Are Christian music publishers providing a service or exploiting the faithful? Tony Cummings tries to find out.

Graham Kendrick
Graham Kendrick

There is absolutely no area of the music business more misunderstood, criticised and ridiculed than music publishing. To the general public what a music publisher actually does, save the obvious activity implied by the name (publishing sheet music or songbooks) is unclear. According to many recording artists and songwriters, what music publishers do is work within an obscure area of law, the Copyright Act, syphoning off large amounts of royalties which should by rights, so these critics claim, go to others. If the folk-image of the average music publisher is a grey-faced grey-suit with a sheaf of dodgy contracts, the folk-image of the Christian music publisher is, if possible, worse. 'Should copyright law apply to worship songs?' has long been one of the burning issues within evangelicalism and has produced its own music-publisher caricature: the greedy entrepreneur exploiting a congregation's God-given right to worship God in a modern-day version of the moneychangers in the Temple. To get to a balanced perspective of the role of music publishers the obvious place to start is to explain, in broad terms at least, the functions actually carried out by music publishers - both Christian and non-Christian.

Music publishers earned their name back in the late 19th century, when sheet music sales were astronomical and companies would vie with each other to be the first to publish the popular songs of the day. With the coming of the gramophone, sheet music sales began to drop and records became the major vehicle by which the public purchased music. As gramophone records replaced sheet music as the major carrier of music so the role of the music publisher began to alter. They became less concerned with physically publishing songs and more concerned with owning the rights (the copyright) of songs and making money from them through receiving a , proportion of the selling price of every recording of a particular song.

The way it worked is that the law, through various Copyright Acts, laid down a set royalty to cover the compositions contained on each and every record. This royalty was a 'statutory royalty' (meaning it was set out in legal statutes) and for decades it remained at 6 1/4 per cent of the selling price of a record before tax. Under the new Copyright Act, it has now risen to just over 8 per cent. This royalty covered all the pieces of music on a recording and was nothing to do with the recorded performance of those pieces of music (covered by the artists' royalty).

Now, in a perfect world if, say, Amy Grant wanted to record one of my songs she would write to me at my home in Walsall, I would give her permission, and when the record came out the Cummings family would be mightily blessed as fat royalty cheques arrived from A&M/Word Records. But it doesn't take a genius to see the flaw in that scenario. How would Amy Grant ever get to hear my song to want to record it in the first place? Because the people who write songs (in publishing phraseology the person who writes the music is called the composer and the person who writes the lyrics, the author) are often not (or not only) the people who actually record them, music publishers have for decades acted as song brokers. The way they work, or are supposed to work, is that they sign songs to their company either en masse (signing up all the songs of a particular composer/author with what is known as a 'general songwriting agreement') or signing songs individually. They then 'make their best endeavours' (or other legalistic jargon to that effect) to get somebody to record the song and therefore make some money.

Publishers usually ask for 50 per cent of all the earnings of a song which, when one considers all the other uses in addition to record sales (broadcasting, live performances, film sound-tracks etc. etc.), can be potentially far from inconsiderable. Song-writers are notorious for whingeing that 50 per cent is far too high, while publishers respond by pointing out that, without their contacts, promotion and often demo-ing facilities - all of which involves them in spending money - songs would remain languishing in obscurity.

For decades, then, music publishers have acted as middlemen, signing up songs and getting them recorded, making money for themselves and the songwriter. Where it starts getting messy is when music publishers are actually divisions of record companies. Just about every record company in existence, from the biggest multi-national monolith to the tiniest hole-in-the-wall operation, has its own publishing-company subsidiary. These subsidiaries are primarily there to ensure that, where a record company is recording an artist who composes his or her own songs, a good proportion of the publisher's statutory royalty (as I said, usually 50%) remains with the company (through the back door of a publishing affiliate). Recording artists are not stupid and have countered this procedure by starting their own publishing companies in an effort to hold on to the whole statutory royalty.

In the area of Christian music publishing it is slightly ironic that more criticism is levelled at publishers of praise and worship songs rather than those for contemporary Christian music. For, though it could be argued that, in a hypothetical example, having a set of songs published by Word Music offers little to a rock gospel singer/songwriter whose album is released on Word Records, other than the right to have his/her songwriting royalties halved, in the area of praise and worship publishers can often offer a tangible service to writers of worship material. Explains Paul Bennett, director of the new record label/music publisher Full Circle/Semi-Circle Music: "In the worship field, music publishers provide a very real service. They take songs, often from the relative obscurity of local churches and publish them in songbooks, often get them exposed to the national church both through recordings and through national events like Spring Harvest. Although it could be argued that some worship leaders/composers don't need the services of publishers, many worship songs only get to the national or international church through the work of publishers."

The objection, of course, is whether copyright protection itself should be applied to songs specifically written as vehicles to worship God. It's an emotive subject. In a recent Cross Rhythms, record reviewer Alan Smith stated that applying copyright to such music was "unscriptural, unnecessary and unblessing." Nigel Coltman, head of Thankyou Music, the publishing affiliate of Kingsway Records, was equally emphatic that "reproducing copyright Christian music without permission is like stealing something from somebody's home - it's morally and legally wrong."

For years a particularly contentious area concerned churches copying songs onto photocopied songbooks or acetates for overhead projectors and finding they were breaking the law. However, the now-defunct Christian Music Association has done an excellent job in both alerting local churches to their legal and moral responsibilities and introducing into operation a blanket-licensing scheme whereby any church or fellowship can reproduce the vast majority of copyright worship songs for a smallish fee. This scheme has now been taken over by the new Christian Copyright Licensing Ltd., who hope, in time, to extend the blanket licences on offer to local churches to take in another current law breaker - cassette recordings containing copyright choruses made at church services.

Despite criticism from believers who feel that any payment of copyright fees for worship material are highly dubious, blanket licensing schemes have gained wide acceptance. They are replacing the one-time chaos caused by churches having had to get individual permission each time they reproduced a song on acetate, just to stay within the law. The most successful praise songwriter of all,

Graham Kendrick, is convinced that copyright and Christian music are compatible. He said in Buzz magazine a few years ago: "It's a fact of life. If a song gets around and gets into songbooks, money is involved. Neither myself nor my publishers are money-grabbing. The law is there for very good reasons - to safeguard people's legitimate interests and rights."

Robert Lamont, who now looks after the publishing for composer Chris Bowater and while at Word masterminded the highly-successful 'Spirit Of Praise' songbook and album series, is anxious to stress the need for the law to protect against unauthorised changes to praise songs. "In publishing there are two main activities - protection of a song and promotion of a song. We know from experience that in the past we have been unwittingly misused in various parts of the country and overseas, with lots of people giving their added extras - changing notes, changing words. Copyright laws give us the ability to establish an exact form of a song, which can only be amended in any way with express permission of the composer." So how healthy is Christian music publishing in Britain today? If one was to take the list of Christian Music Publishers printed in the 'CMA Christian Music Handbook', where nearly 300 publishers are listed, it would seem that here, at least, within the impoverished Christian music counter-culture, is a thriving industry. But appearances can be deceptive. Half of the companies shown are American publishers, while half the remainder are tiny one-man (or woman) operations set up to protect the interests of in-the-know composers. Most of the remaining companies are owned or administered by two 'large' publishing companies, Thankyou Music and Word Music. As with the record companies, Christian music publishing is dominated (some would say stifled) by a duopoly.

It's not really accurate to call Thankyou a publishing subsidiary of Kingsway Records; such has been the growth of Thankyou Music down the years that it probably lays claim to being the biggest Christian music publisher in Britain. It has built its success on the growth of praise and worship music, its 'Songs Of Fellowship' series of songbooks and its long-term relationship with Graham Kendrick (though Graham now has his own publishing set up Make Way Music). Thankyou's representation of key overseas praise catalogues such as Mercy Music (Songs Of The Vineyard) and Scripture In Song have kept it in the premier position. Says Thankyou Music's Nigel Coltman: "Publishing is a misunderstood area of activity. We see ourselves as a helpmate to literally hundreds of gifted songwriters. We give them the help they need to get their songs to the church at large. And we see ourselves as providing a key resource to the churches - music. Without our activities I believe the church would be a much poorer place." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.