10 November 2008

Bleeding the Church: Expecting Something for Nothing?

Some of you who know me, know of my long time and heavy involvement in music. I have been in many bands over the past 22 years, but have also been a music collector for longer. I have a large collection of music related items, have been a supporter and promoter of Christian music since the 80's, even running my own underground music magazine for a handful of years in the late 80's/early 90's, and today continue to work with and write for a currently published music magazine. This article results from my years of involvement in music, as well as recent events that spawned this story. I wrote the majority of this articles almost two years ago, and found the text buried on my pen drive, and decided to finish it and post it here. This story is also painting with broad strokes often, and is not directed at any specific event in my life, but a general overview of my experiences.

Over these many years of being involved in the Christian music scene, I have spoken with a large number of other Christian musicians, and have heard horror story upon horror story from many bands in the music scene, even many that we would consider "big name" for this genre. Story after story of being ripped off time and time again by church after church, Christian distributor after distributor, record label after record label, ministry after ministry. The business practice of Christians can be anything but Christian quite often. Many of us who enjoy the music, often are perplexed when we find our favorite band has broken up. However, in looking behind the scenes, it is really no wonder why Christian music, especially of an edgier nature (rock, metal and the like) have not been more successful or progressed further than they have. There is little to no support...and even when there is support, it is not often handled in a professional and/or ethical manner.

Let's begin with concert promotion: If you step into the ring of concert promoting, you have to know, going in, that it is a risky business. If you are a promoter and booking bands in the rock or harder genre, the risk can be even greater. Obviously, booking Rebbecca St. James, the Newsboys, or Third Day at a 1000 seat arena is a pretty much not a risk, but book a metal band, even a bigger named band like Demon Hunter or similar, and you have a risk of not making up the costs through ticket sales, etc.

I think many promoters end up being a major fan of a band, so they work to book the show, and cross their fingers hoping for the best when it comes to ticket sales. Even if you do shell out some decent funds for promotion, there is still the chance of a poor turn out. The band shows up, the band plays, and at the end of the night, the promoter stiffs them because of lack of funds. It has happened time and time again, and continues to happen, even in Christian music. Christians - cheating and stealing from fellow Christians...WOW!

As a promoter, you take the risk of not making enough to cover costs. But if it happens, who should be the one to take the loss? The one who took the risk (you), or the ones who did their part in full (the band)? Well, unfortunately, quite often it is the band that takes the hit, because of the unethical selfish practice of many promoters who refuse to take money from their own pocket to cover the contracted amount.

If a band travels all over, and takes hit after hit like this, the show is over, the tour is over, and sometimes, the band doesn't recover from it. This type of scenario has caused personal financial crisis and other repercussions in a band family, and has led to the demise of many great bands. This kind of business practice does not say a whole lot about Christianity either. When we have our professing brothers taking advantage of other brothers like this, it is sad indeed. "Well, they are a Christian band, they'll understand, they'll forgive...it is a ministry thing to them anyway" or some such write-off comment is not too rare to hear. A ministry is a ministry, but a music ministry is NOT a cheap ministry...more on that in a moment.

Now, let us break it down to a smaller view; let us look at the local music scene (of which I am currently a part). These bands don't travel the country, they normally play in the local/regional area they are from. Does not traveling long distances, etc. mean there is no expense or cost to putting on a show for a band?

I have actually had first-hand knowledge of various venue/church/coffeehouse type groups asking for a band to play their function for such-and-such a ministry aspect; however, they say they can't afford to pay the band anything to do so. Often, they just assume you know that....after all, your band is a ministry, right? And since we are giving you the means to do your ministry, what else do you want? OK, maybe they don't think along that lines, but what exactly is the thought process?

So, let me see...you want a band to come to your function and play, meaning the following has to transpire:
  1. Load and bring an entire sound system set up along with all related instruments and necessary equipment
  2. Spend at least two hours setting up all of this equipment
  3. Play for roughly an hour (shockingly some places ask you to play for much less time after all of this)
  4. Spend another two hours plus to break it all down and load it back into our vans
  5. Haul it all home, whatever the distance
  6. Unpack it all again

...and for all of this, you can't offer the band a dime for their service? ...and you think that to be OK? Oh, we will take up a "love offering" to cover the band's expenses. How many times have I seen and heard that first off, but even when it is done, how often does it just show exactly how little "love" there really is?

So a band often spends a minimum of five plus hours putting on a show (and this is not even including all the countless hours of weekly practice, etc. that goes into getting ready for a show), all for a love offering of $20 - $50, if even that....in the name of Christian love and charity? It is no reason why most Christian bands quit after such a short amount of time; financial burn out or bankruptcy drives many bands into dissolution. Band members end of having to put a major taxing on their families finances in order to support the band's financial needs, and that is rarely ever an easy to manage situation.

Hmmmm...let's say you are a plumber that works as a contract plumber. As your boss, I am finding jobs where you can go with all of your own expensive personal tools and gear and do all of the plumbing you desire. Great job, what more do you need...oh, here is a few dollars...not enough to survive on, but oh well, God be with you.

Huh? you want to stop plumbing after a year....why?

Fans want to hear their favorite bands, but they don't want to support them. Fans often bootleg and copy the CDs for/from all their friends all the time....they expect to go to the show free, and rarely buy the band merchandise (which is where the band makes most of their money), and they are surprised when band breaks up. Odd!

I was recently contacted by a professing Christian brother on a large Christian music forum asking if I'd like to trade some music, saying he trades with many, many people on that board all the time. I, assuming he meant old, out of print, cool 80's band demos and the like, said sure. However, The list he sent me of what he wanted from my list, was mainly all fairly new releases that are still readily available to be purchased today. I was floored...not only was this a blatant violation of copyright laws, but it was literally stealing from struggling Christian brothers in the already weak music business. And to think, many people on this forum were engaged in this practice. No wonder Christian music never makes any more in-roads or success in the market...too many other "Christians" cheating and stealing from each other just like the world.

A similar situation recently, when I was told by a guy that he always buys CDs, burns them to his iPod, then turns around and resells them online to recoup most of his money, yet keeps the mp3 copy with no concern for the number of laws he breaks in doing so, much less the unethical and thievery involved in such a practice. Let's say that 1000 people did this same thing to a band's CD. At the end of the deal, the band now has 2000 copies of their CD out in the public, and 2000 times money has exchanged hands for the band's CD; yet the band has only seen money for the purchase of 1000 copies. See how it can add up to financial disaster for a band?

This bleeding of our Christian brothers doesn't just occur in music either. Think back to practices each and everyone of us have probably considered or even done at some time or another. The mentality goes like this...hey, so-and-so from my church specializes in...say, painting. Let me call him to do my painting, I am sure he'll give me a cheaper rate because we're both Christians and go to church together.

Chances are he will...but why? Because as a Christian, he wants to offer his services and be a blessing to others in the faith. But think about it, why is the blessing always expected from the server and not the receiver? Should our mentality be, hey, let's hire so-and-so to do it, so we can bless his family greatly by giving him the business, and if possible, let's give him more than he asks as an offering and in support for his great service.

Why are we always looking for a "deal" or a free-ride from Christian brethren, rather than looking for a way to be a blessing to others by giving them extra if possible, so they and their business will prosper? Next time you seek a brothers help, consider doing it with the intent to bless them, not bleed them dry for their services. This applies to just about any vocation.

Back to the music topic...unless a band is independently wealthy, they will not be able to continue doing what they do, and will definitely never advance what they do to a bigger production value, if this bleeding, stealing, cheating and lack of support continues

Just going to a show is a major support to begin with, this is true. A band plays and thrives off of the audience support; if the audience is non-existent, the show and moral suffers greatly. If you are a music lover/appreciator, here is a short list of suggestions to help the music world (especially local music). The very first step is to find a band(s) that you can tolerate (ha ha), and make an effort to be a supporter; then:

1. Go to the shows

Sounds easy, but is often taken for granted. If every music appreciator made a concerted effort to attend at least one concert a month...the audience attendance level would explode...the show would explode...the support would explode. Especially if you pay to get in and not try to acquire a free ticket.

2. Buy CDs

Stop burning copies...stop trading CDRs....stop, stop, stop. It is illegal and against man's laws (copyright laws), it is against God's law (theft), it is just plain unethical, and it steals immensely from all of the hard work and thousands of dollars a band pours into making a CD. This type of thing should be unheard of in Christian circles...end of story.

The key is to BUY a CD...don't ask or expect handouts. Most Christian bands are always willing to give out a certain amount of CDs, but don't be a moocher that expects hand-outs. If it is a friend's band, still, pay them for their product....they may not allow you to, but at least try (hard) to do so. If they won't take money, give a donation next time you go to their show.

3. Donate

OK, you have the band's CD already, and you are at their show...and it cost you nothing (or little to nothing) to get in. Donate a couple bucks to the band, $2, $3, $5 whatever you feel you can afford. Most Christian bands get paid nothing or close to nothing for shows...it is a ministry for them, yes, but they have expenses (lots of them). Just think, if 50 people came to a show, and they all gave a couple bucks, the band would be greatly blessed to have a portion of the expenses covered.

So, if in one months time, you bought a band's CD, and went to a show by them, and gave them a $5 donation...you'd be out of pocket maybe $15, and a couple hours of a month's time. If 100 people did this for just one band....WOW...what a boost that would be for the band.

Want to go a step further?

4. Buy merchandise

Buy a band's t-shirt or sticker. Bands tend to clear more profit on such items than on CDs and shows, so buy something and support them.

5. Invite a friend

Bring a friend to the show...bring all of your friends! Hype up the show...make it seem like it is THE place to be. Most bands rely on word of mouth for promotions, since there is often no money for paid promotions. So, be a part of the "street team" and tell others, invite others, tell them you'll be by to pick them up, so they don't flake out at the last minute.

To sum it all up....don't always be a taker...try to be a giver. Find ways to give support...anything and everything is much appreciated in a struggling music scene, just as it is in any vocation/ministry.