How much should a composer/lyricist get paid?
I thought I would write about this because when I was offered my first professional job as a composer/lyricist, I looked for information on the internet as to what sort of rate I should charge. Unfortunately, the search engines returned entries that were less than useful, only citing writing agreements in percentages of royalties in far flung New York. For a composer/lyricist just starting out, these percentages seemed so far removed from my reality that actually they were less than useless.
I’m sure you were hoping (as I was) that this blog would tell you exactly what to charge for your services, how much royalty to demand in percentage, but the truth of the theatrical industry is far more complicated than a set fee. I will give you some examples of some fees that I have received in my career later in this blog which I hope you will find useful.
If you do not have an agent then it is likely you will be negotiating your own contracts. It is an unfortunate truth that until your work starts coming to wider notice agents will not be interested in representing you. As soon as you can get one... do. The aim of this blog is to give you some tools to be able to negotiate a contract that is FAIR to both yourself and the party that you are working for.
I put it in bold and capitalised FAIR because it really is the most important word in this article. An ideal of fairness should be at the heart of all your negotiations, because if people don’t think they are being fairly treated then they will be less inclined to do their best work.
So... you’ve just received your first contract through the post and you’ve either thought:
1. Wow! How generous. They really are paying too much, maybe I should say I don’t need so much?
2. What a pile of bullshit! Do they think I can live on peanuts?
If the former, then never ask for less. The person paying you clearly thinks your work is to be highly valued. If you go back and say that you aren’t worth that much, you are effectively saying, ‘My work isn’t that great.’ Which :
a) Probably isn’t true. They wouldn’t have hired you otherwise.
b) Makes you’re prospective employer worry that they’ve picked the wrong person.
If the latter, take a deep breath, count to ten and then consider what is FAIR. To help you consider the fairness of the proposal you should definitely ask yourself (and potentially your employer) the following questions:
1. What is the workload and if I take this job on the amount offered, will I be able to pay my rent etc. and live to a reasonable standard throughout the working period?
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the fee from this particular job should cover all these expenses, but you should have other means by which you can subsidise it, which won’t be affected by this extra work. If the answer to this question is a resounding NO, then you should approach the producer and tell them. It may be that they can find some more money for you. If they are unable to be flexible then you should think seriously about whether you should take the job.
2. What is the current status of the company/producer you will be working for?
This is a really important question to consider. A young, exciting company just starting out will not be able to pay you as much as an established producing house. But there can be huge advantages to getting in on the ground floor of a talented company. Think of companies like Kneehigh, Complicite and Les Enfants Terribles now substantial theatrical powerhouses putting on big budget productions. All started from a small fringe troupe. And in most cases the composer that was with them in the early days is still with them now. I have followed this particular route myself with a few companies that are just now (after years of battling away, touring and making work) beginning to get regular funding. I am fortunate to receive a considerable amount of work through these companies and their connections. In the case of one, I worked for free as part of a collective ensemble, but we quickly moved on to being able to pay ourselves. In the case of others I worked for a fee that I considered to be less than I would have liked to charge but was able to live on the wage (see Question One) and considered the advantages of working with talented newcomers to outweigh the economic difficulties. In both cases this decision has repaid itself countless times over as these companies have grown and continue to hire me to work for them. So consider it carefully. In particular consider the quality of the work a young company is producing, if it excites you as a creative, go for it. If it does not, perhaps let it slide. A larger producing house will be able to offer more in terms of payment, but perhaps less in terms of future opportunity. It may be that they work with you again if you do a great job for them, but remember the pool of composers/lyricists they can offer to is much larger and there are some big name writers out there that they could potentially pull in. So consistency of future work is not something they may be able to offer. What they can offer (in addition to the economics) is the ability to get your work out in front of a huge audience. The larger regional theatres can pack in up to 1000 people per performances. That’s 1000 people hearing your work every night for (perhaps) a lengthy tour. If the work is good then this could be really big for you and could lead to other producing houses seeing/liking your work and offering you jobs as a result. So consider that, consider whether the trade off is fair. My advice with larger producing houses however is that if the amount you are being offered is just not workable for you, it will not do you any harm to come back to them and ask for what you believe is a reasonable amount for your time. Remember it’s not about being greedy, it’s about being FAIR.
3. What are the other creatives being paid?
You will need to find out this from the producer, some will be unwilling to tell you, but some will let you know. Once you know this, consider the amount of work you will be doing in comparison to them (essentially in hours put in) then see if you think that is FAIR. If you don’t think it is, go back to the producers with your reasons (often they won’t necessarily understand the amount of work that goes into your material, it’s up to you to explain to them how it works. You will be doing yourself and composers everywhere a great service!). In fact this is where it will pay to meet some other creatives and talk to them about what they actually do (lighting designers, sound designers, producers, choreographers, directors, musical directors etc). Because unless you have at least some idea about what amount of work the others are going to be doing you won't be able to figure out what is fair for you.
4. Should I work for a profit-share fringe production?
Whilst I have nothing against the profit-share model (it can be a useful way of getting your work seen) the realities of profit-share can be deceptive. The only companies who should be doing profit-share are at the beginning of their life and really, for them to survive, any money that they earn from their show should be poured back into the company so they can continue making better quality work. It is my view that if you work for a profit-share production you should be offered an ongoing and irrevocable stake in the work of the company. The first company I worked with (Paper Balloon Theatre) created our first show on the understanding that any money earned would go towards our next production and as soon as we did a production that allowed us to pay ourselves then we would. Paper Balloon is still working as a company today and I still write all the music and lyrics for our work. It’s also worth considering, if you are the instigator (as many writers are) of a profit-share production, am I being FAIR to those who are giving their time to present my work. Am I keeping them informed of the realities of how much they will be getting? Should I offer them a stake in the company? All important things to consider? It is important to note that of all of my actor friends who have taken part in profit share productions, some have gotten agents off the back of them, some have been seen by casting directors but not one of them has seen a penny of the profit. Usually there is none. But those actors weighed up the advantages and considered it FAIR and that is up to them.
5. Should I work for a flat fee or royalty?
Most of the work that I have done has been a mixture of flat fee alone or flat fee plus royalties. As you get on in your career, ideally you should work for both. I believe you should be paid a fee for your work. Sometimes this will be an advance against royalties (in commercial theatre) sometimes it will be yours to keep on top of royalties. I have been paid fees ranging from £200 through to £3000 and everywhere in between for a single job. More established composers get paid much more but I am still making a name for myself and the companies I am working with are taking a chance on an unknown composer and are helping my work get out there, therefore I consider it FAIR to me to be paid less. Some people will disagree with me on this and say that I if I’m doing the same quality work then I should be paid the same. They are allowed to disagree, after all it is not them who needs to consider whether it is fair. I’ll give some examples of splits I have done which I have considered fair:
a) Early career: £250 flat fee plus 3% perpetual royalty on net profit.
I considered this FAIR because the show was by a talented young fellow with a fringe following and two young producers were involved. It was a one man show, easily tourable with small set and one tech guy. It was topical and booked for an Edinburgh Fringe run and a tour afterwards. I considered this fair because it actually was likely to make a profit (and it did) it would have an ongoing life (it has since been seen Off Broadway, in Europe and all over the UK), my work would get alot of attention and press (it has) and it was a young talented group of people with whom I hope to work in the future. And most importantly I was creatively excited by the work. Please note the word PROFIT here, this is an important word, if you can always gor for NET BOX OFFICE. As PROFIT can end up being very little!
b) Later career: £3000 flat fee plus 1% royalty in net box office.
I considered this fair because it was a fairly big show going on a big tour, the royalty was on box office so I would get an earning regardless of profit. The flat fee was reasonable for the amount of work concerned. I would get the chance to work with brilliant creatives at the top of their game so it would be a brilliant learning curve. My work would get seen by a huge range of people and it would get national press coverage. For someone at this stage in my career I considered that to be a FAIR exchange.
6. Should I charge an hourly rate?
This is completely up to you. Usually a producing house will pay you what they can. Problems can occur if this doesn’t match up to your hourly rate. If you add to that fact the idea that as a composer/lyricist we are essentially always working (your subconscious will undoubtedly be working on a lyrical problem whenever you are on “holiday”). What has been useful to me is to consider what a minimum daily amount I think is fair. For everyone this will be different according to their expenses. For these purposes I will disclose what my current minimum daily rate is, remembering that this will alter with experience and what you consider to be FAIR. At the moment when I am considering a job I look at it in terms of the number of days it will take me to complete it (essentially to be at the studio actually writing and working). And if the job works out at less than £120 a day (10am - 6pm) with one hour lunch and two fifteen minute breaks. Then I would probably ask for more. Remember that I am fairly new to the game, having had a number of regional tours, won some competitions and written music/lyrics for approximately 30 shows (not full scale musicals). This rate allows me to cover my expenses and to live in a manner which is acceptable to me and is therefore FAIR. Any producers out there, beware that as my experience increases my fee will increase!
So... I hope that was at least a little bit useful for some of those just starting out. Of course I would always welcome a lot more discussion on this and also advice, be sure that I will post more as I continue along my merry way and inevitably learn that everything I've just written is wrong.
It's been a really phenomenal couple of weeks for the Wicker Husband team. Last Monday we had our pitch as one of four finalists selected for the Kevin Spacey Artists of Choice Award, where we played for lovely theatre people including Beverley Knight, Killian Donnelly, Clive Rowe, Danielle Tarento, Michael England and Neil Marcus among others. We were fortunate enough to have the talents of Anne Marie Piazza, Rachel Dawson, Ruairi Glasheen and Loren O'Dair there with us on the day to showcase some of our work. We had a blast and that evening we were invited to the Sondheim Society Cabaret Evening to perform 'My Wicker Man'. The evening performance was so much fun, just the one song (my kind of gig!) and lots of listening to brilliant tunes I had never heard before.
This Sunday 'My Wicker Man' was up for Best New Song in the Stiles & Drewe Song Competition and The Wicker Husband show was up for the inaugural Music Theatre International Stiles & Drewe Mentorship Award. We were privileged to have wonderful Lauren Drewe sing 'My Wicker Man' with the excellent Mark Warman on piano. In the event Best New Song was won by the thoroughly deserving and exceptionally talented Tim Connor for his song 'Back to School'. Tim is easily one of the most exciting Composer/Lyricists about in London at the moment and a thoroughly nice fellow to boot. Not that I would boot him.
But The Wicker Husband won the Mentorship Award which means a huge amount to us. Basically it amounts to a years worth of support from MMD and Stiles & Drewe funded by MTI, including monthly writing labs, 2 industry development labs, a weeks writing retreat in France and a fully funded Industry Showcase in the main house of the St James Theatre in London's West End. It feels like this award has come along at precisely the moment we needed it. We have been working on The Wicker Husband for two and a half years and it is just beginning to pick up momentum and generate excitement in the industry. We are hugely grateful for the award and are looking forward to being mentored by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe in the process.
To top it all off, we spent the whole of this week workshopping Act 2 of the Wicker Husband with some incredibly talented 3rd year acting students (who also happen to be brilliant singers) at The Guildhall School of Music & Drama. Their openness and generosity, together with their questioning, helpful suggestions, excellent singing and improvising led to revelation after revelation in the treatment of Act 2 and by the end of the week our work had been completely transformed into something far stronger and more exciting thanks to their help.
Now Rhys, Charlie and I have a little break from wicker world while we do other bits and pieces but the future looks bright for the Wicker Husband!!
One of my songs "My Wicker Man" from The Wicker Husband has been selected as one of twelve finalists for the Stiles & Drewe Best New Song Award this year at the Novello Theatre in London's West End. This is a competition that has been very kind to me in the past, winning the Runner Up Award last year and as a finalist in 2013. This week I was one of three composer/lyricists (the others being the wonderfully talented Tim Connor and Jen Wigmore) who were asked to do a short interview with Whatsonstage this week about writing new musical theatre. You can read the interview here:
Out of necessity my rather long original answers were cut down for the final version. But I thought I would post my original answers here for anyone who wants to have a read... enjoy.
1. What is your song about?
The song is from The Wicker Husband, a new musical based on a short story by Ursula Wills Jones. The story follows The Ugly Girl, who guts fish for a living and is treated as an outcast by her village. One day the villagers humiliate her at a local dance and, distraught, she runs to her only friend, a willow tree, where she sings about how life might be different for her if she had a husband. She learns through the show that this is not the answer to her problems. She must learn to love herself for who she is before she can truly accept the love of another.
2. How hard was it to write it?
I wouldn’t use ‘hard’ to describe the process I went through in writing this song. I’d definitely use the word ‘patient’ though. I wrote the first iteration of this song almost immediately after reading The Wicker Husband, two and a half years ago. It started off as a very naive piece of work because it was purely a strong emotional reaction to that moment in the story. As a consequence I came away with something very raw, but extremely unpolished and incoherent both musically and lyrically. The melody of the first two lines from that first version is all that remains in the current song. The lyrics went on a tremendous journey through several iterations. Endless conversations with script writer Rhys Jennings and Director/Dramaturg Charlotte Westenra gradually shaped the concept of the song.
It needed to accomplish one major thing: To open up a heart that is closed to the possibility and hope of love. Starting with the practical things a husband made of wicker could bring to her daily life (helping round the house and at work). Then she moves to the thought that he might become a companion and a friend (something she has never had before), then she starts to imagine a conversation with that friend, and her flight of fancy finally carries her over the threshold into imagining what it might be like to love someone and for that person to love her back.
It sounds simple enough, and it absolutely is if you follow the logical thought of the character. But too often I was seduced by rhymes and melodic structures that were nice but did not serve the story and led me away from the heart of the song. But I got there eventually!
I also feel like I’m not the only author of this song. Many brilliant performers have brought their own take on it through workshop performances. Some of their additions/mistakes have been incorporated into the score because they were better than what I had originally written. Anne Marie Piazza, Claire Marie Seddon, Laura Pitt Pulford and Ellie Pawsey all contributed in their own way to the song as it currently stands. And having had a quick rehearsal with Lauren Drew for the Sondheim Society Award, I know she’ll bring something new to it again.
3. What inspired you to write it?
The inspiration came from Ursula’s text. Although it was our idea that she sing a song to her only friend (the Willow Tree), Ursula’s economy with text is an absolute gift to a lyricist, whose ultimate goal must always be the clarity of the storytelling. The character of The Ugly Girl simply inspires such hope and desire in the reader that you can’t help but be moved by her simple wish for a husband. Everything sprung from that. As I say it wasn’t a hard job, in fact it was joyous! But it certainly was a long one.
4. What do you think makes a good musical theatre song?
I try to remember the following principles:
5. Are there enough new musicals in Britain at the moment?
Big question! There are plenty of incredibly talented musical theatre writers in Britain at the moment. So it should certainly follow that there be plenty of new musicals. Indeed, the London Fringe is buzzing with new musical work... but there is a huge lack of essential support from the West End commercial theatre sector which means that the work is not being exposed to the larger theatre-going audience.
There are some brilliant companies out there championing the work of new writers such as Mercury Musical Developments, Musical Theatre Network, BML (Book, Music & Lyrics), Theatre Bench and Perfect Pitch. We are also lucky to have venues such as The Southwark Playhouse, The Arcola, The Park, Leicester Curve, The Nuffield, Watford Palace, The St James, Theatre Royal Stratford East and The Mercury who are willing to give much needed chances to up and coming writers and there are others such as Katy Lipson’s Page to Stage Festival and Iris Theatre, both doing important and vital work to give new writers an opportunity for their work to be seen. The Arts Council England Grants for the Arts Awards will also be familiar to many producers and makers of new musical theatre, providing funding for a lot of new work. But the process is extremely competitive and has only become more so with the gutting of arts funding by a short sighted government.
The fact remains that until the West End Commercial Sector steps up and opens its doors (and considerable resources) to the next generation of musical theatre writers, our industry will remain limited. In New York they have Off-Broadway producing houses such as The Public, willing to invest years of time in the development of a project and they then have an established path to Broadway. We need similar paths to be established in London in order to be able to compete with the quality of new work that abounds across the pond.
There are some fantastic awards out there such as the newly established Stiles & Drewe MTI Mentorship Award, the Stiles & Drewe Best New Song Awardand the Kevin Spacey Foundation Artist of Choice Award and we have been very fortunate to be shortlisted for all of the above with The Wicker Husbandbut they remain the exception to the rule and, in order for there to be real growth in the sector, there must be real investment.
So in answer to your question... Yes, there are plenty of new musicals in Britain at the moment, but there must be greater investment in order to allow a proper incubation period so talented writers can develop their craft and their shows to their full potential. Then a dialogue must be established with the Commercial Sector to ensure that new writing is given the opportunity to be seen and heard by the public at large. That's my two cents!