Elephant in the closet: Money in Christian music

Several things have happened lately that have made me think about this delicate balance between church music and money.  This is an topic where few dare to tread; frankly, Christian musicians are scared to talk about this issue publicly though I assure you there is plenty of talk about it privately.

I recently wrote an article asking the question whether church musicians should be paid.  There were many comments through Facebook, email and on the blog, but there was one in particular that caught my attention.  A man in India wrote in to say that while it would never be feasible in India, he was thankful that churches in the West were serious enough about music to consider paying their musicians. He is exactly right.

My focus today is not about local church music.  It is more about producing the Christian music that churches use (publishing, composing, arranging, recording, etc).  But this man in India still has a valid point: someone has to invest in music if there is to be good music.

It reminds me of pharmaceutical drugs.  Have you ever wondered why drugs are cheaper outside the United States?  The answer is this: the burden of developing drugs falls largely on the United States.  We pay the costs of developing drugs; on average, that cost is close to $1 billion dollars for a single drug. 

Once a drug’s development has been paid for, it costs very little comparatively to actually manufacture it.  United States customers usually bear that initial burden and the rest of the world benefits.  That is why we pay $80 for a drug that might cost $10 in Africa.  Many people that benefit never know about that initial heavy cost that made the drug possible.

Of course, music is no different.  Quality music does not cost hundreds of millions of dollars to produce but it does cost something.  If nothing else, it costs valuable time from people that need to earn a living.

And that it is why it is highly ironic to complain about Christian music’s lack of quality while at the same time bemoaning a musician’s ability to earn a living making music.  In some conservative circles I run in, this kind of rhetoric never stops.  To make things even more ironic, church musicians have historically always been paid to produce music.  Bach for example was an employee of various churches and courts for his entire career.

Yes, money is necessary if we hope to have quality Christian music, but it is only fair to ask another question: has money ruined Christian music?

Sadly, in many ways, the answer is yes.

It is fairly easy to point out the obvious examples.  I won’t do that here.  But I will just say this: public Christian musicians of every niche are constantly tempted to make decisions about their music because of money.  That is true of those on the far end of CCM.  It is just as true for those in a small niche that is very conservative.

And let’s face it.  In spite of the fact that I have an income apart from my music, I still think way too pragmatically about certain musical decisions that I make.

I hate cliche and I hope this does not sound like cliche.  But here is what I really believe.  Christian musicians can only truly reach their potential if they are making decisions about music based solely on what they believe God would have them do.  As part of that decision making process, there are two personal things they should consider:  what their musical strengths are (I Peter 4:11) and what their musical preferences are (Ps 37:4).

The less money has to do with it, the better off you will be.  As a musician, you need to be constantly on guard to make sure you are not making musical decisions based on factors like these:

* Whether a particular church will invite you for concerts or not.
* Whether you will asked to speak in a college/university.
* Whether you can sell more CDs if you stick with (or change) a particular style.
* Who is going to attack you because of your music.

So how would I sum this up? Here are some ideas for musicians and non-musicians:

For non-musicians:
* Don’t begrudge a musician the right to earn a living (even a good living) by producing music for the church. 
* Pay for music that you listen to (unless it is free). Over 95% of all downloaded music is illegal; don’t be like the rest of the world.
* Pay for the music your church uses. A publisher friend of mine tells me horror stories of churches that steal his music.

For musicians:
* Consider having another income so the money you earn from music is not as important. (Yes, we need full time Christian musicians, but not everyone has to be.)
* Audit yourself constantly to make sure that you are not falling into the trap of letting money influence your musical decisions.