Church Music Composers and Publishers: Paying them only encourages them…

Have you ever wondered how the composers and publishers of music used in liturgy (hymns, Mass settings, etc) are paid for the time and effort involved in writing, producing and distributing their work?

So asks Elizabeth Harrington in her latest column. The answer in my case is “no”, because I have spent many hours filling out copyright licence records etc. But what I do wish is that we could only return to those “Once upon a time” days that Elizabeth describes when “parishes purchased sets of hymnbooks for the assembly to use”. Nowadays its something new every week, and unless it was composed and published since the 1960’s it doesn’t even get a look in for the parish.

Church music publishers and composers who make their living from flogging their wares onto the Christian community have a lot to answer for with regard to the destruction of a shared communal memory of sacred song.

Perhaps if we stopped paying them, they would stop doing it and go away?

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4 Responses to Church Music Composers and Publishers: Paying them only encourages them…

  1. Peregrinus says:

    Couple of Realities with Which we Have to Deal:

    1. Publishers can’t make money by reissuing classics, however good they may be. They’re out of copyright.

    2. Publishers will therefore issue a preponderance of new and recent material.

    3. Most of what is written in any age is pretty ephemeral. Only a small number of works have the qualities which make them endure. It was ever thus: this is not a reflection on current musical tastes or current theological trends.

    4. Consequently if we rely on music publishers to determine or influence what we sing in liturgy, what we sing will contain a high proportion of dross.

    The problem is one of economics. If liturgical music is largely paid for through royalties, we have set up a system which incentives new music, much of which is likely to be second-rate.

    Therefore we need to find a new way of paying for liturgical music. If we spent less money on buying the right to use new music, and more money paying for choir directors and music scholarships for singers and players, would that be a start?

  2. Schütz says:

    Ah yes, I think you have put your finger on the matter, Perry. That is exactly the problem. An oversupply of people composing and publishing (with the expected amount of dross) and an undersupply of people who can actually lead a congregation in using this music liturgically (my round about way of avoiding any suggestion that the role of organists and choirs it to “perform” this music).

    The great benefit of hymnbooks is that they tend to have been through something of an editing process and the vast amount of dross has generally already been edited out. There are some excellent hymnbooks about. Together in Song, though a Protestant production, is of a very high quality. Adoremus is excellent too.

    Aside from taking our church music seriously enough to pay our choirs and musicians, it would also be good if our ecclesiastical leaders took what was sung as seriously as they take what is said and done in the liturgy. A little more guidance in this area would not go astray. Alas, they underestimate the effect of what we sing upon our faith.

  3. Athanasius says:

    David and Peregrinus, if most of the ‘classics’ are out of copyright, what is to prevent some enterprising soul creating a website with scanned PDFs of old sheet music and lyrics as a resource for parishes? Has this already been done? If not, might this not be a role for an archdiocese somewhere?

  4. Schütz says:

    Good idea, Athanasius. Such a person would have to find a printed copy of the music that is more than 50 years old too, because otherwise the copyright would be on the type setting as well, but it is a good idea. And old copy of “Hymns Ancient and Modern” of the “St Pius X Hymnal” would do the trick.

    — Acutally, I have just made the most remarkable discovery. I will blog on it straight away!

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