Lessons from 25+ Years of Being a Music Publisher

Yet More Important Things...

I apologize. I made a promise to stop after the last post about things I've learned from working with pastors, because I thought it would get me in trouble. Actually quite the opposite happened. Combined with the response to list of things I've learned from being a choir director, and list of things I've learned from being a worship leader, there seems to be a real appreciation of these lists, so I've decided to continue to write about stuff I've learned. If you arrived here in the middle of this series of things and are not sure about my motives, I am trying to relate practical things here, not just rant, although the temptation to do the latter is powerful at times.

In the process, of course, I am revealing something of my history, experience, and, most of all, my opinions about things. I have been blessed to be involved in church music and worship leadership in a wide variety of settings and with a similar variety of roles. Please remember: This information is MY opinion. YOUR results may vary.

Much of this list is not original...but over a lot of years the things here have repeated themselves often enough to be important. They have stood the test of time, so to speak, and, if you are starting out in ministry, you might want to print this list and put it somewhere that you can find it in 25 years. This is not a "ranked" list. It is just a list.


It is the Best of Times, It is the Worst of Times

Part of the fun (and, sometimes, the drudgery) of being a music publisher is that you have the opportunity to exhibit your wares at various conferences and clinics. As you stand in the booth, it is amazing what you hear. As you may know, for years I have mentally collected categorical lists of "the world is divided into" topics (like cat people and dog people, for instance).

Standing in an exhibit space, I learned that the best way to help people was not to say "can I help you" but rather ask an entirely different question: "What's your situation?" That question started conversations, and people told me about what they did, which allowed me to help them if I could.

Overwhelmingly, the response, at bottom turned out to be (here comes the "divided into" part) "I need simpler music because we are losing ensemble members" or "I need to find something that will continue to challenge my group because it is growing." Sometimes I would get this response as the first thing out of their mouths, but often it would only be uncovered in the course of the conversation (more on that below). There are two practical things to be learned here.

First, no two programs and ministries are alike. Things change. People move, or die off, for instance. In some small churches, a job change for one family member can have a significant impact on the life of a ministry or an entire congregation.

If you as a leader are not able to deal with change, your program or ministry will suffer. If you do not prepare for as many eventualities as possible, your options will be limited when unexpected change happens. If you do not develop all your strengths and understand your weaknesses, your ability to adapt to change will be impacted. Your ministry, and your role therein will change. Trust me. Are you ready?

Second, one person's trash is another person's treasure. That piece of music that you find in your church's library that was being used 5 or 10 years ago is not intrinsically bad (well...actually some of them are, but that's not the point...). Somebody, at some point, decided that it was important, for some reason, to spend money on that piece of music. Before you throw it away, consider whether or not it might be relevant again.

You may completely disdain SAB voicings, or hate the idea of using synth strings. Great. But what if...? And, more importantly, from a stewardship standpoint, will you be there forever? If things change, and the leadership changes, and the finances change, and that piece is now relevant, but it is not there, and the church can't afford to purchase it, is ministry served?

Let's turn that around. Those 16 voice double choir settings of Italian renaissance motets or movements of a Mahler symphony that you love so much and you have the horses to do. What if...? Suppose your pastoral leadership changes, and your task is to provide "all rock 'n roll, all the time"...should you get rid of those materials? Would you appreciate the fact that somebody else had kept some tunes with rhythm charts?

Listen and Learn

This is a follow on from what I talked about above.

Everyone has an opinion about what you are doing...both from a "product produced" standpoint, and a "people/process" standpoint. By and large, the bell curve applies here:

20% of the people will love what you are doing

20% of the people will hate what you are doing

60% of the people won't care what you are doing

In your situation it might be 10/10/80, or 35/15/65...it doesn't matter. The point is that if you don't listen, you can't learn, and depending upon who you listen to, you may be getting the wrong information.

If you only listen to your fans, you might be tempted to think that you are more important than you really are. You might be tempted to think that what you are doing is "perfect" and there is no reason to change. You might be tempted to think that your program or ministry's success is "all about you." You might be tempted to think that people love you so much that they will support you if you have an issue with the pastor, or a layperson, or the community.

You would be wrong on most, if not all accounts.

If you only listen to your critics, you might be tempted to think that you are incompetent. You might be tempted to think that your work doesn't matter. You might be tempted to think that the things you know are irrelevant, and you need to change everything about you. You might be tempted to think that your program or ministry's lack of success is "all about you." You might be tempted to think that people dislike what you are doing so much that you should never raise an issue. You might think that you should leave. 

You would be wrong on most, if not all accounts.

If you feel that there is no feedback whatsoever, you might be tempted to think that whatever you do, it doesn't matter.

You would be wrong on most, if not all accounts.

The important thing here is to listen to what you hear in perspective. If you hear the same things repeatedly, evaluate the source of your input, good or bad. Find a neutral party and ask their opinions. Do some "market research." Treat this as an opportunity to learn how to better serve your community. The information may be presented in an emotionally charged way, but figure out if the medium is the message, or the message is the message. You may find an opportunity being presented to you. Your willingness to respond to the message may be something that changes everything in your ministry.

People are any Organization's Best Asset

I don't want to just tell stories here, but one of my experiences may be instructive, as it relates to the point above, and especially to this point.

One particular year, at every event I kept hearing people ask for real three part vocal settings...not SAB. The venues were different, but middle school choir directors kept telling me that SAB music wasn't suitable for them, because they were dealing with changing voices, and a "real" bass part often was not possible. I talked to a friend of mine who had an interest in early music, and we planned for and released a series of three part settings from renaissance composers.

The following year, I made sure to connect with the folks who had asked about this type of music the year before. The pieces became instant best sellers, and had an impact on how the whole industry began to see middle school aged choral voicings.  

You never know who might be important. Notice I didn't say what, although that is also true. I deliberately said "who," because, ultimately any leader deals with people. When I say important, I mean from the listening point of view, but also from the connection point of view.

Even if you are the "star" of your program, you can't do what you are doing alone. If you don't recognize and acknowledge the people who work "behind the scenes," at some point you will be doing what you are doing alone. At the same time, if you don't connect with the people who like what you are doing, you won't be doing whatever it is you are doing at all.

One aspect of this is that I've found "you are who you hang out with." I pointed out above that who you listen to can shape your reality, but who you spend time with will shape who you listen to. Take a good look at the members of your network, social (including social media) and otherwise. Are you truly serving your entire congregation/audience? Do you connect with a representative sample therof?

People tend to like, or at least be comfortable with, things that they know, and in the case of people, those who take the time to interact, get to know, and/or value them or the things they value. Consider your network interaction a form of continuing education. If you have a program or ministry that serves people, it just seems logical for you to connect with those people.

No Matter How Good Whatever You are Doing Is, Unless You Communicate What You Are Trying to Do, Nobody Will Know

Having a network (or fans) is great, but unless you communicate with those people, they will have to guess at why you are doing what you are doing. For many creatives, this lesson is dismissed as something that is beneath them. But marketing is a necessary task, whether you think it is evil or not.

And yes, timing is everything...and success breeds success. But timing is often the intersection of preparation and opportunity, and success only breeds success if people know about the initial success.

In my tenure as a music publisher, the process of marketing choral music changed significantly. When I started, the assumption was that most people who were interested in your publications could read music. This meant there were two primary ways of getting people to buy your stuff. On the one hand, if you sent a copy to every music store in the country, people would go to the music store, ask for recommendations or look through the browser bins, and, if necessary, take the music they were interested in into a room with a piano to play through it.

On the other hand, you worked with music stores and/or professional organizations to lead reading sessions. With a good (hopefully) accompanist and a reasonable space, you could assemble a critical mass of people to sing or play through the tunes, all the while talking about how they might be used advantageously.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the reading sessions. Somebody got the idea that making a professional (theoretically) recording and sending it through bulk mail along with a copy of the music would allow you to market to a much wider audience, and control the message. Everything changed, including the rise and fall of publishers who reacted to this new communication method with enthusiasm or disdain. The same thing is now happening through social media and YouTube.

Your program or ministry can choose to communicate your message, or hide your light under a bushel. That's the real decision. But, of course, it is how and what to communicate that is a significant problem, particularly if marketing is not something with which you are comfortable.

So let me tell you what I've learned, post-music publisher: the most important message to communicate is who you are. If you aren't authentic about who you are, people will find out, sooner or later. Remember the bell curve example above? Instead of trying to be all things to all people, be who you are, and serve those who find value in what you have to offer. You can potentially expand the reach of those who find value by listening and connecting, but your core values will resonate with others...I guarantee it. Unless you communicate, those folks won't find you...I guarantee that too.

Leverage Allows You to Do The Best You Can With What You Have to Work With

Yes, this relates in sequence to the topics above. Whether your attitude is positive or negative, whether you listen and learn, whether you connect with people, and/or whether you communicate your core values, you can't do everything yourself. Your resources, both of time, expertise, and finances, are always finite at some level. This is where leverage comes in.

Let me give you an example. Since the administration of President Herbert Hoover, the American Dream is most often expressed as the ability to own one's own home. This is a classic leverage situation. Few people have the resources to pay cash for the home of their dreams. The market recognizes this fact, and solves the problem by letting a prospective home owner occupy that home by paying a relatively small percentage of the home's value as a "down payment" and promising to pay the remainder over time. That down payment is leveraged into a much larger asset.

Now I know that sub prime mortgage failures and less than ethical down payers and mortgage issuers have mucked up the value of the leverage way too often, and the ratio of how much leverage is acceptable. That's not the point. In a "stable" market (if there is such a thing), the asset grows, and the amount leveraged is considered to be even more valuable.

Let's bring this analogy back to our topic. If your resources are finite, there is only so much you can do. But if your resources are leveraged in a positive way, your program or ministry gains in value. The question is, of course, how to leverage your resources in a positive way. There are at least two important possibilities.

First, you can gain positive leverage by not trying to do everything yourself. It is the old adage, repurposed: if you have to fish to provide fish for everyone involved, you're going to be doing nothing but fishing...but if you teach everyone to fish, you're going to have to figure out what to do with all those fish. 

Second (and this may seem counterintuitive), as my friend Hugh Ballou so often points out, when you delegate, find somebody who is good at those things that you don't do well. The alternative, which takes more time (one of your finite resources) is to learn how to do well those things that you don't do well...but see the paragraph immediately above.

If you hate marketing, for instance, or you've tried it and not been successful, then find a good communicator. Spend your time communicating your core values to your good communicator and then let that person do the thing that he or she is gifted at doing.

Now I can hear the  complaints already: I don't do marketing well, and I don't have a good communicator. Remember the heading of this lesson: do the best you can with what you have to work with.

As a leader, part of your mission should be to cultivate people's gifts. Part of your mission, if necessary, is to find people with better gifts. Part of your mission as a leader is giving your colleagues, associates, and co-workers the permission, and authority if possible and prudent, to delegate, cultivate, and/or find better gifted people as well. This is not something that happens overnight. Be patient, and be a leader.

Final Thoughts

ou might well be asking, "why are you not still a music publisher?" The answer is that I listened to the people I was connecting with, I communicated my core values, and the opportunity to publish a magazine (and develop this website) presented itself. Things changed. I found that it was a better place to leverage my gifts.

But before we leave music publishing, I believe strongly that the paradigm in place will significantly change. [ed. note: as this is being updated in 2021, I could not have imagined how true that statement was, particularly when COVID 19 struck] I've been listening to the people I am connected with, and I'm hearing about some exciting, game-changing things on the horizon. Are you ready? I'm looking forward to seeing what happens...


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