How Does New Music Get To The Audience?

I’ve received a number of email messages over the past week from readers asking how new music gets from a composer to an audience. As such, in preparation for some upcoming discussions on that subject here and at Polyphonic.org (as well as the current material available at NewMusicBox), I put together a basic primer designed to provide some answers…


Instead of addressing the mechanics behind how composers actually write music via commissions, I’ll focus on the broader issues of which individual(s) control the programming of new music (you can find a great deal of answers to the former question at meetthecomposer.org).

Keep in mind the following information is an attempt to simply a rather complex and nebulous set of relationships and it does not take into account the myriad of issues related to performance rights, publishing, etc. As such, if you are involved with these issues on a regular basis your mileage may vary. The diagram to your left illustrates the following examples.

Music Directors & Conductors
To a large degree, the individuals with the greatest amount of influence in the process of programming new music are music directors and conductors. Within most orchestras, the music director and/or principal conductor is typically granted authority over the artistic product; as such, that includes deciding which music the organization performs as well as finding and/or inspiring new works.

The former aspect has a series of checks and balances within most organizations. Sure, just about every music director would love to conduct several full scale works by Mahler and anything requiring organ and full chorus, but the cost of such programming is usually prohibitive. As such, artistic administrators help keep unbridled programming in check.

Nevertheless, music directors and conductors have a great deal of influence over the latter aspects related to brining new music to their ensemble. All you have to do to verify this is observe where composers gravitate: shrewd composers learn early on to make friends with as many conductors as possible. They know that if an organization is going to spend money on commissioning a new work, the authority to decide which composer receives that money is usually given to the music director.

In other words, if you’re a gambling composer then your best bet is with a conductor.

Administrators & Board Members
Next in the order of influence are artistic administrators, executive managers, and board members. I know many an artistic administrator that keeps a list of contemporary (meaning living) composers that are popular among patrons (meaning ticket buyers) and critics (people that influence ticket buyers). If the organization has a large enough budget or a windfall of grant money, they’ll sometimes bypass their music director altogether and go directly to a composer with proven “selling power” themselves.

If a particular board member or group of board members are fronting the money for the composition themselves, you might find instances where they wish to assert more influence on the type of music being commissioned. Even so, in these cases, the artistic and executive administrators usually have a large amount of influence.

<strong<Individual Donors
Less frequently, you’ll find a brave group of individuals out there that understand the importance of supporting new compositions and are willing to support their convictions with cash. This particular group is difficult to generalize because the medium with which they decide to introduce the music they’ve commissioned can vary wildly.

Sometimes, they may capitalize on existing relationships with some of the groups outlined above: artistic administrators, board members, and conductors. In essence, they double back and work with those groups in order to secure an ensemble that is capable of performing the new piece of music. At times, you’ll even see academic institutions or community orchestras performing new works because the donor is attracted by the reality that these ensembles cost less to bring their commission to fruition.

Even meetthecomposer.org makes a point of informing potential donors that the cost of commissioning a new work does not include the cost of performers, etc.

Everyone Else
The group with least influence are comprised of soloists, academics, and (to a lesser extent) orchestra musicians. Soloists have a decided edge over the other members of this group as their notoriety and relationships with more influential components throughout this process makes it easier for them to influence the introduction of new music. The more popular the soloist, the easier it is for them to commission works.

In fact, some soloists distinguish themselves by associating themselves with popular composers (or vice-versa). Think John Corigliano and Joshua Bell.

Academics are an interesting component because most conservatories employ composition faculty on a tenured and/or adjunct basis. In some cases, composition faculty have a university ensemble that is capable of performing their work, thus encouraging a steady flow of new pieces without the larger costs associated with professional ensembles. In other cases, universities may sponsor composition faculty to create new works to be performed by a local professional ensemble; however, this practice is becoming less common.

Among those with the least influence on introducing new music to the orchestral repertoire are orchestra musicians. In many ways this is rather bizarre (especially to those not intimately involved with these issues) but in fact, most players have very little impact on artistic programming within their respective ensemble and even less influence because they are rarely of adequate financial means to commission new works as individual donors.

A New Trend?
It’s worth noting that the Ford Motor Company Fund (along with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, The Aaron Copland Fund for Music, JPMorgan Chase,
Argosy Foundation Contemporary Music Fund, and The Amphion Foundation) recently decided to sponsor the creation of a new piece of music. Although it’s not unusual for foundations to support or outright commission new music, this case is different as this conglomerate of sponsors commissioned a single piece of music designed to be performed by 65 different small budget ensembles.

While this is certainly a unique and worthwhile effort, the impetus for the project came from orchestra managers and the American Symphony Orchestra League. So, in a sense, this new model may be seen as an extension of the traditional influence exerted by administrators and board members.

These basic examples have all contributed to a very unique branch within the tree of classical music evolution. At the same time, they’ve contributed to the development of some very unusual issues, both positive and negative. The upcoming Virtual Discussion Panel at Polyphonic.org from 6/1906 – 06/23/06 will examine some of those issues between a panel of established composers and seasoned orchestra musicians.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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