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Would Jesus Charge Royalty Fees for Worship Songs?

Would Jesus Charge Royalty Fees for Worship Songs?

By Wisdom Moon on March 21, 2013

There's been some interesting discussion and controversy over the last article I wrote: "Chris Tomlin, The Multi-Millionaire". In response to some of the comments, Susan Fontaine-Godwin (Founder of CopyrightSolver.com) wrote an article this week. We thought it would be helpful to share it here:

Is Chris Tomlin the “king of worship music” or the “most sung artist on the planet” as a recent CNN blog article proclaims? Singer/songwriter Chris Tomlin garnered his first No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 as his "Burning Lights" CD opened atop the charts earlier this year.

Many Christians would say that titles and claims of this nature are antithetical to some very key themes in the Gospel message, such as humility, denying oneself and forsaking all earthly fame. But keep in mind that this is a secular news organization describing Tomlin in the context of its limited worldly frame of reference. It’s certainly not words offered by Tomlin or his team on his own behalf.

Nonetheless, the article and related blogs have stirred up a cyber swirl of controversy with critical and positive responses, especially addressing the amount of money in royalties that some estimate Tomlin has received.

“We would say that Chris is the most prolific songwriter in the United States now, in this past decade,” said Howard Rachinski, CEO of Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI), the company that licenses churches around the world to legally reproduce Christian songs for congregational singing.

In 2012, CCLI paid out $40 million to artists and musicians, and Tomlin got a healthy slice of that pie. Churches around the world used 128 songs he wrote or co-wrote last year, Rachinski said, according to the CNN article. The article also states:

For perspective, consider Tomlin’s musical success against one secular counterpart. In 2012, Katy Perry's record sales dwarfed Tomlin’s, but Billboard reported her songs were played 1.4 million times on the radio. Using CCLI’s low-end calculation, Tomlin’s songs were played 3.12 million times in churches.

Wisdom Moon, founder of AllAboutWorship.com, has written a thought-provoking and challenging blog post on the article.

The numbers don’t lie. The stats are amazing, to say the least. I encourage you to read the full article to get the full picture, like how “he’s sold 4.2 million albums, had 6 million digital downloads, a number of sold-out tours...”

When you hear these figures, what is your reaction?

Is it jealousy? Envy? Anger? Rage? Discouragement? Criticism?

Why is it that many of us have these reactions when we hear of other Christian songwriters or worship leaders being successful? I know I am guilty of having these feelings in the past towards some of the successful worship leaders/artists.

However, I’ve realized that that is not how God wants us to react and feel. He does not call us to build our own little kingdoms. We are all called to work towards advancing His Kingdom. We are called, as the Body of Christ, to work in unity, to support each other, to cheer each other on. And, to celebrate when others in the Body of Christ are recognized by the world because of what they are doing for His Kingdom.

I would add to Wisdom’s reflections, that I’m thrilled to see monetary resources going to support a godly man who praises and glorifies God every time he has a chance, rather than many of today’s ego-centric pop artists.

“I don’t think about that at all. It’s not a motivator to me,” Tomlin explained when asked what it means to him to be one of the world’s most successful songwriters. “I strive to write songs that people can sing, that people want to sing, that they need to sing.”

There’s been a really robust and healthy dialog about the question of worship songwriters/artists making that kind of money, and there have been some pretty critical comments. Questions have been raised like: 1) “Would King David have charged us royalty fees every time we sang one of the Psalms that he "wrote" (under the spirit of prophecy); 2) If Jesus charged us royalty fees every time we sang one of his sayings; 3) Paul and his teachings..... Did the New Testament church collect fees for the singing of songs? I understand royalty payments on CD recordings, but have never seen a Scriptural foundation for charging local churches money to sing a song in a time of worship.

I'd like to address just a few of these from the copyright licensing perspective.

1) There is a "Religious Service Exemption" in the US Copyright Law (Section 110 [3[) that allows performance or playing of copyrighted music in a religious service in a place of worship without the requirement of licensing or royalty payments. Read here for more details on the exemption. 

2) There are three performance rights organizations (PROs) in the US, ASCAP, BMI and SESAC, and they do license churches and ministries for performance or playing of music outside the service, such as social events, concerts, fundraisers, music-on-hold, dance/aerobics classes, etc. CCS has a blanket license (PERFORMmusic License) that covers the songs from all three PROs. The license fees are paid to both the writers and publishers and help support their songwriting careers and businesses.

3)The CCLI license grants churches permissions to "reproduce" (or make copies) songs in their program (about 200,000 Christian songs) for congregational singing in five specific ways. The license revenue collected from churches and ministries is paid directly to writers and publishers for reproducing their songs. This income has helped support hundreds, if not thousands, of writers for more than 25 years and given them the opportunity to write as a vocation, thereby devoting themselves full-time to developing and creating more songs, which has been a wonderful blessing for the Church. In the Old Testament, worshipers, singers and writers were supported by all the tribes of Israel, and there was no need for royalties to provide for their families. (Numbers 18:21). 

What are your thoughts about worship writers/artists collecting royalty revenues and licensing churches to reproduce songs for congregational singing, as well as for performing and playing music outside services? Comment below:

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Wisdom Moon

Wisdom Moon

Wisdom is a husband, father, worship leader, songwriter, and Founder/CEO of All About Worship. He was born in South Korea, but spent most of his life in Silicon Valley (California), and currently resides in Nashville, TN with his wife and three kids. Wisdom has been involved in worship ministry for over 20 years. For more about Wisdom, visit WisdomMoon.com