Playing by the Book
So, for the past several years, I'll admit, I've occasionally skirted the edge of legality in a handful of my compositions. Often, I've found myself setting texts without permission, hoping (later on) to obtain it. Most of the time, I've been successful. But not always. And so, I've made a conscious effort in the past several months to get myself in the habit of "playing by the book." Turns out though, playing by the book can be an extremely frustrating experience.
For example: I recently set a text by a very well-known poet, without first asking for permission (my mistake). I did this because I knew this poet's estate was notoriously stingy with granting rights, and I wanted to show them that the setting I composed would honor the poet's life and legacy. Upon requesting permission, with a proof copy of the setting, I was promptly told that by even creating this arrangement (not even distributing it) that I was in violation of copyright law and should desist immediately or risk legal action.
Alright, lesson learned. I re-set the music with a new text (my own) and swore off that poet, sadly, forever.
So the solution is to just always ask permission before setting a text, correct?
Nope. In pursuit of permissions to set a variety of other texts, I have found a huge discrepancy in the amount of work that poets, their estates, and their publishers want before granting permission. Some want you to ask permission before setting anything. Some want you to already have a music publisher lined up, with an estimated run of the initial printing. I've encountered every other possible "stopping point" on this spectrum as well.
The problem is that the majority of music publishers, when receiving unsolicited manuscripts for consideration, require permission of the poet.
So what's a new composer to do? Do I create a setting of a text without asking permission, at the risk of later being told I don't have permission, thereby wasting a huge amount of time? Or do I always ask permission first, at the risk of being told "you need to have a publisher first?" How does one get a publisher for a piece that hasn't been written yet?
All this to say, the lack of standardization across the industry is surely what has led so many composers to only set works that are in the public domain. This is a huge problem, because it means that a huge chunk of contemporary poetry is, by and large, unavailable for musical setting. If we only set texts that have already been set a thousand times over, or texts that don't speak to us as contemporary singers and audiences, our art will eventually flounder.
I'm sure if I were an "established" composer with a publishing company behind me, a lot of these problems wouldn't be so troubling. Yet the extreme difficulty getting permission to set texts is also the reason that many composers have trouble breaking into the industry, I'm convinced.
Artists, of all kinds, need communities and doors to be open to their work. I've encountered a lot of doors that seem to have several locks on them of late. Anybody have the keys?