Sunday, January 13, 2008

Money and Christian Music

This post will be a somewhat challenging post, because it has many factual details to consider. For that reason it is a challenging post for me to write, because I want to be accurate. I will begin by describing the history of two Christian music companies, and show how they are representative of the place of Christian music within the music industry.

Sparrow Records was founded by Billy Ray Hearn in 1976, as an outlet for contemporary, traditional and children’s church music. Its artist roster has, at times, included such famous names as Keith Green, John Michael Talbot, 2nd Chapter of Acts and Michael Card. However, Keith Green was less than satisfied with the business arrangement between himself and Sparrow after a while, as that arrangement hindered his growing conviction that he should give his music to whoever wanted it, for whatever people were able or willing to pay, rather than charging a set price for the music. So, in 1979 he severed his ties to Sparrow and began to distribute his albums as he saw fit. According to Wikipedia, by 1982, Keith Green had shipped more than 200,000 units of his album, So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt under his new distribution arrangement, with 61,000 of those 200,000 albums being given out for free.

In 1992, Sparrow Records was bought out and became a wholly-owned subsidiary of EMI, a British media corporation, and one of the “Big Four” music/electronic media corporations. Sparrow is part of the EMI CMG subdivision, a religious arm which also includes the labels ForeFront Records, Gotee Records, Tooth and Nail Records, and EMI Gospel. Eddie Degarmo is the Publishing President for EMI CMG, and is also on the board of advisors for Christian Copyright Licensing International, or the CCLI, for short. I shall have more to say about CCLI later on. As for Mr. Hearn, he is now a member of the Board of Directors of the Recording Industry Association of America, or RIAA for short. I shall have more to say about the RIAA also, later on.

Essential Records was founded by Robert Beeson in 1992, as part of a “second wave” of contemporary Christian music (also known as CCM). Essential signed artists whose sound was a breakaway from the more straight-ahead rock or folk-rock sounds of CCM predecessors such as Benny Hester, Don Francisco, Keith Green, Phil Keaggy and so forth. The new sound was instead a sort of fusion between the acoustic revolution typified by “MTV Unplugged” and Shawn Colvin on the one hand, and the acoustic guitar-driven “alternative pop” of Hootie and the Blowfish and the Dave Matthews Band, on the other hand. CCM artists in this second wave included Jars of Clay, Caedmon's Call, Third Day and Jennifer Knapp, bands whose lyrics, like those of many secular “alternative” artists, were often metaphorical and indirect, as opposed to the declarative, straight-ahead lyrics of the “first wave” artists.

In 1993, Essential Records was also bought out by a large secular music/electronic media corporation, the Zomba Group, based in Germany. Zomba was bought out by the Bertelsmann Music Group, also known as BMG, and eventually Essential became part of Sony BMG, another of the Big Four music/electronic media corporations. Essential is now part of Sony's Provident Music Group, which includes Brentwood Records, Benson Records, Flicker Records, Beach Street Records, Reunion Records, Praise Hymn Music Group, Provident Specialty Markets, and the Provident-Integrity Distribution venture. Sony is also a contributing member of the RIAA.

In the early days of CCM, before the personal computer made such a huge impact on modern society, many CCM artists and the companies they founded tended to view their music in much the same way that Keith Green did: as a ministry to God, to be given freely to whoever was in need of it. To be sure, many of them considered themselves to be full-time “evangelists with guitars”, and thus worthy of the support of the Church, but it is hard to imagine that any CCM artist from the '70's to the early '90's would ever have sued anyone for singing a cover of that artist's song, or for reprinting song lyrics, or for copying an album to share with a friend, as long as these uses were for the purpose of ministering the Gospel and not for profit. But the secular media soon discovered that CCM was popular, and thus lucrative, and so began wave after wave of buyouts of companies that had originally been started by sincere Christian musicians. With the change of ownership came a change of rules.

The new secular masters of the lucrative CCM business began to enforce copyright law with the same rigidity and vengeance that they had exercised all along with secular music. This rigidity and vengeance took on some surprising forms, once personal computing and the Internet became widespread. When widespread sharing of music became possible, Sony responded in 2005 by shipping CD's containing secret digital rights management (DRM) software that automatically installed itself onto people's computers to prevent them from unauthorized copying of Sony CD's. Unfortunately, that same software made these computers vulnerable to viruses, while hindering operating system performance. Sony was successfully sued for this by those who had bought their CD's, and wound up recalling all affected CD's from the market. It is not known, however, if Sony fixed all the computers which had been damaged by their CD's.

The digital revolution also inspired both big media corporations and software corporations to create the concept of “intellectual property” and to impose restrictive conditions on the use of intellectual property owned by the big corporations. For instance, it became illegal to buy a DVD of a movie, take it to your house, and show it to the neighbors on your street. That DVD was licensed to be viewed by the purchaser alone (including, I suppose, his immediate family), but if one wanted to show the DVD to a larger audience, one needed to buy an additional license for every showing of the DVD. It also became illegal to copy songs from a CD to computer, even if you owned the CD and were simply trying to make a backup copy. These and many other restrictions were codified in a landmark piece of Federal legislation, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA, signed into law by President Clinton in 1998.

To follow the letter of the new law meant having to pay a lot of money for things that were formerly free – free of charge, free of hassle and free of restrictions. But for those who were unwilling to follow the letter of the law, there was the RIAA, waiting in the wings like a gang of thugs in an alley. The RIAA ruthlessly sought to enforce the new restrictions through subpoenas of records from phone companies and Internet service providers (ISP's). The RIAA initiated hundreds of lawsuits against private citizens, seeking penalties of tens of thousands of dollars for each alleged illegal download of a song. In a number of cases, the RIAA sued college students enrolled in computer engineering courses at universities, for inventing file management systems that “could be used for illegal file sharing”, regardless of whether these systems were used for that purpose or not. The RIAA has sued single mothers on fixed incomes. It has sued people who never owned a computer, and has even sued a woman who later turned out to have been dead for a long time. At first, defendants who wanted to fight the lawsuit were required to pay the court costs and lawyers fees of both sides. This exerted tremendous pressure on defendants to settle, even if they knew they were innocent. The RIAA required that defendants who wanted to settle had to pay all of their assets and savings to the RIAA. According to James McQuivey of Forrester Research, EMI, an RIAA member, was until very recently, one of the most die-hard supporters of the RIAA tactics, although since being bought out in 2007, they have started to change their approach. (Sources: Free Culture, by Lawrence Lessig, released under Creative Commons license in 2004; “I Sue Dead People”, Ars Technica, 4 February 2005,; “EMI, Apple partner on DRM-free premium music”, Caroline McCarthy,, 2 April 2007; RIAA vs. the People: Two Years Later, Electronic Frontier Foundation,

All of this legal sound and fury did not achieve the effect for which the RIAA had hoped, namely, to revive lagging sales of CD's published by the Big Four corporations, who, by the way, control over 70 percent of the music market in the United States, and who had blamed lagging CD sales on “digital piracy.” But the flurry of lawsuits did not go unnoticed by certain key individuals in the Church and in Christian music. For churches were among those sued by the RIAA and by some of its member companies. Enter the CCLI.

According to Wikipedia, CCLI is “a privately owned company that was founded in the US in 1988 by Howard Rachinski, who is the President and CEO...the aim of CCLI has always been to provide services to facilitate worship..., benefiting the churches, while at the same time benefiting the copyright owners.” The CCLI is based in Portland, Oregon, where Howard Rachinski resides. Howard is also part of the leadership team at City Bible Church, also in Portland. The CCLI arose as an organization offering churches a one-stop source for properly licensing and paying royalties on every form of electronic media used by the member churches.

The CCLI issues a number of licenses, such as:

  • the Church Copyright License, for the reproduction of songs
  • Photocopy/Music Reproduction License for the photocopying of worship music
  • SongSelect which provides online access of worship song lyrics, sound samples and download of lead sheets, chord sheets & SATB hymn sheets
  • Video License, in a joint venture with MPLC, under the company name of Christian Video Licensing International, for the copyright licensing of the playing of videos / DVDs for church activities
  • Screen Vue, for movie scenes and illustrations for use in sermon illustrations
  • and finally, Song Touch, for MP3 song downloads

CCLI has also expanded from the United States to such countries as Australia, Botswana, Canada, Germany and many others. Its member churches in the United States number over 140,000. It is constantly seeking to expand into new markets for providing licensed content to churches.

The CCLI website repeatedly stresses the need to obey the law, and the severe penalties (up to $150,000 per infraction) for doing things which require a license without having that license. And the CCLI has pioneered the concept of “per use” fees. In other words, every time a church displays a lyric to a copyrighted praise chorus on a projection screen, it must pay a fee. Every time a church plays a licensed video or DVD, it must pay a fee. It does not matter that churches are classified as non-profit organizations; they must still pay. According to the Oak Ridger newspaper, in 2006 the CCLI collected over $20 million in revenue per year. The CCLI states that that revenue is shared with member artists and copyright holders. Yet how much of that $20 million is profit is unknown, since they are a private company and do not disclose their financial records to the public.

When you go to church therefore, you will notice at the bottom of every lyric projected on a screen a CCLI catalog number, with copyright information for that particular song. Songs that are in the public domain are also listed in the CCLI catalog, although they do admit that no royalties are required for these songs. But sometimes the praise and worship industry will take an old hymn, change some of the older English to a more modern form, add a few extra words, and voila! Yet another CCLI-licensed, copyrighted song is born. This is what happened to “When I survey the Wondrous Cross,” with the addition of the modern refrain, “Oh, the wonderful cross! Oh, the wonderful cross!” etc. In fact, even modern praise band arrangements of old, public-domain hymns such as “Amazing Grace” are now being copyrighted, and are subject to CCLI licensing. Every time these songs are sung in a church, there is a very good likelihood that part of the offering made in that church is going toward paying for the right to worship.

So here we are to worship, here we are to bow down, hear the money meters whirring in the background...

(Additional source regarding the CCLI: “As hymnals are replaced by video screens, Christian music licensing group takes center stage”, the Oak Ridger, 7 April 2006;


Anonymous said...

As a music director at a medium sized church, I find myself increasingly concerned by the power of CCLI. I write a song, sometimes two, for worship use each week, and the copyright regime has increased my leaning towards using locally created material. Unfortunately, most churches don't have, or don't know they have, writers who can provide quality material (I was a pro before I got into church music). I think that the compliance of large churches with this system is beginning to be a serioualy corrupting influence on the priorities of worship.

TH in SoC said...

I agree that looking to one's own congregation for writers of worship songs is a good idea. And such writers can prove the genuineness of their worship (and distinguish themselves from writers who are mere employees of the content industry) by offering their worship songs under a Creative Commons license and by refusing to charge royalties. That would be a freewill sacrifice!

jujube said...

WOW. I'm speechless after reading this. I have long known that modern CCM has gotten away from the values and spirit of the original founders, such as Keith Green and Second Chapter. I would even go so far as to say that modern CCM makes me sick to listen to, because of the greed of those involved. But even they have nothing on this copyright company when it comes to greed.
I have been listening to christian music for over thirty years and am a part of the "first wave".
Of course the inspiration for this first wave came from God himself. Do you think he's going to sue us when we get to Heaven for worshipping him without paying him?

jujube said...

WOW. I have been listening to christian music for over thirty years. I am a product of that first wave you spoke of. It's true that they believed in giving freely of their money, time, and their lives. I find nothing even remotely close to that in today's CCM. I find it hard to listen to today's christian music, as I can never get beyond the greed, as compared to the CCM founders.
But even they, it seems, have nothing on this copyright company. I had no idea I was filling their pockets every time I worship at church. That just takes the joy right out of it. What was it Jesus said "Whatever you have recieved...freely give..."
Do you think he's going to sue us when we get to Heaven for worshipping without paying?

TH in SoC said...

Thanks for reading this post! I don't think God will sue us for worshiping Him without paying royalties, but I think Heaven will be a less-than-welcoming place for the moneychangers who have taken over Christendom...

Anonymous said...

One better way to look at it is supporting the songwriter, who yes, do get paid by CCLI for the use of their songs. This, along with other royalties is how those song writers support themselves and their families.

Not paying those royalties is like asking worship leaders to spend all of their time at the church and not be paid any money to support their families. In a culture where worship leaders easily pull down 50k a year plus benefits, it shouldn't be too much to ask congregations to support the songwriters and artists who help congregations across the country worship.

TH in SoC said...

To the Anonymous poster who left a comment on 4 August 2010:

A culture in which church "worship leaders" easily pull down 50K a year plus benefits is a deeply dysfunctional culture. A church culture in which the majority of the operating budget of many large churches goes toward the salary of the pastor and his staff instead of going to charity is a culture whose priorities are grievously out of line. Such a culture tends to produce "ministers" and other men of the cloth who are predominantly concerned with money above all else. That is the culture of modern-day American evangelicalism.

Let me ask you a question: Martin Luther, who was almost put to death by the Roman Catholic Church, wrote "A Mighty Fortress is our God." John Bunyan, who spent several years in an English jail for being a nonconformist preacher, wrote "Who Would True Valour See." George Herbert, who lived on a very small parson's salary and died of tuberculosis while serving his congregation, wrote ""The Altar," which, by the way, was not discovered until after his death. Why is it that I can believe the words and the sincerity of these people far more readily than I can believe the sincerity or motives of almost all the present-day "worship leaders" and writers of worship songs?