In Random Neural Firings, Thoughts on Writing

Typical sales for a church choral anthem in 1997: 50,000-75,000 copies.*

Typical sales for a church choral anthem in 2017: 5,000-7,500 copies.*

(* Numbers based entirely on personal experience and anecdotal conversations with fellow professionals, none of whom will admit to any of this under oath.)

In the not-so-distant past, our 100+ year old system of royalties paid on the sales of printed music could actually support a church composer. You weren’t likely to become rich, but you could make a living writing music. I know this to be a fact because I did exactly that for nearly twenty years.

Not so much any more.

As you can see from the totally non-scientific numbers above, the sales of church choral music have plummeted by as much as 90% in the past couple of decades. (The reasons for this are myriad, and I won’t go into them here.) I don’t know about you, but a 90% cut in pay was a hard thing to absorb at my house. I’m fortunate to have a large back catalog that still sells, plus some producer royalties from old artist records. Plus, I work on independent projects (including my own).  So, I’ve survived.  But off the top of my head, I can name a half-dozen award-winning Christian songwriters and arrangers who have gone on to other creative ventures because they could no longer support themselves writing for the CCM/church music world. Frankly, that doesn’t bode well for the future of sacred music.

So, what can be done? Assuming one believes there is still a need for well-crafted sacred music for choirs, orchestras, soloists, and even musical theater programs: How can the most talented creators of such music be convinced to stick with it when the old system has failed them?

Enter the Patron.

Prior to the early 1900s, most composers of every stripe survived with the support of a patron. Patronage sometimes came in the form of a steady composing gig for the king, or as high-paying commissions from the wealthy.  It was only with the technological advances of the 20th century (affordable sheet music, the radio, the phonograph, television, movies) that a popular songwriter/composer could conceivably make a living from the sales of his music. It may look a little different this time around, but I believe we are returning to such a time (if we are not already there).

Why do I think this?

1) For the last ten years, the bulk of my income was no longer from royalties, but from three churches: First Baptist Church Dallas, Brightmoor Christian Church (Novi, MI) and Christian Life Assembly (Camp Hill, PA).  They hired me to write shows, film scores, choral arrangements, and broadcast radio/TV themes.  Only two days ago, I completed a month-long commission for Youth CUE (San Antonio, TX) to be premiered this fall with the San Antonio Symphony.  In effect, these churches and organizations have been my patrons. Yes, they hired me to do contract work, but what is commission if not a sort of patronage? They like what I write and paid me to write specifically for them.

2) Similarly, for some time now large churches have been hiring arrangers on staff to write for the church’s specific need. This, too, is a sort of patronage. More significant are those churches that bring in a Resident Composer, not so much to write only for the needs of that church, but to write what God leads her to write.

3) More common today is the individual patron who offers support to an artist to complete a specific project, whether it be a recording or a cantata. In these crowdfunding scenarios every donor to the campaign is a patron. If you believe in a Christian composer’s work, this can be a terrific way to support the composer.

I also believe there is a need for individuals whom God has blessed with wealth and a love for the arts to step forward and financially enable composers to write quality music for the church – without concern about sales on the mass market or a return on investment.  Such patrons have long supported classical music and the fine arts. I think perhaps their time has come in church music, as well.

I’ve touched on some of these ideas in previous blogs. But from things I’ve read recently, along with almost-daily conversations I have with talented, dedicated Believers, I thought it was time to raise the subject once again. If you are a composer/arranger struggling to survive while writing for the Church, you have my prayers and concerns and very best wishes. Maybe you can share this blog with someone in the position to become your patron.

And if you are a lover of good church music with the means to do so, perhaps it’s time to support that music in whatever way you can.

I hope this will generate a reasoned conversation. Leave your comments and I promise to respond as best I can!

Showing 20 comments
  • Don Whitt

    That’s very interesting thought. I’ve led worship in a “blended fashion for 20 years. Up to recently…I’m looking to have to go to another source of income. Most of the churches are leaving the choir all together to just go contemporary. Secondly, many churches that 20 years supported full time staff of 3-4 pastors are going to a pastor full time only. So, the worship pastor is a 18-20 year old wearing flip flops and blue jeans playing the 4 chord progression over and over again with a back up track.(nothing seems to be live anymore). Yet, I may go to be a band director at middle aged…when I was trained to lead worship. I have wrote music for my own church ensembles. Yet, never considered selling it. Until recently, because of financial need. Thanks for your blog. It spoke to me. Jeremiah 29:11

    • rsterling

      Don – thx for commenting. There is no doubt that the P&W movement has had a negative impact on church choral music, particularly in how it has deconstructed music ministries in so many churches. I wish you the best in your writing and in whatever direction you are led.

  • Marty Hamby

    Um, I really have nothing to add except Amen! Twenty years ago, I earned a decent living as an evangelical arranger. Now, it’s pretty much down to vacation money. One thing you didn’t mention is that orchestrator fees are exactly the same today as they were twenty years ago, but with far less buying power in the marketplace. I am incredibly thankful to now have an income as a local church minister of music. I spend many evenings and weekends writing for publication. There’s not really a strong financial incentive to work 60plus hours a week. I do it because God has given me that ability and I want to use it for His glory. I’m also attempting to recover from massive financial setbacks, incurred from a decade of trying to hang on to the failing system you accurately described. It’s unlikely I will live long enough to actually accomplish that. Maranatha!

    • rsterling

      Marty – Thx for your candid response. As Dan Forrest pointed out in another comment, those of working in the evangelical area were hardest hit, largely due I think to the emergence of P&W music. But everybody has been effected. And I don’t want this blog to come off as whining. Things are what they are – and we may never see a return to the glory days of the past. What I hope we as creators can begin to accept is that the old days are gone, but what we do still has merit and worth. At the same time, I hope those people who love quality church choral/orchestra music will begin to see that they need to step up and support the art form if they wish to see it survive.

      Regarding orchestration fees: You probably shouldn’t get me started. I realize the fees we are paid for orchestrating are based on market forces – but they have always been low relative to the value of orchestrating in the “real world.” As someone who both arranges and orchestrates, I know well the effort required to do both jobs. And I know the positive impact a solid orchestration has in presenting a new anthem to the public. Things have been out of alignment in that area for decades.

  • David Arivett

    Robert, how much a factor does the ‘dumbing down’ and devaluation of music in our culture contribute to the demise of choral music sales? And does that play a role in there being a huge reduction in the number of choirs in churches these days. Or are congregants just too busy to participate in choirs anymore? Perhaps singing 4 part SATB is now viewed as being too difficult and too troublesome to take the time to rehearse such complicated music? Oops-I should’ve posted this on your blog page! Seems to me that we’re going to have to somehow add value and appreciation for great music and that in today’s culture is definitely an uphill battle. WANTED: Wealthy Donors who love music!

    • rsterling

      David – I don’t think it’s an either/or. It’s both. “Dumbing down” has the inevitable effect of devaluation, no doubt. And the personal commitment required to maintain a quality choir is a genuine hurdle in this day and age, where there are so many other things vying for our time. Passion is always required in music, if it is to succeed. And I’ve always admired those leaders with the passion to keep people interested to make the needed effort to be in a quality choir (or band, or orchestra). BTW – I was literally checking out your latest Big Band stuff yesterday while working on this blog. Really liked the new Bossa tenor feature you just put on FB.

    • David Arivett

      Thanks for your response Robert! And I agree thst there are many factors that contribute to the de-valuation of music and the arts. Recently I have been reading a new biography about J.S. Bach and what was very striking to me was just how much technology has changed from those days! The only time the average person was able to even hear music was when they went to church on Sunday (or perhaps a tavern) where ‘live’ music was being performed. Imagine, no radio, no tv, no internet, no recordings whatsoever!! So when people were privileged enough to hear music it would’ve been much more dramatic an event. And I think that the old saying, “familiarity breeds contempt” applies here as it pertains to the absolute glut of music now available at our fingertips. But does that easy access make us appreciate it more? I think not! Our society now takes the gift of music for granted and if you can listen to it for free why pay for it? So I think that technology has played a staggering role in overexposing music to the point that the average listener (and even many musicians) now have a very hard time just listening attentively and without distractions to music. Unfortunately, without focused listening a listener cannot receive the benefits and overall effect that music can have on a listener. Music is now treated more as background noise, more of a visual presentation that is choreographed, with a celebrity being the focus and upstaging the music itself. Of course I realize that our society has changed,but where it has enabled us to regress and contributes to a lack of appreciation for one of the great gifts that God has given us I must attempt to point out just how much we have lost as human beings.

      It’s not all doom and gloom however! I appreciate your kind witds concerning my music and I thank you for listening! I too have enjoyed many of your choral compositions and have performed them with choirs when I used to be a full time Music director! Sorry for the lengthy post…

    • rsterling

      D – No need to apologize for the lengthy response. You are spot on about the ubiquity of music. In that regard, popular music is a victim of its own success. (This is probably a whole other blog topic!) Leonard Bernstein said, “Music is what happens between the rests.” If there are no rests, there is no music. And if music is everywhere, then it’s nowhere.

  • Dan Forrest

    Quick thoughts:
    1. Glad to see other revenue streams opening up for composers!
    2. Average sales have definitely tapered, but (FWIW) I would put the 1997 number much lower- Beckenhorst was near/at the top of the pack and it was averaging around 20K at that time. (I started publishing four years after this). It was only “pretty big hits” that were in the 50-75 range.
    3. Seems like the “evangelical” church choral market has tapered more than the “mainline” church choral market. In other words a typical UMC church is more likely to still have a choral program than an average evangelical Baptist church. And the more “artsy” side of church choral music (where there’s more overlap with concert choral type repertoire) may have better support still.
    4. Returning to the original/bigger point: Publishers need to continue to look for ways to open new revenue streams for composers, and to improve existing ones. The model that made sense in 1997 (or 1977) may need re-thinking.

    • rsterling

      Dan – Thx so much for your response. I’m sure you are right about the mainstream numbers. My numbers were from those years I was writing exclusively for Word, which was experiencing really big sales at the time. And so, it had farther to fall when the decline began. (Another factor effecting sales is the pie is shrinking but we continue to put out the same amount of product, more or less, every year.) As for #3 – you are really on target. That is one of the main reasons I shifted my focus away from the contemporary/pop choral world back to the traditional choral world back in 2007. Re #4: Amen, and amen again. I am seeing dome streaming income on my statements now. And I would love to see the CMPA get more aggressive about potential revenues from Internet sources. Again- thx for commenting. The folks that read my blog need to hear from guys like you.

  • Joan Cummings

    Joan Cummings, I am speaking from the perspective of a choir member for 37 years. I have spoken to you Rob on FB about the demise of the great anthems taken from the Bible vs. the 7/11 P&W now being sung, even in the Traditional worship service. We were privileged to have you and Cindy and your Mom, Sara in our church and you wrote several anthems for us. We have actual sung the anthem for the new church a few times as recent as a year ago. By and large the great music is shelved and we are getting smaller and smaller as a choir. I sing in GerKd Ware’s Gildenbaures Choir now as he still leads us in wonderful music.

    I also understand the impact on not only composers of church music but also on music minister. As the choirs disappear so goes the need for a music minister. Keep on re-inventing yourself as you are too gifted to not be used of God??

    • rsterling

      Joan – Thanks for the kind and supportive comments. I have no intentions to quit. And every musician I know over the age of 40 (Which is most of the musicians I know :)) is re-inventing themselves to one degree or another. The predominance of P&W choruses (for good or for ill) is part of the reason for the current struggle of church composers who would choose to write more serious music. Technology also plays a part. this is because what I am directly addressing in this particular blog is the prickly subject of money. Serious church music (a pretty broad descriptor, I grant you) is more akin to Classical music these days, when it comes to needing support beyond what the marketplace will provide. There is a long tradition of patrons for the Fine Arts – because society seems to understand we all benefit from Fine Arts. Similarly, I believe the Church (universal) benefits from the more serious or thoughtful arts, even though those arts can rarely support themselves from the marketplace. So I think that Believers who value serious music in the Church are going to need to step up and support those creative efforts, regardless of whether the end result is financially profitable. (Sorry for the long-winded response!)

  • Greg Gathright

    Look at the church staffing sites for worship leaders/directors/etc. The main qualifications seem to be stage presence and the ability to play an instrument, preferably guitar. Very few seek strictly traditional leaders, although I think the pendulum is creaking back a little bit. We have had some membership transfers lately from the contemporary worshipping communities.
    I struggle mightily to provide worship opportunities for both sides at our church. For example, God Bless Us, Every One was staged in our contemporary space with about half the cast from that community. Our contemporary arts director has worked hard to ensure performing groups from the traditional service lead in worship there as well.
    One thing to remember – today’s contemporary music is tomorrow’s traditional. I am blessed to have a number of younger singers in the chancel choir who seem to respond to a variety of choral music, including classics. Additionally, we are reviving the youth choir this fall, building on a successful and growing children’s choir program. So, don’t give up hope!

    • rsterling

      Hi Greg – thanks for responding. Some great observations: particularly regarding how today’s “contemporary” is tomorrow’s “traditional.” And that has an effect on the market. (How I hate to use that word in this case.) I suspect that your own personal passion for choral music is a large part of the reason you still have a vibrant program. (I know that one person’s passion isn’t enough – but it is a requirement, I think.)

      BTW – “God Bless us Every One” is a good example of what I was referring to in the blog: It was a commissioned work from a single church (Brightmoor Christian Church, Novi, MI). They will never likely earn back the enormous sum of money they spent to have it created for them – and they knew that up front. It was a passion and an outreach mission for them. That church is a “patron” of mine, and now other churches are benefitting from their commitment. In order to continue to create that sort of work will likely require more churches (and individuals) to make similar commitments.

      I’m not giving up. But I am seeing a change in how quality music will be funded in the coming years. Hope you are well and staying cool in Houston!

  • Chris Owenby

    I agree with a lot of these comments. Most striking and true to me is the comment by Robert and David, “if music is everywhere, then it’s nowhere.” I believe we’ve entered a time where composers must find ways to build communities around their music. Create their own patrons, if you will. For example, if someone composes string music for high school orchestras, then he or she must find ways to serve high school orchestra directors through more than just music, but other content such as educational articles, pedagogical exercises, etc. Even more important is the community aspect and creating a platform for these orchestra directors to interact with one another and the composer. Exciting and very difficult at the same time!

    • rsterling

      Chris – Thanks for your input. Some good thoughts.

  • David Gaines


    Once again, thank you for your candid and expansive synopsis of this subject. You are a very gracious and conscientious man and I have thoroughly benefited and learned much from you in the few short years of knowing you.

    While I have never operated in the arenas you operate, and have operated in, I have spent most of the past 30+ of my life/career doing “works for hire” as either a staff arranger at a church, or as you put it, “works for a patron”. Most of that time, I was also in a full-time church position, or teaching. While I have had a modicum of success arranging for print publication, I continue to do self-publishing, albeit on a very small scale, and continue to seek new outlets for creating art.

    I guess I’ve never really thought of much of the past and recent work I’ve done as being a part of the “patron paradigm” you highlight in your blog. I will certainly share your post with as many as my social networking sphere allows in hopes there will be those who will “answer the call” in supporting a new movement that will hopefully bring back music in the church arena that has depth, solid theology, sound musical components and will reach new generations for Christ! After all, that should be our main focus. If the music we create is simply art for the sake of art, why produce music at all.

    Martin Luther perhaps said it best as part of treatise on the subject of music.

    “The riches of music are so excellent and so precious that words fail me whenever I attempt to discuss and describe them…. In summa, next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits…”

    Thank you for making me think and yet again, challenging me to work and think beyond myself!

    • rsterling

      David – Appreciate the kind words and your insights. I’m increasingly convinced that if serious church music (hard to draw line defining that, I know) is to survive and thrive, Believers need to look at it the same way society has regarded Fine Art for a long time: It is something that betters us all and needs to be supported – even though it doesn’t make much money in the traditional music business system.

  • Brad

    Thanks for your insight on this and your years of faithful dedication to your work. I love the idea of patrons! I stumbled into co-writing original works for church musicals with two other writers three years ago. We have heard of the print royalties of the 90’s, but the reality is, we haven’t earned anything from all of the work. There are so many original works being created that publishers have to limit what they offer in order to promote works from their professional stable of writers. Another reality is if we pursued and landed a publishing deal, the sales of other works offered would drop even further, wiping out the writers who depend on that income. We just finished our third Christmas project that is being sent off for arranging and orchestrating. Seeing how God uses the music is rewarding enough…and we know there will be a great reward in heaven…but this idea of churches commissioning works or finding supporting patrons through crowdfunding …What a blessing that would be! We spend about 4 months for each project of 10-12 songs and about $1500 in expenses during the process for travel and meetings plus we do our own demos. Do you have any suggestions for how to value this kind of work for a team of three? It’s really not about money until it’s time to book the flight and take the time away from other work:) Literally. It’s really not about money…but it inevitably always is. Dilemma of the unsigned writers…serving Jesus is more important than eating 🙂

    • rsterling

      Brad – Thanks for the comment and the questions. I’ll respond to you directly via email when I get a moment – but the short response is: It is totally up to every writer as to whether and how they are financially compensated for their work. I have tackled writing assignments for my own church on a pro bono basis – as a gift given freely. And I did my fair share of spec work in the early part of my career – for the love of it and for the experience. But my general principle is a writer worthy of tackling a professional job should be paid for his/her work. How much? That depends on the writer, the job, the client, etc.

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