A recent commission from an organization in my hometown has turned into an unpleasant experience.  Hopefully this post can serve as a warning to rising composers.  The old pros will nod in agreement with what I’m about to say.

I received my first commission over a year ago from a local youth choir.  I belonged to the organization during high school, and knew the conductor who commissioned me from my days as a singer.  It was a friendly and trusting relationship from the beginning.

When time came to put together an agreement, I consulted several friends and professors, and most said to draft a contract that both parties would sign.  Because I thought the commissioner and I were friends, I didn’t bother with the “contract,” opting instead for a formal letter that I mailed to him, and to which he agreed to by email.

The premiere took place several weeks ago, and I still had not been paid.  My payment was due in December.  I was lied to on two occasions that “the check’s in the mail.”  Now I hear that the organization is nearly bankrupt.  The orchestral players and hall rental fees have been paid, but not the composer.

I should have created a very legal contract where both of us signed, because the chance that I head to small claims court to collect my fee is now very real.  Without the contract, I’ll have to gather up all our email correspondence that indicates his agreement to pay per the terms set out in my letter.

Moral of the story:  No matter how cozy you are with the performer/organization commissioning your work, have a very careful contract in place for both of you to sign.  Either request payment up front, or half at signing and half at completion.

I’ll let you know when I get my check.

5 Responses to “Lesson Learned”
  1. david toub says:

    To be honest, you still are entitled to your money. Contracts do not need to be written to be enforceable. It’s always nice when they are, but if there was clearly an implied contract (as evidenced by your having written the piece and their having performed it and then telling you the check is in the mail), even though it’s a pain to gather up the e-mail you still should be good to go.

    There’s also another legal concept, the name of which I can’t remember from my business law class many years ago, but it holds that there is a price to be paid when a merchant (you) performs a service at cost to him or her under an unwritten agreement. If I ask a kid to mow my lawn and then stiff him or her, he can say that he took this on at cost to him/her and legally, he has a strong case.

  2. Daniel says:

    No doubt (the check was supposedly cut today). I’m not that worried about my case holding up in front of a judge, but I will definitely be more careful in the future.

  3. Daniel says:

    Received my check today! But…

    It requires two signature, and mine only has one! HA! Lucky me

  4. Daniel says:

    Check cashed. I now have a shiny new 20 inch iMac.

  5. Tom Myron says:

    Simple non-negotiables:

    1. 50% up front, non-negotiable. If they don’t have a financial stake in it from the start they will consider you & your work expendable at any point in the process.

    2. 50% upon delivery. That means YOU don’t deliver until the second installment is in your hands.

    3. In the event that the performance(s) are canceled you are paid in full.

    4. You will receive a professionaly produced archival recording of every performance within 72 hours of said performance. No engineer, no performance.

    5. You don’t have any friends. That’s why it’s called the music “business.”

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