Pine Lake Music is one of the larger retailers/distributors of Christian music in the country and they are only a short distance from my house. They host various seminars throughout the year including some geared toward church pianists. Sometimes I will go to them and there is always something I can learn.
This weekend, Heather Sorenson did a seminar and I went. I have known Heather for many years. We were college buddies. She was an outstanding pianist in college and went on to become a prolific published writer with several piano arrangement books with Lillenas and many choral arrangements with Hal Leonard and other publishers. If you have been keeping up, I just recorded Heather’s “God of Heaven” last month. That song was a big hit in the publishing world a few years ago and is well-loved by many.
I was flipping through a choral catalog that Pine Lake handed out and I noticed that more than ever, I have relationships with many of the writers. Some of those relationships are due to my recording work (such as Steve Mauldin). But I was more surprised to see that I know many of the writers because they come from the niche of Christianity that I am from–a very traditional, conservative niche. Some (like Heather) are not really in that niche any more but they started there.
To be very honest, I am surprised at how far things have come. The niche of Christianity I am speaking of has not really had a great reputation in the Christian music world as a whole. First, it has been overly conservative and far from mainstream. Second, the quality has historically not been so great.
In fact, I sort of grew up with a perspective that we conservatives would never really have a chance in mainstream Christian music. We just resigned ourselves to the fact that we were going to be small fish in the pond, and I never would have suspected that some of my college musician friends would go on to be well-known Christian writers.
So as I flipped through that catalog on Saturday recognizing names, I found myself pondering how things have changed and why they have changed. And I think I do know some of the reasons why.
The biggest reason of course is just improved quality. I know the choral landscape pretty well and I know who the best writers are. And I can honestly say that overall, some conservatives are producing music on a level with anyone in the industry. Sure, there are still a lot of conservatives that are bound and determined to continue to write music of an earlier era where Christian music was banal and cheesy, but not all of them. As a result, the mainstream publishing industry now respects some conservatives and gives them publishing opportunities as well as publicity. I was interested to see Pine Lake promoting several upcoming conferences where staunch conservatives are going to present along side of the big mainstream writers.
The second reason is that conservatives have finally started softening their indefensible and silly rules that have long made them irrelevant. Those that preached those rules for so long have lost influence and become irrelevant themselves within conservatism. Conservative writers are now working with a more modern mindset and are reaching across boundaries to do so. While there is a small war over this occurring within conservatism, the ultra-conservatives are clearly losing.
There is a third reason too if I am being honest. Conservatives are getting more exposure in choral writing because it is getting to the point where only traditional, conservative churches have the need for choral writing in the first place. Churches are abandoning choirs in masses.
I don’t think that the movement away from choirs is necessarily a bad thing. The choir is not a God-prescribed element of a church. It is just a tradition. And it is very inefficient when it comes down to it. The person-hours required for a choir to perform a piece of music are far greater than that of a small ensemble. Eliminating choirs takes a lot of pressure off some church members who actually might find time to (gasp!) rest a bit on Sunday.
Because choral writing has been abandoned by many writers, it has opened up opportunities for conservatives; but those writers should not get to comfortable either. If the current trend continues (as I suspect it will), even conservative churches will move away from choirs over the coming years.
I don’t have a crystal ball and I am sure that conservative writers will adapt to the coming changes. And in the mean time, congratulations to all my published friends for your successes and the respect you are getting from mainstream publishing.
And I want to say a quick word to those of you who buy choral music. Support choral writers by buying their music and using it legally. Many churches routinely steal from publishers and writers by illegally using music. Don’t let that be your church.
Financially, publishers are on the ropes even without theft. I talked to someone in the industry recently who told me that a “hit” in the choral publishing world was about 10,000 octavos sold. Normally, octavos sell for less than $2, so the total revenue from a successful choral piece is less than $20,000. Only 10-20% goes to the writers (often 10% and it is split between the lyricist and composer). When you work out the numbers, you will realize that choral writers could write a successful octavo every week and still not earn a very comfortable living. I know of no writer who can get a song published a week, let alone a successful song published every week.
So be good to those choral writers. If writing becomes financially unfeasible, the quality and quantity will suffer.