A recent article/blog by composer Nico Muhly started me to think a little more about my own line of work: Recording live Classical, Jazz and World Music. More specifically, the recording of new compositions, usually commissioned by an orchestral, choral, operatic or theatrical group.

If you’re a composer of modern classical music, or if you play in an orchestra that presents world premieres of new music, take a moment and read this link before going any further here. It’s a good read and well worth your time:


My take on it:

I was just a little surprised at the state of affairs Muhly describes for getting one’s work recorded, even just for archival use. I see things a little differently on my side of the “virtual” studio glass. I was under the perhaps naive opinion that most new works do get recorded, at least for posterity, study & and future reference. (I guess that’s obvious for me, isn’t it? I’m only hired after permission/funds have been granted to record.) These days, only a hermit living in a cave for the last twenty-odd years would believe these recordings are done for profit or monetary gain. The music world has seen quite a few changes in the last two decades, and we all know that very few recordings turn any kind of profit. It’s now more of a promotional tool or cultural artifact than a profit generating device.

Long before I became a full time producer/engineer, I also worked as a musician and occasional composer for hire. Nothing very serious, or in a professional orchestra, but in some areas that my work could (and sometimes did) be used for commercial purposes. (This was back long before anything but cassettes and the nascent CD would start to change things forever…) To this day, I totally and completely understand the feeling of loss (and sometimes even outrage) when someone takes one’s work without permission. Believe me, I’m still not really over this whole “download for free” stuff that most under-30’s think is perfectly fine today. I doubt I ever will be, but it’s a fact of life these days, and I have made an uneasy truce with it.

For the last 24 years or so, I’ve made my living primarily as a recording engineer/producer, and have had the honor of recording traditional music as well as hundreds of new commissioned world (and local) premieres. I can’t speak for other recording engineers in this business, but my philosophy has always been (with the permission of the artists, orchestra/management, etc. of course) to provide the composer(s) with copies of their work. Heck, it’s just good business to say hello and introduce myself early in the process, trade contact info, and make sure the composer gets to hear their work (and mine!) The cost of a blank CD is nothing compared to the good will and camaraderie that goes with this sort of thing. (And, I have never, ever, put static noise or silence into a work every 20-30 seconds to render it unplayable, nor has anyone ever asked me to do so.  What is up with THAT? Seriously!?)

After reading Muhly’s take on the situation, I’d like to add my own .02 about getting a work recorded.

Firstly, one should be aware that there are in general three kinds of groups that perform commissioned works, and each have their own rules about recordings:

1. Professional (ie: unionized) Orchestras, Choral Groups and ensembles, performing in halls with professional (also union) staff.
2. Mixed professional and semi-professional ensembles with top-level musicians working without a contract per se, in non-union halls, churches and auditoriums.
3. Community or school-based, non-paid and/or non-auditioned groups, often with additional pickup or select professionals for day-hire.

In all cases, with all three groups, the best (and most respectful to the musicians) way to insure your work will be recorded is to specify everything ahead of time in the contract you sign with the parties commissioning your work.

You’ll find out right at the start what is allowed and what is not, what is affordable and what is out of the question. You may even find miscommunication within the group as things go along, but an early documented conversation with all parties is your best insurance should things get sticky.

For example, Group 1 – the professional orchestra (and its management up top) – may be recording their performances anyway, often in a negotiated contractual agreement with everyone (musicians, staff, etc,) and will likely be making an archival-use-only recording of the work. Copies will be limited, so it’s always best to check on this early; often a simple email to the engineer handling the work can get you right to the heart of the matter. You may have to pay for the raw media (blank CD, USB stick, etc.) and you’ll probably have to sign a release form, but you’ll know long before going into the situation what is and what isn’t going to happen. You may also have to wait for artistic approval from the music director and/or soloists for copies to be released. The better your working relationship with these folks, the better your chances for archival copies, at least.

Tip: Asking about a recording the day of the final dress rehearsal – or worse: after the concert is over – will likely get you nowhere fast. Plan ahead! I can tell you from experience; it’s one thing to make an authorized copy for you as it’s happening or immediately thereafter; it’s quite another to be fielding requests for copies of events that happened months ago. Most busy orchestra staffers – and their engineers – have their hands full with current projects and aren’t always caught up on back archives.

If there’s no budget for recording – and you’ve not put it in your contract – then chances are slim to none that a Group 1 type professional orchestra will allow you to even put up a portable two-track hand-held recorder under any circumstances. It’s simply not allowed, and one has to know this ahead of time. It’s only fair to the labor agreements with all parties involved, regardless of one’s views of the value of the recording. You just can’t do it that way. It’s a fact of life in today’s professional musical world.

Moving on to Group 2 – more is possible in this scenario if everything is handled properly. In a perfect world, again, the musicians must be informed ahead of time that one (or all) of the works on the program will be recorded; perhaps just the concert itself, or perhaps including the final dress rehearsal as well. Depending on the arrangement with the musicians, there may be an additional fee. We all know these things can end up as commercial recordings, broadcasts and even soundtracks. It is at this point that anyone not comfortable with the arrangement may opt out and turn down the booking. Once again, last-minute recordings foisted on the musicians are just not fair, and it’s up to the management (or whoever’s signed your contract) to make sure everyone on the stand is aware and ok with the fact that the performance is being recorded before they accept the gig.

I’ve occasionally faced upset or angry musicians who are surprised to see me setting up mic’s and stands before a concert or rehearsal. They clearly were never told there was a recording being made of their performance, or they missed the memo, and naturally many bristle (while some are thrilled) to find out a permanent record is about to made of their efforts. I’ve even seen votes taken right then and there to allow the recording to happen at all. (My batting average is about .500 on this one!)

I try to be understanding, and I have a few stock responses, including “Sorry, but I’m not the one you should be angry with.” Or, “Please discuss this with the person who contracted you”. It’s a difficult spot to be in, and I don’t like it, but let’s be honest; do they really think I’m there just to ruin their day? There’s a hundred other things I could be doing, but an irate few seem to think I’ve decided to arbitrarily lug all my gear there just to annoy them. When I’m hired to make a recording, I too assume my client has sorted everything out on their end as well.

For all three types of groups, it really does come down to planning ahead, and everyone should know ahead of time what’s going on. Again, it’s only fair to all (including ME.)

Why record anyway?

For the validity of making recordings, there are many reasons to do so beyond simple vanity. In addition to the historic value of a world premiere, (what do you think Beethoven or Mozart would have done with today’s technology when they premiered their works? Wouldn’t you like to have heard one?) everyone benefits artistically by having at least an archival recording made of the event: the people who commissioned the work, the orchestra themselves, the composer, the conductor, and on and on. I’m not talking cash money benefits of course; I don’t know any artist that at some point who doesn’t want to hear the results of their work captured for posterity or study – provided it’s not costing them future work or income.

Another fact of life with most performing arts groups is that ticket sales don’t cover the annual operating costs. Most groups depend on grants and gifts from a varied group of benefactors.

For many commissioned works, the parties paying the cold hard cash for the work often request a copy of the work, if only to preserve for posterity what their dollars have wrought. (Seems smart to me…) On the other side of the footlights, many performing groups must record works this year for grant submissions next year and beyond. It’s just simply good business sense to have a variety of recordings in their archives for the stylistically varied selections that are often required when applying for a grant. This is something that’s rarely brought out in the open by upper level orchestra management, mostly for competitive reasons (e.g.: orchestra A is competing with orchestras B and C for the same grant, which are all submitted in confidence to the same charitable organization that ultimately decides who gets the award.) In many cases, therefore, the musicians themselves don’t realize their income for seasons two or three years down the road can and often does depend on a good recording to include in a five or six-figure grant submission. Missed recording opportunities can easily turn into costly incomplete grant applications. This can make or break an entire season of performances for some lesser-endowed groups, and I’ve seen it happen first-hand. I’ve had an entire season of work lost when a struggling group didn’t get the grant they were counting on, and thus folded for the season.

We’ve all heard it, and let’s get it right out in the open now, if only for the sake of this discussion: orchestral recordings don’t make money anymore. Don’t believe me, check out what Klaus Heyman, the head of NAXOS, has to say about big ensemble recordings vs. smaller solo & duo recordings. Mr. Heyman has a fascinating and very honest opinion about how things work today. (Read it all the way through, esp for the sales numbers he talks about.)


Years ago, there were cash advances from the record companies, even for orchestral recordings. Many got paid right up front, when the album was released. It was often part of a major orchestra’s annual income. A quarter-million dollar investment on another Beethoven 5th recording could recoup its money within a few years, minimal risk. Its old news now: with the advent of digital recording, the CD, and now downloading, it all went away. But don’t feel bad; we’re not alone in our corner of this business. It’s happened all across the genres as well; not just classical, and unless your name is Bieber (Justin, that is) Gaga or Beyonce’, chances are you’re not making anything from your CDs other than promotional and archival use. (And neither of those is a bad thing!) Yes, downloads are doing well, but again, nothing to sustain the bottom line of any serious performing arts organization.

It’s a hard and bitter pill to swallow for recording musicians who remember firsthand the good old days; they’ve spent their entire lives and careers perfecting a craft that only a seemingly few now truly appreciate. The world has changed, and the methods of capture, storage and delivery have diminished the perceived value of the recordings, possibly forever. In that light, I’m still surprised here in 2011 when this reason – “monetary gain” – is hauled out as an excuse to ban a recording. Sorry, but it just doesn’t wash anymore. Aside from the necessary ethical correctness of alerting a hired musician about the recording of your performance, trust me, no one is making a profit from the sales of physical recordings.

But there is an upside. What it has done in many ways is returned the focus to live performance. That’s a big fundamental change that’s happened in the last 15-20 years. People can get the recording anywhere, often for free, but it’s the real thing – live, with no net, no fakery, no props and no gimmicks – that brings people back to the concert hall.

Think of it this way: a recording is similar to (but more honest than) a movie trailer. Like what you hear? Want to experience how it’s done LIVE?

As I mentioned earlier, I fully understand the feelings of being ripped off or manipulated when an unauthorized recording occurs. That’s wrong in any scenario. But what people would be wise to consider going forward in the digital, on-demand world is that everything important should be recorded, especially now, with today’s more advanced and affordable technology. As long as everyone is informed, fees paid, waived or negotiated; the recordings should be as indispensible as program notes or restrooms for intermission.

Control of distribution of recorded material is of course paramount. Archival means archival.  No YouTube uploads without permission, no iTunes sales without a contract, no cell phones, hidden 2-track Zoom recorders or what have you.   But honestly, and I say this with love and respect to every hostile musician who still thinks the presence of a microphone or recorder is going to take money out of their wallet:  when done properly, it can mean the very survival and health of  live music. Recordings are preserving your legacy, they are helping put butts in the seats in the very halls you play, thus creating more opportunities for you to continue to work and play such great music, in a live setting.

Unauthorized recordings aside, can we really afford NOT to record?