Sacred Music Pricing

I recently reviewed a wonderful new Mass setting by Chris Mueller, which he is self-publishing and selling on his own website for $75.

This sounds really high, right?

Well- except that you’re getting digital content which you are free to print and copy at your leisure. A score for a Mass setting from a mainstream publisher would cost significantly less, but (to stay legal) you’d need to buy multiple copies: one for every choir member (which is probably a lot if you have the kind of choir that would be doing Chris’s mass setting) plus your conductor score and (probably) and organist copy.

This brings up an important issue in Sacred Music publishing today… how do price/sell/distribute your work today?

Let’s look at the facts.

  • A vast amount of traditional sacred music is available for free from sites like the Choral Public Domain Library and the Jean LaLande Rare Books Library
  • A new generation of passionate revolutionaries (which is likely to grow) is writing new sacred music in a variety of styles and giving it away for free, for a host of reasons (which are unlikely to go away) and distributing that music using a host of technologies (which are becoming cheaper and easier to use every day)
  • Consumers of sacred music are increasingly reliant on these free resources and expectant that everything should or could be free
  • Consumers of sacred music have less money than they’ve had for a long time:
    • We’re still in a down economy, and giving is down
    • The New Translation of the Roman Missal is causing many Catholic parishes to spend their already limited music budgets on new mass settings, new hymnals, and other new ritual books.
  • Mainstream publishers seem unwilling to adapt to either the changing ethos of music distribution or to the new wave of liturgical and musical traditionalism

Some Options

Traditional Publishing. If you can manage to get noticed and welcomed into the fold at a mainstream publisher, you have the advantage of a larger distribution network (probably), and you don’t have to spend (as much of) your own time promoting and marketing your own work. You also don’t have to figure out things like e-commerce websites or cross-state sales tax.

The problem I see with this approach is that you effectively cede control of your work to a commercial organization which may choose to promote your work, or not. They might change your text or arrangements (without your permission) to fit either their commerical agenda (guitar music sells better) or their corporate theology (apparently “Master” is too conservative a descriptor for God). And they might simply stop printing your music altogether.

On the other hand, the advantages of the support system offered by a mainstream publisher are undeniable: more people singing your music, less work on your part. Additionally, it’s a little disingenuous of the Traditional Sacred Music folks to bemoan the lack of high quality literature among the “Big Three” publishers while at the same time declaring that they would never choose to work with them.

Ultimately, though, this is hardly an important issue, as most of us won’t ever have the opportunity to publish with GIA, OCP, WLP, or even a smaller publisher like LitPress, even if we wanted to. I suspect most “I don’t believe in Mainstream Publishing” ideologues would sign a contract if it was offered, especially if it was clearly going to expand the composer’s reach and/or wallet. I’m pretty sure I would.

Self-Publish and Sell. This is the option taken by my new friend Chris Mueller. All of his choral scores are available on his own website. This gives him a great deal of control over his music, but it also limits his distribution in at least two ways:

  1. Not being in a quarterly catalog or in the “You Might Also Like” sidebar (advantages of mainstream publishing) means that potential buyers are only going to find his music based on his direct or indirect efforts. That’s great if you can catch the attention of a famous reviewer of new Mass settings, but what if your stuff just doesn’t quite fit the tastes of the handful of well-read liturgical blogs?
  2. Having your music available on your own website puts it (psychologically, for the buyer) into the same category as other micro-publishing intiatives, many of which give music away for free. If you look like a duck, quack like a duck, but cost a lot more than a duck- who’s buying you? This can be overcome if your music is so ridiculously good that it’s obviously worth it (Chris Mueller falls into that category, as does Kevin Allen), but
    1. Most of us don’t write music THAT good.
    2. I suspect it still is a hindrance to sales.

Most Sacred Musicians are not particularly business savvy, so things like marketing and sales (not to mention the complexities of setting a website and handling e-commerce) may be daunting. But for excellent composers with a bit of moxie, this can turn out to be a lucrative (relatively speaking) way to go.

Just Give it Away. This is my preferred method, primarily because I’d prefer to have a few people actually singing my music, rather than a smaller few paying for it. My assumption is that I will never make enough money as a composer for it to matter that I made any money as a composer. I don’t know if that’s downplaying my own abilities, or just being realistic about the fact that between my day job, my church job, and my regular life, I’m lucky if I write six new short pieces in a year (including arrangements and hymn-texts).

Moreover, there’s a lot of people (I like to think I’m one of them) who simply feel that the Church needs good new music, and they want to provide it as a service free of charge. I have to admit, when I finish a piece which I feel is worthy of being used in liturgy in a way that would give glory to God and comfort to God’s people, I have a hard time following up that feeling with, “And nobody should be allowed to use or photocopy this work without paying me.” I get all the justice issues and fair wage issues, but I think that only applies when using other people’s work, not when figuring out what to do with your own. That is- you should respect the intellectual property rights of others, but you shouldn’t seek to restrict your own.

The problem with giving music away is: How do you sustain/support a life dedicated to the creation of new music? It’s all well and good for me to declare that I don’t care if I ever make money on my composition- I have a day job, and composition is not high on my “employable skills” list. I wasn’t “born to write,” so I don’t think of composition in terms of supporting myself, my wife, and our future (God willing) children. Clearly, though, there are others (I mentioned both Kevin Allen and Chris Mueller) who are obviously called to be composers of Sacred Music. These people need to find a way to make sure that they can sustain their lives while devoting their time to the creation of music (they both seem to be doing well with that, by the way). Those in that situation are less likely able to give their music away, and if they were to do so, would need to find either patronage or related-work.

Freemium, or The Mixed Model Of course, you don’t have to be all in one way or another. I think, for micro-publishers the Mixed Model is probably the most sensible from a business standpoint.

The “Freemium” model is where some things (of usable value) are given away, while other things (of higher value) are reserved for paying customers. This is different than the “Free Sample” model of advertising, where unusable or barely usable things are given away in order to draw attention. Freemium gives away enough that many users are able to realize significant value without paying. This is good for PR, it’s good for Karma (or whatever), and it’s a way to be ideologically in the “give it all away for free” camp while reaping the benefits of actually selling things. In fact, I dare say that in most instances, you are likely to make more money in a Freemium model than in one where everything costs money.

The Freemium model is all over the place in modern business, because the cost of technology and content delivery is so low. (If you have a Pandora, Skype, or GMail account, you’ve experienced Freemium). A few examples in the Sacred Music world:

  • Noel Jones uses the Freemium model for his Catholic Choir Book series. All the material in the book is available for free, but you can also purchase “real” copies. Clearly, some see a value in that. Others (me!) can’t afford the hard copies and get a lot of use out of the free PDF version.
  • CCWatershed publishes a ridiculously large (and ever expanding) treasure trove of free music: Psalm Responses, Gregorian Propers, Gospel Acclamations, Rare Manuscripts, Latin Ordinaries. But they also offer materials for purchase, like this fabulous polyphonic Kyrie. They have built a fan base which has seen the high quality of their free output, and are able to leverage that goodwill into sales of premium content. (It also helps that everyone knows that the proceeds from sales get put back into the orgainization so that CCW can provide even more free resources int he future.)

What to do?

There are a lot of real strong opinions all over the Internet (shocking!) about what other people should do with their work, their money, their time. I think making declarations about what is the good or right way to do these things is arrogant at best. I can offer only some suggestions, gleened from my observations in the Sacred Music world and my experience in the Secular world of internet business and marketing.

I think it’s vitally important that composers realize what their options are, and think through the consequences of their decisions, particularly decisions that can’t be taken back (like putting a work into the public domain or signing away rights to a publishing company).

Beyond that, I think composers need to do the thing that will allow the most people to hear/sing the most amount of their music. For me, giving it away for free is the best way to get more people to use it. For others, charging some amount would allow them the financial resources to write more music, increasing the relative impact of their gifts on the world. The balance of free vs. not free, and the distribution/marketing/sales channels are going to be different for each, but that is the best judgement criteria I can come up with: what makes the most music.

I’m sure a more thoughtful reader will come up with a better philosophy here.

Learn More

The secular world has been dealing with these issues in a much more robust way than the Sacred Music world has. While not all lessons are transferable, I highly recommend learning from what they have been talking about. Two excellent places to start:


What do you think is the best way forward for pricing and distribution of Sacred Music? Do you think mainstream publishing is on it’s way out? Is the “Give it away Free” model killing composers?

2 thoughts on “Sacred Music Pricing

  1. Adam;

    Excellent post here, and some interesting concepts for discussion. I have always been of the opinion that the yearning to be a “full-time, professional composer” is nothing more than a source of anxiety for the composer and a gaurantee of compromised quality of music. Historically there have been virtually NO such “composers”, save for possibly some individuals in the more (ahem…) “popular music” style such as opera or theatre (I’m thinking of Rossini, Verdi, Puccini etc…). It is pretty much unheard of in Sacred Music circles… most have been Organists, Directors or teachers as a profession and composers as an avocation… even if one that is central to their job as was the case with Bach, Palestrina and the like.

  2. Adam,

    Thanks yet again, for more kind words about my music for the Mass.

    One additional point is that my $75 price includes both a choral score and a “pewcard”, for printing and leaving in the pews for the congregation to sing with. GIA, for example, charges 85 cents apiece (and in some cases considerably more) for pewcards – though I’m guessing that they’re a lot cheaper if you buy them in bulk.

    Anyway, my thinking is pretty much as you surmise –
    1. all the revenue from a given sale comes to me directly (minus six percent to Google Shopping Cart), and
    2. it’s also considerably cheaper for the parish, in the end, than buying 20 choral scores and 5 packages of 100 pewcards apiece would be.

    As with most things on the internet, my site is also a work in progress. I intend on embracing the “freemium” model by posting lots and lots of public-domain scores that I’ve engraved over the years. Keep checking back!

    Thanks, Adam, for your thoughtful musings and your generous words.

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