Who’s Steering the Ship? How Dominant Music Types in Church Choir Literature are Influenced by the Publishers.

Nehemiah 9:6- You alone are the LORD. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you.

God has created everything! He has created everything unique and diverse. He is Giver of Life. He is worthy of our praise! God has made creation unique—including you and me. Because we are differently made, we have different opinions and experiences. This means that we must learn to be humble in our understanding that our neighbor might have a different opinion or experience than we do. We bring these biases into all parts of our lives. I’ve found that most who lead choirs are brand loyal to some degree or another. I bet you know folks who are adamant that certain car makes are superior to others. Others are sure that certain cell phones and other technology are far greater than the other “competition.” We leaders of choirs are no different when it comes to being loyal to the publishers of choral music we buy for our choirs. Often, it’s even a composer or arranger that we like, so we stick with what “works.” There is nothing wrong with this approach in itself. My concern is that we limit ourselves by not branching out and seeing what’s available from other publishers because we think we are taking an unnecessary risk.

When I studied the choral literature of leaders of intergenerational choirs, I noticed a couple of general trends as I asked the leaders which publishers they buy their music from. These observations  highlight some interesting points to ponder:

  1. Church music publishers may be “loosely” identified in two camps: traditional/liturgical and evangelical
  2. Most leaders I spoke with purchase music from publishers in only one camp
  3. There are far more publishers out there that are traditional/liturgical
  4. While the evangelical publishers are fewer in number, they sell the lion’s share of music for the choir in the intergenerational church.
  5. Roughly 2/3 of the leaders (n=62) I studied buy almost all their music from the evangelical publishers. See chart below from my study:

primary publishers

If you are like me, you’re probably wondering why these publishing houses are so popular. There really can only be a few reasons why:

  1. Trustworthy. Most of us know what to expect from these publishers and the arrangers they employ. We subscribe to their choral plans and eagerly await the quarterly boxes (that fill up my office!), workshops, reading sessions as conferences, to see what’s newly published.
  2. Marketing. I don’t want to get into specifics here, but these publishers above spend an awful lot on marketing. They package things so they look “cool” and offer great discounts for choral plan members. These things make a difference for churches with limited budgets!
  3. Compatible Music Types offered. Similar to point one, we buy from publishers that will supply us with choir music that fits our choir/church, our preferred music type, and ability level.

I think the third point is really the most important. Are we really getting variety if we only buy from a few publishers? This is the question that drives me to ask—well, so what are the other publishers producing? I think it bears taking a deeper look into what music types these publishers are actually publishing. If contemporary and Southern gospel are the two most common music types found in choirs in intergenerational churches ( see Variety of Music is a great thing in the Intergenerational Choir), does this jibe with what the publishers are producing?

Publishers and Music Types

In my quest to figure out what were the dominant types of music published by these publishers, I decided I needed to speak to someone who was not affiliated directly with these publishers—I went to our local music distributor, PineLake Music. I spoke with both sister owners, Cynthia Revo and Beth Carter, as well as the late John Koger for a more objective opinion. Each provided me with great insight as to the dominant music types each of many of our church music publishers. Here’s the data:

What I did first is create a numbered list of each of the music types most likely found in church choral music. It is certainly not exhaustive…

  1. Black gospel  (1* will indicated what a called a whitened version of gospel music – 1 will indicated what I referred to as authentic gospel music including Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir arrangements at Word Music) Also, in my experience, only a small percentage of authentic gospel is ever written down for the purpose of publishing. You’re more likely to find this in non-evangelical publishers
  2. Southern gospel
  3. Contemporary
  4. Hymn arrangements
  5. Traditional Church Choral Anthems (I’ve typically described this term to my respondents as arrangers and writers such as Pepper Choplin, Joseph Martin, Mary McDonald, Heather Sorenson (some), Ruthie Schram)
  6. Spirituals
  7. Classical (Like Beethoven, Haydn, Bach-Masterworks)
  8. Modern Worship Anthems (A VERY newly composed Hillsong tune and the like)

After creating this numbered list, I made a list of many of the most frequently named evangelical and traditional publishing houses and I asked for input from the team at PineLake to identify the most common music types they published (see the first numbers in black). Then, I asked them to identify the top 3 DOMINANT music types they publish in rank order (most dominant first, then second, and third) in red

Prism – 1*, 2, 3, 4, 8 (3 8 1)

Word – 1, 2, 3, 4, 8 (3 8 2)

Lillenas – 1*, 2, 3, 4, 8(8 3 2)

Brentwood Benson – 1*, 2, 3, 4, 8 (8 2 3)

Lifeway – 1*, 2, 3, 4, 8 (3 8 2)

Hinshaw – 4, 5, 6, 7 (5 4 7)

Shawnee Press (includes GlorySound & Mark Foster) – 4, 5, 6 (5 4 6)

Alfred (includes Belwin, Lawson-Gould, HW Gray & many others) – 1-8 (5 4 3)

Hope – 1*, 3, 4, 5, 6 (4 5 3)

Hal Leonard (represents tons of publishers – largest music publisher in the world – ALL STYLES) 1-8 (5 6 3)

Beckenhorst – 4, 5, 6 (5 4 6)

Integrity – (No longer exists as a publisher, what is left is available at Hal Leonard) 1, 2, 3, 4, 8 (8 3 1)

Lorenz – (includes Heritage Music Press, SoundForth, Crystal Sea and Santa Barbara Music) 2, 4, 5, 6 (5 4 6)

PraiseGathering/Randy Vader – 1*, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 (4 3 2)

Here are some insights:

Prism, Word, Lillenas, Brentwood-Benson, Lifeway, Integrity & PraiseGathering (the EVANGELICAL publishers) are almost identical in their style and these priorities have varied over the course of the years.  I believe PraiseGathering is probably the most unique because they tend to be more inclusive of traditional church music styles (i.e. Piano Plus Hymn Arrangements) than their evangelical brothers. Integrity probably represents the highest representation of black gospel music for their artist/writers like Israel Houghton, Ron Kenoly and Alvin Slaughter of the evangelical publishers. Word had the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir for years, but as of the last 5 years or so they have begun their own publishing/distribution arm.

While it’s true that Hal Leonard, Alfred and Hinshaw have masterworks kinds of materials, I have limited my comparisons to the church division side of these companies.  Shawnee Press, Hope, Beckenhorst and Lorenz (the TRADITIONAL/MAINLINE church publishers) are similar to their evangelical cousins in that their styles of music are similar.

Side note: Another trend that has developed over the last few years is that arrangers who were once closely tied to a particular publisher are now free to roam the publishing world and you will see their names with many different brands. More later…

Let me tie this post up by bringing it back to how this relates to the intergenerational choir setting, since this is the purpose of my blog. I want to make a few points from the hierarchical rankings and then suggest some trends:

  1. All the top five listed in the above graphic, have contemporary and Southern gospel as one of the dominant music types
  2. Of the top 5, only Prism offers quasi-black gospel literature
  3. Hymn arrangements are found in many of the publishers, but only PG produces a large number of arrangements for publication.

The dominant music types found in these publishers suggests that choirs (all, not just IG) are singing what the publishers are producing. The question remains out there: who’s driving the ship? Are the publishers driving or is the consumer? I’ve met many arrangers; I am friends with some of them too. They want to write things that the church will use and the leaders will buy. If the church leaders were dissatisfied, the writers and arrangers would simply write something else. But, I believe that most leaders are not dissatisfied with the publishers and arrangers they have deemed a fit for their choir and congregation. AND that’s my issue. We leaders are enslaved to what we think is out their for us to choose from. So, we choose to stick with what works (see TRUSTWORTHY), and thus have no pressing reason to explore other publishing houses.

I think we leaders of choirs need to look beyond the top 5 for more variance. Look at Hal Leonard, Shawnee, Alfred, and Hinshaw if you typically stick to the top 5 above. The converse is also true. Go to reading sessions that offer a variety of publishers (such as at GO Georgia). Don’t simply listen to the same choral club CDs you’ve always subscribed to as they come in…listen online to these other publishers. Don’t simply drive to the nearest Prism Workshop as your sole source of literature—branch out so there is variety of music type, and variety of writers and arrangements—you’ll be glad you did!

Additional notes:

Did you know PineLake has two choral clubs that are from their bestsellers for that quarter that feature many different publishers. I’ve enjoyed subscribing to their contemporary/blended club for the last few years. Prism is a excluded. Check it out!

Many music distributors, such as Kempke’s, JW Pepper, and PineLake, have bestseller lists that can be very helpful for seeing what other colleagues are buying.

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