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Friday, May 3, 2013

So, You Think You Wanna Write Liturgical Songs?

Hi-ho, the glamorous life of a liturgical songwriter.

Last week, I read on CNN (and posted to Facebook) a fascinating article about the changes in the music industry that have taken place since the advent of iTunes in 2005. If
you don't have time or interest in reading the article, just take a look at the graphic that leads the article off, which tells the story pretty well. This is just the latest in a series of thoughts that has engendered some new thinking in me about the ministry and industry in which I find myself, the writing and publishing of liturgical songs.

Here's the scenario, and why I'm thinking about all this.
  1. My inner optimist has started to heal over the last couple of years, surrendering to the harsh reality of recent successes in the reform-the-reform movement, but at the same time seeing that, well, it could have been a lot worse. I see that as an act of providence. The joy of writing has come back, even though things are far from ideal. It's all right, I guess, to sing the Lord's song in a foreign land after all.
  2. Terry, Gary, and I haven't made a recording or published new music since our 2005/6 albums Christ the Icon with World Library and Today with GIA. We have more than enough good material now to publish.
That's to the good, but there are some things on the negative side, besides what you've already seen in the CNN article.
  1. Due to the revision of the Roman Missal, every major publisher has invested in new worship materials, so that new hymnals which have appeared in the last two years will not see new editions for 5-10 years.
  2. The cost of making CDs is huge to publishers, and is an investment impossible to recoup except through music sales. Cost is greater due to flagging sales of CDs and drastically reduced profit from electronic sales. Churches, though, tend to be behind the curve of technology implementation, so churches moving to download formats, while inevitable, will proceed at a pace barely avoiding their being completely left behind. (To reduce the meaning of this to the obvious: at a 10% royalty rate, a CD produces $1.70 or so in revenue to us. Online music sales allow a person to buy just one song if s/he wishes, and even at the premium rate of $1.29, this means 12¢ a song. An entire album costs $9.99, which makes the royalty 99¢, about 60% of the former rate. The pressure is on to have a lot of good material on an album.)
  3. Gary Daigle, my wife Terry Donohoo and I, due to the changing nature of jobs and circumstances, just can't travel as much as we used to, and we were never on the road that much. Much as we love to do concerts and present our music, it's particularly difficult with our job and family commitments. But the only way to sell CDs, and have people hear our music, is by doing it ourselves. This really puts us in a tight spot. 
  4. There is really already an awful lot of worship music out there, so much, in fact, that I don't even try to audition it all. It would be impossible. I do triage at my desk, based on the text, instrumentation, and choir voicing. Even what is left is too much new music.
It's been almost 30 years since my first recording. I can remember those first songs being vetted, and a final group of 12 or so being interceded for by Tom Kendzia and Paul Quinlan, though it probably didn't matter, in the final analysis, which twelve they were.
At first, publishers want to know that the material they're putting out by an unknown writer has a chance of succeeding. As you go on, there's at least the impression that the  publisher trusts the producer to know the material. I've now published around 200 pieces of music with 5 different publishers. You'd think that that would build some credibility. But it's still a gauntlet run to get new material published, even though I think I'm writing better than I ever have. And I get that — publishers don't have crystal balls either, and need to make an educated guess about the saleability and usefulness of the music they are paying to produce.

As I said, there a kind of glut of music now, really. So it's understandable that publishers would want things to stand out for some reason. I can't compete with other musicians in the touring department, but I am fairly certain that the songs I write can compete, and need to be heard. That is my problem. 

The simple fact is that it's a publisher's money being fronted to produce the music, and they can spend it however they want, paying the artist a 10-90 split after recovering certain costs from the royalty pool. The Catholic publishers never made their profits (or in OCP's case, non-profits) on recordings anyway. Recordings in our sector of the industry are a form of advertising. While a touring artist, with good organization, may be able to sell CDs and music on the road and make a living of sorts, the Catholic publishers make their money on the hymnal-missalette end of the deal, and frankly so do songwriters. With hymnals having a shelf-life of about ten years and missalette publishers loath to change the handful of songs they license from each other's catalogues from the predictable group of 25 or so "hits", it is very hard for a new composition to gather the kind of momentum to get into a national worship aid like a hymnal or missalette, let alone muster the popularity required to cross from one publisher's catalogue into another's  product. "Christ Be Our Light" and "The Summons" have done so, and more recently maybe John Angotti's anthemic "I Send You Out" and Dan Schutte's "These Alone Are Enough." My most popular songs at GIA, both in sales and in licensing requests, are "Canticle of the Turning" and "Jerusalem, My Destiny." They have been anthologized in the Collegeville missalette, but have not broken into the more established missalette markets of Oregon Catholic Press or J. S. Paluch company. This is quite vexing. Perhaps because of their wide distribution and quicker ability to incorporate new material, it may be that newer OCP material has a better chance of ending up in a GIA hymnal than the other way around. Has anything from the last twenty years of the GIA catalog made it into OCP's books? I can't think of anything.

Well, if this is the kind of fight you'd like to fight, submit ten or so of your compositions, expressions of your life, your art, your faith, the sum of your years, prayer, ministry, education, things you've fearfully tried and painfully edited over a period of months and years with your congregations and found to be successful. Send them to one of the publishers, and then be prepared for a form letter saying that it "doesn't fit their current needs", or maybe that one of them does, in which case you can be prepared to wait for a year or two to see it get into print. Or, you might find yourself in my shoes, with a decent track record after nearly three decades of songwriting and publishing, trying to assess the best strategy for finding an audience for your songs in the riotous garden of church music, psyching yourself up to haggle with editors and decision-makers over which songs should be included in your twentieth collection of songs. All this, and you'll still need to work at least another full time job to make ends meet. OK, maybe if you have the new "(Revised) Mass of Creation" you'll be able to take a few days off in a few years.

I have always felt as though if a song of mine was meant to be part of people's prayer, nothing could prevent it except my own laziness. And if it's not meant to do so, then no amount of fanfare or promotion by anyone can make a difference. I just need to do my part, to pay attention, to write the song as best I can, to discern its value with colleagues in my choir and around the country, and then present it to a publisher. Recently, I feel the ground has shifted, both in the church and in my own life. In paying attention to that, I still have tremendous faith in my songs, but am trying to feel my way through this new territory, hoping it's not too late for this old dog to learn some new musical tricks.

As the Irish say, it's a fine life if you don't weaken.


  1. That was a hard blog post to read through to be honest. I took a break from working on my music and from tediously recording, at home, my pieces in hopes that some day I may be able to get an audience to hear them

    Then a facebook break yielded a blog post from Mr. Rory Cooney. It was like a boulder on the chest to read this. It feels so true however it also feels very discouraging. I can't imagine that you meant to discourage young Catholic songwriters, like myself, from trying. I have done just what you said here. Poured out my heart and prayer through songs that had been tried in my parish and had been fawned over at my choirs. And then edited tirelessly for more sleepless nights then I would like to admit. And I waited, to receive the dreaded form letter. No feedback, no advice. Just the form letter. As if they weren't even really looked at at all.

    It has taken me almost a year to try to get excited about this process again and new stronger music has emerged from the pain and the struggles in the meantime, but I am so afraid to submit these pieces of me to be judged and passed off as not what is needed when simple 3 and 4 basic chord songs are being accepted seemingly left and right.

    My wife and My mother both asked me when I would be submitting again and I honestly told them, I might not. This is the effect that this has on many young musicians and song writers. I am by no means saying I am the next big thing but I would hope that I have some promise and at the very lease would profit from some critique or feedback.

    I am sorry for the long winded response but it is an issue that I feel very strongly about. If you have any advice about this please let me know.

    Alex Navas

    1. Dear Alex, "Do not be afraid." Be sure you hear the positive aspects of what I have to say. You yourself identify the same difficulties that I do. But the project of worship is not our project, it is the project of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who makes our hearts cry out; we join in the Christ's worship of God through the Spirit. There is a lot of music out there, yes. There are a lot of people, churches, occasions, choirs. There is room for a lot, and you and I are not the ones who ultimately decides what will be used or loved. I have so often said about a song of mine, "I can't do any better than this," and it's not even noticed on the larger scene. That has to be OK! At least I didn't stifle it, and gave it my best shot. That's what you have to do.

      I agree with you, my judgment of the "quality" of some songs and texts is that they shouldn't have seen the light of day. But that doesn't help. Keep remembering the "big tent." A church of many hearts and voices needs music from all over the artistic map. At the end of the day, you and I write what we HAVE to write. People will sing what they HAVE to sing. Sometimes, we get lucky and we meet in the middle. Good luck as you pursue your writing. You have to do it. Don't be discouraged. Just remember that participation in God's project, the mission of reconciliation and peace, is the reward. We can't predict anything else. "Your ways are not my ways, says the Lord."

      Blessings, brother! Again, do not be afraid. Do not be discouraged. "I will praise the Lord all my life/ Make music to my God while I breathe."

    2. Somehow I missed this post first time around. The "big tent" concept is one I have to remind myself of over and over again. Frankly, it's refreshing to see you address the business aspects so candidly, Rory. I always feel like I shouldn't be thinking in those terms because it's a ministry to write, so I shouldn't care if 90% of what I have written never sees the published page. It's tough sometimes, though.

      Now, on to read Michael's response...

  2. Rory, thank you for this. As a composer of choral works, as well as hymns & songs, it's really important to see the reality.

    When I was working on my performance degrees in college, I recognized that (due to the recording industry fixing our problems), the minimum standard for a live performance has become *perfection.* I'll tell you, that realization was as hard to work through as knowing that probably 99% of my music will never be heard. But, I try anyway, because who knows... Only God.

    Strength to all of us who devote our lives to the prayer of music in people's hearts.

  3. Circa 1968, I had the opportunity to talk to Curtis Lee, the guy with the one-hit wonder "Pretty Little Angel Eye." He married my cousin and is from my home town. I was around 15 years old at the time. I enthusiastically asked Curtis, "What was it like being a musician with a hit song?" I'll never forget his answer: "It's a great life if you don't mind eating hot dogs for dinner and sleeping in cars overnight." I didn't read the CNN article yet but can testify that what you are saying is pretty much right on. If you want to push your music, you have to travel. I was told that by a person over at OCP. They were only looking for musicians that could travel. I have written some halfway decent liturgical songs over the years as well as some Christian pop songs similar in the genre to that of Word music and Vineyard in Anaheim, CA. I haven't really tried to push selling my music. I was thinking I should record around 8 songs (that I haven't written) from the OCP catalog and use the CD's as charity fundraisers. I have a friend here with money and was thinking of asking him to finance this project. He would be the one to pick the charity or charities. If sales went well, I would then make some recordings of my music as well as some more "oldies but goodies" from OCP. I don't plan to get rich or anything on these recordings. I have my choir sing some of these liturgical originals during a quiet meditation time after holy communion. I have one based on scripture from Hebrews as well as one based on the doubting Thomas incident. I haven't been tossed out of church yet. My pastor has shared his approval of my music to friends of his who come and speak at our church. As long as the Holy Spirit inspires me, I will write the melodies down. Hopefully, one day, I will record the song I wrote in the style of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. It's a rocker! LOL