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John Thompson on the Christian music industry

John Thompson, director of creative and copyright development at EMI CMG Publishing, describes how publishers help songwriters get their songs out to churches and how they help churches to find out about new songs for worship.

John Thompson is director of creative and copyright development at EMI-CMG Publishing. He has also been a pastor and is a widely published music journalist. In this interview John describes how publishers help songwriters get their songs out to churches and how they help churches to find out about new songs for worship. John also explains some of the ways publishers ensure that songwriters receive compensation for their work.

Another important issue that arises in the interview is the question of who bears responsibility for the shape and trajectory of music in the contemporary church. John argues that publishers simply make music of various sorts available to churches; it’s up to churches to choose what they sing. He argues that since publishers aren’t a church, it wouldn’t be appropriate for them to make decisions about what sort of direction worship music should take.

As you read this interview, consider the following questions:

  • What are some of the ways that churches can nurture and welcome the gifts of songwriters and musicians?
  • Likewise, how can musicians let churches know about their music, without succumbing to crass self-promotion?
  • How can the church ensure that artists and songwriters are supported financially and appropriately compensated for their work?
  • What are the risks and what are some of the advantages of the current arrangements that John describes?
  • What should be the respective roles of song-writers, publishers, pastors and worshipers in shaping and discipling the music of the church?

Tell me a little bit about what you do. What’s your role at EMI?

John Thompson: I’m the director of creative and copyright development.

So you’re on the publishing side.

JT:  Yeah, the creative side of publishing.

What does that work involve?

JT: Basically, publishing is the whole business of protecting and optimizing songs on behalf of songwriters. The creative side of publishing is everything we do to promote those songs, to cultivate the collection of songs. It’s everything from signing songwriters in the first place to pitching songs. So sometimes we’re pitching songs to artists who are looking for songs to cut. I think we currently either publish or administer 45 of the top 50 worship songs around the world. These songs are getting sung by millions of people every week. And our job is to help those songwriters make a living so they can keep writing songs. 

You’re kind of serving as a conduit between songwriters and outlets for their songs – whether that’s with artists or with churches, is that right?

JT:  Yes. We also have all the print music. That’s where the term “publishing” came from. So digital print is now a huge part of our business: making sure people that want to learn how to play a song can go online and download the sheet music legally, and we can collect that fee and pay the songwriter. We’re also involved in licensing lyrics, so that companies can legitimately take lyrics from somebody, especially worship songs, and put them on appropriate things that people would want to have in their home.  Like, if someone really loves “In Christ Alone,” and they want to have a really cool piece of art with “In Christ Alone” lyrics on it, there’s a small royalty that the creator of that art should pay to the songwriter that inspired that art, and our job is to go out and get that to happen.

You said that part of what you’re doing is developing songwriters – identifying songs that might have a market.  What are some of the criteria that you apply for a good songwriter or a good song? In particular, as I’m thinking about worship music, what kind of criteria do you apply when you’re considering whether or not something is a good worship song that should be sent out into the church?

JT:  Well, purely at the level of criteria for a good song, it’s fairly simple . . . . and really, really difficult. In terms of worship music . . . the whole point of worship music, at least in my opinion, is to help people to calibrate their heart and their mind for worship, and to say, “Okay, I’m here, I’m in this pew or this chair or whatever, and I’m here for church and I’m here to learn and hear from God.” Worship music calibrates all of that and helps us to focus. Also, not everybody can articulate their worship the way they would like to. You know, some people might be able to stand up and extemporaneously eloquently express their deepest feelings towards God, but most of us need help.  We need somebody else to think that through for us.

Songs and hymns give us words.

JT:  Exactly.  And so, the criteria for a song that’s going to work in that environment is that it has to be simple enough that usually by the second verse you kind of get how it goes.  The song has to be something people can pick up quickly, but it can’t be boring.  It has to be interesting.  There has to be something about it that lifts at the right point, so that the lift of the melody is tied to the lyric. There’s got to be something that the lyric is expressing in a way that’s exciting to people that they couldn’t just express themselves. And in its best moments, it will also have lyrics that are challenging, that are thought-provoking, that are reinforcing true things that we believe about the faith. 

And so a song has to satisfy those core criteria: what’s singable, relatable and interesting. And the writers who can do that are few and far between.  But there’s another ingredient. Let’s assume that there is a song that has all of those elements.  It has a melody that people can pick up on; it has a lyric that’s interesting. Despite all of that, at this stage of the game –  because of the dynamics of the church in America and Europe – if it’s not attached to one of the bigger movements out there, it’s probably not going to infiltrate the whole church.

What do you mean by “bigger movements?"

JT: Movements like the Passion movement out of Atlanta where they gather 40-50,000 college students every winter. They’ll introduce those students to 10 new worship songs, and those students all go back to their colleges and their home churches, and those songs just get embraced by the church very quickly. Now, fortunately, those are excellent songs, and they’re written by the best songwriters, so it’s like a high-octane moment in the annual cycle of a certain segment of the church. Hillsong, from Australia, would be another one. There are hundreds of churches, that, as soon as Hillsong puts out a new recording, their worship team gathers and learns the whole thing. They’re predisposed towards trusting the music that’s coming from Hillsong or Passion or Thank You music, or to trusting some of those writers, like Chris Tomlin. Even apart from Passion, Chris Tomlin has a brand that’s really, really strong. 

Sometimes we’ll find a song that just so totally knocks us out that we have to pitch it and try and find somebody to cut it and record it so that more people can hear it.  I think an example of that would be, “God’s Not Dead (Like a Lion).” Daniel Bashta wrote that song.  We heard that song and thought: “This is just a great song.”  Young guy wrote it.  We signed that one song and pitched it around and then the Newsboys record it and have a big hit, and now it’s rising up in the church and you go, okay, so, there’s an example of a guy who came from obscurity with one song.  Those stories are awesome, but they’re really, really rare.  Most of the time it’s those organizations, those big denominations that really propagate those songs on the big level. 

Or again, someone like Chris Tomlin – because of his track record, because of the songs he’s had that people love so much – if Tomlin offers a church 10 new worship songs, such a large number of them are predisposed to trust him that his songs are going to get a listen whereas your songs or my songs aren’t because they don’t know us. So, the criteria, there’s the pure creative criteria, there’s the theological criteria and then there’s the marketing criteria, which is very different, but it is what it is. 

You’ve mentioned some words – like “brand” or “commercial” or “marketing.” These are words that seem to bump up hard against the world of worship and the life of the church. How do you think about that relationship? Aren’t the world of the market and the world of the church driven by very different values and agendas? 

JT:  To me, the idea that commerce is evil in and of itself is a problem. I don’t think that that’s tenable. I think that there’s healthy, good, respectful, God-honoring commerce and there’s exploitive commerce. Jesus clearing the temple, we’re told the details of how exploitive that commerce was. Not that it was commerce, but that it was exploitive and they were turning the church into this casino, whatever, something horrible. I don’t agree with the idea that there’s an inherent conflict between business and faith, the life of the church. I mean, the church has to hire builders to build the church. They have to hire cleaners, to clean it. There is all kinds of business that has to happen. The songs that are done within the service are likewise monetized, and what’s fortunate, in our current climate – is that happens through a license that’s very affordable.

Churches pay a small fee – one that that is tiny compared to their annual budget and is based on how many people attend their services, to CCLI [Christian Copyright Licensing International]. CCLI collects these small payments from all these churches and they put it into a big pile and then they survey all the churches to find out which songs are being done the most. They have this very complicated math and they come up with a list of 2,000 songs that are being done. And they divide that pile of money up amongst the songwriters and publishers, and that way no churches have to sell tickets. You’re not selling songs. Or for instance, take the “Worship Together” website – that’s the vehicle that EMI uses to introduce songs. “Worship Together” doesn’t sell anything. We give everything away.  We give out free downloads of the audio. We give away free chord charts that you can find right there on the website. It’s monetized on the back end through this collective vehicle of CCLI, so it really takes the front end awkwardness off. We’re not going to a church and saying, “Here’s the new Chris Tomlin song. If you give us $10 you can do it on Sunday.” But there is commerce going on. The question is always going to be, is it fair?  Most churches look at the fee that they pay [to CCLI] as the best deal. They don’t mind paying it because they‘re getting so much value back. The publishers collect the payments from CCLI and pay the songwriters. 

Because of this arrangement, there are now songwriters who can make a living just off writing songs for the church.  They don’t have to worry about writing songs that will get played on the radio. They can literally write songs for the church. I think that’s an important thing. If not for that, then every songwriter has to write commercial songs, either jingles for car ads or CCM songs for Christian radio that will sell CDs. A lot of times, the best sacred music isn’t the most commercial. 

That’s interesting. In terms of commerce in the church, I don’t think that people feel uneasy about songwriters getting paid for songs that they write.  I think though that there is concern that maybe the music of the church is being shaped more by what’s being marketed – as opposed to being shaped by pastoral or theological decisions. So at one time those choices would have been made by a hymnal committee that says: “Here are the songs our denomination is going to sing.”

JT: The thing is, we [the publishers] can introduce songs all day long.  I can find worship songs I love, and I can promote them to the church, but the church is going to do the songs it wants to do.  I guess in that way it’s market-driven.  The church is the market, and we have to serve what they want.  And when they say: “You know what we want is more hymn-like, rich, Stuart Townend-type songs,” then we go, “Okay, we can do that.”  When they’re like, “We want this ‘Happy Day’ type of song,” okay, we can do that.  We’re sort of like the table that they set the salad bar up on.  We just try to make sure that all the ingredients are there and we let the churches decide what they want to do. 

Sure – but if the publishing companies are just offering a buffet, then churches can kind of pick and choose what they want to sing, and those choices may simply be driven by what’s popular now. If that’s the case, then it seems like there’s a danger of there being some big blind spots in our worship.

JT:  I think you’re right. But [the publishers] are not pastors.  Well, actually, some of us are –  but not at work, during the day. That’s more of a pastoral issue, how the church leadership decides what songs to do. Do they delegate that to the individual worship leaders? Do they have a denominational structure that approves? Our job is not to do that for the church.  If we did, then that would be where the lines would get pretty strange; if we started mandating to the church: “These are the approved songs and oh, by the way, we’re the ones that are monetizing them and paying the songwriters.” 

And I guess you can kind of find some examples of that in those hymnal things in the past, the publisher of the hymnal happens to  be affiliated with the denomination and they also happen to own some of the copyrights that are in the hymnal and make profit from the sales of the hymnal. You know, the thing about the, it’s funny even with hymns – some of these great hymns were at one point in time extremely accessible, commercial, in some cases, drinking songs. I know some people don’t like to admit that or want to believe it, but I’ve told people, even with contemporary worship songs, one of the best litmus tests is: could you imagine your song being used to sell beer?  When I was a kid the Budweiser jingle of “Bring out your best Budweiser” – that would have made a great worship song! Because what makes people want to sing in a group and lift up their glasses is the same thing that makes them want to sing in a group on Sunday. There are certain melodic themes that are part of our cultural DNA and when we hear them, those intervals and those lifts and those things, they move us and inspire us and they can be used to sell beer or they can be used to lift our voices. 

But playing devil’s advocate, couldn’t somebody say: “But the worship of the church shouldn’t sound like a beer commercial.  There should be some way in which we’re counter-cultural”?  Shouldn’t there be some way in which we have a distinctive voice, in which the church feels like a special environment? 

JT:  Which I imagine is probably what a lot of the church people were saying about Fanny Crosby songs when they were more contemporary. That’s all I’m saying is I think that some of it is just a question of time. I know that there were controversies back then. Charles Wesley faced controversies over some of his songs and the way that he was using music. That’s by no means my attempt to equate contemporary worship songs with the great hymns. I would be curious to see if a lot of these songs last 50 or 100 years.

I like to think that “In Christ Alone” will last a long time because it’s got more of that format; it’s got a great lyric to it.  Everything about it, I just love that song. But again – our job on the publisher side is to just find a song which people like, kind of protect them [the songs], launch them to the church in a way that’s fair. But we can’t make any church do anything, and we’re neutral because we’re not affiliated with any denomination. As much as most of us in the company would love to hear the hymn format of ”In Christ Alone” continue to expand, it hasn’t. It’s not because there haven’t been other songs released and put out there and promoted, but like I said, we just lay them out there and then the church decides what it wants to do, and they’re not grabbing those songs.  I don’t know what to say.  So we only have so much power. A lot of people kind of feel like we decide which songs are going to be popular.  I just don’t know how we could do that.

One last question:  do you feel optimistic? Do you feel hopeful when you look at the world of contemporary worship music as a whole? 

JT:  I do.  But I also see things that annoy me.  One of the things right now that’s really encouraging is the same technological shifts that have opened up independent music to lower and lower budget independent artists.  Everything from the cost of recording to dong the distribution is just a tiny fraction of what it used to cost.  That has both been a blessing in that it’s allowed a whole lot of very creative and talented people to do music without needing to worry about a record company or a publisher for that matter.  But it’s also meant that that bar is lowered and so there’s just a whole lot of junk.  The bar used to keep certain people out.  When I was a kid in a band it was like, saving up money to make that first demo. You’re going to make sure you’re doing your best songs, you’re going to practice your butt off, you’re going to go out and play shows so you can sell enough tapes to record those songs. But now it’s like just throw it together in your bedroom [on your laptop], and put it up on YouTube that night and half of it’s samples that other people played.

But on the positive side, in the last year, I have come across so many really, really exciting, really cool, very worshipful, young artists that have no record company affiliation, no publishing, and they’re able to make these great records and get them out through Spotify or digitally or whatever. I would say in my 25 years in this business, the last year I have found more truly exceptional music than in any one year of the other 25. Like “All Sons and Daughters,” they’re a worship team from here in Tennessee, that is just making incredible records and write these great songs.  They’re really pretty much an independent band. A band from out in Portland called “The Wayfarers,” they’re alternative country, gospel music. There’s one called “The Followers” that’s also from out in the Northwest somewhere –  fantastic. There’s John Mark McMillan who has one big song in the church called “How He Loves,” but he’s got albums and albums of great stuff.  So I think that, when I look down the highway and I imagine where is the church going to be in five or ten years, I’m encouraged.