Interview: David Abrahams, ISM

David Abrahams, Incorporated Society of Musicians

‘These days, songwriters and composers need to make the best possible case for themselves and their music,’ says David Abrahams, head of legal at the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM).

He’s chatting about the tough world emerging musicians can find themselves in. Stiff competition for commissions and the legal minefield of contracts can make navigating the music industry’s choppy waters a tricky business for those just starting out.

It’s dangerous when a composer gets excited about receiving a commissioning contract and doesn’t take the time to read it and really understand what it means,’ he goes on.

In the digital world, everything is more complex. But that’s where his organisation can help.

The ISM protects and supports its composer and musician members by providing expert advice, insurance and specialists services as well as access to a community of like-minded professionals.

We spend some time with David to learn more about his organisation and get his take on the current opportunities and challenges out there for new and established composers.

What does the ISM do?
We’re an organisation of around 7,000 members. We have a mixture of composers and performers, but a substantial proportion are composers. It’s a really important part of what we do to support them to make money out of their composing and to take advantage of all the opportunities out there.

When is a good time to join?
We would encourage composers and songwriters to join early in their careers. We have special rates for students and discounted rates for recent graduates. As far as we’re concerned, networking is a really important part of making composition pay, and our society is built for that. It’s good to establish working relationships with performers – and it’s never too early to start doing that. We’re a community which spans the industry and we think that the relationship between composers and performers is crucial.

You mention the importance of making composition pay. How can composers do this?
From my perspective, composers need to get the contractual arrangements right for any commission that they undertake. That’s where my role comes in. We have an in-house legal team which advises members on contractual negotiations. We would say very strongly to composers who’ve been offered a commission that it’s really important to get legal advice before they sign off on any deal. Often these contracts are very complicated and they may involve a mixture of upfront fee and royalties. You have to be very careful because, when you look at the small print, sometimes the deals aren’t as good as you initially thought.

Should songwriters and composers seek advice for every contract they receive, no matter how small?
Absolutely. That would certainly be my advice. Unless it’s something incredibly simple, it’s worth getting independent advice. It’s dangerous when a composer gets excited about receiving a commissioning contract and doesn’t take the time to read it and really understand what it means.

How have these contracts changed over the years? What should composers look out for?
We all know the music industry has been through a revolution over the past 10 or 15 years and there’s a lot more emphasis on streaming and downloads. That’s had an impact on the income streams available to composers and the types of contracts they’re receiving. It’s made the whole landscape a lot more complicated, and therefore contracts have become more complex too. If a big part of your income is coming from streaming and downloads, you need to be aware that these are constantly developing areas so it’s all the more important to ensure you really understand the deal you are being offered – and you need to work to get the best deal you can get.

What do you see as the biggest revenue streams for young composers today?
If you can get TV or film commissions, clearly those should be pretty lucrative. But often composers struggle to get those opportunities. This is where the networking, profile-raising and access to good advice and professional development become so important.

Also, you need to be open to the variety of opportunities out there. It may be that TV and film are the most lucrative, but there are other income streams too. There are organisations that can provide bursaries and sponsorships for young composers, so it’s important to be aware of those. There are a great variety of commissioning organisations out there too. So, while you may feel you want to focus on the areas that will provide the biggest income, it’s worth casting your net wider. It’s about doing your research and networking, and being as aware as possible about what’s out there.

You mentioned the changing music landscape. How are composers adapting to thrive in this evolving industry?
Obviously, their artistic talent is in music and composition, but to make a success of composition and songwriting as a career, more and more composers know they must develop secondary skills – such as honing their business acumen and marketing skills with the same level of professionalism.

They know that being completely on top of digital technology is an absolute must – these days, songwriters and composers need to make the best possible case for themselves and their music.

PRS for Music members are eligible to receive an ISM membership discount. Find out more.

We interviewed David Abrahams for the feature Free Range, which appeared in issue M54 of M magazine