If we believe that music is a living artform then it stands to reason that the creation of new music is vital to its current and future health. However, professional composers are being asked to create new music for very little money in conditions that are too often inadequate. As a sector we have some hard questions to ask ourselves about our priorities.

Being commissioned to create a new work (and getting paid for it) is a vital part of life as a professional composer. At Sound and Music, the national agency for new music, we continue to receive anecdotal evidence about the worsening environment for the creation of new music. As a result we conducted a survey to collect evidence of the realities of this integral aspect of life as a composer today.

The report makes for a sobering read (pdf). Professional composers, who have spent years training and developing their skill, are being asked to compose new pieces for shockingly low fees given the time that will be devoted to creating them (think weeks or months rather than days). Having committed themselves to composing a new piece – with all the emotional, professional and physical investment it requires – the conditions in which new music is being brought to life appear to be worsening.

Some key findings of the report:

• 66% of the 466 composers who responded stated they do not find commissions to be a significant proportion of their income. Given that the respondents had an average of 2.65 commissions in 2013 with an average fee per commission of £1,392 it’s easy to see why.

• 74% of composers received the same amount or more commissions in 2013 than in 2012 but only 15% earned more income. We also discovered that those who had been undertaking commissions for more than five years were likely to win more commissions but get paid less per commission.

• There are significant variances in income: the best paid 1% of composers received over 25% of all commission income captured by our survey. Once we excluded them from our sample, average annual commission income fell from £3,689 to £2,717.

• 49% of composers feel there is less rehearsal/preparation time for new works.

Some of the report’s findings will not come as a surprise to those who work in new music. But by presenting the findings of our report and the clear evidence it represents, we hope to take a step towards providing a voice for these issues so often left unheard.

Why is this important? What the evidence implies is that the work of composers (and composing as a profession) is valued far less by the sector than that of performers, conductors and administrators. How can that be right when it is the music itself that communicates with audiences? With a new generation seeking out beautiful and unusual new sounds and experiences, audiences for new music have never been more enthusiastic

It also means that new voices are blocked from emerging. Composers either need private or other sources of income – usually teaching, performing or conducting, all of which require a whole new set of skills, training, time and energy. It takes heroic commitment to become a composer if you’re from a working class background, with higher education courses charging fees in the thousands of pounds and remuneration for your compositions so low.

At Sound and Music, we’re fully aware this isn’t an issue that can be sorted out quickly. But we do want to raise public awareness of the way many composers are being treated by the industry and give a voice to the hundreds of deeply talented yet undervalued composers who give our new music scene so much.

Susanna Eastburn is chief executive of Sound and Music

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