Songwriters Beware!

I have a tale of horror that will terrify every Christian songwriter! Songwriters, if you ever get to the point in your career when publishers are interested in your music: beware.

A few weeks ago, I received a royalty statement in the mail from Universal Music Group that brought back a lot of bad memories. It was for a song I cowrote years ago, and somehow, it had made a total of three cents.

I cowrote this worship song in the late nineties when I lived in Nashville, and it generated a little buzz – a few publishers were interested in it.

One very renowned and reputable man wanted to sign it to his catalog. This guy was well known throughout the industry and had signed some of the biggest songs in Christian music that went on to be sung by some of the biggest artists in Christian music.

It seemed like this was our “big break.”

But, ever on the cautious side, I said to my cowriter, “Maybe he’ll agree to a deal – if he can’t get the song cut in two years, the publishing reverts back to us.” This is a fairly typical agreement in Nashville.

The guy refused. “I never sign a song unless I know I can get it cut.”

And of course, he never got it cut.

These types of shenanigans put a writer’s block on one’s psyche. Knowing you’ve written a song that is some sort of potential “hit” – then to have the song locked away and forgotten forever does a number on your creative juices. I didn’t feel like writing for a year or two. Why bother?

Then in the early 2000′s, an independent worship label headed up by a renowned and reputable arranger wanted to record the song. My cowriter pitched the song, not our publisher. (For those unfamiliar with the music biz, it’s the writer’s job to write songs, and the publisher’s job to get the songs recorded.)

The arranger knew the publisher guy and asked if he’d ever give us back the rights to the song. “No.” Oh, well, he tried.

So here I have this royalty statement from Universal. Funny, because the publisher guy was affiliated with Sony, but song catalogs get bought and sold on a regular basis.

For kicks, I thought I’d track the song down to see if there was a chance I could get it back. I called Universal, who sent me to another publisher, who sent me to another publisher. I ended up with a phone number for Brentwood Benson in Nashville. This all took a few days of sleuthing.

Finally, I reached the right person. “Hi! My name is Don Chapman, and I’m inquiring about a song of mine you have in your catalog!” I said in my cheeriest voice.

Type, type, type… “Oh, yes, here it is! How can I help you?”

“I was just wondering if there would ever be a chance to have my publishing back on this song. You all have had it for years and have never done anything with it.”

”No, I’m sorry,” she said. “We never give up any of our properties.”

Evidently, Brentwood Benson now owns most of the song, and the renowned and reputable publishing guy owns a small percentage. So even if Brentwood Benson agreed to give me their portion of the song back, he probably wouldn’t.

Tongue in cheek, I pointed out to the woman that the postage for my royalty statement cost $1.05. I’m getting this statement twice a year, and they’re losing money since the song only earned me $.03.

She laughed and wished me a good day. What more can you do but laugh when the Christian music industry is imploding?

I talked to a songwriter when I was teaching recently at Liberty University, and a similar thing happened to him – one of his songs was signed to a well-known worship label and then promptly forgotten. It’s flattering for a young songwriter to have interest from a publisher, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should sign away your song.

Just what should a Christian worship songwriter do in this day and age? That’s a subject for another article, but the short answer is: the Internet is your friend. Register with CCLI. Get those songs recorded and put them on your Web site, on iTunes, and anywhere else you can find. Even if they don’t sell much, you’ll get the satisfaction that someone out there might be getting blessed by them, and you might even get some CCLI royalties.

I’ll bet you make more than three cents.

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Don Chapman
Arranger/composer Don Chapman is the creative energy behind several websites devoted to contemporary worship: HymnCharts, WorshipFlow, and WorshipIdeas.com. He's the editor of the weekly WorshipIdeas newsletter that is read by over 50,000 worship leaders across the world.