An honest appraisal (and a giveaway) – Part 2

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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 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 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.

26 thoughts on “An honest appraisal (and a giveaway) – Part 2

  1. Neil Tennent says:

    I can relate to what you are saying,especially points 4&5. Our church has stopped using the organ, and has actually removed it because they feel it’s from an earlier time. The piano is the main instrument but they are encouraging additional support from guitars drums and whatever talent persists in the congregation. Personally I play a digital accordion that allows me several options but as far as being a popular instrument even in church, it is viewed more as a novelty. My granddaughter is studying the piano and I believe everyone interested in music should have a basic knowledge of the piano, no matter what your main interest is. I agree that the business end of arranging for piano is a dying opportunity because of the effort required. Hopefully my granddaughter will continue to appreciate the value and personal pleasure arranging and writing can provide.

  2. MGS says:

    I left college over 40 years ago with a degree in church music/organ. I knew then that organists were slowly disappearing. Many churches since have sold their organs, or no longer have an organist on staff. They use organs for special times. ie weddding, funeral, etc.

    I never dreamed I’d see the day that would apply to pianists also. But, we are slowly moving in that direction. People today aren’t interested in the time or the work involved to learn the instruments. The church music scene church has changed so much in the last few years, that if you don’t change and adapt, you will be left behind.

  3. Zach Unke says:

    Sadly, you’re right. It is so important to support Christian artists of all kinds. If you’re a fan of someone’s work, do whatever you can to support them. Even a like on a Facebook post helps more than you’d think.

  4. Miriam says:

    Interesting thoughts. I’m kind of old school and don’t want to see piano and the good old fashioned music ever go away. But thank you for sharing what you see as the trend!
    The arrangement book looks great!

  5. Diana says:

    Great post, but sad, yes. We have to adapt and grow with the changes or be left behind. I am glad you mentioned venturing into secular music. I have played in a progressive rock band in the past. (Similar to Kansas.) Progressive uses a lot of organ in their style of music. Lots of instruments that each get their own instrumental solo. There are piano solos, violin solos, trumpet solos, drum solos. Most progressive rock songs are 15 minutes long. Listen to Boston sometime who has an awesome organ solo in Smokin. Most people who play progressive have classical music backgrounds because of the technical precision needed and multiple melody lines going on at the same time. I love it. So I was glad to put my classical piano skills to use and help write new songs. Blues music and Black Gospel music still use quite a bit of organ and piano. So I say, think outside of the box.

  6. Theresa Rhodes says:

    Sad indeed…but true and well said. I would like to point out, however, that I still purchase hymn arrangements even though I don’t play at church any more. Playing your arrangements (and others) are for my own personal enjoyment and yes, even personal worship. I love hymn arrangements and I hope arrangers don’t stop because I count on them because I don’t have those skills. I do understand that it might be harder to do this to support a family. These articles have inspired me to buy even more arrangements to support arrangers’ livelihoods. Thank you!

    • Greg Howlett says:

      Yes, in a publishing situation, an arranger is going to receive maybe $1.50 per book sold and a typical book will sell less than a few thousand copies. Even if an arranger could crank out a book a week, the market would never allow more than a few books a year to get published. That means that their income is sort of limited to maybe $10K/year on the upside.

  7. José says:

    I read this and I find it hard to believe when you say that there are way too many church piano music arrangements to choose from, when in fact, I struggle to find decent arrangements of Catholic hymns. I’m not a church pianist. I am only a Catholic Christian who is learning the piano and one of my interests is to be able to play the Catholic hymns that I hear at Church. The actual hymnals don’t work for me though: I feel like they were written for organ. There are very few books out there devoted to Catholic hymns for piano (as far as I know). Maybe it has to do with copyrights issue. I do not know.

    • Greg Howlett says:

      That is fascinating and makes no sense. I run primarily in the Protestant world and our hymns that are public domain are all covered hundreds of times each probably (even the horrible ones). Why this is not happening with Catholic hymns is beyond me, assuming that they are public domain. I will say that publishers and most arrangers mainly want to deal with public domain. In fact, if a publisher actually publishes non-PD songs as piano arrangements, the numbers just don’t work. The 10% commission that normally goes to the arranger ends up going to the copyright owner (or most of it anyway). I would assume that most Catholic hymns are PD but maybe I am wrong.

  8. Amy Russell says:

    I can’t agree more with the thought of extending your writing beyond the piano. We have bought our fair share of piano arrangement books, but as my daughters are becoming more proficient at flute and violin, I am finding there is a dearth of semi-challenging quality duets, trios, etc., for higher register instruments that bring out the best in both the piano and the instruments. I find that most of the “Flex” arrangements are not very interesting or challenging. I would LOVE to see more people who can hear those moving parts in their heads putting them on paper so that the rest of us can enjoy them! (And as a side note, I also wish more writers would invest in providing sample mp3s, since I’m much more likely to pay for something I can listen to first.)

  9. Kobe DeChurch says:

    Since the amount of piano players, and arrangers are thinning as the days go by, it could possibly be good business for me in the future. I’m 16 years old as of right now and have been playing all my life so far, and play at an advanced level, I have also arranged some music as well.

  10. Terese Andrews says:

    Thank you for your honesty and sincerity. Although I am almost 60 years old (and in my third year of piano lessons), I am inspired by all of the young children who are learning piano from my wonderful piano teacher… maybe there is a future Greg Howlett in the bunch? I hope so, your gift is a blessing to listen to (and one day I hope to be at a level where I can play some of it). God Bless you!

  11. Judy Porter says:

    This state of things is like losing spiritual tools when music is devalued. The changes in music set stages for future events. Wise ones seek music

  12. Barry Palmer says:

    Thank you so much for all the wonderful arrangements which have brought blessing to so many, looking forward to the next phase of your ministry for Him.

  13. Vickie Schwiening says:

    I agree with your assessment. Our church worship is a blended format, and it seems to work well for our congregation. We lost our organist two years ago, and there is no one to fill her position, however, we have now added stringed instruments. I often play your arrangements for offertories, accompanied by other instruments. I truly enjoy your arrangements and have members comment positively about them. Thank you for your beautiful work!

  14. myreasontosing says:

    Any instrument, played from the heart and expressly for the glory of God is appropriate and important in worship. My current opinion just that few actually go worship TO worship. We go for so many reasons other than to come into the presence of the living God. As a pianist for my church, I am prayerful. I pray that my music is HIS music. That people will become aware of HIS presence as I play. With our degrees and years of experience, accolades and salaries, we sometimes lose focus. To God be all glory.

  15. Christi Stills says:

    I just found this website yesterday, and….YES, YES, YES… I can relate to EVERYTHING in this blog post! I so wish we could miraculously bring piano hymn arrangemnents back. I totally want to be like you when I grow up! I’ll be 47 next month, and I will be traveling to a studio in North Carolina to do my very first recording of hymn arrangements on the keys! Even if it is a dying art, I am so beyond excited and thrilled! I’ve worked so hard. My arrangements (mostly written for communion) have been through much fine tuning. My collection is a result of many seasons and paths I’ve traveled. It is definitely His gift to me! The more I do this, the more I LOVE doing this! I don’t even know which direction to take after the recording, so I’m in the process of researching the next steps. I’m a full-time wife and mom and soon-to-be grandmother! < I'm gonna have to dye my hair gray to fit the part! Ha!
    Thank you for what you do! Your website is an excellent model! So easy to navigate! So helpful!

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