Composer’s Toolkit: 1.1 Income Streams

Composer's Toolkit
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1.1 Income Streams

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Commissions are the most straight-forward way for a composer to earn money – an organisation or an individual pays you a fee to write a work for them. However, commissions are also hard to come by. As an established composer, you might be approached by festivals, ensembles or orchestras already familiar with your work, to compose a new piece in exchange for a negotiable amount of money. As an emerging composer, your best chance of receiving a commission might be through a commissioning scheme from an arts organisation, like the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Young Composers programme. Private individuals as well as patrons might also commission you to write a work, often to mark a special occasion in their lives. Whilst commissions are a very convenient source of income, do bear in mind that they might also restrict your artistic freedom, as commissioners often ask the composer to write for specific instrumentation or stick to a fixed duration plus the work will have to be delivered by a specified date.

Whilst commission fees from commissioning schemes are usually fixed amounts (e.g. RPS’s Young Composer scheme awards £3,000), commission fees from festivals, ensembles or orchestras can be negotiated depending on the scale and duration of the new work. Do ask peers and people in your network about their experience of being commissioned to get an idea of fee rates. You could also have a look at the Commission Fee Survey which was carried out by BASCA, the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors. The survey is not a guide to what fee you should charge but rather a summary of what composers charged on average, in the period 2006 to 2011.


Composer residencies are hosted by a range of organisations, from prestigious venues and festivals (Wigmore Hall and Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival) to orchestras (London Chamber Orchestra) and museums (Handel House). As with commissions, established composers might be invited to be composers-in-residence, but there are also plenty of opportunities out there for emerging composers, including Sound and Music’s Embedded scheme, which pairs composers with a range of arts and non-arts organisations. In addition to writing a work for the host organisation, composers-in-residence might also be asked to give workshops and talks or get involved in the organisation’s learning and participation work. Fees for residencies vary depending on the level of the composer’s involvement.

Bursaries and Development Awards/Grants

Bursaries and development awards/grants give emerging composers the chance to develop their skills while receiving financial support. For the larger bursaries and awards like the Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Awards for Artists and the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Elgar Bursary, you usually have to be nominated by a third party, but other schemes including the PRS for Music Foundation/Bliss Trust’s Composer Bursary and the Help Musicians UK’s Emerging Artist Fund are open to emerging composers (and musicians in case of the latter). PRS for Music have also launched a scheme called the Steve Reid InNOVAtion Award, to support unsigned artists pushing musical boundaries through bursaries and mentorship.

No matter what stage in your artistic development you’re at, your genre, or the type of opportunity you’re looking to gain support for, there are a number of options available to you for funding. To help explore those options, sites like Help Musicians and the Arts Council aim to make the process as simple as possible.


Royalties are payments made to composers for the use of their compositions. If music you have composed is performed or played in public, available on CD or per download, or broadcast on radio or television, you should receive royalties as you own the copyright to your compositions.

For composers two main copyrights apply – performing rights and mechanical rights. Royalties from performing rights are due when your work gets performed live in concert, played in public, or broadcast on radio/television. Royalties from mechanical rights are paid out when your work is commercially released by a record company. The term ‘mechanical’ is used because royalties are due each time a master recording is copied onto vinyl, cassette, CD or DVD – a mechanical process. Downloads also result in royalties from mechanical rights.

To receive royalties your work should be registered with a collection society. PRS for Music is the UK’s national collection society and incorporates the Performing Rights Society (PRS) as well as the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society (MCPS). If you are a self-publishing composer you need to register your work with the PRS yourself and will receive royalties straight from them. If your music is published, the publisher will register your works and receive royalties on your behalf, but they will keep up to 50% of the royalties income. If your music is released by a commercial label, the label will register the work with the MCPS. A percentage of the royalties might then get passed on to you (unless you agreed to a buy-out fee), depending on the contract between you and the label.

In terms of finance it is worth knowing that whilst royalties should never be discounted, they are likely to be an additional rather than main income for you. For example, if a 10 min work you have composed is performed by an orchestra to an audience of about 1,000, the performing rights royalties will be around £10. When a track from your album costing, for exmaple, £0.99 is downloaded, between 6 and 8% of the retail price (so 6 to 8 pence) will be paid to the label, with a percentage of that amount (depending on the contract you have with the label) being paid to you. Detailed information on how royalties are worked out can be found on the PRS for Music website.

Lastly, it is worth mentioning a few other rights that might be relevant to you at some stage in your career as a composer: Synchronisation royalties will be paid for the use of your music as a soundtrack for a film or advertisement;Print Rights royalties will apply when your work is published for sale as sheet music and the publisher pays you an agreed percentage of the retail price for each sold copy; Grand Rights are the rights to ‘dramatic’ performances, so opera and musical theatre.

Performers of music also have copyright in their performances: royalties from performers’ rights are collected through the PPL (Phonographic Performance Limited).

Hire/Sale of Scores

When performers are interested in performing one of your works or festival directors in programming it, they will usually ask for a score first to be able to have a look at the work in detail. Once the decision that the work will indeed be performed has been made, parts/full performing material will need to be supplied. If you are under contract with a sheet music publisher, the publisher will produce and supply the material for you, and a percentage of the sale or hire of the score / parts will be passed on to you. If you are self-publishing you are responsible for the production and delivery of the material yourself. You can either print and bind your music yourself or pay a reprographics company to do it for you. It is then up to you whether you pass the material on to the performers for free, at cost price, or at price which includes a margin and will make you a profit.

Music as Art Objects

Selling your music as an art object depends on your practice. For example, if you write music by hand and the way your score looks is an essential aspect of your work then you might find people interested in buying your scores for their aesthetic visual value. Equally, if you document the process of you creating a work, for example, in the form of a video diary, there might be a commercial value in the documentation.

Unpaid Development Opportunities

While remuneration for your work is important, emerging composers might want to consider taking advantage of development schemes which don’t pay a fee but will make you richer in terms of experience and contacts. Sound and Music’s Portfolio scheme gives emerging composers the chance to create new work with and for some of the UK’s leading ensembles and presenters of new music. Making Music’s Adopt a Composer scheme pairs amateur choirs, orchestras, and ensembles with a composer for one year, whilst the London Symphony Orchestra’s Panufnik Young Composers scheme offers six emerging composers each year the opportunity to write for a world-class symphony orchestra.

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