Five Ideas for Church Music Publishers

This is an exciting – and scary – time to be in publishing.

Mainstream booksellers and record labels have been feeling the crunch for some time, and even they have been slow to adapt to the reality of a world where a vast amount of alternative content is available freely and instantly. Publishers of sacred music, and choral music generally, have not yet experienced the full brunt of these global trends, but they will. That’s the scary part.

The exciting part is that the thing causing these changes – the technology and culture of the internet age – also offers unique opportunities and possibilities for reaching an audience.

Here at the Cafe, and in the relatively small world of “CMAA and friends,” we’ve seen a number of small (and not so small) publishers push the boundaries of traditional music publishing, to great success. Broadening our view to look at other publishers, we can find even more examples of innovative changes to the publishing paradigm.

For the benefit of our readers in the publishing industry, and for those of you (usually composers) who are thinking about self-publishing or joining a smaller publishing co-op, here are a handful of ideas for how to succeed in sacred music publishing.

1. Video

With almost 600 videos on YouTube and over 800 videos on Vimeo, Corpus Christi Watershed has been a real leader in this regard, posting sample videos of music, practice recordings, and behind-the-scenes coverage of the publishing process. I know some of us first discovered CCW through one of their online videos (I did).

It is not remarkably difficult to take example recordings (which many publishers are already making) and turn them into YouTube videos, and it really surprises me that more publishers (especially the established ones) aren’t doing this.

It completely transforms the relationship and the experience of buying music- musicians discover a video, have a chance to enjoy it on their own terms, and then come to the publisher to buy it. This is much more pleasant than sifting through endless stacks (or PDFs) of octavos and trying to guess whether a piece of music will be any good.

2. Instant download

One of the major concerns of music publishers is illegal copying. Regardless of your opinions about the nature of copyright (and I certainly have some), there is no doubt that for a publisher to make money, people need to pay for music one way or another.

Because of the ease of printing multiple copies of a PDF, many publishers have been wary of making their music available in a downloadable format- preferring to require choirs to purchase multiple printed copies for their singers.

But the logic here is pretty silly, because scanners and photocopiers are basically ubiquitous.

I’m of the opinion that more illegal photocopies are made to save time than ever have been made to save money. That is- I am convinced that paying a few extra dollars to obtain legal copies is NOTHING compared to the need to wait around for printed copies to arrive by mail.

Most musicians understand that paying for music supports other musicians. Giving them the ability to pay for a download (at a premium which covers the royalties for multiple copies) would give consumers of sheet music the ability to easily “do the right thing” without the hassle and inconvenience of waiting for shipping.

Also, since the marginal cost of a downloaded score is zero, the full purchase price goes back into composer royalties and publisher profits.

I should mention that OCP has been a leader in this regard among the mainstream music publishers, and has made most of their music available in this manner.

3. Creative Pricing

Related to “getting people to pay for things,” one of the more creative ideas I have encountered comes from Chris Mueller, the incredibly talented composer of the Missa pro editione tertia.

Rather than charging a few dollars and cents on individual scores and hoping no one photocopies them, he charges a single license fee to a parish who wants to use one of his compositions ($75 for tertia, $45 for other Mass settings, $10 for smaller individual works) and allows the purchaser to make as many copies as are needed.

Other pricing ideas I have run across include pay-what-you-can (essentially a donation-based system) and subscription/membership models, which require a bit more effort to maintain but have the benefit of guaranteeing steady income.

The idea here isn’t creativity for its own sake, or giving up on traditional copy-based pricing for no reason, but rather figuring out the most efficient, effective, and profitable way of getting music into the hands of people who want it.

4. Back catalog

Traditionally, one of the limitations to the number of individual pieces of music a publisher could offer was the cost of creating and storing physical copies of scores. It made no sense to publish and print a piece of music that may only be purchased one time- a large volume of purchases would be needed just to break even.

With the advent of print-on-demand publishing (which often includes drop-shipping capacity) and downloadable content, there is no reason for a publisher’s catalog to be limited in size.

Dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of scores which only get purchased rarely adds up to a large volume of total purchases. This is an idea called “The Long Tail,” and is a concept particularly responsible for the financial success of companies like Amazon, Google, and Netflix.

Established publishers tend to have huge libraries of out-of-print scores, languishing in filing cabinets or old floppy drives. Given the trend towards traditionalism in current church music, a lot of this music would be quite welcome to a small, but growing, audience.

5. Open Source

This might be the most radical of the ideas presented here, and it’s true that, to date, no publisher of sacred music has launched a serious Open Source initiative. Corpus Christi Watershed’s Chabanel Psalms project may be the closest thing I have seen, and it has been wildly successful. I’m of the opinion that going further would yeild even greater results.

(Obviously, CPDL and IMSLP – among others, have proven the viability of Open Source music as an end unto itself. But the point of this article is to discuss ideas for increasing the effectiveness of commercial publishing models.)

Now, my strong support of Open Source technology and techniques does not mean that I think publishers should abandon closed-source or proprietary music publishing. I think the world is big enough to support many different approaches to music production. But I do think that support for some strategically selected Open Source projects can benefit the music community and the sponsoring publisher.

Commercial producers of software discovered this, after initially fighting and bad-mouthing the Open Source software movement. Today, while there are still partisans of Free and Open software who balk at the motives of for-profit software companies, the Open Source and proprietary software worlds coexist quite peacefully, supporting each other. A number of major Open Source software projects are funded and sponsored by companies that produce and sell closed-source software, and a number of highly successful businesses have been spawned from the work done on Open Source projects.

For publishers of sacred music, I can imagine a number of potential Open Source projects which could be launched, coordinated, or sponsored by commercial publishers. The benefits, besides simply making the world a better place, would include excellent PR (more valuable than anything you could purchase), the development of ongoing relationships with leaders throughout the music community, and the opportunity to be a leader that sets standards and expectations for music publishing.

What innovative approaches to publishing have you seen? Do you think smaller publishers are better able to be innovative because of their agility, or larger publishers because of their resources? What do you think stops publishers from pursuing innovative changes to their business model?

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