The Biggest Mistake Composers Make About The Music Business

I hear it all the time.  Composers think that if they just sign up with a performing rights organization (PRO) like ASCAP or BMI that’s all they need to do to protect themselves.

Don’t get me wrong – every composer should belong to a PRO. But there are at least seven ways a composer can make money from the use of his music and the PROs only handle one.

Most composers are never taught anything about the music business. They’ll sign up with a publisher and leave everything to them. But it’s harder than ever to get a publishing deal and publishers typically want to own the copyrights to your music and take 50% of the royalty income – and a lot more for sheet music. So either by choice or necessity, most composers are self-published. But do you really know what’s involved in being self-published?

There’s much more to it – and more money to be made – than just selling downloads and collecting PRO royalties.

Here’s how composers make money from their compositions:

Licensing of Non-Dramatic Public Performing Rights: Your PRO licenses performances of your works in live venues, in radio and TV broadcasts and over the internet. And your PRO will pay you directly. However, this is the only income stream your PRO represents. They don’t handle any of the others!

Licensing Works in Audio-Only Sound Recordings: Record labels get a mechanical license when a composition is recorded and distributed in LPs, CDs MP3s and other audio-only formats, whether in physical copies or in downloads.  Once a work has been commercially recorded, anyone can “cover” the work, provided the label pays applicable mechanical royalty, either directly to a musical publisher or through a mechanical rights clearing house, such as The Harry Fox Agency, Inc.

Licensing Music in Audiovisual Works:  When someone wants to use a composition in an audiovisual work, as in films TV shows and video games, they need to get a “synchronization” or “synch” license.  There is no set rate for synch licenses and fees vary greatly from a few hundred to hundreds of thousands of dollars depending upon the value of the work, the nature of the project (blockbuster movie or student film), the usage (title credits or underscore), the territory (worldwide, US only) and the duration of the license (perpetuity or one year).  If someone wants to use pre-recorded music in a project, they need two licenses: the “synch” license for the use of the underlying musical work and a “master use” license from the owner of the particular recording of the work, usually a record label.

Sales of Printed Materials for Smaller Works:  Smaller works, like SATB chorals, chamber ensembles (like string quartets), solo piano pieces and even jazz and wind ensemble works are usually sold, not rented. They may be sold directly to the public online in PDFs or in printed editions through distributors such as Hal Leonard and Alfred Music.

Rental of Performance Materials: Because they are both voluminous and expensive to produce, performance materials for larger-scale pieces such as works for full orchestra, operas and musicals are typically handled on a rental basis. That means the rental agent rents out the score and parts for a fee to the performing organization or presenter who then sends them back.  Rental fees are based upon a variety of factors, including the duration and instrumentation of the work and the level of the performing group and may run several hundred dollars per performance.

Licensing of “Grand Rights” or Dramatic Performances: PROs in the United States only license non-dramatic (sometimes called “small rights”) public performances of your work. If you write an opera, musical, ballet or other dramatic or choreographic work, your PRO will not license performances of these works and you won’t get paid performance royalties from them. That means if you don’t have a publisher that means you’ve got to do this yourself.  Grand rights license fees are typically based upon a percentage of “the house” or ticket sales, determined by the average ticket price and the capacity of the venue.

Reprints of Excerpts, Sampling, Arrangements and Other Permissions:  If someone wants to use an excerpt of your work in an article or text, wants to create an arrangement or wants to reprint lyrics in liner notes, or wants to quote or “sample” your composition in a new work, they will need permission from the owner of that work. Similarly, composers will also need to obtain permission if they quote or sample someone else’s work or set copyrighted text to music. There is no set rate and permission may be denied for any reason.

So now you know there’s a lot more to music publishing than just belonging to ASCAP or BMI.  Do you think you can do all this by yourself? Do you know what the appropriate deal points and fees are?  Do you want to spend your time photocopying and shipping performance materials?

Talk to other composers about their experiences with music publishers and with self-publishing. These days, it doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. There are ways composers can control some aspects of their business themselves while having publishers and other professionals handle others. And if you do work with a publisher, publicist or other professional, make sure you also talk to a lawyer before signing the contract.


This article is adapted and abridged from a more detailed article on music publishing available to American Composers Forum members on the ACF web site.

Composing for Orchestras and Other Ensembles, Part 1: Getting the Gig

Have you ever wanted to write a symphony, a tone poem for wind ensemble or an opera? Knowing something about orchestration certainly helps. But you should also know a bit about the business of writing these kinds of works, which like great music in any genre, has its unique twists and turns. Pulitzer-Prize winners like John Adams, George Crumb, John Harbison, Jennifer Higdon, Steve Reich and Christopher Rouse don’t simply sit down to write a 20-minute concerto on spec.

These composers are commissioned to write new works. And it’s not just a handful of Pulitzer Prizers and ivory-tower academics that get gigs to write works for string quartet, percussion ensemble or choir. Jazz musicians like Billy Childs, Chick Corea, Paquito D’Rivera, Wynton Marsalis and Brad Mehldau have also gotten commissions to write concert works and there are many rock-oriented writers who’ve crossed over as well. So whether you’ve got a doctorate from Juilliard or are just a graduate of Mom & Dad’s garage, you, too could be commissioned to write new music if you’ve got the talent and desire to pursue it.

Major symphony orchestras, opera companies like the Metropolitan Opera and Houston Grand Opera as well as presenters like Carnegie Hall commission new works. But smaller, regional orchestras, opera companies and venues also do so and are sometimes more willing to take a risk on a lesser-known composer. Conservatories also commission works for their wind ensembles and the fees they pay rival those paid by major orchestras. Individual patrons, from billionaires to your local dentist or fast food franchisee, also commission pieces.

Now you’re thinking, “How do I get me one of them commission gigs?” Classical publishers like Boosey & Hawkes and G. Schirmer have Composers & Repertoire departments with trained professionals who seek new commissions for their composers. However, organizations like New Music USA (which formed as a result of the merger of Meet the Composer and the American Music Center), which has an excellent, free guide to the commissioning process and the American Composers Forum  offer resources to assist the self-published composer.  Some organizations like Chamber Music America offer grants to classical and jazz composers to write new works. The friendly folks in ASCAP”s concert music department and BMI’s classical department can also provide guidance.

So, how much can you get paid to write that concerto for electric guitar and orchestra? The fee depends upon several factors, including the status and experience of the composer, the length of the piece and the instrumentation. A five-minute piece for sax quartet and vibes by someone straight out of Berklee won’t command as high a fee than a work for full orchestra written by a living legend like Elliott Carter shortly before his 103rd birthday.

Assuming you’re neither a novice nor a superstar, you might get paid around $2,000 for a five-minute work for voice and piano. A work for a handful of musicians that’s less than 10 minutes long might garner a fee in the range of $7,500, while that 20-minute concerto for electric guitar and orchestra might get you somewhere in the range of $30,000 or more. If you’re lucky enough to be asked to write a full-length opera for a major opera company, you could be paid well into six figures, while a one-act for a small company may get you something in the range of the fee for that guitar concerto.

Finding a patron and agreeing on the type of work and the fee is just the beginning of the process. In Part II, I’ll discuss the major deal points as well as some pitfalls to avoid.

An earlier version of this article was published in BMI’s Songwriter 101 site on July 28, 2010.