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Music in Worship is Selah's occasional newsletter for church musicians, with interviews and helpful articles for choir directors, organists, and leaders of congregational song.

Commissioning Music
David Schaap

Since you are reading this article you probably are considering commissioning music for your church. Such pieces could celebrate an anniversary, a retirement, or honor a long-standing church member or be in memory of a member of your choir or congregation. Almost all people involved in a commission enjoy the whole process and it can become a gift to the wider church as well. Below are some guidelines to help you in your beginning a commissioning process.

Start with a budget. Keep in mind the range of fees which we list below (2003 figures). Perhaps there is a particular donor in the congregation, or your choir wants to do the commissioning. Make them part of the process and your congregation as well (unless it is to be a surprise) so that the whole church will have an investment in the project.

Choose a composer. You or your choir or other staff members might already have a short list of living composers you would consider commissioning. Remember, the composer's reputation affects the amount of the fee (the better known the composer, the higher the fee will likely be because of their demand), but fees are always negotiable within the parameters of the commission.

Begin negotiations. Contact the composer (Selah can help you get in contact with any of our composers). You will want to have some of the parameters set, but have some flexibility to allow for the composer's input (they have probably done this many more times than you have and will have some good ideas you might not have considered). These parameters might include the date of the first performance, the choral voicing, instruments to be used, the text to be used, approximate length of the work, date of delivery.

Sign a letter of agreement. If you have a lawyer in the congregation you might want to get their advice on this legal document (but don't attempt to make this process too protracted: it does not encourage a composer when this part of the process is adversarial). The agreement should include the following:

  • identify the comissioning party and composer and state that the composer is not an employee and is not working "for hire"
  • describe the work as negotiated
  • indicate delivery dates for the completed work and all parts necessary for performance
  • list the agreed-upon fee and method of payment (generally you will pay 50% on signing the agreement and 50% when the completed work is delivered)
  • describe composer's liability if the work is not completed
  • a clause indicating that the composer will not infringe on any existing copyright
  • list fees or travel expenses that will be paid if you plan to have the composer at the premiere.
  • list what license is granted to the commissioning party (including performance, recording, and local reproduction) and whether there are rental fees for use of the parts.

The composer will want to retain the copyright to the piece (or it might automatically be granted to their publisher) and they will generally hold on to their original manuscripts. For extended works, instrumental parts belong to the composer or publisher, but you will have exclusive use of them for a period of time.

Below is a range of commission fees (taken from several of Selah's composers), all of which are negotiable, and all of which are dependent, at least in part, on several factors: the length and complexity of the desired work, the time frame provided for its composition, the composer's reputation and even the composer's availability at any given time. To some degree, the question of who is commissioning the work also comes into play: is it an individual, a church, or a foundation? Is the commission being underwritten by a private or government agency? One would expect that a private individual, say, a church organist, would not have access to the same financial resources as a large, well-endowed university. Therefore, allowances are usually made by the composers for your situation, but don't be stingy: the fee often dictates the work the composer is willing to put into such a commission.

  • Choral anthem (accompanied or a cappella) - $1,000 - $3,000
  • Choral (choir, kybd. and inst.) - $1,500 - $5,000
  • Larger choral - $2,500 - $1,000,000 (just kidding, though they would welcome the larger fee)
  • Organ work (2-3 min.) - $300 - $1,500+
  • Organ work (3-5 min.) - $500 - $3,000+
  • Organ work, major - $2,000 - $5,000+
  • Hymn text or tune - $250 - $1,000
  • Vocal solo - $250 - $1,500
  • Hymn - $500-$1,000

Major works can be anywhere from $5,000-$50,000, and these require a lot more negotiation and a much more formal agreement than you might find in other situations.

The last piece of work in your commissioning process is performance of the piece. You might consider having the composer come for the premiere (paying for their travel expenses if you really want them there) and perhaps doing a lecture or workshop for the choir or congregation or community (paying them extra for this, of course). After the performance, and particularly if a piece is published, spread the word about the work so that others may benefit from the music you have helped bring into the world.

Much of Selah's catalog come from works that were commissioned by churches, individuals, or for church music conferences, especially from such composers as Al Fedak, Hal Hopson, Alice Parker, Craig Phillips, K. Lee Scott, and David Ashley White. Most of the composers in our catalog would welcome inquiries about possible commissions from you or your church.

 

Your comments and suggestions are always welcome. Please e-mail us your thoughts.

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