ASCAP (the performing rights organization, American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) celebrated its 100th birthday on Thursday and it brought up an interesting question from many people. How do composers make money? And why would they join an organization such as ASCAP?
Like anyone else, professional composers need enough income to put a roof over their heads and food on their table. ASCAP helps to protect their rights and make sure that they are paid for the work they do.
In my brief summary here, I’m referring to composing instrumental music (not songs with lyrics).
Live Performance: Exposure to a composer’s work sometimes comes in the form of live performances of his or her work. Unless the composer is also performing in the live ensemble, there is usually no extra money owed to the composer. If the work was commissioned for a performance, that fee would be negotiated and paid up-front. The composer is also entitled to receive performance royalties through a performing rights organization like ASCAP. This amount is usually very small.
Work For Hire: Composers for media (television, film, video games, commercials, etc.) can be hired to compose music which will play during a visual presentation. The company which hired the composer will own the copyright to the music and the company controls how and when that music will be used. This can be lucrative for successful composers, who can charge a lot for their services. International copyright law also states that the composer is always credited as the composer, which allows “back end” revenue. This means that if the music is heard in a context that can be surveyed by a performing rights organization (i.e. TV or radio), then the composer can collect those royalties. Having no control over where and when the music will be placed, however, means that the composer may never see any additional revenue from their work for hire.
Production Music: This music is composed with the hope that a TV, film or game company will select it to be included in their project. This is common in television, especially for low-budget or reality shows. The composer makes an agreement with a production music library. The library then markets the music in return for a portion of the licensing and royalties that are paid. Unless the composer’s work is placed on highly successful shows, the royalties are very low.
Full-Time Composer: This is the most competitive field for a composer to enter. A staff position with a company that needs constant musical content is rare. So when a composer has an opportunity to make a good living doing what he or she has studied and practiced to do all of their lives, almost every composer will apply for the gig. But this is a job where “corporate” meets “creative” and this concept is sometimes very foreign to composers. (In other words, a composer in this type of job must be willing to work within the styles that the employer dictates.) As with any job, the pay is dependent on how successful the company is and how much the company values the composer’s contribution to that success. Unlike any of the other revenue streams mentioned above, a full-time staff composer is also likely to receive benefits such as insurance, 401Ks, stock options, etc. And the fact that they are receiving a steady paycheck allows them to focus on their craft, instead of always looking for their next job.
Pros and Cons:
As you can probably tell from reading this post, 99.9% of people who aspire to be professional composers will not make a living from that alone. Most of the talented composers I know also do other types of jobs, both inside and outside of the music/entertainment industry. But thankfully, there is something so rewarding about creating music and entertaining the world that keeps us excited and stubbornly pressing on in this highly competitive line of work.
Please support the arts and the people who dedicate themselves to making all of our lives a little brighter through music.