Providing certainty: fair practice according to November Music

Bert Palinckx

A fair music practice is about more than money, says Bert Palinckx. He is the Artistic Director of November Music, the festival in Den Bosch that won the 2023 Fair Practice Award, an initiative of Dutch composers’ association Nieuw Geneco. ‘It’s about giving composers the freedom to create what they want,’ Palinckx explains.

November Music Festival is rewarded because of its ‘fair pay for composers, transparent communication, and clear agreements’. The contracts of composers with the festival are very straightforward, explains Palinckx. It typically includes: the fee, duration, instrumentation, and the deadline. According to him, this approach usually works out well. The festival uses a fee chart agreed upon by composers. Plus, they plan a rehearsal two months before the premiere. This helps composers get a draft ready, and musicians see some early sketches.

‘Our involvement basically ends there,’ says Palinckx. ‘We’re never concerned with the notes themselves. Our festival is built on trust.’ However, he does engage in extensive conversations with composers at the beginning of the creative process. ‘Imagine someone says they want to create a piece for eight bassoons. I would ask: why? And for whom? We invest a lot of time in discussing what is doable and what not. Sometimes, something completely different emerges in the end.’

Bulk composition

Palinckx emphasizes that this approach is only possible thanks to Performing Arts Fund NL, who have been providing funding to November Music for two-year periods for the past eight years. This allows the festival to decide for themselves who they commission, Palinckx explains. ‘We were strong advocates for this arrangement. In the past, we had to submit individual applications to the fund. One-third of them would be rejected, which was frustrating because we would already have made agreements with composers, only to later learn that the funding wasn’t approved.’

While November Music in these cases could contribute a portion of the composition’s cost, it couldn’t cover the entire amount. Palinckx adds, ‘So, it wasn’t really a fair practice. Composers often still wanted to do it, but at a certain point, I felt that it didn’t work anymore. After much discussion with the fund, the “bulk composition” arrangement was introduced. It was necessary for our festival because we always wanted to work over multiple years. A composer also needs 1 or 2 years to reflect, and put notes on paper. We can now provide that certainty.’

Aart Strootman

For Palinckx, the most enjoyable part of winning the Fair Practice Award was that the nomination came from Aart Strootman, the composer who received this year’s prestigious composition commission from the festival: the Bosch Requiem. ‘The composers are the people we do it for. Aart’s nomination alone was a prize in itself.’

Long-term relationships

‘We build long-lasting relationships with composers,’ says Palinckx. ‘That’s one of the reasons why we won this award. For instance, we’ve been working with Mayke Nas, a composer from the region, for twenty years.’

Thus, building a sustainable relationship with composers creates a fair music practice. But it’s also important to consider how long a work will last. Palinckx explains. ‘One requirement of the fund is that there will always be a second performance venue. That’s why we collaborate extensively with, for instance, Gaudeamus Music Week in Utrecht, which receives the same funding arrangement from the Performing Arts Fund. We then jointly commission compositions. This ensures that pieces are performed more than once. We also often work with Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ in Amsterdam.’

Market for new music

Still, the problem that funds often only cover a part of the expenses can’t be denied, says Palinckx. ‘Simply giving money to the composer is not enough.’

‘Fear for new music is unjustified: more funding can lead to bigger audiences and better pay for artists’.

And even that alone can be quite costly. According to the fee table mentioned earlier, a composer should receive 10,400 euros for a 15-minute string quartet piece. When you factor in costs for promotion, sheet music, performance rights and musicians, the amount of money grows significantly.

‘Potential commissioners are sometimes taken aback by this,’ says Palinckx. ‘New music doesn’t have a commercial market; ticket sales don’t cover the costs. Concerts like these depend on subsidies. However, about 80% of structural government funding goes to classical music institutions. That’s odd because we live in the present, not the past. Recently, a piece by contemporary composer Calliope Tsoupaki was performed in combination with Sibelius. Two reviewers found the new piece much more interesting, enjoyable, and engaging. With all due respect to the old composers, we need some balance in this.’

Next year, it will be Palinckx’s last November Music festival. ‘From then on, I will personally work toward a fairer distribution of subsidy funds. For instance through lobbying, influencing politics, or by advising the Dutch government through bodies such as the Council for Culture. I think the fear of new music is unjustified. If more people enjoy it, ticket revenues will increase, and we can pay even better.’

Text by Stella Vrijmoed