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Thursday, December 5, 2013

Guest response to "Monetizing Religious Music", by David Ash

A couple of weeks ago I posted about "Monetizing Religious Music", a subject which interests a handful of people in the country, mostly my friends and colleagues who are composers or publishers of liturgical music. Our ministry and vocation is interwoven, like the publication of other necessary components of liturgy (scriptural translations and mass translations among them) in the legal and financial machinations of industry, and is swept along as well by changes in the recording and media distribution industries. Right now, for those of us who just write songs, it's a quagmire.

My colleague and jolly-good-fellow from the Seattle area, David Ash, (link to his author page) wrote a response to my piece, and I include it here unedited because it is full of insight, wit, and passion. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I use it here with permission from the author. Be sure, if you haven't seen them, to check his Amazon page for his wonderful books of haiku for Catholics, coffee lovers, cat lovers, and other unsuspecting groups. The song he refers to in his essay is "Go Out and Tell the Good News," a little calypso-flavored setting of Psalm 117. You can hear an excerpt at OCP by clicking on the link.

Here is David's wonderful piece:

Response to "Monetizing Religious Music", by David Ash

Raphael (Tomas Milian): For what is an artist in this world but a servant, a lackey for the rich and powerful? Before we even begin to work, to feed this craving of ours, we must find a patron, a rich man of affairs, or a merchant, or a prince or... a Pope. We must bow, fawn, kiss hands to be able to do the things we must do or die.  [chuckles]  We are harlots always peddling beauty at the doorsteps of the mighty.
 Michelangelo (Charlton Heston): If it comes to that, I won't be an artist.
 Raphael: [scoffs] You'll always be an artist. You have no choice.
The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)

So should I, as a songwriting whore, work for pimp or pope?  And, dare I ask, what’s the difference?  I got our quarterly OCP royalty statement shortly before reading your blog on monetizing religious music and it got me thinking.  I doubt that I’ll have a clear-cut answer, but at least I’ll raise some more issues.

The system works against us
            Nearly the same basic royalty structure exists for secular songs as for sacred: ten percent of
David Ash
the retail price goes into a pool which is shared equally among the number of copyrighted items and split evenly between text and tune.  It seems fair.  But there are extenuating circumstances and exceptions for liturgical composers.
            When you write both lyrics and melody for a song on a twelve-tune CD selling for $12, you get ten cents per album at full retail ($12 ÷ 12 songs x 10% = $0.10).  But write both lyrics and melody for a song in a 900-song hymnal selling for $15 and you get one sixth of a penny per copy ($0.0017).  Laura and I have a psalm and a canticle in Glory and Praise, Second Edition.  OCP has now sold more than 250,000 copies, a substantial number for a hymnal.  Over the last 15 years, our total royalties per song are less than $400 per song.  If you add in Journeysongs, Second Edition, it becomes around $500 each.  Compare that to the paltry 4,386 copies of the octavo version of one of those songs which have now earned us over $850 lifetime.  No wonder Taylor Swift makes more than we do for songwriting.
            The royalty rate is lower for hymnals that have Lectionary readings.  NAB/RNAB translations are copyright material too, so the pool has to be split even further.  And if the publisher likes your text but not your tune, or you set the text to something in the public domain and the publisher doesn’t use your arrangement, you lose half your income stream from the start.
            Further, OCP sells millions of missals each year and their prices will probably increase over time.  But the publishing contract sets a fixed royalty per year if your song is included in the missals.  It was $50/song/year 15 years ago.  I don’t know what it is now, but even if it has tripled to $150 for recent works, this is far less than a 10% royalty pool, especially with the grandfathering.
            And the hymnal/missal system further penalizes established composers like you over one-hit wonders like me as popularity and greater use is not rewarded.  If an assembly sings your “Canticle of the Turning” four times per year and our “Daniel 3: Glory and Praise For Ever” once every three years, we each get paid the same on a per song basis.  (Granted, license royalties are starting to compensate for that.)
            Lastly, while sacred and secular markets share print and mechanical royalties, the biggest discrepancy with the secular market is the total lack of performance and broadcast rights.   Christian radio stations don’t play Catholic music.  Catholic radio stations won’t be paying us royalties when our music isn’t ASCAP/BMI registered.  And if a rock band covers someone else’s song in a for-profit concert, they have to pay for the rights.  If a cathedral uses our song at Mass, we get nothing.  Once the hymnal or sheet music is purchased, the income stops.
            Fred Moleck, a senior editor at GIA, was one of my professors at Santa Clara.  I asked him back in the 1990s how many liturgical composers were making more than $30,000 per year (a living wage then equal to $50,000 now) in royalties from all publishers in all formats.  Without hesitating, he said none.  Even if you have a hundred songs in a hymnal and millions of Catholics sing one of your songs on any given Sunday, your decades of experience cannot earn you a full-time wage as a professional liturgical composer.  As Fred told me, don’t give up your day job. 

It’s not just the system: it’s the market
            As you alluded in your blog article, Catholics generally don’t listen to liturgical music outside of liturgy.  But it goes further than lamenting why 60 million potential customers in the U.S. don’t buy our albums.  Are the music directors of 20,000 parishes looking for new songs as much as they used to?  Do the pastors hiring music directors view hiring a composer as a plus?  Can composers test out new compositions in liturgy at their own churches without a backlash?  My experience says the answer is increasingly no.  Familiarity has become the new watchword.
            The cost to the composer to reach the dwindling market is also increasing.  Having gone the self-publishing route from the beginning, our experience has been that you don’t sell an octavo unless you first sold an album, and you don’t sell an album until they’ve heard the song at a workshop or concert.  That means you have to pay your way to NPM, buy a booth, and do the dog-and-pony show on your own against bigger competition.  We’ve given up on that.  But even if you’re with GIA and it has paid for the booths, you still have to be there to promote your songs, and at least some of that cost will be born by you.
            I used to think that, at worst, composing music and self-producing albums was the loss leader for the bigger “prize:” job security as a music director.  Conversations with fellow Composers Forum members and two years of fruitless interviews after my last Catholic directing job ended in 2006 suggest otherwise (I’m about to become the new music director at Grace Lutheran in Bellevue, WA).  A precious few have managed to translate their fame or skill as composers into a main or side income by leading workshops.  But as for Fred Moleck’s “day job” comment, Masters degrees and published works don’t necessarily translate into more hours or finding new work faster.  We’re not that different from music directors who don’t compose: when the new pastor arrives, all bets are off.  So what is the return on investment?

The biggest customer is also the competition
            One thing that composers learned from the implementation of the 2011 translation of Roman Missal, Third Edition is that music is not merely the servant of the liturgy.  Rather, music is liturgy’s bitch.
            Imagine if Bernie Taupin could call up Sir Elton John and say, “You know all those lyrics I’ve written for you over the last forty years?  Well, I’ve changed them.  No, not the revisions we’ve been talking about for a decade, different ones.  You won’t be able to use the old stuff anymore.  I’ll give you a year to make changes.  If you want to tinker with the old melodies to fit new rhythms, fine.  If you want to invent new melodies all together, that’s your call.  But I’ve ordered your publishers and record labels not to sell anything that doesn’t have my new lyrics.  Good luck.”
It couldn’t happen, of course, and even if Bernie thought he had that kind of power and tried it, I’d like to think Sir Elton would tell him to sod off.  But that’s what happened to composers of Mass settings, acclamations, psalms, and canticles used in their proper liturgical place.  Consubstantial changes meant a half-century of repertoire had to be revised or thrown out.  The Church, de facto and de jure, is both the 800-lb. customer demanding the new product and the lyricist entitled to half the royalties.  Nice work if you can get it.
This new demand is a two-edged sword.  On the one hand, if half the parishes in the U.S. think they can’t live without Marty Haugen’s Mass of Creation even if it has changed and are willing to pay for lots of booklets for the choir, Marty may milk even more revenue from an old product without (maybe) that much additional work (I have no idea how much time Marty spent revising).  Eventual purchases of new hymnals containing new settings will eke out a bit more.  However, settings by lesser-known composers that are less than a decade old will more probably get tossed aside.  Conscientious composers who tried to prepare for earlier ICEL revisions they thought would be used had to start all over again or gave up.
While it may not happen often in our composing lifetimes, this was a reminder that liturgical royalties are not forever.  The Church could do this again any time for anything.  Imagine Pope Frances overriding the current translation in favor of the ICEL (we start all over again) or reinstating permission for the old version to be used (a lá the Tridentine Mass).  Imagine approved translations of old Latin hymns.  Imagine approved hymnals.  The gorilla could stir again, and we will have to make our tunes dance to its text, if we’re lucky.

It’s our own fault
            The reason none of us is looking to retire off royalties from church music is because it isn’t possible now.  But every time we begin a sentence with “We’re not in it for the money, we’re in it because…” we push back that day.  People in power have already put a period after the word money and have stopped listening.  Pastors are hiring fewer full-time or benefitted music directors and more liturgy directors for their parishes.  Years of musical training are now worth less to the Church than the “need” for glorified party planners.  I don’t see the trend stopping anytime soon.  It won’t happen until enough composers and music directors say, “I have no doubt you’ll find someone to fill the position at that salary, Father.  It just won’t be me.”  Or until, like secular schoolteachers who aren’t in it for the money either, we unionize.
            Our son is a senior at NYU.  His major is music composition.  He wants to be a film score composer.  In spite of his growing up playing violin in our choirs and seeing that his parents have made a decent living combining musical and non-musical jobs, I wouldn’t urge him to consider a career in church music.  In a world where Catholics are more willing to pay (indirectly, of course) for the commercial jingles they hear during Sunday football games than for the hymns they hear (and maybe sing) during Sunday Mass, my advice to him is, “Forget the Pope, find a pimp.”  Hollywood is more likely to value him than Holyrood.
            “Raphael” is partly correct.  We may have no choice but to be artists.  We do, however, have a choice over for what and for whom.  Laura and I recently wrote the music for a musical.  We were basically commissioned, and we earned more than twice our total royalties for the last 20 years.  So I’ll close with a joke I heard back in the 1970s, when the dollar was worth a lot more:

            Q:  What denominations do church musicians prefer to work for?
            A:  Fifties and hundreds.