Who Should Write Program Notes?

By: Edna Landau

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Congratulations to Mollie Alred of Sciolino Artist Management who won a $25 gift card for submitting the following question

Dear Edna:

As a manager of classical musicians, I have the opportunity to work with many different presenters. No matter the type of presenter, size of the hall, the budget or the number of staff members, one question frequently pops up: Who is writing the program notes? Some organizations hire a professional writer, others handle the task on site, and still others have generous (and well informed, very skilled) volunteers. Yet, there are others who expectantly ask me for this material. This has led to the very last thing I want to have: an uncomfortable exchange with a presenter. As a concert goer, I love program notes and read them carefully. I think they go a long way in engaging our audiences. I also see the presenter’s point of view that the notes should be included as part of the “whole package”. Nevertheless, as an artist manager, writing program notes on Beethoven string quartets falls outside of the duties I can realistically handle. Please help me solve this. What is the industry norm? — Mollie Alred, Associate, Sciolino Artist Management

Dear Mollie:

Thanks for sending in your excellent question. I understand that this was a hot topic at a recent Major University Presenters meeting so it is clearly on many people’s minds. As I usually do in a situation like this, I surveyed a number of manager and presenter colleagues from various parts of the country. What emerged is that there is no industry norm but that most presenters view it as their responsibility to produce program notes. They usually hire someone to do this or resort to one of the solutions you mentioned in your question. The one exception mentioned by everyone I spoke to is new music. It is common for composers to write notes for their works and I would go so far as to say that it is even expected. There are some instances where artists who write well like to submit their own notes. This lends a special personal touch to the program and is gratefully received by the presenter, especially when the works on the program are rather unusual. In the case of vocal recitals, presenters will not necessarily expect to receive program notes but they will expect to receive song texts and translations from foreign languages into English. Most managements keep a data base of such texts and will also refer to the REC Music Foundation’s website, www.recmusic.org.

You might be interested to know that some managements put in their contracts that they don’t provide program notes. I haven’t seen the exact language but I’m sure there is a way to state this which acknowledges that you wish it could be otherwise. In cases where this doesn’t go down well, it should be possible to explain over the phone that it is becoming harder and harder to provide top level service in every aspect of artist booking and servicing in these difficult economic times and that you must concentrate on the essentials. You might also want to add that it is not in your management’s budget to commission program notes for presenters and that you are keenly aware that it is illegal to reproduce and provide notes that have been written and copyrighted by others. One manager told me that since she knows where each artist is playing each program, she sometimes puts one presenter in touch with another to see if they might be able to share the cost of commissioning the notes. Another knew of situations where exceptional students received credit for writing program notes. Bert Harclerode, Executive Director of Chamber Music Sedona, told me that they are fortunate to have Northern Arizona University nearby, where often the Chair of the School of Music has provided informative and witty notes. There may be other presenters who haven’t thought of these possible solutions and who would be grateful to learn of them from you.

I hope that the above suggestions and feedback from both presenters and managers will reduce, or even eliminate, the possibility of you having any further uncomfortable exchanges on this subject in the future.

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© Edna Landau 2012


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