An honest appraisal (Part 2)

Yesterday, I wrote Part 1 of this series and want to finish with Part 2 today.

If you comment on this post (or yesterday’s post), you get a chance to win a free signed copy of Brian Buda’s new advanced arrangement book with Lorenz (Hands to Heaven). Brian was the winner of my arrangement contest a few years ago and that arrangement is in this book. The winner will be announced on Friday. If you are reading this blog post in your email, click here to comment

Guys, I am a business person and I run a music business. I make no apologies for that. I am glad that many have been helped by this business and glad that I love what I do here but it is still a for-profit endeavor.

Is my music a ministry? I am wary of the term because it is used so dishonestly these days. I prefer to look at my music as work that intersects with my beliefs, skills, and loves and (hopefully) helps people. If that makes it a ministry, everyone’s occupation should be a ministry. But financial viability is also a big piece of the pie and should be. I have a large family to support and it would be negligent on my part to chase what I want to do without regard for that. I have invested in the range of $300,000 in production costs for my albums, TV concerts, and educational products and I have thousands of hours invested in writing and recording. If I invested all that with no real plan to get it back, I would be a pretty shoddy person. I would be chasing my own dreams while my family suffered. The term “ministry” has become a Christian cliche to excuse a lot of things, but it should never be used to excuse neglect of one’s family.

That brings me back to what I wrote yesterday. The reason I wrote about the trends that are affecting the piano in church is because those trends affect the financial viability of the kind of work that I do, or at least a lot of what I do. I am not bigger than those trends; none of us are. Some are able to deal with a less-than-ideal industry better than others and some even flourish. But in the end, no one is really immune.

To date, my music has been financially viable. Frankly, it has done amazingly well, largely because I have three revenue components (recording/performing, writing, and instructional products) and I also have a lot of business experience. However, my business instinct is setting off alarms in my mind these days because of the trends I wrote about yesterday.The pool of potential customers (church pianists) that will be buying either instructional products or music is shrinking rapidly and I don’t see that changing.

I wish I could stop the bleak news there but I can’t. There are two more trends to consider and neither helps make things any better.

  1. While the number of church pianists is shrinking, the number of church piano arrangers getting their music into the market is increasing. There are a lot of them of varying quality (several times as many as I remember when I was buying piano arrangement books). Self publishing has of course driven a lot of that and we are starting to see the impact of a low barrier of entry to getting music in front of the public. There is good and bad in these changes of course, but in business terms, we are seeing the customer base shrinking while the competition is expanding. That is never a good thing.
  2. The traditional offertory is on the wane. Traditionally, pianists play offertories in church which is why so many hymn arrangement books exist in the first place. There are still thousands of churches collecting the offering with instrumental offertories every week but that is going away as well. Churches are collecting the offering in other ways and many that still have a collection use other options rather than instrumental offertories during that time.

None of these things are right or wrong. The Bible does not prescribe the piano for church must less offertories. Nevertheless, without doubt, if you are a writer/arranger for church piano, you are not facing a healthy business environment.

A few months ago, I announced that I am going to stop writing next summer, at least for a while. The major reasons are not financial and yes, I plan to discuss my reasoning in coming months here. However, even with financial considerations off the table, as I evaluate what to do with my time in the future, I do find it hard to justify investing in something that is dying. Church piano music is dying. I am not going to change that. If there is one thing that I have learned the hard way over the past decade, it is that I am not powerful enough to change much of anything.

I actually wanted to write this short series to give some advice to those that write (or want to write) church piano music rather than to discuss my own plans so let me do that now. Here are some brief recommendations.

  1. Consider something else. From a purely business perspective, this kind of writing is not a good business. You don’t want to be in a shrinking market with intense competition. You have to have reasons outside money to do this. Love for music and a desire to help are great reasons but perhaps you need to make this a weekend warrior kind of thing and pay the bills with another occupation.
  2. Get good. There are tons of arrangers but most of them are not willing to do the hard work to learn to write at a high level. With very few exceptions, you are not going to leave college writing great music. It takes a lot more than a music degree. It takes a lifetime of continuous learning, listening, and experimenting. Your very best way to build a profitable business is to stand out on quality.
  3. Network. There are few industries where the best talent is more accessible than the industry of church music. Get to know those people; they are great people and they will help you find opportunities if they like your work. You would be shocked at how even the major publishers watch out for each other and refer writers to each other.
  4. Expand beyond the piano. The piano is just an instrument; it is not God’s preferred instrument or a more spiritual instrument than any other. The church can live without the piano and is in fact going to do just that. If you want to keep writing for the church, you probably need to learn to write for more than just the piano.
  5. Expand beyond Christian music. There is a difference between being a Christian music writer and a writer who is a Christian. I really respect those who go out to intentionally influence secular music. There is nothing wrong with that. After all, Chick-fil-a does not just sell sandwiches to Christians. Rather than writing for an oversaturated church music market, perhaps you need to use your skills to influence the broader music industry.
  6. Expand beyond the offertory. Even if acoustic pianos disappear, keyboards are going to be around a long time. The offertory is largely going to disappear but there will be a need for writing for the keyboard in different scenarios in a church service. There are many thousands of pianists out there that need help moving from reading/playing traditional music on pianos to reading/playing charts on keyboards. Find ways to meet that need.
  7. Be realistic. Guys, I am not exaggerating when I say that well more than 95% of published church music writers are not making a living solely by writing. I know of two actually in the world I am most associated with. They are two of the very top names in the industry; neither have families to support and yet neither is wealthy by any stretch. Neither write only for piano either. The vast majority of writers are teachers, recording artists, music ministers, and church musicians whose writing is just part of what they do. For many, their writing is a hobby. Speaking for myself, I can say that for a while, music was my full time income but that included my recording/performing and instructional products which made up 75% of the total revenue. I would not want to have to depend just on writing/arranging income and frankly couldn’t. If I was the best arranger in the world, I couldn’t. There simply is not a market to support that. Not in church piano music.

Most of you are not writers but are church pianists and I have a thought for you as well. This may sound self-serving but remember, I am stepping away next summer. I want to make a plea for those that will remain. Please support church piano writers/arrangers as much as you can. Buy their books and be generous in other ways. Support their publishers too who are under pressure for the same reasons the writers are. Support the stores that sell their books. One of the largest Christian music stores/distributors in the US (Pine Lake) closed their doors a few months ago. This was a business with many decades of success and its demise should be seen as a big wakeup call for the industry.

Trust me, no one is getting rich writing, publishing, or selling piano hymn arrangement books. If you don’t support the industry, don’t be surprised when the industry stops providing you with what you need down the road. It is no coincidence that you can’t find more than a few organ books in your local Christian bookstore. If there is no market, there eventually won’t be any products either.

That is my unvarnished honest appraisal of the professional world of church piano music. I know many of you find it sad; but hopefully you found it helpful, too.