Copyrighting Your Music

Standard disclaimer first, the following information is for educational purposes only and shouldn’t be interpreted as legal advice.  Not to mention that the information I write might just very well be dated before I even post it, let alone by the time you may be reading this.  Caveat emptor!

If you’re a composer, you may be wondering if you should copyright your music.  A “copyright” is a legal term that protects the owner of a creative work to control the broadcasting, performance, publication, or recording of that work.  So if you compose a piece of music, someone else can’t come along and publish that work without your permission, or claim that they were the composer of your music.  For composers, copyrighting your music is essential to legally protect your work from theft.

In the United States, copyright registration is handled by the U. S. Copyright Office, but you don’t need to register your work in order to enjoy the copyright protection.  The moment your work is fixed in a tangible form (such as sheet music or compact disc recording) your composition is legally copyrighted.  Registration with the Copyright Office creates a record that is invaluable in the case of litigation, however it’s completely voluntary and your work technically is legally protected simply by putting your name on your work, along with a copyright symbol and the year (e.g., © 2011 by David Wilken).  By the way, the default key combination for the copyright symbol (©) is the “option” key plus the letter “g.”

Of interest to many musicians, not just composers, is what constitutes “fair use.”   Continue reading Copyrighting Your Music

Setting Composing/Arranging Fees and a New Chart

I compose primarily for my own pleasure.  The vast majority of the pieces I write, whether they are original compositions or arrangements, are for groups that I’m involved with already as a director or player.  I do get the occasional commission too.

Often times those commissions are from friends or colleagues, so I usually undercharge them in those cases.  I’m usually just excited that someone who knows my work enjoys it enough to want me to write something specifically for them.  Just having my pieces be performed is good exposure, even if it’s not the most financially lucrative arrangement for me.

When commissions do come in, however, it’s a little hard to come up with a price that is fair for both the composer/arranger as well as the employer.  One the one hand, as a band leader I’m full aware of how expensive purchasing new music can be, and commissions are even more expensive.  On the other hand, writing out a full big band arrangement, for example, can take hundreds of hours of work to complete.

Bill Fulton, a composer/arranger/copyist living around L.A., has put together a good guide for what can be considered an appropriate fee for commissions.  It depends, of course, on the size of the ensemble as well as the length of the completed piece.  Someone not quite of Fulton’s experience can use this as a guide to see what the top pros make, and adjust their own fees accordingly.

I’m currently putting the final touches on a new big band composition.  According to Fulton’s guide, with 193 measures at $22.50 per measure per 4 measures, I should charge $4, 342.50 $1008.62 for this piece if it were commissioned.

Here’s a MIDI realization of my new chart.  You will have to use your imagination, since I haven’t bothered to create a whole lot of playback effects that live musicians will do.  Also, the rhythm section and solo parts are generated by Band-in-a-Box and then dumped into my Finale file, which results in some strange sounds sometimes.  Still, you can get an idea of what it should sound like when played for real.  Would you pay $4,000 for this?  Probably $1,000 would be closer to what I think is appropriate when I get to do my own thing.

[audio:|titles=There’s a Mingus Among Us]

While I’ve got your attention, I’m having trouble coming up for a title for this chart.  My working title has been There’s a Mingus Among Us, since I stole, er borrowed, some ideas from Charles Mingus’s Reincarnation of a Lovebird.  Unfortunately, it turns out that title (and a couple of variations on it) has already been taken.  Anyone have a bright idea for a different title?

How To Be A Good Sideman

Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to experience being a sideman/student musician as well as a bandleader/school ensemble director.  Having experience on both sides has given me some insights into what it’s like to be in the, often times, thankless job of being the bandleader and what sort of things that I can do as a sideman that will help make the leader’s job easier.  Many of these are no-brainers, but they are worth considering when you’re working for a bandleader you hope to continue working for in the future.  Here are 10 things you can do as a sideman to help get you on the good side of your boss.

  1. Return calls/emails promptly – We all procrastinate getting back to people, myself included, but it takes a lot longer than you might think to book a band of musicians for a particular date.  When I book musicians I usually get in touch with the regular players first and wait to hear back from them before I start calling subs, but I know some bandleaders who will put out many calls for one spot and the first person to get back to them gets the gig.  From my experience, the ones who become the “regulars” in any gig I book are the same people who tend to get back to me sooner, rather than later, in the first place.  If you’re not sure that you’re going to be available for a date, let the bandleader or contractor know right away.  They will appreciate your candor and even if they decide to call someone else they will be more likely to call you the next time than if you keep them waiting for days or weeks to hear back from you.
  2. Arrive early – If you’re not 30 minutes early for the gig, you’re late.  It’s stressful to be 5 minutes away from the start of the show and you’re still waiting for a musician to arrive.  If you’re running late give the bandleader a quick call and warn him or her.  This goes for student ensembles as well!  Obviously, if you’re coming from a class that just got out 10 minutes before rehearsal starts you can’t be there 30 minutes early, but make sure your ensemble director understands your schedule and get there as quickly as possible.  If you’ve got to set up equipment (i.e., your drum set), see if you can get some help hauling your equipment to the rehearsal space to help speed up your set up time.  Along the same lines. . . Continue reading How To Be A Good Sideman

Music Education Will Make You Business Savvy?

Will music training prepare you to deal with the demands of the business world?  Brian Pertl, a musician, former Microsoft senior manager and now Dean of Lawrence Conservatory of Music, believes so.  He writes about the qualities that companies are looking for in prospective employees, including focus, self-motivation, a collaborative attitude, good communication skills, and creativity.  Being a successful musician, Pertl argues, necessarily involves developing those five skills and they can directly translate into success in business.  He writes:

“. . . from where I sit now, as a conservatory trained trombonist, the current dean of a major conservatory of music, and a former senior manager at Microsoft with 16 years of experience in the business world, I see the connections between conservatory training and core business skills from a unique vantage point. Over the years, as I analyzed the reasons for my successes as a business manager, it always came back to the skills I had learned as a musician and had honed at my conservatory of music. Now that I am back in the world of the conservatory, many worried parents of prospective students ask me what good conservatory training will do if their child doesn’t happen to become a professional musician.”

I really want to agree with Pertl, but I think he’s piling on a lot of spin on this topic. Continue reading Music Education Will Make You Business Savvy?

Composer Jason Robert Brown Talks Copyright With Teen

Jason Robert Brown is a Tony Award-winning musical theater composer.  He writes in his blog about his experience searching on a sheet music sharing site for his name and discovering to his dismay that he got more than 4,000 hits of people giving away copies of his music.  Rather than threaten a lawsuit, Brown decided to simply write a few of the offenders an email:

“Hey there! Can I get you to stop trading my stuff? It’s totally not cool with me. Write me if you have any questions, I’m happy to talk to you about this.



While most he emailed apologized and marked the music “not for trade,” one teen took issue with him.  In the ensuing email exchange Brown is patient, classy, and treated the teen with more respect than she showed for him.   Continue reading Composer Jason Robert Brown Talks Copyright With Teen

Taxes For Working Musicians

Just in case you’re procrastinating and haven’t yet filed your taxes yet, here’s a link to an article with advice for working musicians doing their taxes.  Be warned, this is a year old, so some of the tax laws may be different for this year.

Speaking of working musicians, I recommend the web site that published the above article,  It has many interesting and informative articles ranging from booking band tours, conducting a show from the piano, and putting together contracts.