Search This Blog

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Monetizing religious music - deconstructing the oxymoron

Part of the ongoing discussion in Catholic publishing houses and between them and artists
is whether the money required to create, produce, and market recordings of songs written for Mass can have a wider market than the members of the small ensembles around the country and the world who need to learn them for mass. It's part of a larger issue, which is how writers and musicians get reimbursed for their work in the electronic world, where information passes freely among millions of people and often with no money changing hands, at least, not into the accounts of those who create the music.

From the beginning, whether it was with Tom Kendzia, or Gary Daigle and Terry, or whomever, our idea was that the music we were writing ought to be recorded as well as we could manage. Yes, we wanted our peers in music ministry to be able to learn the song by hearing its tempo, color, and, for that matter, notes in a somewhat definitive way, so that adaptations could be based on some normative reality. But beyond that, there was a sense among us that having recordings available of the music would enable people who only heard it in church to connect with it for the other 167 hours of the week when it touched them, people like our families, and people who attended our concerts and workshops but don't necessarily work as liturgical musicians. We wanted to create music on vinyl, then tape, then CDs, then just in electrons, that people might hear in different media and say to themselves, "I want to sing that on Sunday," or "I want to learn how to sing that," or "I want to have that in my car as I drive to work."

Here's a little example. Shannon Cerneka, another Catholic composer I know, wrote this to me recently on Facebook: 
I guess I haven't told you (this), but my family saw you (and Gary and Theresa, I'm sure) play a concert somewhere in IL when I was 9 or 10. I don't remember much about the concert, but we bought a "Do Not Fear to Hope" tape there. That was one of only 5 cassette tapes we ever had in the car. We wore that tape out. I knew every word, and probably still do. It was my first ever exposure to contemporary Christian music. In case you were curious, the other tapes were Neil Diamond's "Classics: the Early Years", Paul Simon's "Graceland" Jim Croce's "Greatest Hits", and Ann Murray's "Greatest Hits".
Now, this is just one story, and I know there are a lot more, people with whom I have worked and ministered over thirty years who write me in their last days to ask for music to listen to as they make their final passage. People who wore out their cassettes and want CDs now, only to find that the recording has gone out of print, or morphed into another form. And I think of my own story, how I heard music on the radio as a child and then a young man and thought, "I'd like to learn how to play that," and I did. And how, in the infancy of Catholic liturgical music after Vatican II, we heard music like Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar and even some folk and popular music and thought, "Wow, this speaks to me a lot more directly about Christ and the spiritual life than a lot of what I've been singing in church," and we, for better or worse, sort of took things into our own hands.

Catholic publishing houses never saw themselves primarily as recording companies. They are in the business of selling printed music and hymnals. Recordings were generally an expensive means to a much more lucrative end, almost like "loss leaders" in the retail business. Some touring artists would be able to have a recording break even or make a little money, but it was getting a song or two to sell in the thousands or tens of thousands that would allow the publisher to make a good profit; even better to collect dozens of such songs in a hymnal or missalette that might propel such a publications into the millions of purchases. For us who toured less, who held jobs in parishes or schools and were not as often on the road as full-time performing artists, the chance of breaking even on a recording was slim, unless the recording held the kind of gem(s) that might sell enough copies to make up for the investment in the recording.

Enter the electronic age, in which the value of a recorded song plummeted even further. While the potential audience of a song published to iTunes or Amazon or similar distribution centers is exponentially higher in theory, in practice, the audience is size is the same, and the value of the recording is reduced dramatically, from a sale of around $17 retail per CD to $10 per album, with the distributor taking a significant cut before the publisher sees a profit. The artist who once received $1.70 per CD in royalty now receives less than a dollar. Unlike before, it is possible now only to buy a single song, so the sale on a recording might just be a dollar or two. This is great news for the consumer. It's a good thing. But it militates against the creation of good recordings of our genre of music because the money isn't there to remunerate the publisher's investment, certainly not in the short haul. So the publishers are opting more and more not to do recordings except for the live generic recordings made to accompany octavo packets a few times a year. 

Above, in this post, I've included a music video made by Mark Karney of one of my songs. Mark is a local video producer and friend and parishioner. How could his work contribute to the distribution of these songs? What can we do to make it possible for more people to hear the music we are writing, people who don't subscribe to octavo packets, or go to NPM or other conventions, people who just want to hear spiritual music? Is there a market like that any more, or has liturgy and liturgical song become so compartmentalized in our lives that we might not even want to hear it in our cars and homes and iPhones and iPods? 

These are real world questions for me and my colleagues, and I'm telling you (again, since I said it in other ways in previous posts) that the questions and answers aren't easy. I'm still trying to sell my songs to publishers who actually want them, but don't want to record them. I'm not sure I want to part with them that badly. I'm considering self-publishing the music, and crowd-sourcing or personally funding a recording that we can sell. The bad part of this, aside from the personal cost to us, is that it cuts us out of the hymnal-missalette market, which is where more significant royalties can be made for the songwriter as well as the publisher.

Monetizing the creation of spiritual music, music for prayer, might seem creepy to people, I don't know. But Jesus himself said, among many other things, that the laborer is worth his pay. None of us is looking to retire off royalties from church music, but it would be good to see some financial return for our efforts that also makes the music available to market beyond the liturgical musicians themselves. 

Do you have any ideas? I don't feel that bad not knowing where to turn. My doctor talks to me all the time about how she didn't go to medical school to learn to be a business, she went to learn to be a doctor. The business aspect of medicine was, in a sense, forced upon her, with all the paperwork for insurance and other interests a necessary part of independence in  her field, not to mention the running of a practice on her own. Being an artist, at least when I was coming up, did not include learning entrepreneurial skills, raising venture capital, and executing marketing strategies. I just wanted to write songs, and sing them, and, in some blessed, magical moment, maybe sell a few.

Still, hearing affirmations like the one I posted from my Facebook friend above make me feel my life has been worth living. I have a house to live in, food to eat, and enough to share with other people, and that really is enough. I have something to sing about, and I keep singing and writing as best I can. The answer to this question might not change that for me, but what about for the younger songwriters coming up?

Will they have to be troubadours in order to have their songs be heard? Or are there other gifts among members of the church that might be able to make recordings for the wider world a reality?

So many questions. And then there's the biggest one: who is going to do the preaching and catechesis to enable people to fall in love with Christ, and Abba, their Spirit and the church, to give them something to sing about as they go about renewing the face of the earth?
"Do Not Fear to Hope," music and lyrics by Rory Cooney, © ℗ 1986, 2000, by OCP, 5536 NE Hassalo, Portland OR 97213-3638. All rights reserved. 800-548-8749.
"Christ the Icon," music and lyrics by Rory Cooney, © ℗ 2005 World Library Publications, 3708 River Rd, Ste. 400, Franklin Park, IL 60131-2158. 800-566-6150.