A shout out to publishers

I spent this week at the Composers Symposium at Pine Lake Music in Atlanta, an event where church music publishers and writers learn from each other, present songs to each other, network, and in general, laugh a lot.

If you know much about me, you know that I have never been published. There are good reasons for that and for me, that strategy has made a lot of sense up to this point. Going forward, that is almost certainly going to change but I will discuss that sometime in the future when the time comes.

Even though I have not worked with publishers in the past, I have never been against publishers. There are bitter writers that think that publishers are taking advantage of them and getting wealthy off their work, but that is nonsense. Publishers probably end up making about about as much as the writer on an average piece as I will demonstrate in a minute. For their profit, they take enormous risk and work very hard.

The truth is that at the end of the day, church music publishing is an industry. It has to be because just like any of you, the people in church music publishing have to eat. No one expects pastors to work for free and no one should expect publishers to work for free either. It is a beautiful thing when the way you earn a living aligns with a meaningful passion like music but you simply cannot live on passion alone. In the end of the day, money matters.

When I look at the landscape, I want to applaud both the writers and the publishers because they are doing their best even though the money is just not there any more. They are standing in the gap for you. They are hanging in there even though from a financial perspective, it would be completely understandable if they ran far away. People in churches want good music and at this point, they are getting good music but not because there is a lot of money available to writers and publishers to produce good music. There isn’t.

If you enjoy the choir piece this Sunday, here is what I want you to know. The writers and arranger of that piece probably were paid a lot less for that music than you think. When you consider the time and effort they have into the piece, they are almost certainly being compensated very poorly. They know that going in and they do their job anyway. Don’t get me wrong–they care about money but they care about the music more. If it was all about money, they would not be writing that music.

The publishers are in the same boat. I want to give you an idea of what happens financially with a typical choir piece. I will tell you up front that these numbers are informed guesstimates. I am not sharing inside knowledge from a secret conversation with a publisher. But I know the business in general and can glean things and I doubt my numbers are too far off.

First of all, an average choir piece today probably sells around 5,000 copies total so I am going to work with that number. At a retail price of $2.25, that equates to $11,250 in revenue. Out of that revenue, the writer(s) and arrangers split a commission of 10-12% so in the very common scenario where there is a lyricist, a tune writer and an arranger on a song, they are all earning in the neighborhood of $500 each. Put that in perspective: to earn an average household income from their efforts, they would have to churn out about 100 songs a year (almost an impossibility for many reasons).

Now let’s see how the publisher does. Here are my estimates of expenses based on selling 5,000 copies:

Writer commissions: $1,125
Printing ($0.25/piece):  $1,250
Distributorship commission (35%): $4,000
Recording demo: $500
Advertising (sample copies, travel to distributors, displays, reading sessions, catalog): $1,000
Labor (80 hours including the selection process, editing, managing workflow, engraving, cover design): $2,000

Total expenses: ~$10,000

I think I am probably estimating these costs low if anything, but if I am right, that only leaves a profit for the publisher in the range of $1,000 on a single piece and that is before other costs that really should be in there such as office overhead and administrative costs. There are other revenue opportunities that I am not including such as licensing but I would guess that that revenue is not too significant in the scheme of things. For sure, publishers are not printing money.

I do not write choir music so for much of the week, I sat back and observed and just appreciated what I saw both from the writers and publishers in the room. And I have a few thoughts for you to consider:

1) Instead of bemoaning the quality of the music in church, look for ways to be thankful for it because it is almost always coming to you at great sacrifice. The quality of much church music right now is incredibly high when you consider the financial side of producing it.

2) Do not take your church music for granted because it is endangered. Right now, good writers and publishers are holding on but don’t count on that going forward. Many publishers have gone out of business over the last decade as revenue as dropped. Many writers have decided that they just can’t afford to write music in a genre that does not provide them with the chance to earn a decent living. If the downward trend in publishing continues, quality will eventually suffer.

These are just realities. Writers do not have the enviable financial arrangements today like the classical composers of the past who had wealthy patrons that took care of them. In some ways, that would be preferable and strangely enough, we are starting to see a movement back in that direction. But at the present, the current system doesn’t work that way and it is in a very unstable situation.

In another post, I am going to talk about what happened when I presented some music at this conference. Stay tuned for that.