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Anyone commissioning a composer to create music for TV, film, video games or advertising expects the musician to do their best work. But what can composers expect in return?

Sadly, all too often the answer seems to be, ‘a lot less than you used to get.’ Increasingly, broadcasters and other commissioners are looking to push buyout deals. These see the commissioning company pay a one-of fee for the composition and recording, acquiring some or all of the composer’s rights and future royalty income along the way.

The MU’s Composers Against Buyouts campaign, launched in conjunction with The Ivors Academy last year, has already won widespread support from musicians. So, as the campaign gathers pace and puts errant commissioners on the back foot, it’s the perfect time to look at good and bad practice in the sector.

“Everyone knows how it works,” says Kelly Wood, the MU’s Live & Music Writers Official, who is helping drive the campaign. “If you do a good job and deliver what everyone wants, you’re likely to get more work out of it. But it’s really hard, once you’re in the midst of it, not to keep delivering. So, if people are asking for more and you’ve already spent most of the package fee, you’re incredibly reliant on royalties.”

As a starting point, the Fair Commissioning Manifesto outlines a joint vision for the future starting with three core principles at the heart of the Composers Against Buyouts campaign: copyright rests with the author, composers should receive a fair share of the value they create, and only composers should decide how much of their rights they give away.

A snapshot from the film Mud featuring Matthew McConaughey
Musician Timo Baker composed music for the trailer of the film Mud and numerous other commissions. Photo credit: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Putting a bespoke code of practice in place

The MU and The Ivors Academy are looking to put bespoke Codes of Practice in place, starting with commissioners that we have existing relationships with, so that both composers and media know what to expect from the process. Those documents would cover everything from expectations on rights retention to pitching transparency and diversity. That will particularly help new and inexperienced composers navigate a hugely competitive commissioning landscape. But established composers warn that the royalty system is increasingly under threat.

“A lot of younger composers don’t realise what they’re giving up,” says Claire Batchelor, an Ivors Academy Senator and composer with a long list of credits for the likes of the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV. “Because they haven’t had experience of earning a good amount of money from mechanical royalties, to give them up is nothing. But they don’t understand they could be shooting themselves in the foot for their own future income.

Batchelor says that royalty payments were crucial in enabling her to become a full-time composer, rather than needing to supplement her income with teaching and live work. Many musicians relied on those regular payments to get them through the coronavirus pandemic, when work dried up overnight.

Squeezed fees versus the royalty system

Timo Baker, who has worked for everyone from National Geographic and Discovery to film trailers and video game soundtracks, says that, while fees are being squeezed, the royalty system can deliver “life-changing amounts of money” if a project becomes a global hit.

“It’s only happened to me once or twice,” says Baker. “But that’s the power of the royalty. It does enable you to roll between projects and take time out for your family and other life stuff. I couldn’t survive on fees alone – and that’s a pretty damning thing to say 25 years into a career.”

Baker attributes the trend for buying out royalty streams to the influx of new, American companies to the UK market, often in co-productions with local media. And, while Discovery was forced to back down from its attempt to impose ‘direct source licences’, he says he’s received contracts attempting to ban the use of musicians who are union members (a practice that is likely to be illegal in the UK), while others seek to prevent musicians having their own publishing deals.

That’s the power of the royalty. It does enable you to roll between projects and take time out for your family and other life stuff.

Some sectors at least have more options available, with Claire Batchelor highlighting the variety of approaches from production music libraries, despite newer entrants pushing the buyout model. “There are so many music libraries out there that if there’s one taking all of your rights, maybe push to work for someone else instead,” she advises. “If you’ve got more choice, and you’re educated on rights, you can vote with your feet. But,” she warns, “It’s much more difficult if it’s your first big TV commission. The deal might not be perfect, but I don’t think anyone would walk away from that.”

The recent spate of major rock stars selling their songwriting catalogues has helped normalise the practice, and Kelly Wood stresses that some buyouts can work for composers. “We’re not expecting there to be absolutely no buyouts. Because if a buyout is a good one, the fee is right and people are happy, then that’s fine. But the problem is, a lot of fees aren’t right, and they’re not representative of what might be earned through royalties over the life of a project.”

Timo Baker notes that major video game producers often expect a total buyout of rights but do at least compensate for that with larger fees. But while the rise of streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime has led to a surge in demand for TV music, budgets have yet to follow suit. “Production companies are now saying, ‘We’ve got such-and-such a budget, how many minutes of music can we get for that?’,” he says. “They would rather diminish the number of minutes of music than raise the fee and, because professional pride kicks in, they assume you’re going to give them more minutes than you said for the set fee.”

Getting educated is the best practice of all

Kelly Wood says that such attempts to push contractual boundaries are why education both for composers and commissioners is a cornerstone of the Composers Against Buyouts campaign.

And the MU stresses the need to always negotiate, rather than accept a commissioner’s opening position. “A lot of people engaging musicians will expect that conversation,” Wood says. “But composers don’t want to be seen as hard work, and that’s part of the problem. You know how competitive it is, and you know there are other people out there who will do the work and undercut realistic rates.” Union members can contact their MU Regional Offices for the union’s Contract Advisory Service and tips on negotiating a fee.

As well as the Fair Commissioning Manifesto, and looking at Codes of Practice and specimen contracts, Kelly doesn’t rule out establishing minimum rates for the sector, or even calling for government intervention along the lines of the recent DCMS Committee investigation into the music streaming market. In the meantime, however, campaigners are urging composers to do the right thing by their fellow musicians.

“The more educated up-and-coming composers are, the stronger chance we have of retaining our rights,” says Claire Batchelor. “As soon as somebody says yes to something, that commissioner thinks, ‘We can get away with this’. But if no composer took a bad deal, then there wouldn’t be any bad deals around.” And that may be simply the best practice of all.

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Mark Sutherland

Mark is a freelance writer and editor. A Variety columnist, he has also edited Music Week and written for Rolling Stone, NME and many more.

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