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February 21, 2021 11:38 AM   Subscribe

The reality of using professional people to help create my musical is settling in. I've already written the book/libretto. An accomplished songwriter/composer I'm working with wants $1500 per song and the 100 minute show has about two dozen songs. I am in the process of working with an attorney to finalize a contract with the songwriter over rights and royalties.

But I see I need to raise money for this show. Not only to pay the composer but for all of the other things related to it, insurance, choregraphy, casting, etc. Considering all I've heard about how there is tons of pent up demand, theater content on the upswing, how do I do that? How do I raise money or find people who can help me raise money. I have a GoFundMe account. But I'm thinking there are people to whom I need to apply, investors to meet, fundraisers to hire or something. I've watched "The Producers." Is that the process in a nutshell (minus the purposely losing money part).
posted by CollectiveMind to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I've just posted an overview of the work on Mefi Projects.
posted by CollectiveMind at 11:58 AM on February 21

Hi. I'm going to be one of those posters who has a lot of side questions before coming at your main question. And I don't want to undercut your vision -- because all creative endeavors need a huge amount of vision and dream-energy. But here goes. (Source: am a theater creator / my "day job" is theatrical producing.)

First. I would think extremely long and hard about signing any kind of agreement with a composer for $1500 per song. Unless they are accomplished to the point where their name might draw people in (and I can't imagine anyone for whom that is true who would enter into this kind of arrangement), I think that's going to be 30 to 40K you will be essentially wasting. (Apologies to this composer.) I've never heard of such an arrangement, honestly.

But ignoring that for now -- the film "The Producers" (to put it gently) cannot be your guide to actually producing a show. There are books and training programs and courses you can investigate to learn the real nuts and bolts of producing. And I would do that before you get contractually involved with anyone.

There may be pent up demand, but -- there is an entire industry full of people who are trying to crack the problem, and are only beginning to find ways to do it. I would not put yourself in the position of learning to be your own producer, from scratch, in a pandemic, while being in a contract where you will have to pay someone far far more than this piece will likely ever earn.

There is nothing to lose by waiting and learning. I always do recommend that writers self-produce -- my own theater career began that way.

Note -- I am not saying "don't do it, there is no hope" -- every breakthrough piece started as an "idea so crazy that it just might work." I am just saying that your questions shows the level of knowledge that you currently don't have -- and to get involved in contracts etc before you really know what you are doing is a recipe for heartbreak.

I could go on to ask a million questions about the proposed contract with the composer -- but really, just those terms look like a red flag to me.

Writers raising money for their own pieces -- it's just not a good idea until you have more knowledge and a realistic idea about where your piece fits in the industry, and what you're really trying to accomplish.
posted by profreader at 12:01 PM on February 21 [28 favorites]

Hi, I looked on your projects page but don’t see this on there so only answering based on what information you included above. I agree with Profreader - “accomplished” can be a pretty wide spectrum.

Composers usually get paid on the back end - points on net profit, publishing, etc. Since you’re not going the traditional way, the typical price per song is “whatever the project can budget for” but you need to work out publishing, master rights, sync, etc. If the composer wants money up front and no backend (arise from what they’re guaranteed under composer’s rights) typically* they work out their hourly wage and project how many hours per song they’ll need. That’s what a no-budget cash deal looks like, but bids will be all over the place.

I would second Profreader’s words of caution. If this is your first musical, what about seeing if you can find a talented composer who is also trying to break into the industry? Mr. Arnicae’s first few musicals came together because he found a collaborator he liked (Note, Mr. Arnicae is not your composer, unfortunately, unless you had a pretty compelling offer - he’s mostly not doing musicals these days).

To answer your actual question: if I were in your shoes, I would try to generate interest for my project either through grant-writing or through developing interest in your local community (or communities either local or online that exist for your subject matter). Assuming your musical is about tea kettles, perhaps you could get money from tea kettle enthusiasts eager to see the subject of their interest on the stage? Perhaps tea kettle associations have grant writing contests? Perhaps, in and among the tea kettle enthusiast community there is a budding composer who will be inspired by your project and sign on as a partner? Perhaps you can find someone who has a large following online (or perhaps you do) to drive interest on tea kettle musicals and get you crowd-funding?

*typical doesn’t exist
posted by arnicae at 3:10 PM on February 21 [3 favorites]

I will grant that I worked in a very different level of theater, but a composer asking you to pay $1,500 up front for each song sounds completely ridiculous.

And, seconding the recommendation that The Producers should not be your guide to How To Produce A Play. And getting the money raised to produce this should not be your problem - you need to be working with a theater company that will take that on for you. In the theater world hierarchy, you're just the writer - the producer and the director take over when the script is done, with the director making a lot of creative decisions and the producer raises the money. (Not that you don't get any say - the director who works on the play should ideally be checking in with you every so often during the rehearsal process.)

So since that's the way things usually happen, the fact that a composer is asking you for money before you've even found a theater to work with is insane. If you can't find a theater to do your show, you're screwed out of that money.

I mean, I can understand why this composer needs to be paid, but...I genuinely and sincerely think that maybe you simply can't afford to work with him given what it is you're doing.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:11 PM on February 21 [6 favorites]

If you are writing a musical to accompany your self-published book about public radio fundraising, which is my guess, I would think long and hard as to whether there is any possible money in such a venture. I’m kind of wondering if the composer is having a hard time saying no (some people are terrible at saying no) but instead is charging you a rate that they are hoping will get YOU to say no.
posted by rockindata at 4:22 PM on February 21 [5 favorites]

+ everything profreader says is correct.

- paying a composer in cash upfront for songs is a Hell-No, this makes them very not-invested in the success or failure of the project.

- if you don't have an Angel investor, it's not Broadway; it's just experimental theatre: which involves doing various things without hardly any money.
posted by ovvl at 6:35 PM on February 21 [2 favorites]

I'm not seeing this in Projects, either, but I recall your last post, and between these two posts, I really get the impression that the music is secondary. Ignore what I'm about to say if that's not the case, but the music needs to be the focal point of a musical (any musical). It doesn't matter how great a story is, if people aren't thinking about the songs as they leave the theatre, they're not going to tell their friends and/or want to see it again. I haven't seen "Mamma Mia!", but I got the impression that the story was really just a vehicle to tie a bunch of Abba songs together. People wen to see it because of the songs. People can read the plot of "Hamilton: in history books, but they go to the musical for the music.

$1,500 per song isn't necessarily too much money for a great composer, but it's definitely too much money to pay at this point, especially if you're just paying someone to write songs. You and the composer need to think about not just the songs themselves, but how they will be performed. What style are you going for? If the music is in the style of a classic musical, and you're going to have even a small pit orchestra, then those songs need to be arranged and orchestrated for them. Is the composer doing that? Is it a rock musical? It'll be a lot less effort, but if the composer is just writing these songs on a piano, then you're going to need to figure out how a rock band is going to play them. You can just call in a bunch of guys who play in a rock band and ask them to play a song, and at a certain point, they'll become co-writers.

Like rockindata says, there's a chance that this composer's $1500-per-song rate is a "leave me alone" rate. He or she may have just come up with that figure to scare you off. That money may be the minimal amount they'd consider working on a project with someone who has never done anything like this before. And then if you do end up paying them the money, there's even less chance you're going to get a good product, because they really don't want to do the project, and they're literally only doing it for the money.

You need to find a composer who will work with you and hopefully share whatever your vision is. This should have happened at the beginning of the process, not the end (again, because the music is what makes a musical a musical); but if you can find someone, be prepared to make a lot of changes to your book to accommodate what they write (because (and I know Ilm repeating myself), the music needs to be the focus of a musical).
posted by jonathanhughes at 7:12 PM on February 21 [4 favorites]

Like rockindata says, there's a chance that this composer's $1500-per-song rate is a "leave me alone" rate. He or she may have just come up with that figure to scare you off. That money may be the minimal amount they'd consider working on a project with someone who has never done anything like this before. And then if you do end up paying them the money, there's even less chance you're going to get a good product, because they really don't want to do the project, and they're literally only doing it for the money.
I'm gonna +1 this perspective, given my own experience being a writer who's been approached for projects I don't want to do, but don't feel comfortable saying "no" to outright. I don't want to rain on your parade, but I want to agree with those who are saying this sounds like he's maybe not your guy. One thing that might help is consider researching or joining a workshop for people interested in musical theatre collaboration? Building a relationship with a songwriter / building a co-writing team is often a slow process, but getting into a room (virtual or IRL) with people who have similar interests and ambitions might be a good start. Best of luck!
posted by Zephyrial at 9:13 PM on February 21 [2 favorites]

It is inspiring that you are devoted to this project. Saw the Projects. My question would be whether you're absolutely sure the story is the best possible version of what it could be, before locking yourself into it by commissioning songs.

It might be worth talking to a script doctor type first about what the best possible logline would look like, in the best of all possible worlds. Is it possible for your concept to reach the point where anyone reading the summary would be physically unable to blow off your story as some niche thing, but instead would feel pity and fear?
posted by johngoren at 1:08 AM on February 22

Another thing to consider -

Musicals aren't set in stone when the script is finished. That's just the beginning. The show will change during the rehearsal process, and even the performance process. It happens all the time - even Broadway musicals do out-of-town tryouts first, and the script often changes after that, and then even when they're on Broadway there is a period called the "preview" period where audiences are coming and everything but the director and writer and producer can still change stuff.

And sometimes those changes involve cutting songs.

So - what happens if you've paid this guy for ten songs, but the final version of the show only uses eight songs? Is he going to pay you back for two of those songs? Even if it's like five years after you paid him?

Don't do it. I would instead concentrate on finding a composer who is going to be a REAL collaborator instead of a songwriter-for-hire, and then find a theater to work with.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:16 AM on February 22 [1 favorite]

Hi, CollectiveMind! I am going to say some things you may not want to hear. I hope you'll consider them with an open mind, and not get too discouraged, and stick with me until I get to my more optimistic conclusion.

I have been in the position of your composer, in a different field. I used to be a screenwriter. When I was asked to participate in a project by a professional who had experience in the field and knew what they were doing, I was willing to take less money upfront in exchange for a possible payday down the road, and for the exposure a successfully produced work would give me.

On the other hand, when I was invited by somebody who had no experience, I knew that the odds were overwhelmingly against a first-timer bringing an expensive and complex project to fruition in one of the world's most competitive fields. In those cases, I wasn't going to get anything out of it other than the money they paid me upfront, and I would name my fee accordingly.

So, I second what others have said. This composer is essentially telling you that he doesn't believe in your project, and that you should look elsewhere. But I would point out that, in doing so, he has given you some extremely valuable information, for free. He's let you know that, in his expert opinion, your project probably is not going to make a lot of money. That might not be the answer you wanted, but getting an expert assessment for free is an immensely valuable gift. Now it's up to you to decide what you do with this information.

Personally, I would use it to rethink what you want out of this project. I would encourage you to put aside any expectations of profit. Only a very, very few theater projects result in that, and they almost always start with scripts by people with considerable experience. However, any production can result in the joy of self-expression, the fun of working with interesting people, and a tremendous leap forward in your abilities as a creative artist.

Those are wonderful things that every human being has a right to experience and you shouldn't let the unlikelihood of profit stop you from enjoying them! But you probably should consider the overwhelming unlikelihood of profit when you decide how much money you will spend (or ask your friends to donate.) Whether you're spending it on music or legal fees or costumes, don't spend more of anybody's money than they can afford to lose.

You should also let non-profit goals shape the collaborators you seek out. A professional songwriter has regular opportunities to get creative joy plus a profit. Instead, seek out joyful amateurs and ambitious learners.

As time goes by, you may find that some of them become your long-term creative partners, and you work with them on future productions as you all gradually level up your skills to a professional level. By then, you will naturally have expanded your pool of contacts, and you won't have to ask the Internet where to find investors. If that happens, great! But even if it doesn't, the creative joy is the important thing. Don't buy into the a destructive myth that creativity is only valuable when it makes money.
posted by yankeefog at 6:16 AM on February 22 [6 favorites]

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