Commissioning a new work is a great experience for everyone. I encourage all musicians to consider going through the process at least once. It’s rewarding, exciting and a grand new adventure for all. However; I urge you to read below and consider each of these points carefully before you reach out to a composer. We love working with you but seriously, an email that says "We'd like to commission you - how much do you charge?" is not a way to a composer's heart. Make it a great project right from the start by being informed! Promise we will LOVE you for it!!
1. KNOW YOUR DUE DATE THEN ADD 1-3 YEARS.
If you want a decent piece from a good composer, invite your composer 1-3 years out from your due date. This way you can guarantee they are available and you reserve your place in their commissioning timeline. Once you have that place and your time comes, you will have the total attention of that composer on your project. (NOTE: It is customary to sign a contract to lock your place into the timeline. Know that the contract will also detail performing rights and exclusivity - so have a think about that too. Usually, at the time you sign the contract you also pay some kind of deposit, ranging from 25-50%. ). Speaking of deposits...
2. HAVE A BUDGET READY.
Know what you want (how many minutes, level of difficulty, instrumentation etc..) and share that with the composer. Expect anywhere between $500-$2000++ per completed minute of music (usually based on level of difficulty and notoriety of the composer).
3. CONSIDER THE BIRTHING PROCESS OF THE WORK.
Bringing a new work to life isn't like buying one off the shelf. Know (and expect) that it won’t be completed when it's given to you. It will still need tweaking, adjusting and composing. This is a normal part of the process and even big-time, professional composers have stated that they go through this process on approach to première and beyond.
So, if preparing something for a particular event (like a competition or festival), you may wish to set your due date for the commission 3-6 months out to provide process time with your composer. The composer will want to hear details about the work. Sure – discrepancies regarding engraving concerns are expected (can you make the 2nd clarinet part not go over the break, the Trombone parts are missing a rehearsal figure at bar 117) etc… This is all fine but what the composer really wants to know is – DOES THE PIECE WORK? And that means putting on your musicianship hat and honestly and respectfully working alongside the composer to bring the piece to life. It’s FUN but you must understand that this is a normal part of the process.
4. PLANNING FOR THE PREMIÈRE.
Process time brings me to another budgetary consideration few know about. Most composers I know also build into their contracts a fee to attend rehearsals in the lead up to the première, including accommodation/travel costs. All of this is time and even composers have to eat. Please know that if a composer charges $500 per completed minute and you commission a 10 minute work, that's $5000. So now say it takes 10 weeks to write that 10 minute work. That's $500 per week. If they then spend an additional 1-2 weeks engraving the score and preparing parts etc.. and then a further 1-3 weeks tweaking, re-arranging and adjusting their score, we are now up to a possible 15 weeks spent on your commission, meaning that the composer makes $333 per week on your project. Hence adding travel and accommodation fees (and workshop fees too) is a perfectly acceptable request from the composer. Know about it and add it into your budget.
5. PRINTING COSTS AND ENGRAVING.
As stated above, part of the process (after the initial creative burst) is to prepare the work so it is readable by conductor and band. This is A LOT of work - imagine how many notes there are in a 10 minute piece! Some composers ask for additional engraving costs and provide the option of hiring an engraver to complete the task. Please be aware of this and also think about who is going to pay for the printing of the score and parts (and there maybe multiple re-prints during the birthing process too).
Once you have all of this sorted, then you can approach your happy-to-hear-from-you composer. Everyone charges differently and yes, the question of 'how much' does have to be asked. But if you go to your composer with a thorough plan with lots of details, then the money question isn't so hard. You'll know what you can afford and both of you can take it from there.
Good luck and remember - the world needs new music from a DIVERSE range of composers!