I want to get specific

from Thursday, September8th of the year2011.

I want to get specific for a minute about something that I think affects a lot of composers and performers (but especially composers). It’s getting recordings of new work, and making recordings of new work, and that whole matrix. I feel like I speak from a place of enormous privilege in this regard, because I have wonderful publishers both in the US and the UK who are attuned to the specifics of this, as well as relationships with two record companies who are easy and willing collaborators. But my goal, in the long term, is to get this fixed for everybody, because it’s a complete nightmare. Let me break it down. Let’s say that you’re a young composer and an orchestra decides to commission you. Wahoo! You spend six months writing this thing, spitting, crying, elated, all that. You haul ass to wherever it is that the orchestra is at. You work with them in a very limited amount of time, rushing up to the stage to investigate an errant bowing in the violas, running to the back of the hall to make sure the bowed vibraphone is speaking loudly enough. Then, it’s the day of the show, y’all. The concert happens, it goes pretty well! You see, above the stage, a few dangling microphones, so it should stand to reason that you should be able to hear a recording of the piece at some point. Not true. What then happens is an unbelievable series of Kafkaesque email threads, out-of-office messages, invented holidays, bizarre threats, secret handshakes. If you’re lucky, and very very persistent, you might end up with a CD of it, along with a note saying that “this never happened” and “don’t tell anybody you have this.” It’s really weird, right?

I understand that there are union regulations about recording work, and also about the way in which recordings can get very easily exploited. However, I think that I speak for a lot of people when I say that the things young composers want to do with the recording of their orchestra piece are: (a) send it to their mom, (b) be able to play it for other composers/musicians in either an academic or social setting, (c) listen to it privately to see if they can learn anything from it, and maybe, maybe (d) put it up on their website. I can see why an orchestra would have an objection to (d), but the other 3 things seem pretty much fair-game to me, especially (c). Let me also, for those of you not fully immersed in this world, explain something about orchestra music.

If you went to Juilliard, as I did, chances are you will have written an orchestra piece and submitted it for a once-monthly orchestra reading. When I was there maybe it was twice a semester or something? Anyway, what happens is that it’s 9 in the morning, everybody’s bleary, they read through your piece, a whole bunch of cobwebs and bats and shit come flying out of the closet because writing orchestra music is really complicated. There’s a big step between writing for, say, a quartet-sized ensemble and a fifty to sixty-piece orchestra. The way line works is different, blend is different — it’s a huge learning curve. Okay, so you have thirty embarrassing and exhilarating minutes. Maybe the next year, you do this again. Then, when you’re older, you submit a piece for the orchestra concert, you win the competition, and your piece gets maybe three hours of rehearsal over 2 days, and then the show. This is, it should be said, not a complaint about any of this, but just the reality of the situation. When that concert happens — when it’s really your first time dealing with an orchestra, you sort of leave your body and barely listen. It’s the recording that lets you double-back and realize that maybe that bass clarinet shouldn’t be doubled by all the celli, but only half. It’s the recording that allows you, even more importantly, to realize that all the incredibly intricate string details that would sound like £1,000,000 in a chamber setting sound like insects in the acoustic of an orchestral hall.

So, the moral of the story is, getting a recording of your piece is really, really important. I know that I listened to the two pieces I wrote for the Juilliard orchestra obsessively with the score, and without that process, I wouldn’t be half as facile as I am — or confident, or comfortable — writing orchestrally now.

Something really maddening happened to me in the past. I was dealing with an orchestra and we had very, very limited rehearsal time. It was the end of their season, everybody was tired, it was kind of a mess. The first orchestral rehearsal I had my little desk set up with my phone out (to keep notes on), two sets of scores, a million pens, etc. The rehearsal, shall we say, left a lot of room for improvement. I experienced some classic Orchestral Sasstalk:

Me: Hi, so can the bass clarinet just play out a little bit more in bar 91?
Bass Clarinet Dude: I just don’t think you’re going to hear that.

(Suffice it to say, not only could you hear it already when he was playing it pp, despite its f marking, this is not the way that conversation is meant to go).

The other thing about rehearsals is that one tends not to give brass a hard time for flubbing high, exposed passages. Brass instruments are like those crazy dragons from Avatar or whatever; it’s some kind of spiritual connexion that has to be achieved between the lips and the metal and sometimes you just aren’t going to get that at 10 AM on a Tuesday morning. So I happily ignored some brass peccadilloes. Strings: a rhythmic passage (let’s say it’s about as hard as the Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements in terms of counting) was a disaster. A little stroll down the stands revealed that only the concertmaster had slashed his bars (as in, showing the sub-beats to make reading the passage simpler), which, of course, was the problem. It would be as if New York City only put street signs every ten blocks; unless you know the city by heart, you’re going to need to remind yourself which is 8th and which is 9th. Anyway, that was kind of maddening, and the whole experience was pretty disillusioning and heartbreaking and awful; my reaction to a bad rehearsal is never “I hate those musicians” but it’s “I must be such an awful composer, and an awful person, that I can’t get these people to commit to this music.” At the end of it, though, came the amazing thing. Somebody from the music office said she wanted to talk to me. Oh, I thought, maybe they’re going to apologize for that not-great showing. Not so much. Apparently one of the musicians in the orchestra had made something akin to a formal complaint that I had recorded the rehearsal! Evidently, he thought that he had heard a noise coming from my iPhone that sounded as if I had been playing back what they had just played? Ooooooooooooooooooooh girrrrrrrrrrrllllllllll. It was at that time that I lost my mind. There are so many things wrong with that. I had to check myself, because what I wanted to say was, “Yes, I recorded it, because what I love to do in the evenings is draw a lukewarm bath, slit my wrists, and listen to adults sight-read my music worse than children through my phone’s speaker.”

I should also add that this organization — whom I love! – has the opposite of sent me a recording (which I know exists because I have Beheld It) of the multiple performances they’ve done of my work. In fact, the woman I attempted to (politely) hound about it, and whom my publishers also (politely) hounded, ignored our emails, until such a time as it was revealed that she had left the organization, presumably to avoid the task of slipping the CD into the mail? I mean: I get it. Shit is bureaucratic, who knows about the rights issues and nobody wants to run afoul of a musicians’ committee. But in this case I would have accepted the secret handshake, because I want to do better next time.

I am really pro-Union for musicians. I appreciate all the protections that are in place against musicians inadvertently having their work exploited in ways beyond their control. I also understand that musicians are insanely underpaid if you consider how much time it takes through practice, school, etc. to be in a professional orchestra, or semi-professional orchestra, or really to be getting paid for music-making at all. This model, though, is totally fucked. The idea that a professional musician, after a pretty bloody rehearsal, would be most concerned with whether or not the composer recorded it on a cellphone is a misprioritization on every level. If I had been recording it, the point would have been for me to sit at home obsessively going over the score in order to make myself a better composer, and better able to write better music for that same player in the future. Everybody wins if, after a concert, the composer gets a nice CD with the logo of the orchestra on it. The alternative is some James Bond shit: little Edirol recorders hidden in duffel bags, hiring a friend to sit in the hall and “check for balances” whilst propping a device on the knee. Nobody wants that. Loosening up the recording contracts is going to be an investment in getting higher quality orchestral music written across the board, because writing for orchestra is always learning on the job.

I want to give you a recent example. Excellent Conductor X conducted the Y Sympherny and soloist Z in this concerto I had written for the occasion at an outdoor festival. The rehearsal was cool — about forty-five minutes, we worked out some balance issues that you are always going to have with concerti. The dress rehearsal was basically a run and some notes: again, totally cool, totally professional. Everybody sounded awesome. Perfect showing at the concert from X and Y and a stellar performance from Z. Microphones all over the place, broadcasting the concert onto the lawn for picnickers. During the show, I was sitting there inside, nervous as anything, trying not to twitch. I was listening, but I was not listening. I was paying attention the same way you pay attention to a movie you’ve seen before.

Afterwards, you’d think that because of the microphones, it would take about thirty seconds for somebody to be like, hey, here’s a link to a Dropbox file with your piece recorded in it! The point of my owning that recording, by the way, would be to listen to it privately, and figure out what I could improve with it. I’d also send it to my mom. I wouldn’t put it online, obvs. I’d play it for the friend who introduced me to Z so many years ago at Juilliard, because that seems only polite, rather than the email I sent her being like, “you should hear this piece! But you can’t! Haha! Nobody can! Only the people who were there!” So now, we’re in the Email Thicket. Words I have heard: $200, Impossible, Working On It, Cassette Tape (!). On the other hand, I walked into the St Paul Chamber Orchestra just now and immediately signed a waiver saying that I can get a high-quality CD of the piece as long as I don’t put it online! Wa-hey! Let’s choose model b! And I’m secretly wishing somebody would send me a cassette tape.

I’d love to know what I, and other composers, can do to encourage all organizations to work with composers to ensure that we can continue working and learning based on live experiences. Leave me a note up in the comments.


  • This is outrageous. I was shocked to read it. I am totally unplugged in any power circle in this area but will send a copy to my college roommate’s sister who works for ASCAP. My only suggestion is to do more of what you’ve just done here so very well. Educate the public and insiders on this issue. Perhaps get it on workshop/agenda at music festivals and the like. Best wishes.

  • Let me preface this with saying that I have written very little orchestral music, and never heard it performed. But regardless, ever since I started composing three years ago I have been trying desperately to understand why this is so difficult. I’m lucky in that I’ve written primarily choral music and choral ensembles in general don’t have such strong regulations for recordings. I also got lucky and received a grant right away that allowed me to record three of my pieces independent of an organization. That was the best damn thing that ever happened to me in terms of writing for choir. I scoured my scores and have grown exponentially ever since as a result (in terms of writing for the voice).

    But it’s incredibly easy to write for choir compared to an orchestral piece… And somehow it’s incredibly easy to get a recording of a choral work compared to one for orchestra. What bothers me more than anything about your post is that I feel like everyone’s so freaked out because of the information age and what little control we all have over what goes where that policies are followed without any consideration for composers’ education. It’s seemingly irrelevant, and it’s the most important thing we can do to continue the art!

    I would love to learn from my mistakes every time through recordings. I hope this is fixed in the near future, when I finally do write a fully orchestrated work.

  • As annoying as it sounds, in your place I’d force the issue’s consideration by drafting a generic waiver based on SPCO’s and presenting it during negotiations or whatever breed of shenanigans happens at kickoff. Make it an issue the org must deliberately reject; this will at least get them to think about it, however briefly.

  • Hey love,
    I’m really glad you’ve flagged this issue up. A few years ago a world renowned orchestra played my 1st album in it’s entirity.
    After an eternity of phone calls & requests a recording of the concert was produced. However, it contained glitches all over, making it virtually unlistenable.
    When I enquired into this technical mishap, the orchestra liaison shouted,’WE ARE NOT A RECORD COMPANY,’ and slammed the phone down on me.
    I get that Orchestras seem to have a reserved venom for popular musicians, but this left a pretty bad taste in my mouth.
    Hopefully a post like this may wake a few people up.
    Thanks girl!

  • Tellin’ it like it is brother. Man what a messed up world.

  • This has happened to me now for almost 30 years!!! I’ve got one piece written for two truly great musicians who have played it probably 30 times. I’ve never heard it. They have never recorded a single performance. It’s one of my most important pieces for these instruments and they keep saying it wasn’t recorded.

    Every time is outrageous… I’ve heard every excuse:

    1. We don’t trust you not to put it online. If we knew you’d just listen to it, that’d be cool, but we’ve been burned.

    2. We’re not that happy with it and we plan on performing it again. (NOT!).

    3. There wasn’t an engineer available.

    4. True story – the engineer forgot to turn on the DAT machine.

    5. Don ‘t worry, when we record it for our new album you’ll like it.

    6. I’ll bring it up with the musicians to see if we are happy enough with the performance to let you hear it. (WTF???).

    Thanks for bringing up the issue, Nico.

  • Great post! Even more f’d up? A certain orchestra will give a composer a CD, but with white noise inserted at various intervals to make the recording unusable for – wait for it – ANYTHING! I would most likely rather not get any recording than get something that is un-listenable. I like the waiver solution, and certain orchestras should take this as their model. Way to go SPCO!

  • Great post – this seems so obvious from a personal archive and learning experience standpoint. I’ve only had a few experiences from chamber groups being touchy about me selling recordings of them playing – which I hadn’t even intended, but they had gotten burned before.
    Why not make it SOP from your end in negotiations? You want a personal archive and something to share privately unless you get expressed written permission, etc. etc. and put the ball in their court. word up.

  • Great post. Coming of age in this era (22 years old here) has completely dissuaded me from writing orchestral music. I’ll find other venues, you know? There just doesn’t seem to be much to encourage participation by living (particularly young) composers in this ensemble. I don’t hear many of my compatriots around my age group attempting to bang down the doors, either. Maybe we should be trying harder, but with concert band as a substantially more available and accommodating partner for young composers, the zeitgeist sounds something like “why bother?”

  • Speaking as someone who works in the recorded music industry – the very likely and unfortunate case is that,

    If it exists, it will leak.

    But define: leak in the context of orchestral music. The problem with leaking is the idea that people will then not pay cash money for the actual thing. This is a different idea altogether. It will be years before anybody professionally records this piece. The only piece I’ve ever written that got premiered and released in the same year was part of that genius NY Phil iTunes pass thing, which was smart smart smart.

  • Composers’ moms, unionize!

  • Sigh… ;-P

  • I recently went through talks, phone calls, emails, signed waivers, and a vote of the orchestra so I could get an unaltered CD… of my 3 minute children’s piece for orchestra. 3-4 months later I received my study copy, which I am grateful for, and it was worth it for all I learned. Could and should the process be easier? Of course, the SPCO process seems ideal.

    But to illustrate another example of why we have these rules at all, orchestral musicians typically receive tiny fractions of a recording’s earnings (if any at all) and have to fight hard for even that much. The most lucrative recording I’ve ever played netted me .00001% (actual number) of its earnings. That paid my rent for 4 months.

  • Thank you Mr. Muhly for an excellent post on an important subject. I’ve had the exact experiences, and they’ve all been frustrating. Once I had a professional orchestra perform a work–and I was very happy and thankful for the opportunity–and then had to sign a rather daunting multi-page contract basically saying that I would never, ever, do ANYTHING with it. Well, unless I was to play this recording in a locked room with headphones on, etc. Well, I exaggerate. But you get the idea. Now, mind you, the performance was not the best. It was, as you can easily imagine, seriously underrehearsed (I laghed out loud at your story about your rehearsal experiences!). But there is was: a REAL orchestra, with living humans, playing the piece. One very important thing young and emerging composers want to do with such recordings is be able to submit them as a sample of work under consideration for competitions, jobs, etc. For me, I really wanted to use this recording for such purposes rather than my comparatively shitty MIDI/Sibelius realization. But the contract was very explicit, and basically they (the orchestra in question) could really fuck me if they found out and the musicians wished to get up in a tizzy for any use outside of the before-mentioned locked room. All of us know that our endeavor is not in the realm of a money-making commercial venture. We composers love and respect all musicians who take the time to perform our music and want them to get paid well and treated with respect. We just want the opportunity to learn from our experiences and be able to use our music to generate future opportunities.

  • Great article. I have some experience with this as well and it is truly stab-your-eyes-out maddening. I don’t have nearly the experience you do with orchestras, but I do have some, and I haven’t been able to get a single recording. I did manage to get a recording from a reading I had with a nameless major orchestra, but getting it involved collaboration with some people on the inside, some insidious changing of hands of a DAT tape, and transferring that DAT tape to a lap-top in a secluded, dark corner. And no, that’s not an exaggeration. And of course, I can never, EVER tell anyone that I actually have it. Like you, all I wanted it for was to listen to it incessantly to become a better composer. I mean, isn’t this the point of an orchestra reading? Am I supposed to catalog every nuance of the reading in my mind like I’m freaking Lt. Commander Data?

    Composers not being able to use these recordings, and even post them on their web sites is one reason why the orchestra world is still so incredibly backward. I hope your article opens some eyes – thanks for writing it!

  • I straddle both worlds. I’m a full-time orchestra musician as well as a composer. During the premiere week of my first major commission there were multiple balance issues so I put a small recording device in the hall so I could LEARN SOMETHING. When my own union found out (after a string of bizarre coincidences; I was keeping the recording totally secret) they tried to impose a $35,000 limited pressing recording fee as punishment, even getting the national AFM riled up against me. Only after a popular revolt by the musicians in my favor did we settle on me making a huge mea culpa apology in front of the whole orchestra, head hung low, and destroying the recording in front of them. And, no, I didn’t get a tape of the performance.

  • I fully understand your frustration.

    I also understand the other side of the issue. I worked for a famous summer music fest, and we allowed our musicians and composers to purchase recordings for a nominal fee (after all, we were recording things anyway for our archives)…but, it is not without precedent for those recordings to be used inappropriately. As in, I have seen them put up on the web.

    It’s also conceivable that these recordings could be submitted to iTunes or another site and sold by the composer or performer. And how on earth is a non-profit institution supposed to check all the online mp3-sale sites for every piece they’ve ever handed to someone?

    I can only tell you that abuses DO happen, and it makes organizations VERY nervous about giving out recordings.

    That being said, I do think it is better to have people sign a formal waiver, and to then trust them. A waiver means they cannot feign ignorance if they do post the recording and it can spell out what uses are allowable.


  • I had a piece performed once by a small union orchestra. My parents couldn’t make the premiere (the only performance), so I asked the orchestra politely, during rehearsal, if they’d let me record onto minidisc. (That was back when minidisc was k00l.) Nobody objected, and I have a recording, which I’ve used to hustle for future performances.

    Some years later, a potential commissioning org wanted to hear a piece I had written on commission from Carnegie, which was performed and recorded there. Carnegie gave me kind permission to make a copy.

    Mostly, it’s timing. Just like asking to preboard a flight with a fiddle. You can’t ask for exceptions when people are in a shvitz.

  • Great point – thanks for writing this.
    I would like to just add that this is not an experience that you’d necessarily have with all orchestras, some are really nice about giving you recordings and being reasonable about it.

    However, even a single experience of the type you describe is one too many. Unfortunately, things of this sort happen way too often and as a result very many young composers do not want to write for orchestra – which is of course very bad.

    Because of its size and the inevitable bureaucratic “issues”, the orchestra as a medium will probably always take a bit longer to adapt to contemporary music and its composers than smaller ensembles or soloists. But we, composers, can – as you do here – point out things that could in general be improved and hope that the large force with which we deal is willing to listen.


  • I think allowing a) b) and c) as a negotiating point up front is an excellent idea. Negotiate it before the rehearsals even begin, not after the performance when they’ve got their goods and you have no leverage except your charisma and a “please”.

    A manager at Adobe once scolded me for asking for a raise after a major project was finished (some version of Illustrator, I think). His message was the same: Dude, negotiate the raise before the product ships.

    In conclusion, I think it’s reprehensible that organizations don’t do this because they’ve been burned by unnamed shadowy figures in the past, and that they have the audacity to ask for a fee.

  • Great article and so true! For all our hard work as composers, we deserve a high-quality recording that we can learn from. We should also be able to use these recordings for promotional purposes on our web sites – the orchestra can claim annonymity if necessary. How else can the living composer thrive and get their music out there?! Conductors, orchestras and unions need to bend to the composer on this topic and find a mutually-beneficial playing field….otherwise they can play Beethoven for the next 500 years and complain that no new music has been written 😉

  • A way around this that is just about almost as fun as writing for orchestra: writing for college-level wind ensemble (i.e., band). Plenty of rehearsal time, no union rules and generally very cooperative conductors. And it’s much easier to get those subsequent performances, and folks are generally very cool about getting the composer a recording in a timely fashion. I know that wind ensemble doesn’t have the cultural cache of the orchestra, but there is a growing body of work that is significant and meaningful. I went through a phase when I didn’t want to be a “band composer,” and I still don’t consider myself to be one, but if I only wrote for orchestra, I wouldn’t have much of a career in concert music.

  • This is just one of the reasons that I have little interest in writing for orchestras. I’m a control freak. The first time anyone heard of one of my pieces, the process went something like this: I wrote a little theatrical political cantata. I knew no established institution would get it or take it on. Fuck it, I said, I like this piece, I get it, I’ll just do it myself. I produced, directed, promoted, conducted, everythinged it myself. I hired young freelancers, and I made them all sign contracts and releases that gave me permission to record anything they did within the context of a rehearsal or performance, in any form of media, and gave me the rights to distribute that media however the hell I wanted, in perpetuity. Eventually I got a bunch of national TV attention, which was pretty cool for a piece I dashed off in undergrad. I actually made a small profit from the undertaking, which I bravely financed with credit cards.

    It was fucking hard work. Fucking hard. But I will do it again for my next work, and again for the work after that, because frankly, I don’t trust anyone else to do it right, and yes, I want that recording at the end of the process. And I don’t just want it to learn from it. I want it on my damn website. I want it on iTunes and Bandcamp and Spotify.

    If orchestras aren’t going to let me do shit like that, well, I guess I won’t be planning to write a great deal of orchestral music, at least at this stage of my career. And frankly, my belief is that any music institution that refuses to embrace online distribution of recordings deserves to shrivel up and die — and likely will.

  • If you know it’s going to be a one-time performance, why not try to get one of your record labels on board before it all starts?

    Since all performers are union, cut the union(and all the performers accumulatively) in on the royalties from the record sales. As a performer, why wouldn’t I want residual income on top of whatever I got paid for the performance? The more Nico Muhly recordings I perform on, the better off I’ll be in the future…

    I’m a fan, obviously, and yes I’ve been wanting to hear all this one-time only shit, so if it ever gets released, you’ve got a buyer ready to give you(and the UNION) his hard earned money.

  • This is fantastic — not the situation, but your breakdown of how messed up it is.

    Keep to this! “But my goal, in the long term, is to get this fixed for everybody, because it’s a complete nightmare.”

    Okay, back to the internet.

  • I think St. Paul has a damn good start. They want better music, and they understand composers need recordings to be able to provide them with better music. I think groups don’t want recordings “out there” not because it might make them sound bad (I mean, the composer’s neck is out there too when it comes to bad rehearsal recordings) but perhaps they think they are somehow loosing money with a rogue recording… this couldn’t be more opposite from the truth. Allowing a composer to A) have the recording B) post it on their website in a listenable fashion is great (and free) publicity. There is the issue of orchestras not wanting to have to check every composer’s website to make sure their ‘private’ recording isn’t on their website. One easy fix is to make it legal for a composer to have at least a small awesome-sounding clip of the piece or B) make the interns look. It will take them no time at all. I’d even be fine PAYING to get a recording. That may sound crazy, but if that’s what it takes to satisfy the bureaucratic monster, then sure, why not. As far as “what can Nico do?” I’d say this: talk up how much St. Paul’s recording has helped you and St. Paul can talk about how much it helped them in return. Even talking about forming realistic composer-orch-recording contracts would be a good start.

  • In eighth grade, I said in an e-mail that I’d love to hear a recording of your orchestra piece, Wish You Were Here. You replied, “I would too!”

    Now I know you weren’t being a bitch; you were being honest.

  • Great post. That sounds totally ridiculous. I know it’s not a solution to the problem but it could be worth premiering pieces with college orchestras. I went to a top 5 music school and there wasn’t a huge difference between the orchestra and the pro orchestras that would come play. Granted I wasn’t a classical major so I probably miss some of the nuance, but they would fucking bring it. You also would probably end up with more rehearsal time.

  • I am neither a composer nor a musician…but I am one of those many who actually purchase classical recordings (to the tune of about 10-20 per week). My suggestion – and take it for what it’s worth – is to edit this blog and make it part of a larger article for one (or all) of the popular and well read classical recording magazines (“The Trials and Tribulations of a Young Classical Composer” or some such title), eg. Gramophone or BBC Music. I think that the folks who keep the orchestras and recording companies in business should know about this!

    If we could eliminate half of the lawyers in the world, it would help (thank you Will S.).

  • I had no idea this was going on. I’m glad you wrote this. As far as I’m concerned, the composer is a demi-god. They create worlds out of air. Orchestras, or any musical organization interested in your work, should be bending over backward to make you happy. A copy of the performance should be customary. Can you put it in your contract and if they don’t deliver, sue them? Add a clause about green M&M’s just to see if they read the contract?

    I am desperate to hear new music. I listen to a lot of it in my spare time and there isn’t much out there that really moves me so I need to keep searching. Without posts and recordings and MP3’s on composers websites, I wouldn’t have the access.

  • It is very strange that orchestras seem to make “archival” recordings of virtually every concert sound they make. As a hopeful composer (a few things read- never performed) and an avid concert goer, it would seem to me that orchestras would want to encourage the creation of new music from as many sources as possible but it also seems that there is an elite short list of acceptable contemporary composers who are tapped for new music, most from the conservatory-academic strand. This being said, even they can’t get a record of performances for their study and archive? Aren’t they an integral part of the performance and deserving of the same archive? Given these circumstances, why would anyone write orchestral music at all except that the creator inside demands it and to what end?

  • I just put up a discussion of this issue on my blog. Go have a look!


  • My experience with professional orchestras has been limited, but an unnamed Orchestra in Minnesota was willing to give me a straight recording of my piece, provided I sign a document, in triplicate, saying I wouldn’t distribute it, and if I did, I’d have to pay every member of the orchestra 3X the union rate for a recording session. Fair enough – at least I have the excellent recording. (Same orchestra made me pay my own way to the subscription performance of my piece, saying they could only send a staff member to pick me up at the airport “if” I were “a guest artist,” but that’s another story.)

    I have to wonder how much the union thinks they’re risking. Worst case, the recording gets stuck on iTunes (which is extremely unlikely, as nobody would be so foolish). But let’s assume the recording was quite good, and represents the orchestra well. Is the union concerned that they’re losing income? How much income are we talking about? I can’t speak for Mr. Muhly, but in my experience, there is not a lot of money in $.99 downloads of contemporary classical music. Even 5000 downloads – a huge number! – would generate $3000 max, after paying the mechanical royalty (which, um, goes to the composer). As a few people have suggested, one could offer some of that back-end to the orchestra. (I do that with all of the recordings I put on iTunes now.) Of course, that would require approval from the orchestra committee, and if you think it’s impossible to get a simple email answered, just imagine trying to get an orchestra committee to agree to terms to allow you to receive and sell a recording on iTunes.

    At Matthew Saunders said, this is just one more reason why it’s nice to write for good college-level bands. The Eastman Wind Ensemble will give you a damn recording.

    (And Buck’s comment about Nico not actually being a bitch: that was funny.)

  • Hey, we orchestra folk get frustrated too!

    I wanted to get a copy of my own playing when I had a major solo in a work with our local symphony. Not the full work. Just the movement with the huge English horn solo. It’s a good way to learn about how we sound out in the hall; we only hear from our little seats, and with a wind instrument we also hear the sound as it resonates in our head so we aren’t getting the real picture (or real sound, actually.) The recording engineer never replied to my request (I didn’t think he would), the conductor of the concert wrote back to say, “I’m not allowed to have a copy,”, and that’s where it ended. I would be allowed to drive in to the office and sit with headphones and listen, but I can’t have a copy. Period. We are restricted due to union regulations. It’s frustrating, to be sure.

    In my opera company singers would love to get a short video of an aria (or even a portion of it) to send to agents, companies, or even post on YouTube. It seemed a reasonable thing to ask. The majority of the orchestra agreed. But it was denied by the New York office.

    My symphony had recordings online as well, and they were told by the head honchos that they couldn’t do that.

    I’m hoping some of this will change. The world has changed, to be sure. We need to play catch up.

    Sometimes, of course, abuse happens. That’s never going to change, no matter the rules and regulations.

    For instance …

    Years ago I was in an orchestra that made recordings and later someone from the group went to Europe and found a recording of us for sale. So that’s an issue that has to be dealt with, but there will always be dishonest people in the world. There will alway be thieves. So this “protection” that’s in place doesn’t really do much about that. It seems more like a punishment for the artists (composers, conductors and performers alike) to me. I hope it someday gets resolved.

  • I find it bizarre that you can’t get copies of your music. I used to work for the LA Phil, and was, indeed, the person who handled getting recordings to composers, soloists, conductors, etc. We had a waiver to be signed and once that was done I got a copy of the cd from our sound guy and mailed it to the appropriate party. I understand the union issues, but that can pretty easily be taken care of w/the proper waiver. I’m sorry you’ve had so many problems with this issue.

  • […] Muhly has a good post up about how difficult it can be to get recordings of one’s music from orchestras. You can […]

  • Nico, I was discussing this elsewhere and decided to take the conversation here. I’m an orchestra player and a composer as well, one who would love recordings just like you. I think you’re going about it the wrong way.

    For starters, complaining about the unprepared orchestra (deserved or not) in the same blog while asking for freebies isn’t going to win you a ton of sympathy with orchestra players. For the record, I’ve never marked slashes in my entire life. Some players mark them, some don’t. Next you’ll be checking for fingerings. It’s up to the players to mark their parts or not, it doesn’t mean a damn thing.

    Your whole premise in this blog seems to be that it’s a win-win situation for all for a composer to get a recording (and acknowledge the orchestra on a website or similar). It’s not, it’s not even close. It could do wonders for the composer and very little for the average orchestra. Outside of the big orchestras, most orchestras (or rather their boards) are in an occupation that sells Beethoven 5 and 1812 overture subscriptions. Players don’t make artistic decisions, they are hired hands. Being on a composer’s website doesn’t “play in Peoria” so to speak, it does very little with selling tickets to a local audience. It can, however, be a huge plus for a composer and open lots of doors, but it’s not going to do that for most orchestras.

    Your “think of the exposure” plan has some wholes in it: more and more, orchestras are using freelance musicians. A flautist might play one concert subbing for 3rd flute and never play with that orchestra again. The “think of the exposure” plan gets them nothing, except playing on a recording for free. That’s not right, it’s wrong.

    Things that help the wonderful SPCO won’t help most orchestras. Here’s a novel idea for most orchestras: PAY THEM SOMETHING. It doesn’t have to be much, a $25 “website broadcast” fee would cost 2k for an 80 piece orchestra. Buy the beer or something, bring some pizzas to the practice. Make some sort of tangible goodwill gesture other than “think of the exposure”. Have your publisher offer a discount on certain rentals in exchange for the recording. You write that musicians are undepaid but the model is screwed. How ’bout making the steps to change the model? Establish a website/recording fee, however honorary. Ask orchestras IN ADVANCE if you can have a copy of the show’s recording for your website in exchange for a small fee or other tangible honorarium. Nobody’s expecting Sony money, and union rules can be bent but it takes a bit of goodwill to do so.

    Excellent points! I’m glad to hear all of this. I think, actually, my argument isn’t even about putting it online or using it to promote the composer. I literally am talking about the most basic thing which is getting one’s hands on the archival recordings that the orchestras make themselves anyway as a matter of course. In fact, I don’t think I ever said anything akin to “think of the exposure;” that’s a whole different argument that has to do with releasing recorded material. I’m more thinking about the first-time or second-time composers who want to be able to learn how to do better next time. The other thing — putting things online etc. — is tricky and I think I’m even more radical than you are in terms of how much I’d like for people to be paid! Anyway, thank you for your thoughts. Nico

  • Thanks for responding Nico. To be clear, there’s a huge difference between the usual “archival” recordings (and their uses) and putting something on a website or using it in any other way than one composer hearing his stuff. I (like most musicians) have no objection to the usual “archival” uses.

    When I saw the word “website”, I over-reacted (or maybe not!). That’s a completely different subject and uncharted waters. As musicians in a world that thinks “music is free”, we have to be ever-vigilant of protecting the little value our product currently has, whether it’s in recorded form or sheet music form. Once those 1’s and zeros hit the Net, the product loses all value and is gone forever. The potential for abuse (even by a 3rd party) is enormous, and soon all of us on both sides of the sheet music are out of a job.

  • I’m begging a thousand pardons for my ignorance, but I have to ask. I was under the impression that one could generate fat somewhat lush MIDIfied tracks and audio w/ some modern software or program. I have seen how it’s possible to bang out midi or step written parts into sequencing programs that render seperate tracks for every part or voice added. I know my boss has nightmares with a program called Finale. My question to you all, don’t you composer folks see much merit going the computer route. Thanks and I really enjoyed this.

  • @David Kempers

    Many of your fears sound like those perpetuated by the RIAA, and research has consistently proven them unjustified [1]. For example, as Lawrence Lessig points out:

    “In 2002, the RIAA reported that CD sales had fallen by 8.9 percent, from 882 million to 803 million units; revenues fell 6.7 percent. This confirms a trend over the past few years. The RIAA blames Internet piracy for the trend, though there are many other causes that could account for this drop. SoundScan, for example, reports a more than 20 percent drop in the number of CDs released since 1999. That no doubt accounts for some of the decrease in sales… But let’s assume the RIAA is right, and all of the decline in CD sales is because of Internet sharing. Here’s the rub: In the same period that the RIAA estimates that 803 million CDs were sold, the RIAA estimates that 2.1 billion CDs were downloaded for free. Thus, although 2.6 times the total number of CDs sold were downloaded for free, sales revenue fell by just 6.7 percent… [So] there is a huge difference between downloading a song and stealing a CD.”[2]

    Studies have actually shown that the internet piracy you are so afraid doesn’t hurt, and may actually increase sales[3], and many bands, some hugely successful, like Pearl Jam, have learned that they actually make more money by encouraging their fans to copy and share their music. And many independent, and some would say “niche” musicians, like Jonathan Coulton make a damn good living distributing their music only via the internet (In a May 2011 interview on NPR’s program Planet Money, Coulton revealed that online sales from his website had topped one million dollars.)

    The internet provides more musicians than ever before the ability to reach a global audience, and the musicians that will derive the most benefits from the internet are those that embrace it wholeheartedly.

    [1] http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20100412/0105578962.shtml

    [2] Lawrence Lessig (2004). Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity. New York: The Penguin Press. ISBN 1594200068. OCLC 53324884

    [3] http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A34300-2004Mar29

  • It IS a win-win for composers AND orchestras if composers can always get an archival recording for their own use (and for their moms to hear).

    The win for the composer is obvious. The win for the orchestra is they will be getting a superior product. The fine points of orchestration are something you can only learn “on the job,” and—I’m sorry—but you really have to be an orchestra composer to understand this point. Why wouldn’t an orchestra WANT a composer to produce a superior product for them? They are not competing entities. The composer wants the orchestra to sound good; the orchestra wants the composer to write well.

    By the way, I am also an orchestral musician and I feel just as passionate about every musician having easy access to archival recordings of every concert. It’s so important to listen, but—in my orchestra—few people actually do it because it involves driving to the office and holing up in a dark room. There isn’t time to do that every week. If we could listen in our homes, our cars, etc., we would have a better understanding of our own playing. What is the first thing a football team does on its first meeting after any game? Watch the game film.

    Every musician and every composer should at least have the basic right to listen to their own work.

  • Hello Nico,
    Michael Sweeney here – I am principal bassoon of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and an admirer of your music. I have to tell you two short stories from the TSO that I think might encourage you/explain things/give you some strategies for the future. First, some years ago, I played Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto with my colleagues. I asked our stage manager in advance for an archival recording of my performances so that I could study it and of course let my mom hear it. Our stage manager said, “sure, you’ll just need to sign a waiver first saying that you will not distribute it in any way otherwise you’ll be liable for payment of recording fees to the orchestra.” I said “Fine.” I signed the waiver and was given the CD and learned tons about my playing (it also made my mom cry – so Mission Accomplished). Second, some while ago, one of my colleagues had a big solo and so he recorded the corresponding portion of our rehearsal for his own study. Several players saw this and complained to the Orchestra Committee. I was on the OC at that time and initially was not too concerned about this infraction of the rules. I even thought to myself: I should try that the next time we rehearse Rite of Spring or Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. But we had a good discussion about it in the OC where it was pointed out that on the recording there would be bits of other players’ playing that they might not want anyone to hear outside of a closed rehearsal hall. The OC spoke to the offending player and he knocked it off. (As an addendum to this story, I should point out the he played his solo fabulously at the concerts in spite of not having a study recording of our rehearsals.)
    I think there are many things to take away from the two stories above. If I were a composer, I would negotiate for an archival recording of the ensemble’s performance of my piece (here’s the important part:) as part of the contract for the commission itself. Of course you would have to volunteer to sign a waiver making you liable for payment should you release the recording publicly. That would of course mean that you could not post it on your web site, but it would mean that you could study it and learn from it and play it for your mom so she could weep a little. Also, I think it’s important to take care of this sort of thing ahead of time, not after the performances are over – things move fast in our business and the orchestra and management move on to the following week’s programme very quickly after your premiere is over. If you ask for a recording after the fact, it’s a nuisance, but if you arrange for it before hand, then it’s just something they add to their To-Do list for that week. Lastly, it’s important not to take shabby treatment personally – I know it stings, but it’s not about you or your music. At the TSO, we make even our own players sign the same waiver that we would ask a composer to sign precisely so that we can have some control on representations of our playing that go out to the world.
    On a final personal note, I hope I get to play something by you one of these days. I’m sorry that orchestra X sightread your piece poorly – if I’m lucky enough to get to play one of your pieces, I promise that I will practice my part very diligently before the first rehearsal.

  • And then when you finally get your archival recording, what do you learn? Orchestras suck. They can keep their recordings. Seriously: why bother with all this anxiety over archival recordings? Orchestral musicians sound great playing Elgar and lousy sight-reading your piece because they have practiced the excerpts from the Elgar since they were 12. Do not pay attention to the years-of-slavery-in-practice-rooms behind the curtain. Orchestral musicians want the audience to believe they miraculously conjure up this stuff. When a composer gives them music to sight-read, it embarrasses them.

    P.S. Do not tell orchestral musicians to “play out a bit more in bar X…” tell them to change their dynamic from forte to triple forte (or whatever notated instruction will make it seem as if it was the composer’s fault for their inaudibility). They will think you’re fixing your mistake. Works like a charm.

    Nico replies: Ha, I think I’m a bit more optimistic than you! I like orchestral players because they bring so much of that rep to the newer things in a way that new music specialist chamber musicians don’t always do. It’s a different beast, surely, but a noble & beautiful one! I’ve had some great experiences with orchestras and very few bad ones; although I agree that confessing to a dynamic mistake on the supply-side is a better tack.

  • Hi Nico,

    Enjoyed your blog post! I agree with so much of what you said, and those early experiences at Juilliard did truly become important for me in later projects, (especially the recordings).

    Things in general seem to get better (Aaron Kernis and Minnesota Orchestra allowing recordings of the Composer’s Institute to be aired on NPR Minn. and the internet?!)…maybe it’s generational (i.e. we are the Napster gen.), or we are just more comfortable with technology and recordings than we used to be in the age of blogs,vlogs, remixes,etc.

    I want to reiterate your last plea, of what we can do as composers to push back, forward, or whatever direction it takes, on the powers at be that prevent the “recording” or video (gasp!) of a performance from reaching our hands.

    In certain way, us as composers have made life difficult for ourselves, or more likely future generations of composers, by not making more of a fuss about these issues in the past.

    Too often listening/exchange of (orchestral) recordings become a sort of closeted activity amongst composers, committees, and academies.

    Is it maybe the ambiguity of how we handle the problem that ultimately left us where we are? Or is it simply a result of submission to the weightiness of the organizations that we work with?

    I leave you with those questions as they continue in my mind answered/unanswered.

  • […] intellectual property Nico Muhly has a fantastic rant about the way in which professional orchestras make it effectively impossible […]

  • Stupid isn’t it? David Kempers makes good points about planning ahead and paying a small fee for archival or rehearsal recordings. From a practical standpoint everything now seems to be recorded (poorly) and uploaded almost instantly these days regardless of the outdated and mostly unenforceable copyright laws. Likely if no audience member tried to make a bootleg recording it doesn’t mean the warnings were effective – it just means they don’t care enough about the performance to bother. Yet there were probably security cameras recording everyone who walked in the front door – including you.

  • FWIW, Nico, your important blog article is now being featured at Reuters.


  • Nico,

    Couldn’t agree more about the challenges facing young composers as they seek to get their music played by professional orchestras, and the importance of recordings to the growth of composers in writing for orchestra. As the executive at American Composers Orchestra, we’ve got a big stake in this whole question, and have been wrestling/brainstorming many of the issues you point out for many years—and dedicating ourselves to trying to change some of that. For example, at ACO, we always make recordings available to composers for use in their portfolios, for study purposes, for applications and grant proposals, etc., whether in our annual Underwood New Music Readings for emerging composers, or on our concert programs. When it comes to Readings, we even construct the program, so that each composer gets two shots with the orchestra: a working rehearsal and then a touch-up and run-through a day later. In between the two sessions, each composer gets feedback from mentor composers (who act as extra sets of informed ears), musicians, and the conductor, and has the opportunity to make edits and notes to pass along to the conductor and the orchestra. The two-step process allows for the kinds of changes related to dynamic, articulations, and orchestral doublings, and interpretation that help improve the quality of the performance, and help the composer grow in his/her work.

    The fact is that providing an archival recording to a composer is something of a “gray area.” It’s not really addressed in any of the national agreements, and it is subject to interpretation. Each orchestra may be different. Lacking clarity, the knee-jerk — play it safe reaction from some orchestras may just be to say “no.” But that is not always the case.

    You may be interested to know that ACO is also working with other orchestras around the country to improve the situation, at least as far as Readings go. The EarShot network (run by ACO in cooperation with Meet The Composer, League of American Orchestras, American Composers Forum, and American Music Center) provides a toolkit of resources (such as program design, artistic, technical, production and financial support) too help orchestras around the country mount their own Readings and other composer development programs. EarShot is just a few years old, and still growing, but already we’ve worked with such orchestras as Nashville Symphony, Buffalo Philharmonic, Colorado Symphony, and others to help them create great programs that provide the kind of support that really helps emerging composers. As part of the EarShot effort, we’ve even created a “template” for recordings use, that we provide to each orchestra we work with, in order to encourage them to provide composers with a recording. That template spells out the kinds of study and professional uses the recording may be used for, and the kinds of limited “one-off” duplication that are permissible (while clearly prohibiting broadcast, commercial recording, internet, or other mechanisms for distributing the music to the general public). The template has worked well as a way to focus orchestra managements and players on the issues facing composers, and to address some of the concerns orchestras have had about providing a recording to composers.

    Michael Geller
    Executive Director
    American Composers Orchestra

  • Frank Zappa wrote about the exact same problems in his autobiography; check it out.

  • Nico,
    I really appreciated your post, and all the following discussion. I’m a member of the Los Angeles Master Chorale (LOVED working with you and recording your music!), and we currently have a waiver available for composers when we are performing a commission and/or a premiere. We are currently in contract negotiations, and one of the topics we’re discussing is this very one (greater access to archival recordings by composers). I have forwarded the link to this blog to my fellow members of the AGMA Negotiating Committee and the LAMC Management; it’s very helpful to have such a cogent argument from the composer’s point of view. Thanks!

  • […] Nico Muhly on composers encountering difficulty hearing recordings of their own compositions. […]

  • As a devil’s advocate for performers:

    I see a lot of composers rallying their support and agreement here. Lovely, but please make sure y’all don’t forget that performers have rights for a really good reason, and at the end of the day, we’re all trying to balance making art and paying the bills.

    I understand your frustration. You just want to refine and polish your craft. My choristers would love to do the same–it’s so vital to observe and listen to your product in order to listen critically and grow–but archival recordings are simply not legal.

    If my choir were performing a Nico Muhly piece, we’d have to pay you and/or your publisher for recording your piece, via mechanical licensing, even if we didn’t sell the recording or upload it on a website. This is the legal right of the copyright holder of the music. We simply have to pay.

    Conversely, if you want a recording of your work, it is the right of the performers to be compensated fairly. When using unionized musicians, pay them the standard rate, or bargain with the union reps before the rehearsal/performance process begins. It’s their right as performers. They are professionals, and they are doing their jobs. You said, “I understand that there are union regulations” and “I am really pro-Union for musicians.” Well then, show them your support. Financially.

    Simply put, it’s not your right to have a recording of other people playing your music any more than I have a right to have a recording of my ensemble singing someone else’s music. Life costs money. If it costs too much for you, ask for that amount of money when you are negotiating and contracting your commission with the orchestra.

    Yes, it sucks, but that’s how it works. You make money off of me, and I make money off of you; but in the end, you win. You get royalties when I buy your scores. You get royalties when I perform your (absolutely fantastic) music. You get royalties when I record and distribute a CD with your music on it. In this economy of reduced ticket sales and slashed funding for the arts, performers and ensembles are lucky just to break even at the end of the day.

  • I advocate for a radical rethinking of how we at orchestras handle media, and your perspective is an invaluable one in this area:


    For what it’s worth the ensemble I lead [WCFSO in Iowa] makes all performance recordings of new works available not only to their composers but also – at each composer’s discretion – to the public online.

    Now if we could figure out a way to loosen up these publishers …

  • […] Composer Nico Muhly offers an insider’s perspective on the byzantine restrictions faced by orchestral composers seeking access to recordings of their own work. […]

  • Anger at the situation is correct. But anger at the orchestras is pointless and misdirected. They are governed by a contractual relationship with the musicians.

    The reason the musicians have a hard-line contract is because of PERPETUAL ABUSES of “the industry.”

    So the composer gets caught in the middle.

    But assuming that an orchestra should just “not be so strict about the rules” because we live in a new-media age is really naive. Some of the arguments surrounding this topic seem to border on that. “It’s not a big deal, relax, Mr. Recording enforcer” is not a viable solution to this problem.

    Media, information, cultural practices, and the intersections between them are an issue facing society at all corners, due to the internet. Resolving them is going to take time, patience, and a willingness to examine all of our underlying assumptions about what music is, what the music ‘object’ is, what a recording really is, etc.

    There is no easy answer to this, and I urge everyone to strongly resist the temptation to simplify the challenges.

  • Between me and my husband we’ve owned more MP3 players over the years than I can count, including Sansas, iRivers, iPods (classic & touch), the Ibiza Rhapsody, etc. But, the last few years I’ve settled down to one line of players. Why? Because I was happy to discover how well-designed and fun to use the underappreciated (and widely mocked) Zunes are.

  • […] was thinking more about the aforementioned discussion of composers being denied archival recordings of their own work. Of course it’s detrimental […]

  • Hi Nico ~ This is in response to your “World To Come” post. Didn’t know if you were aware of ‘Symphony of Science.’ John Boswell samples Sagan, Fenyman, Attenborough, Goodall, etc. and makes songs out of what they say. It’s really cool, FYI. Your Steve Reich clip reminded me of it.