Epistles of Thomas

January 22, 2010

Fear of the Lord or Fear of the Law?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Thomas @ 18:46
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Blogging on the Psalms reminds me of this CCLI pamphlet that I was given in Worship and Music class in the mid ’90s. It’s an advertisement for CCLI based on scare tactics aimed at persuading churches to buy their service or be sued for $190,400. Back in those days most churches were using hymnals or chorus books but the overhead projector was becoming increasingly popular for contemporary songs. In trying to find some information about this cited cased I discovered that the trial details are available online. It seems that it was not just “one church” that was fined this amount but the entire Catholic Chicago Archdiocese which included 238 parishes. They were accused of using F.E.L. Publications songsheets without proper reimbursement. The quoted amount is based on F.E.L.’s claim of what they were owed: “Specifically, F.E.L. argued that if each of the 238 infringing parishes had obtained F.E.L.’s $100 Annual Copying License for each of the three years for which infringement was proved, and had also obtained a $500 Prior Copying Release for all previous unauthorized copying, F.E.L. would have received $190,400.” In other words, these song sheets would have cost those churches $190,400 regardless of whether they were following the law or not. The company was awarded additional punitive damages that were reduced on appeal. In doing the math it seems that this company was demanding substantially more than the 2 cents per copy they had previously been charging.

What can we learn from this? Providing music sheets is big business. Whatever happened to the devout Christian writing music for the edification of God? Obviously CCLI collects millions of dollars per year. I have no idea how much, but they collect from $52-$1150 per church depending on congregation size up to 49,999. There are 50,000 churches in the US so even at the lowest amount that rings in at $2,600,000. The CCLI website reports that they service over 200,000 churches worldwide. That’s over $11 million per year! How much does CCLI collect for pushing paperwork around? How many songwriters are actually benefiting from this? Does this system actually support and encourage new songwriters?

Is this system serving God or man? Does it help us “sing a new song to the Lord? Does it increase the meaning of music in the church as a whole or decrease it by leaving it to the “professionals”? There has been a lot of discussion about the priesthood of all believers but I haven’t heard much about every church exercising its giftings in writing music. Are song writers focusing on devotion to God or writing lyrics that will be catchy enough to land them big bucks through CCLI? Very few will debate that the quality of lyrics has dropped from the days when hymns were prevalent (although I know there were lots of bad hymns!!). Theologically this system stinks.

The numbers do not make economic sense in correspondence to my experience either. By all means lets pay the oxen as they make the grain but are they really being rewarded? If we take the U.S. median yearly wage of $44,389 we could hire almost 60 full time songwriters for $2.6 million. I’m pretty sure my church didn’t even sing 60 different songs last year so where is all this money going? If my church pays $245 per year for 49 songs, each is receiving $5, less the money skimmed off along the way. When you consider this on a large scale, economically, something smells rotten here.

There is a lot more that could be said about this system but serious reflection needs to be made on how we are honouring God through our handling of praise and worship. Unfortunately, I don’t see a broad movement towards open source praise music and I expect continued threat of legal action from those with a vested interest in this matter. This contradicts a clear command of scripture (1 Cor 6) but who lets scripture get between them and money? On a less accusatory note I see that CCLI is now providing a lot of value added services like song lyrics with guitar cords. This is a helpful step in the right direction but let’s have full disclosure of what is going on with God’s music!


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