A Call for Better Music

The Church Deserves Better...

While sometimes I'm tempted to write one, this is not a rant about musical styles in the church, or worship music versus traditional music. So if you are looking for controversy, you may not find it here. But now that you are here, I do have some things to get off my chest, and here's my point...

The editorial bar in church music is set way too low.  Let me explain...

I've been reviewing new choral releases for the Select 20 anthem feature in Creator magazine. And I feel like a specific publisher has let me down...and no, I'm not going to name names. Why? Because I used to be a music publisher (I've written about that here), so I have some insight into what goes on in the editorial process of your favorite publisher(s). I know the conflicting publishing pressures of:

  • quality versus accessibility
  • manufacturing costs versus promotional dollars
  • copy machine copyright infringement versus the cost to enforce lawbreaking

and the biggie...

  • knowing that much of the choosing what to release is guesswork versus knowing that a string of bad guesses can significantly reduce your ability to survive as a business (While this was very true when I originally wrote this article in 2011, better metrics have made the choices easier, although not necessarily in favor of higher quality music)

I have my favorite publishers, too, as a working church musician, and while that list is always something of a moving target, as a media person I root for publishers when I see signs of consistently good choices/guesses...and I feel a sense of loss when I see the opposite.

Finding good music is just as, if not much more difficult these days than it was in the last half of the 20th century. In those (pre-demo recording) days, the trick was actually getting a chance to see and hear the music. Now the problem is more akin to picking through the effluent to find a prize.

 You needed to find a music store source you could trust, talk with your colleagues about repertoire on a regular basis, or attend conferences/reading sessions The music basically comes to you
 There were many more imprints/companies (and, by extension, editors) Editorial decisions about what a choir might want to sing on a Sunday morning are made by a surprisingly small number of people
 Printed music was (at least the cover prices were) less expensive, and the economy was (relatively speaking) better It is expensive to buy an anthem, even for a small choir, and money is (relatively speaking) tight

Along the way, the business model of a typical publisher has changed, and, in many cases, the publishers have been powerless to resist those changes we have lost many good publishers along the way. A significant core value of many surviving publishers has become their desire to sell to the mass market. And, in most cases, that means having a distributor who can push product out to the masses. And in order to be attractive to a distributor, you need to have, and continue to release, a large enough product stream in order to make a distributor think it is worth their effort.

Of course there are "alt.musicpublisher" options. Technology has made it possible for anyone to be a music publisher and have the ability to produce demo recordings for a small startup investment. Which means there are literally hundreds, if not thousands of these little self-publishers in the US alone. Finding their music, however, is like a trip back to the old days. "Garagiste" music publishers rely almost exclusively upon "word of mouth" marketing, and the landscape is littered with examples of people who discovered how to make a small fortune in the music publishing business...(they started with a big fortune...).

Let's get back to the topic, though. When you get a 2 (or 5) inch high, multiple CD package of music for review from a publisher, it is rare that the 80/20 rule does not apply: 8 (or more) out of 10 tunes go in the recycle bin. Why? In my opinion the primary reason is that the publisher needed to fill the pipeline. And like your favorite classroom or social worker's caseload, there is less attention to each individual when you have to manage a crowd. "Good enough" has become good enough

Look...maybe you can buy 30-50 anthems and two large works per year (as I was once able to do, back in the "good old days" of the 90s), but most churches can't. And when you have to wade through 20, or 30, or 50 pieces to find 2 or 5, I think there is something wrong here. And it falls on the shoulders of the editorial decision makers. So I want to issue a call for better music: send me 10 really good titles rather than 200 good enough titles so that I don't have to waste my time.

And yes I know that one person's trash is another person's treasure. But I can't believe that all these editors really have their fingers on the pulse of US church music when I get piece after piece of "choir" music that is 80% soloist, with a few choir "oohs" and "ahs" thrown in. Trust me...I can do that arrangement as a "head chart" on a Sunday morning. I don't need to buy it from a publisher. I also don't need to buy a paper copy of a chart with a publisher's name on it in order to have unison women sing the first verse, unison men sing the second verse, and everybody sing the chorus of a hymn found in any hymnal.

But in my capacity as publisher of Creator, my editorial team and I take our responsibility seriously. When we choose our Select 20 anthems, we know that our readers count on those anthems being worth the investment. They know those anthems are not just "one and done" consumables. We (and I believe they) look for something that is interesting, not elevator acoustical pablum. I (and the musicians at my church) can deal with putting in the effort to do something that touches people rather than something that takes up space in a release schedule...or a worship service. Creator's readers have told me that you can too. Here's a sampling...

Agreed. And in my situation, I work with a choir that is very traditional, and in most cases, what we have in our library is hard to beat with anything new. I just don’t have the time to go through the stacks of new music that is becoming more and more second rate stuff. ~ Jackson Hearn

This has been a problem for years. I just stopped getting all those music packets, and cancelled all the “preview” plans. Working a full-time job and having a part-time church, I just don’t have the time to waste; it just is not efficient to go through 300 anthems to find ONE that I can use. Luckily, I have a music library with about 1200 titles. I really only need two or three new anthems each season of the church year. So, I let other people choose. Usually, those who choose are clinicians. Now I try to attend a clinic or conference with a clinician I trust. (The annual Montreat Conference on Worship and Music has several reading sessions during the week; other conferences do, too.) Often there are reading clinics in my own city; if there’s a clinician I know, or a trusted publisher. In the final analysis, I’m depending on the classics more than ever before. That might even be a good thing. ~ Duane Toole

Where to start on this… Too much quantity from publishers? Totally agree. Honestly, I don’t know how anyone can keep up with all that the publishing side is producing. It’s preposterous. Editorial bar is set too low? Somewhat agree with this. I think there is a lack of originality out there, and we as publishers need to do better. However, we also have to run a business that requires some level of profitability, and those pieces are being chosen because we know that they sell in quantity. I see the numbers (and not just our own), and the generic, formulaic anthem sells many times over what the inspired, well-crafted choral will sell. Publishers make editorial choices to “fill the pipeline?” Mostly disagree with this. While there are some instances where a lesser piece will be let through because “it’s the only one we have,” that is by far the exception and not the rule. Publishers are making editorial decisions based on what they think is good, marketable music. Just because you don’t like a piece doesn’t mean you have to go to the extreme of saying that the only reason that piece saw the light of day is because the publisher had 4 empty slots this time around and this was the least offensive. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure? Absolutely agree!!! This can’t be said enough. Just because you love a piece doesn’t mean that it will work/be appreciated/admired/etc… by anyone else. And vice versa. Pieces that you don’t gravitate to find homes in other settings where choirs and congregations alike are uplifted and moved closer to God. The US church is a big, diverse market with lots of varying tastes and opinions. (And once you add international churches to the discussion, the diversity rises exponentially.) As publishers, we have to keep all those things in mind when we make our selections. I’m sure there’s a limit to the number of words I can write in this comment box, so I’ll finish off with this for all those who find Vern’s challenge accurate: If you want “better” music, then you need to demand it from the publishers. Call. Email. Strike up a conversation at a conference. Let your voice be heard directly. And, be specific about what you want – text, scripture reference, service pieces, whatever. If you have a hole in your ministry, then we want to try to fill it if we can. But here’s the rub: if a publisher responds and starts offering the music that you want to see published, then you have to support that publisher and those choices he/she is making. After you purchase the music, you need to be an evangelist for that company’s publications. Tell your friends and colleagues. Suggest those titles as repertoire for festivals and conferences. Tweet and Facebook your “discoveries.” Remember this: Nothing speaks louder to a publisher than sales. If I go out on a limb for you and the sales don’t add up, then I can’t go out there very often (or at all). And, I promise you this – if you do what I suggest, the other publishers will take note and start adding those kinds of publications into their release slates, too. ~ Stephen Bock

AMEN!!! I have AT LEAST 3 dozen boxes at home, and at least 4 dozen at church (some duplicates) waiting for me to go through them. Knowing what they contain doesn’t provide the motivation I need to invest the time to go through them. Then there is the matter of violated biblical standards of music in The Church, let alone the “bottom line” of many publishers- which does not seem to be “ministry.” I am reminded of something The Western Church seems to have forgotten: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’ ” (attributed to Abraham Kuyper). ” ~ Jim Lowery

Vern, I couldn’t agree more! There is more wasted energy in creating poorly conceived anthems and having them pored over by bored choir directors than needs be. Let’s fix this before it drives the sacred music publishing companies out of business all together! ~ Doug Lawrence

Amen! I also throw away 9 out of 10 of the samples of music I receive. It appears to me that many (most?) publishers these days are pandering to the “lowest common denominator” in choral music, namely feel-good sounds that have little musical or, perhaps more importantly, theological integrity. I want substance! ~ Linda Keener
Wow! Thanks, Vern. I am looking at my latest release from a vendor where I get a semi-annual packet of material. Out of the fifteen or so pieces in the packet, one third are solo based material. At least one third(not including the solo-based stuff) is praise team oriented with basses doubling the melody, so there are only two true harmony parts. The other third would pass as choral, but the rhythms in all of it are highly syncopated, rhtyhm section driven flavors. It’s not worthy of the time it would require for me to teach this to my choir of county seat townfolk who cut their teeth on hymn settings and much more traditionally flavored music. Looks like I’m going to cancel my subscripitons and find a good distributor reading session so that I can go and hear the best of what that distributor is selling to folks like me. ~ Mark Bowers

I whole-heartedly agree–except the 80/20 might be more 85/15 or less. The only question I have is this: Is my 80/20 your 80/20? Other than desiring well-written SATB, I don’t think I can describe to a publisher what I want. I just know it when I hear it. One additional note, which may or may not bear on the topic: Prior to about 5 years ago, I purchased a lot of music from a particular large, well-known publisher, and much less from a “not-so-large,” but still well-known publisher. During the past few years a new head of publishing was hired at the large publisher, and most of the personnel under him was “let go.” some of them are now at the “not-so-large” company, and as I look at my purchases over the past couple of years, I see that I am purchasing more and more from the smaller company. The large company is jsut not meeting our needs anymore. Which I guess is to say that as the “style” of the leadership goes, so goes the company. As I have discussed this with friends in music leadership, they have also seen the trend. Just saying... ~ Randall Reeves

Oh, one more thing – in case the publishers are really reading: 3. PLEASE don’t use recordings of beautiful choral pieces done by a few pop-sounding singers with poor diction. Our untrained singers in choir will follow that example every time, instead of making the effort to form tall vowels and crisp consonants. Use different singing styles for different composition styles. ~ Vicki Carr

Vern – Thank you for your thoughts. I could not agree more. Regardless of our denomination or church setting, we all have a responsibility to offer anthems in worship that have musical AND theological integrity. Unfortunately, too often many of the samples that are sent out offer neither. In my own setting, I’ve gotten to the point where I know that I can “trust about 5 or 6 different publishers on a consistent basis where I know that I’ll find somethng that is appropriate to our setting. I keep coming back to many of the “chestnuts” not because I’m not willing to explore and be stretched but simply because there are fewer and fewer new anthems being published by some publishers that are useful in my congegational setting. ~ Wallace Horton

I too agree with your assessment regarding finding the gems. For several years now I have served on the committee that selects anthems for the reading sessions at the NACM summer conference. Some years we have had to struggle to find 36 pieces to divide over the three sessions out of about 130 octavos sent by the publishers for consideration. Knowing that we serve a very diverse group of people, we strive to incorporate various styles, difficulty levels and voicings. Yet we get the full spectrum of responses. “Reading sessions were duds, I found nothing.” Or the reverse, “Reading sessions were very worthwhile, I found 10 pieces for my choir.” It’s sometimes hard to believe that we’re reading the same music. I can’t tell you the number of pieces that we’ve read through during the selection process that none of us feel makes any musical or theological sense, yet publishers continue to publish these pieces by relatively obscure names, as well as some well known composers. Sometimes we include a fabulous, well crafted piece, only to learn that it doesn’t sell. So Steve is right when he suggests that conductors must support the publisher when he responds to the call for quality music. Really, shouldn’t it come down to what music and text will serve worship well? Yes, I want publishers to make a good living so that they will continue to publish good choral music, but we frequently find ourselves looking at anthems that seem to be borne from the composer’s desire to pay their child’s dental bill rather then create some worship art that is lasting. ~ Peter Bates

I use to think it was cool when I got the “sampler packs” in the mail. I would get some choir members together and then spend time sight reading through them. Now the internet has taken over so i spend time at web sites and then I e-mail back a forth with choir members, before we can spend some time going over new pieces. Wait, I should explain my situation. I have been a organist/music director for over 30 years. The problem I have is I have a full time job 40+ hours a week, and I am a music director for two small churches’ that are just around the corner from each other. Why, you may ask. There is a lack of musicians that are willing to put in the time needed to teach, practice and find music to worship God(that is a whole another article). Not complaining, this is where God has move me to do. They problem I am finding, is music that can be used with small choirs that are mostly voluntary. The lack of steady people make my choirs change every week from SATB, to SAB, to first voice and second voice. The ages are from 14 to 74 some can read music most can only follow along. Now if I try a new anthem it can be hard to teach the new tune when it is heavy with syncopation, unfamiliar harmony and “funny” words. I just spent 3 weeks of searching for a new Christmas Program at the request of several choir members. I finally settled on one. The problem is I have this wonderful sound track with full orchestrations and voices with almost perfect pitch and rhythms. I have a piano, keyboard and electric organ, which yeah I could dub some tracks on the keyboard but with time very limited to me it makes it hard to get that involved. The choir and congregation would prefer (almost demand) live performance. So finding music that is easy enough yet challenging enough has been a nightmare for me (I hope I’m not alone with this). May be I’m not looking in the right venues but any choir music that I have been seeing sounds good on the mini samples. but when doing the actual performance the anthem just doesn’t sound the same. Spending hours searching music can be just discouraging. Many times I find a piece and have to do on the spot arranging or hand write out music arrangements which is time I’m lacking. Now I know I may be just a small market but I bet there is a lot of other church musician with limited time and resources that just have to ignore tons of music that is sent to them. Here I am spewing out and it is getting late. I gave up some practice time to write this. I will try to make up some time before choir rehearsal this week. Bottom line is if I could find “good” music that will enhance our worship to God, I would buy it. Face it that is how publishers survive it is how much can they sell. ~ Bob Posenjak

I read with interest your post and must admit that I agree with you completely. Last Friday, Bob Burroughs pointed me toward your article–thanks, Bob!–and I am glad he did. As one of those “publishers” at a lesser-known house, I hesitate to offer my perspective, but Stephen Bock’s comments have given me courage. From my standpoint, our struggles are twofold: 1) finding quality music to publish (submissions) and 2) finding a platform for promoting our titles. We search diligently for quality submissions. By “quality” I mean theologically accurate texts that speak, coupled with artistically satisfying music that is still (to some degree) accessible to a non-professional choir. I identify with Bob Posenjak’s comments about his fluctuating choir size and would hope that some of what we offer would fit his needs, but it is a challenge. A difficult tension exists in publishing “artistic” music that is still accessible. Submissions that meet both of those criteria are hard to come by, especially on the more accessible side. The second struggle is finding a platform. I applaud the “Select 20 Anthems” link on your site. I appreciate the fact that you seem to scour all of the publishing houses to find what you think are the best of the best. It seems to me that distributors tend to highlight the “Best of the Well-Known” publishers. While I understand the economics of that decision, it makes it very difficult for smaller houses’ offerings to receive much exposure. Could distributors share part of the blame in how low the bar is in church music? Maybe that’s Part II of this article–just joking. In all seriousness, I agree with your and Stephen Bock’s challenge: let us know what is needed. I would love to get phone calls, emails, facebook messages, etc. from those of you on the front lines of the church choral market telling us what your needs are. Our desire is to fill that void and make your music ministry thrive. ~ Richard Nichols

I want to reiterate a lesser point you make in the comment thread Vern. I feel like the majority of pieces I get in sample packets are from a total list of composers no larger than 15-20. And this is from multiple publishers. Several of these composers are great and I have done pieces by them that are top notch but, like you say, if there churning out endless numbers of anthems for multiple publishers, there’s no way all of these are going to be high quality pieces. I feel like there must be so many other composers whose works are not being heard. ~ Ben Stapleton

I’ll pipe in from the composer side of things. I have had the honor and privilege of seeing many of my compositions end up in the libraries of Christian publishers, most known by all. It’s a great feeling. Of course – for every song that was published, I have written at least 5 – 10 other songs that, in my opinion, were just as “good” but, for a variety of reasons, were passed over. So, for me – as a composer – the question really becomes, “define good.” It’s far more difficult that some might imaging. “Good” can mean “marketable” or “pleasing” or “hooky” or “melodically challenging” or “intense” or a slew of other definitions that, bottom line, come down to the particular publisher and what he/she might have eaten for lunch that day. Music composition is an art form and, because of that, it is 100% biased. There is no actual standard for “good” – other than the obvious “is this even a song” measuring rod. My personal opinion is that far too many Christian publishers tend to overlook a very important aspect of “church” music – that being, is the song worshipful? Does the song actually inspire a congregation or choir or praise team to WORSHIP their Lord? Lots of people write “good music” – but is that enough? Frankly, I get a little weary of the “write better music” battle cry because if we’re not careful we can miss the whole reason God created music in the first place – for HIS glorification – not ours. ~ Dan McGowan

Thanks, Vern. I couldn’t agree more. My published choral writing career is basically over. I’m blessed to have had hundreds of pieces published over the years. Some were my creations and some were arrangements at the request of a particular publisher. The sad part for me is that it’s all so disposable. After a good, sometimes even great run with good sales, certain pieces get discarded and put out of print. I haven’t had a working relationship with any publisher in many years. I have submitted piece after piece to only receive a generic form letter of rejection (and with no reasons or constructive incite[sic]). None of them are interested. Having been both music editor as well as choral composer within the last 30 years, I know how the system works. As a publisher, there are deadline to meet and slots to fill. I think many publishers get stuck on a conveyor belt and just take the easy way out and not spend the time to labor over what is released. You can keep calling, but I don’t think they will hear you. ~ Bruce Greer

Thank you for this article. Wow, I have been on both sides of the fence, and my father before me, and my grandmother before him. As a church music director, worship leader, and composer, i still remember head-in-hands moments as I listened to the recent choral sampler, thinking these publishers don’t know anything about my choir or church. So I took to writing more choral music and implemented my pieces in service with resounding positive response. But having been in the Nashville music scene taught me that you can either spend your energy trying to convince a publisher, or you can reach out to the individual choirs and directors one by one. So this has been my track, trying to find a way to get my pieces before the ears who want what I have to offer. Big question, now: HOW? WHERE? (Oh, sorry, that’s 2 questions). Social media has given the impression that this is simple. Post a link, get millions of hits and hundreds of sales. And I know I am not alone in this quest after reading the posts on this article. If anyone is still reading this post, I would gladly converse on how to get one’s music to the right place. I am opening a new web store with ways to audition and purchase my audio and sheet music in a simple format. (Not as easy as it sounds). Part predominant recordings and other rehearsal aids will be available. It will be up to me to get this site into the browsers of directors and choristers who love communicating through song. So instead of competing with the conglomerate mainstream publishers who A. Decide if they want to publish my piece and B. Decide which composer to promote – I can write and post whatever inspires. but knowing the choral world doesn’t really help in building relationships with choral directors all over the world. The sheer volume of individual works is staggaring. Think of the CD store where all one has to catch the eye of the buyer is that tiny spine. Unless one is known and sought, forget it! Where does this leave compoosers who have work that nobody knows about? How do we overcome the seemingly closed circle of the choral world? Can independent composers afford to attend all the festivals and workshop reading sessions in order to get a few octavos sold? It has been said the new market model is relational. Making individual connections between choirs and composers seems like an honest way to go. After all, IF an independent composer can make friends with and get to know a few programs directors, then needs can be shared and met. My heart goes out to directors who get that sinking feeling when the (Insert big publisher’s name) packet comes in the mail. And my heart goes out to composers who just KNOW their work can inspire, but the wall is pretty high. What directors and composers both want is to communicate, bless, and encourage their audience. My prayer is that those connections are made in your life and that you find what you need to complete your calling. Thank you for a great article! I am inspired and encouraged to keep on keeping on! ~ Stephen Bigger

So, publishers, don't send me more music, send me better music. Then everybody wins.

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