The State of the Music Ministry Business (2017)

The State of the Music Ministry Industry Report
January 15, 2017
By Eric Copeland
Creative Soul Records, Nashville, TN

(also available as a FREE PDF Download here.)

You hear it whispered everywhere, from blogs to articles, to the laments of musicians, engineers, songwriters, and all others inside and outside the music industry. They say the music business has changed so drastically that it’s impossible to really make a living anymore. They say the music industry died with the CD, and that the labels are crashing to the ground.

Well, I am a full-time music producer who does much more than just produce music, but also talks regularly with everyone from independent artists, to A&R guys at a few well-known Christian record labels, to the players, engineers, and talent of Nashville, to the publicists, and others who surround the music industry. After talking with all these people as 2016 has come to a close, I can say with some surety that the music industry (or in our case, the music “ministry” industry) is alive and well.

The Same, But Not the Same

For many people in the industry it’s life as usual. Life inside major labels works pretty much the same. Engineers, musicians, songwriters, publicists, etc., they all really still do the same thing. Some of the processes may be different though.

Labels obviously have had to survive people wanting to buy less CDs, and then people wanting to download less, and now wanting to stream music. But the general job of A&R is the same.

“The nuts and bolts of my job, as far as great songs, making great records, all that is the same.” says Josh Bailey, Sr. VP of A&R and Publishing at Word Records. “But the process of what and how to sell has changed. I think the creative conversation is pretty much the same, but the business conversation is totally different and continues to change.”

Session players are seeing less higher paying sessions, but that’s to be expected with the changes in recording technology, and the extreme budget restraints of artists both at the major and indie level. But players still make or break the recording, and artists and songwriters continue to be amazed at the difference in time and quality that hiring these pros bring to their project.

Engineers are also seeing a smaller marketplace since so many recording tools are now available at very low prices. However, those of us who know the difference they make, still value the expertise of a professional. In fact, an entire project was saved recently with a band by hiring one of my pro engineers for just a few days to get the sounds just right.

Another change engineers are seeing is much more of a focus on mixing, than in studio tracking. “It has been pretty busy here of late but it has become more focused on mixing over the years,” says Grammy-winning engineer Ronnie Brookshire. He also comments on the state of engineers producing and informing their clients more. “Production of projects has become as much about teaching through the process than just finishing the project.”

Publicists have the same job they always did: get the word out. But they have some different tools, including and especially social media. No one foresaw that newspapers and magazines would be virtually replaced by more immediate media like Facebook and Twitter. No one expected YouTube to become the number one viewed network, or that blogs and playlists would become the tastemakers that shows and video channels used to be.

But, TV and Radio are still big ways to break artists and songwriters. One big radio or TV interview can still bring loads of publicity to an artist, and help find more gigs and opportunities.

So, things are the indeed quite different but they also remain somewhat the same. This is true in the consumption of music as well.

Is Streaming Saving the Music Business?

For the first time in over a decade, major labels are seeing revenue rise. Everything is moving upward. Digital downloads are slowing, CDs are not selling in stores, but the streaming thing is making up for that and more, where labels are actually seeing an increase. This may not be translating on the same level for Christian labels, but the numbers and positive impact are there.

Labels came in early with Spotify, so the major labels are seeing an incredible income from streaming, but that is not quite trickling down to Christian labels, and certainly not to indie labels and indie artists. But it is an income stream, and all streams are important. From everything we hear, everyone in the business expects numbers from streaming to grow throughout 2017 for any person with music on the streaming services.

“This is the first time in a decade plus that the bigger labels are seeing all their numbers go up,” says Josh Bailey at Word. “Physical is almost done, downloads are down, but the streaming thing is making up for what that was plus more, where they’re seeing an increase in their total revenue. Christian music is still slightly behind the pop/urban world, but I think it will happen here as well.”

Christian labels are perhaps more interested in the data and listener info that they can identify more with streaming.

“In A&R specifically, all the data is around followers and streaming numbers. On the label side, more in the use of data (Facebook, Spotify and Apple Music primarily) to identify and target consumers. Today we use the word ‘consumption’ a lot more than we do ‘sales’”, said John Mays, Vice President of A&R at Centricity Records.

Independent Christian artists we spoke to are not yet seeing a significant stream from streaming, but realize it’s importance.

“No”, says Kerensa Gray. “Okay, well, not no, but do you know how long it takes to make enough to buy a cup of coffee when the stream pay is .001 per? Let’s just say that I brew my own coffee. I will admit however that streaming is still a great tool. I am always surprised to see where the music travels from streaming.”

Frances Drost agrees “Yes…some. Not much. It means that I simply have one more way to get music out there. It’s one of many streams of exposure and income (though be it very small income).”

“Yes, but not enough yet for a check to drop,” says Jen Haugland. “Probably the same as in previous years.”

Radio is Still King (for Labels)

Surprisingly, even with streaming doing well, radio is still where labels focus most of their efforts promotionally.

“We invest more money in radio than in any other area and that continues to increase year over year. Promotionally, there is no greater emphasis,” said John Mays at Centricity.

Most music people agree with this, but expect streaming sources to take over once they are built into cars, homes, etc.

One interesting fact is that most Christian labels are and have been doing their own radio tours and radio promotions. They have their own in house team that calls on radio, and most feel radio stations would rather work directly with the label rather than an outside radio promotions company.

Author’s Note: Personally, from Creative Soul’s side, we have found hiring radio promotion to be a bad money spend the past few years. It may be these promotional people have lost their effectiveness since stations are wanting to hear directly from labels. But certainly, the thing that hurts indie artists at radio is the machine the labels have built in.

“The ceiling (for radio success) is a lot lower for the independent artist, because the radio stations and networks these days want to know there is a team around the single,” says Bailey. “If there’s not a team around it. They’re going to be less likely to jump in (and play that single).”

Most independent artists have really decided against trying to play the radio game, or are very careful about how they approach it.

“I simply don’t have the funds to keep up with the lottery of radio as we know it, or at least as I know it.” – Frances Drost

“I have been on quite a few radio stations. Although I see its value, I haven’t seen many tangible returns on doing it. I think it’s a cool thing to say, “I’m on such-and-such radio station!” and it always gets a good response on social media, but besides that, it hasn’t really boosted my career.” – Kerensa Gray

“Although I believe all things are possible, I have completely given up caring about radio. It simply doesn’t matter to me. God doesn’t need radio to get my songs to the people who need to hear them.” – Becki Bice

“I have not given up on radio. I would have to have a killer song that is very commercial for me to consider pushing to radio. In the meantime, I have a small network of online radio I push too” – Jen Haugland

CD Sales Are Still a Thing

“The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” – Mark Twain

The demise of the CD has also been greatly exaggerated. Sure, they don’t sell off shelves as much anymore due to the ease of downloading, and now especially streaming. But the CD is still a strong seller for artists at live events.

For label artists, they can still sell a lot of product in the Christian space, mainly because Christian music labels allow smaller buy backs to their artists, meaning they can buy product for cheaper than some majors (especially in Country) allow. This allows artists to make more even if they are selling a CD even for just $10. That plus merch like T-shirts are still as popular as they were, especially for Christian music labels.

“Actually, for our artists in the road, physical product still does very well and you can still sell quite a bit of music,” says Josh Bailey at Word.

The independent artists we work with and that we interviewed for this article also still see healthy CD sales (at least from their table at gigs.) This continues to be the number two income for artists after performance fees for playing.

“We are actually seeing them increasing,” reports George Tifft literally from the road as he travels and ministers around the country in his RV. “But we are also plugging them more. We have also started “bundling” items together. This has made a big impact.”

“I am grateful that CDs are still selling at an overall consistent rate,” says Kerensa Gray. This was echoed by most artists I interviewed. “Of course, I sell less at places I play regularly, but I am always looking to grow my base, so we are consistently working new venues and sell there.”

“CDs are still selling at events but not through CDBaby,” says Leslie McKee. “I can’t say I’ve seen a decrease or increase in sales. It’s pretty much stayed constant.”

“CD’s sell the best for me when I’m doing a gig or performing at a church. People like what they hear and are excited to know that I have product,” reports Kristin King.

But the CD is more than just a sales item, it can also be a terrific marketing item, as well as a calling card that gives legitimacy to an artist.

“I use them as a “business card” when I’m marketing my services to churches and other organizations,” says Kristin. “Yes, they are an expensive business card, but an effective one. I feel they make me stand out as a music professional.”

SoundExchange (What It Is and Why You Need It)

SoundExchange is something that is lesser known than BMI and ASCAP and works totally different than those two entities which only collect performance royalties from radio, TV, and live events. To be clear, these Performing Rights organizations (PROs) pay songwriters and publishers only.

Sound Exchange is set up to pay the rights holders and the artists who have their music on radio-like online entities such as Sirius/XM, Pandora, iHeartRadio, online broadcasters, etc. If you are an artist and have music playing on Sirius XM, Pandora, iHeartRadio, or other online radio stations, you need to be registered with SoundExchange.

“It is a lot of money coming in from SoundExchange,” says Word’s Josh Bailey. “They collect all the monies from all the online music sources that are more radio-ish.”

Here’s how SoundExchange defines themselves:

“SoundExchange is the not-for-profit organization that collects royalties for Featured Artists and Sound Recording Rights owners (often a record label) when their sound recordings are played on non-interactive digital radio. Today, this includes royalties collected from Pandora, Sirius XM, and over 2,500 webcasting services. These services pay SoundExchange, and SoundExchange pays the artists and labels, separately.” (SoundExchange.com)

Indies aren’t necessarily seeing a lot from SoundExchange but many I interviewed also aren’t on many of the services like Pandora just yet, or had not registered with SoundExchange.

Author’s Note: I will say I personally have made close to $1,000 from SoundExchange in the past year from some of my personal instrumental and other brands. They hold earnings for you for up to three years. So, if you have had music on Pandora or Sirius XM, you likely have some cash waiting for you!

CD vs EP vs Singles (Which Is Best for You?)

It used to be if you were an artist then you made a full 10-song record and that’s just the way you did it. You needed a single from it, but you needed an album to sell when you tour. The problem now is that audiences want more music, more often. They consume the streams and YouTube plays so quickly, that if you wait a year and half to put more music out, you may lose your audience. This goes for major and indies alike!

What you really need to do probably depends on your touring. If you are touring year-round, you will need a new full product just about every year. Something new to put in people’s hands, especially if you play to the same audiences year after year.

“A full CD is still the best route for me,” says gospel and jazz vocalist Kerensa Gray. “Here’s the simple answer. I know my market. I am not working for 20 somethings. My audience is mature, over 35, loves music, and still wants the liner notes. Most still buy vinyl (don’t laugh, so do I!). That may be the next move. 😉

Busy artist Frances Drost says, “After 17 years of doing this professionally, 8 CDs later, 2 singles and one compilation CD (of other artists) I can say that the best seller for me and my demographic is a full CD. Especially when there is a theme to the CD and I can promote not only the CD, but the message and theme.”

Leslie McKee agrees. “I’ve always felt that full products present the artist with more legitimacy. I don’t know that I feel that way toward other artists, but it’s stuff inside my head that I feel about myself. As a consumer, I still enjoy having a physical CD because I enjoy reading the liner notes and seeing familiar names.”

EPs (Extended Play singles, usually containing 4-6 songs) have become very popular because artists can do less songs, but put them out more often. It allows for a release, and something to market, but to keep the costs down versus a ten-song album.

“I’m thinking of doing two 5-6 song EP’s rather than a full 10-12 song album. My thoughts are that I can create two products at a $10 price point and use more real estate on my merchandise table.” – George Tifft

There is also the camp that says if you are not touring consistently, or if live events are not your thing, then it may be best to put out that one great single from time to time. You could even package it up later after 4-5 singles as an EP.

“I actually think releasing singles is the way to go,” says Kristin King. “It would allow me to keep my customers’ interest while tickling their fancies with new tunes all the time (or at least quarterly during a year). I haven’t tried this method, but this is what I’ll be focusing on more in 2017.”

Josh Bailey of Word suggests it depends on the type of artist. “Some of our artists are doing music all the time between large records. For artists that are selling albums, then my gut says more singles and music in between, but an album every 1-2 years or so. Now for artists that don’t sell records, we are definitely leaning towards smaller things.”

So, it all really depends on what your goals are. If you are trying to be a busy working artist that is doing gigs and promoting records, then you need product that you can sell. If you just want to show people some new music from time to time, and sales/touring aren’t important to you, singles may be the best answer.

Do You Need a Manager? (You Think You Do, But You Probably Don’t)

Another question I have been asking people I have interviewed is “How Important Is a Manager”? I get a lot of artists that ask me how to get a manager, and the truth is I have never seen any of my independent artists have a good one, or maybe even need one. What artists really need more is most likely an assistant.

“I had a manager for three years,” says busy artist Frances Drost. “Though there were helpful aspects about it, I found that I still did most of the work. Now I have a volunteer who assists me regularly and she does a much better job at helping me manage myself and my business.”

“I know I need help – whatever you want to call it,” says singer-songwriter Becki Bice. “I can’t do all that needs to be done without sacrificing the one thing I feel like I am supposed to be doing, which is writing songs. That has been a real concern.”

The assistant even makes more sense to labels and their artists according to John Mays at Centricity.

“I think people (especially indies) mistake managers with assistants all the time. Managers don’t babysit like many assistants do. Managers are primarily there to use their networks to raise and expand the artist’s platform. That, plus overseeing legal agreements and approving tour dates.”

And since there aren’t that many legal agreements or tour dates for most artists, real managers just aren’t needed. I also find that paying a manager monthly doesn’t make much sense for indies who are trying to smartly spend their marketing dollar.

Is Getting Places to Play Harder or Easier

This is something that is the lifeblood of any artist: The gig. The tour. Performance income or money that is paid for performing by the venue (or collected in a “love” offering for many Christian artists). Whether you are a new indie artist or Beyoncé, this is likely the main income for you. (By the way, Beyoncé made 256 million dollars touring in 2016, but she was second to – Bruce Springsteen? Yep, with 268 million.)

“In what has been a banner year for the concert business, the Top 10 Tours (of 2016) alone grossed a combined $1.67 billion,” Pollstar editor Gary Bongiovanni noted in a statement. “That is significantly better than the $1.5 billion in 2015.” It is, in fact, an 11.3% increase. – L.A Times

So, yeah, touring and gigs is still a very big business. And sure, the music labels send their artists out on tour because they have that machine (as well as the radio machine, the marketing machine, and what’s left of the distribution machine. They have all the machines!!)

But what about the independent Christian artists who wants to get out there? Well we have heard from a lot of people. Some of them are touring in an RV, some are doing dates locally and regionally that make sense.

Having a niche can make a big difference. It can be the thing that gets you in the door, and make a difference when you call offering your services. Also, churches don’t have “special music” budgets much of the time, but they do have budgets for other things in their church, such as women’s events, men’s events, youth, and recovery programs.

“For me, it has become easier, but with that said it took me a year to figure out my niche market,” says George Tifft referring to the Celebrate Recovery services he is now playing, and that have led to twice as many events this year.

Certainly, it’s not enough to just call a church and ask if you can come do a concert. Over the years, churches don’t feel the need or have the budget for more contemporary music than they already have on Sunday.

“The search for gigs is challenging. It’s been increasingly difficult with the rise of worship bands on Sunday mornings. I don’t think churches are bringing people in as much for concerts or special music because they have their “entertainment” every time they meet. Most of my concert bookings tend to be for special events outside the church or special services like Rally Day or Friend Day. Bookings for worship leadership seem to come much more easily.” – Leslie McKee

Another great way to keep things fresh in your touring and give you an excuse to even get in touch is marketing and promoting a new product.

“Since I have a new project out, I’m finding that returning to places I’ve been before is an easy sell. Keeping my fan list current and staying in touch with them monthly is a big boost to getting bookings.” – Frances Drost

But for most musicians, it’s still all about the work of getting your name out, meeting new people, finding the places that might have you, and more than anything, keeping at it (like a job!)

It is much easier for me to find “local” gigs because I’ve worked very hard at presenting a great live experience, but it’s still a challenge to get someone to chat with you, listen to your material, “give you a shot” in a new market. I find the old habits still work. Make connections, build relationships, put in the time.” – Kerensa Gray

Should You Hire a Publicist?

This is another area where artists wonder if they should be investing in. Will a publicist help? What does a publicist do? Generally, a publicist will work with you to coordinate press coverage for your music, product, book, or ministry. They distribute press releases which can lead to TV, radio, and podcast interviews. The problem with this, like hiring a radio promoter or even a manager, is that it can be hard to see the immediate or sometimes any results from the money you paid. You need to have specific results you want to see, and share with your publicist to know if you are getting your money’s worth.

“I have hired a publicist for a couple of large events including CD releases. After a couple of hits and misses I found two that understand what I do and what my goals are. They are worth their weight in gold when I am trying to build a large event from scratch.” – Kerensa Gray

“You have to have a really special angle on your project for the media to be interested. I hired a publicist for my Christmas show and found that I did most of the work anyway, so more got done, and done on time, if I did it. No one works as hard for you as yourself. Keep your money and do the work.” – Frances Drost

“My word of advice for others who are thinking of doing so: prepare to spend a lot of money and make sure you have a new product coming out right around the time you take on a publicist. There’s really no use of having one when you don’t have anything new to offer.” –
Kristin King

“I have a friend back in New England that has been working with a publicist. It got him a bunch of radio interviews. But frankly, it hasn’t helped him with his booking of live events. And with the initial $ outlay, if it doesn’t create a live market for me to capitalize on, doesn’t seem worth the bucks.” – George Tifft

So, hiring a publicist depends on what your goals are, and finding out from them if they think they can realistically meet those goals.

The Outlook for 2017

Music is far from dead. In fact, it’s being consumed more now than ever before in its history. Sure, the delivery systems are changing, but only in recorded music. Live music is almost the same as it’s ever been.

Artists, yes even Christian artists, are going to have to continue to have unique things about them, and focus on niches that are underserved. Like always, and really with any business, artists are going to have to work harder than the next guy to succeed. There is no one else who will have as much determination as you will have for what you want to do. If you are looking for magical help instead of just doing the work in 2017, you will be disappointed with the results and this probably won’t be a very good year for your music and ministry.

“It’s more important how much fire in the belly and how much drive and vision artists have,” says Josh Bailey of Word. “If they are running after it, you’re going to be totally on board with people working their butts off!”

If you are a Christian artist I salute you and hope you have a great 2017! I hoped this helped give you an idea of what’s going on out there in our industry.

EC

Eric Copeland
President, Creative Soul
www.CreativeSoulOnline.com
615.400.3910
Nashville, TN . Orlando, FL

Special Thanks to:

Josh Bailey, Sr. VP of A&R and Publishing, Word Entertainment
John Mays, Vice President of A&R, Centricity Music
Brian Mayes, Nashville Publicity Group
Ronnie Brookshire, Area52Productions

Artists

Becki Bice, BeckiBice.com
Kerensa Gray, KerensaGray.com
Frances Drost, FrancesDrost.com
Kristin King, KristinKingMusic.com
Jen Haugland, JenHaugland.com
Leslie McKee, LeslieMcKee.com
George Tifft, GeorgeTifft.com

For more information on questions you may have or to work with us on your music and ministry, contact us at http://www.CreativeSoulOnline.com