Lesson Learned

As a composer of new classical music, you end up learning many lessons as you go. I recently learned a new lesson – one that I already thought I had learned, but not well enough obviously.

One of my most recent projects involved writing a new piece for my wife – dedicated to her and meant for her to sing. I also wanted to include all of my friends on the faculty of Indiana State University and dedicate the piece to them as well, in thanks for all of their support. Basically, I emailed them all, asked if they would like to be a part of the project. If I got a ‘yes’, they would be part of the ensemble. I ended up with an ensemble that was comprised of alto sax, horn, percussion, electric guitar, accordion, piano, violin, cello and bass.

Now that I had my ensemble, it was time to choose a text. I wanted to choose something that would have special significance for both myself and my wife – something we both loved and that she would love to sing.

I ended up choosing a poem by author Neil Gaiman called “Instructions”. We had gone to see him speak in Indianapolis last year, and he did a live reading of the poem. We both loved it right away. Here is a video of Gaiman reading the poem:

Now, as a somewhat experienced composer, I know at this point that if you’re going to (dare) use a text that is not in the public domain, you need to secure the rights to it BEFORE you do anything else. So, like a responsible, somewhat experienced composer, I contacted his agency (the rights holders) and talked to a very nice man named Morris. He seemed really interested in the project – (to my knowledge, Gaiman’s work has never been set to music in quite this way). In the beginning, Morris sent me a contract that gave us permission to premier the piece, which we did in April of last year. He then went on to say (during a phone conversation) that we would need to negotiate further permissions on a case-by-case basis (including recording rights), but that it would be NO PROBLEM. Here is where I royally screwed up. I took him at his word, and did not get it in writing.

So, a few months go by, and we again want to perform the piece. This time at the Indiana State University Contemporary Music Festival. So, I again email Morris for the permission. I receive a reply from a woman named Sarah, informing me that Morris no longer works for the agency and that they are not granting permissions of any kind for any of Gaiman’s works, period, thank you, good bye.

I was shocked to say the least. This led to a series of back and forth emails – me trying to explain my dealings with Morris and what the project was, she, completely ignoring my story, and telling me that they were not granting permission for play adaptations. I said, “It’s not a play, it’s a song – a piece of music.” She replies, “We can’t grant permission for play performances.” I facepalm.

Currently, I am getting together pieces and recording new ones for a new CD release of my music. I would very much like to release “Instructions” as we have a full studio recording of the piece already done. I once again contacted Sarah about releasing the piece and securing the rights to do so. After this initial, immediate ‘no’, she told me to put together a proposal, and that she would be happy to work with me to negotiate a fair deal for all parties. She also told me that the poem might be part of a new book – a compilation of Gaiman’s poetry, and that might be a problem.

I consulted one of my good friends who is a lawyer, and had worked in the music publishing industry for 30 years. Together, we put forth a proposal that I thought was very fair and equitable for everyone. I sent my proposal to Sarah, and almost immediately got back:

Thanks for your interest but unfortunately the audio rights to INSTRUCTIONS are currently under negotiation so we are unable to grant you any further rights and they are unavailable for purchase.

What the point was of putting together the proposal, I have no idea. So, I’m stuck – trying to figure out what I can and can’t do with this recording. That’s where it all stands as of now.

In short, a new lesson learned – the hard way.

6 thoughts on “Lesson Learned

  1. That’s just a heinous situation! I remember hearing the piece at it’s premiere, and I was hoping I’d get to hear it again.

    I have heard that the same thing recently happened to Libby Larsen. I don’t know the details, but apparently Libby had composed something for voice, viola, and piano, using words by a contemporary poet (I don’t know who). It had been recorded by the Chiaroscuro Trio for a CD project (the same CD my songs will be on), and then right as it was about to go to the factory, the rights to use the poetry were rescinded, and now she has a work that can’t be performed or recorded ever again. I can only imagine how frustrating this must be for you and her.

    (I’m just now remembering that this happened to Eric Whitacre once. He’d done a setting of a Robert Frost poem, but foolishly didn’t apply for rights before writing it, so of course he didn’t get them. Rather than discard the piece, he asked a poet friend to write something with the same structure and meter as the Frost poem, and it turned out to be pretty successful.)

    I like the idea of working with living poets, but the potential legal minefields involved make me want to stick with PD texts.

  2. Wow – had no idea about the Larsen. Rescinded? That’s terrible! It is very frustrating for sure. I had read the story about the Whitacre piece, and the new version turned out to be one of his most successful pieces for choir, so it can work.

    I have a friend who is a lyricist that wants to try his hand at writing new words to the music – much like the Whitacre debacle. I’m interested in seeing what he comes up with, but he made it clear that I’m under no obligation to use it. It’s just very hard for me to imagine this piece with any other text. The music is so tied to the Gaiman poem.

  3. I just read your story above, and am sorry about your situation! And if I clicked on a link to get to this page to learn more, then you know I must be really interested in the this beautiful poem set to such beautiful music. Therefore, if you think enlisting the public support will make a difference, let me know!!

  4. Alvin – Thanks for your comment! I would think public support would do something. I’ve already tried to reach him several times on Twitter to no avail. Maybe if he gets enough people telling him about it, he’ll listen? I don’t know…

  5. It is such a stupid and horrible thing. It happened to me with someone I thought was a dear friend – no longer. It seems that writers still think they are going to make a ton of money on unique publications. Maybe so – I don’t’ know? But it is a different world than music now.

    Good Luck with your negotiations – love the music.

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