of income, but also because I’m in the middle of helping to build a consortium to commission a new choral work of my own.

Commissioning consortia are a great way to get works commissioned, especially in economies as crappy as our current one. There are a lot of arts organizations right now that really want to commission new works, but can’t do it by themselves because they have severely limited budgets.

Traditionally, consortia have been used to commission larger works such as operas and orchestral or wind band pieces. Commissioning large works requires a correspondingly large budget, and even the biggest of organizations can be financially strained by such projects, so they often band together and share the financial burden. John Mackey’s Redline Tango for wind ensemble and Daron Hagen’s opera Bandanna were both commissioned by consortia of wind bands.

Today, I think that consortia are incredibly useful for smaller-scale works, as well; and also for organizations (and individuals!) with limited budgets.

For example, a group of middle or high school choirs could commission a new choral work from a composer. Or a group of individuals who play the same instrument could commission a new work together – each would have a new piece to perform at a fraction of the cost than had they done it alone. Meanwhile, the composer gets the full benefit of being commissioned and receiving a fee that is probably much higher than she otherwise would have received from any of the individuals by themselves. I’ve heard heartening reports over the past few years that this sort of thing is happening more and more, and I couldn’t be happier!

The lessening of the commissioner’s financial burden is possibly the greatest benefit to forming these consortia.

For a work for which the composer would ask a fee of $5,000, five participating ensembles would only have to raise $1,000 apiece, which is an easy Kickstarter campaign for almost any group. A few requests to friends and family could raise a handful of individuals the funds needed for a $2,000 fee. And eight commissioners contributing $300 apiece earns the composer a nice $2,400 fee. When broken down, what might be prohibitive for one commissioner becomes much more manageable for several.

I especially like the idea of consortia of school groups for a number of reasons past the benefits to the composer. Not only does the project become much more financially manageable for the schools, who are almost uniformly in budget cut hell, but the students benefit infinitely more from the experience than the school might otherwise be able to afford for them. By exposing students to new music in an active capacity such as premiering new works and working with living composers (hello Creative Connections grants!), schools can help to create a culture of active arts participation, and hopefully train the next generation of musicians to make commissioning a regular part of their careers.

Of course there are always practical considerations, too!

Fee structure
I can think of two ways to structure the composer’s fee for these sorts of projects: a per-participant split, and a per-participant fee.

With a per-participant split, the composer sets her commissioning fee, and the co-commissioners split it amongst themselves, either evenly or at varying percentages. So: a group of four commissioners might split a $3,000 fee evenly so that they each pay $750, or they may find a different, unequal split that takes into consideration any number of factors (that the composer probably need not directly concern herself with) so that some commissioners pay more than others (and probably have more leverage in claiming the full premiere of the piece – more on that later). The advantages here are that you as the composer know unequivocally what your fee will be regardless of the number of participants, and the commissioners’ shares of the fee will be correspondingly lowered as additional ensembles and individuals join the consortium. A disadvantage is that the commissioners’ shares of the fee are higher if there are fewer participants in the consortium. However, that becomes an advantage in that the participants will have a greater incentive to want more co-commissioners on the project, which will hopefully lead to their finding additional ensembles to join the consortium (which will mean more performances of the piece for the composer).

With a per-participant flat fee, the composer sets a fee per commissioner, so that each ensemble or individual pays a set amount to be a member of the consortium regardless of the number of co-commissioners. I might advocate for this sort of fee structure if the per-participant fee were reasonably low and you either had a reasonable sense of how many participants there would be or were feeling particularly generous should there be few participants. The main disadvantage here is that the composer doesn’t necessarily know what her fee will ultimately be until everything is finalized. An advantage, however, is that the co-commissioners know exactly what their financial stake will be from the start. On the other hand, should there end up being more consortium members than originally anticipated or hoped for, the composer can end up with a correspondingly higher fee. I’m much less a fan of this second option for a few reasons, but I can see uses for it.

Lead commissioner
Every commissioning agreement spells out a series of rights and responsibilities that the commissioner is entitled to, which can be complicated by the participation of multiple commissioners. Consequently, there is usually a “lead commissioner” who has a greater stake in the commission, both financially and in terms of the rights and responsibilities. The lead will likely pay a greater share of the commissioning fee and have the right to the first performance; so while the other commissioners end up paying less, they also don’t get to have the first performance, but are entitled to subsequent – possibly regional – premieres and performances of the work within a period of exclusivity. Everyone gets credit as co-commissioners.

The lead commissioner may also take a more substantive role in finding additional consortium members because they may have an increased visibility or prestige over the other participants, and will likely handle the negotiations involved with figuring out which participant is entitled to what and when (it’s probably best if you keep your nose out of this one if you can!).

The lead may not have a greater financial share or any additional entitlements, but may just be the go-to member for communicating with the composer or advertising the performances, or may merely be the person/ensemble that initiated the commission.

Getting Paid
Again, there are a few options here. Each commissioner might pay you directly; or they may designate the lead commissioner as the financial point person, in which case all funds funnel through the lead and are paid to you on whatever schedule is spelled out in the contract. And on occasion, a third party may be involved as the collector and administrator of funds. In the end, how the composer gets paid comes down to what is easiest for all parties involved, and what everyone is most comfortable with.

Finding Participants
This is probably the hardest part of setting up commissioning consortia. (Duh!)

In many cases, I’d probably advocate for having the lead commissioner do the majority of it. They probably know more ensembles of the same instrumentation or performers in their field than you do. And depending on the situation, there’s a certain…legitimacy…that is lent to the endeavor when the lead is the one who approaches potential participants. The alternative could come off like: “Hi, person I don’t know! Do you want to commission me?” Maybe not the best face to put on the project?

So tell me – do you all have experiences with commissioning consortia? Please share in the comments section below!

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