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Annual music budgets?

I'd like to hear from other Music in Worship community members what annual music budgets they work with. I'm hoping that hearing from others will help me put my situation in perspective, and also perhaps serve as a reference point when it's time for me to negotiate next year's budget with the church's Finance Committee.
My situation:  I accompany and co-lead a (currently) 18-voice choir at a small United Methodist church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The choir sings at 3 Sunday services per month September-May, plus seasonal services such as Christmas Eve. Like many smaller churches, ours (avg. Sunday attendance +/- 125) has faced some tough budget challenges the past few years - in fact, one year recently, the choir was allotted a zero budget. This past year it was $300. We have managed to "keep it fresh" for choir and congregation alike by supplementing our music budget with "directed giving" donations (mostly by choir members themselves), and by purchasing some thrifty anthem collections as well as octavos. Our goal each year has been to present new music for roughly two-thirds of our services, using previously-sung material for the other Sundays - but in the last 2-3 years it's been more like 50-50 or one-third new material. While it is a herculean task to find music that this choir can present really well (it's a no-audition, volunteer choir with just 3 singers who are musically trained and truly capable, everyone else with limited ranges & abilities, an average age pushing 60, and only 1-2 tenors depending on whose bifocals are working :), we spend a big chunk of every summer researching music that suits their abilities, interests them and helps them grow musically and spiritually, and presents a meaningful, quality experience for the congregation. Part of the budget struggle is that until a leadership change 7 years ago, very little new music had been purchased for the choir for an entire decade, and some decision-makers who remember that still can't understand (though we have explained it many, many times) that "just singing what we have in the file cabinets" is not a viable solution.
So ... what music budget challenges are others facing? Or not? Suggestions? Any feedback you can provide will be most welcome. Thanks!
Replies (15): Threaded | Chronological
on January 20, 2014 5:29pm
I have a similar situation as music director of a small Methodist church, although my choir is smaller (about 11) and has only one trained voice. The rest are very faithful and do their best (average age is probably 70 with one outlier who is in high school), but the skills just aren't there. Previously (10-50 years ago) the church and the choir were both considerably larger and quite a lot music was purchased, but unfortunately, the choices were not ideal. Too much was SSAATTBB voicing (and even in its heyday I have difficulty visualizing the choir as I have heard about it as able to handle multiple parts well), and too much was praise music--a style which doesn't fit the theology of the church (or to be honest, either myself or the pastor). So likewise the files are fairly useless as a source of suitable anthems for such small forces.
I had no budget for the first two years I was there except for tuning the organ and the choir room piano. The new pastor (has been there a year now) is adamant that this year's budget include music, so I think I will have about $350, which at this point looks like a small fortune! One source I have found useful is St. James Music Press. For a fairly reasonable yearly subscription, ($139), you can download as many anthems as you choose. It's all totally legal. Some are newly written, some are public domain, some are new editions of public domain. The first two years I paid this myself--this year, I will use my new budget when renewal time comes around. Perhaps it might be a source to explore.
Best of luck!
Nancy Gibbs
on January 20, 2014 5:43pm
I strongly second St. James Music Press.
If you're comfortable doing a little arranging, I've found it extremely helpful to arrange a hymn tune that goes with lots of different texts, then just change out the text when you need to. You could even print multiple texts on different lines on the same copy. I have a really simple one for BEACH SPRING that I can send if it'd be helpful.
on January 20, 2014 5:45pm
I'd also recommend making friends with churches around and seeing what you can borrow. Hopefully, most will be friendly and perhaps send you their library lists.
on January 20, 2014 6:07pm
I am in a similar situation as well.   One source I have found is   These are composers/arrangers who use Sibelius Notation Software. On the positive side - you can often find choir music at a significantly discounted rate/free.       Not only would you be saving money but you would also be supporting a community of independent composers/arrangers.      Its all digital so the cost does not include printing (paper/ink).  On the down side -  you do have to thumb through a lot of music and you may find that some not all scores are notated in professional format (words overlap etc.)   I have succesfully found music from our traditional choir this way for the last two years. 
I'm thinking there should also be a way to partner up with emerging sacred composers/arrangers where they can send appropriate songs to choirs like yours and others where the choir would provide constructive feedback to the composer/arranger in exchange for singing their song in church.   This way you get fresh music and they get valuable feedback. 
on January 21, 2014 6:31am
Without going into detail, I'll say that my situation has some similarities.  I have done some arranging which sometimes leads to good results.  And switching out the texts is a good technique.  I have found that there is some good music posted on line for free these days.  It does, however, take quite a bit of time to find the things you really want to use and the things that are appropriate for your group.  The choral public domain library is probably the largest source.
You might consider some kind of fundraising options to supplement your meager budget.  This might bring to light some fans of the choir who may contribute generously at a bake sale or church breakfast once a year.
Michael Kesar
on January 21, 2014 6:36am
St. James is an excellent resource.  Also look at both IMSLP and CPDL.  Lots and lots of freebies there and no copyright laws broken.  I just found a lovely Transfiguration á 4 setting--hymn-like, but with intriguing harmony. I also borrow from neighborhood churches.  I'm lucky, however, because my 194-member Presby church approves a very nice music budget--about $1200 a year.  They also give me a continuing education budget, so I go to workshops and buy music there at discounts, often with free shipping.  If your local Presbyterian church bought the new Presbyterian Hymnal, they may have copies of the old Hymnal supplement, Sing the Faith, that they no longer need.  Lots and lots of good, more relevant texts and tunes there, mostly to be sung in unison.  I just shipped off 75 to a Presbyterian church in Colorado that couldn't afford the new hymnal.  Happy to get rid of them!
Good luck!
Lenora McCroskey
on January 21, 2014 7:34am
Thanks so much to all who have replied so far! I will check out St. James Music Press, IMSLP & CPDL. Jon, I would greatly appreciate a copy of "Beach Spring" as you mentioned! Kathy, I love the idea of working with emerging composers. Have you done this with your group? The year we had zero budget, we did do some borrowing - I think the key there is to find churches with choirs of similar make-up & similar liturgies, as understandably each church builds its music library to suit very particular needs.
Another repertoire-building and budget-managing challenge I should mention: our church 3 years ago, with a pastoral change, went to a "blended" service, so choral needs and expectations have changed a lot. Although the "blend" has become a bit more coherent, we have a long way to go -  and with mainly an older congregation (and choir), it's been a somewhat rocky (no pun intended) road. The style of contemporary music the choir can sing successfully is not the "rockin' out there" stuff that some non-choir members would like to hear - it's not a good fit with the choir's skill and interest levels, especially with limited ability to manage syncopation. We've tried to expand horizons with a pretty broad variety of styles (everything from lyric ballads to folk to gospel to swing), and to find material that "feels" modern without being at the far extreme of contemporary. They've done well with some of the Getty hymns, which feel fresh but have a folk ballad heart, for example. I haven't found a good, reasonable source of downloadable/copyable music in contemporary style - does anyone know of any?
I'll look forward to further feedback - it's heartening and encouraging! Thank you so much.
on January 21, 2014 12:54pm
"~~to find material that "feels" modern without being at the far extreme of contemporary."  I'd suggest as a great source of downloadable music in this category.  Their work is mostly intended for congregational use but many pieces could be nice for choir.  The music at this site mostly consists of old hymn texts set to new tunes.  Some use the original tunes with fresh harmonies/arrangements.  Many have a feel similar to the Getty hymns.
To get you started - a couple of my favorites, both great for choir - "O God the Holy Spirit" and "I Once Was Ignorant of Grace". 
Many of these pieces would just have lead sheets and chords, so you'd have to write parts or just do in unison,  but some have piano arrangements which you could also use for vocal parts.
Hope that helps!
Leigh Ann Pierce
on January 21, 2014 10:02am
My current budget for purchase of sheet music is $850, which must supply music for 4 ensembles for the year, plus sheet music for any pick up ensembles I might assemble throughout the year. 
You mention that you need good sources for copyable contemporary music.  Do you have a CCLI license?  If yes, do you also subscribe to CCLI's "SongSelect" service?  This service provides sheet music for many contemporary songs.  If your church already pays for the CCLI license then you might be able to get them to throw in the SongSelect subscription without taking that money from your music budget.  While much of the music would not meet your needs, I have found a lot of wonderful music and in cases where there is too much syncopation sometimes I can re-write the song a little to match my musicians' abilities once I have the music in hand.
I would also highly recommend Saint James Music Press.  I use this often for my traditional choir, because our budget leaves little room for the purchase of new octavos.  I also frequently borrow music from colleagues. 
I would not say that I do as much "new" music as you say is your goal.  2/3 of totally "new" music would be probably overwhelming to my musicians.  I probably do 1/3 "new" or music they haven't seen in many many years, 1/3 music that was used within the past year or two, and 1/3 music that was used within the past 5 years.  We have plenty of "classics" in our repertoire that my musicians would be happy to see programmed every year.  I also have my choir members "vote" for their top favorite anthems at the end of each choir season, and I use that to keep track of the pieces I would like to use on a frequent basis.
I do believe we are called to be good stewards of our church's resources, so I do my best to make good use of what we have and to be resourceful when I don't have something.
Julie Ford
on January 21, 2014 10:31am
Thanks, Julie. Totally agree about stewardship; we have always tried to make the best with the least resources. I would love to purchase "Song Select", however the person who is currently in charge of choosing congregational music for our "blended" services has opposed adding it (cancelled it previously) because she didn't like it. The functional issue is that without reading music, she can't tell what she's looking at and does not feel it's helpful to her. She prefers band rather than keyboard accompaniment for the contemporary songs (we don't have a band, just recordings).  I've offered repeatedly to be a resource & help however I can, and I proposed Song Select again for this year's budget but haven't got word on approval yet. A big reason we have aimed for a high proportion of new music is that is that we were pretty much starting from scratch to rebuild the choir a few years ago. Under previous leadership, new music had not been purchased for a very long time - maybe half dozen new titles in the previous decade! - and many, many existing titles dated to 20-30 years previously, and/or no longer suited the size or abilities of the group. Plus choir members were "stale" on a lot of pieces, having sung them many times over. We were faced with trying to rebuild interest and excitement among choir members who had grown very weary, but became very excited with new music to sing. The fact that we changed worship formats recently also has "out-styled" a lot of material in our library, things that worked several years ago but don't meet current expectations for the style blend. It would be a different story if we had separate traditional and contemporary services, but that is not a goal of decision-makers currently.
on January 21, 2014 5:07pm
I've not much time for a reply, but if you are interested in a traditional CHORAL music ministry (as opposed to praise and worship songs) my impresssion is that it simply takes more money to operate a church choral music ministry than is being suggested in this chain. I happen to be in a large church and we spend lots of money on music (and not frivolously), with an unapologetic conviction about and commitment to what good music means for a rich worship experience.  But if I were in a smaller church my best suggestion would be what a few others have mentioned: Partner with a few larger churches and borrow music like crazy. To make this much easier, get a copy of their music database.  If you decided to do this in a broadscale manner, of course, take good care of the music; make clean erasures before returning; be meticulous in returning ALL copies or promptly replacing lost ones.  Consider paying a nominal rental fee for each title borrowed, if feasible.... Try to find some reciprocal favor to give in return.  (In fact I do exactly this with a few colleages in the city where I live.)
on January 21, 2014 6:45pm
Good suggestions, Thomas - thanks for your thoughtful response. The year we borrowed music, I made personal donations to the church that lent the music to us - and we've always been militant about caring for music, both our own and borrowed titles. The scale of a church music program certainly does depend on both the size/resources of the church as well as the style of worship, requiring substantial budget to support in a major way. We're still in the process of (re)building and educating, as we work on getting past the past (if that makes sense!). We've come a long way but still have far to go.
on January 22, 2014 8:10am
I work in what most people would consider a small church.  Our choir ranges from 12 to about 16, and I'm always trying to scrimp on music purchases.  One of the boons to our music budget has been a program called Musical Bouquets, started about 6 years ago.  It's a way for someone to honor or memorialize a loved one, and the required $25 donation goes directly to the music budget.  The person giving the donation talks with me about their request, the specific date for sharing, and whether they would like a soloist (usually someone they request, too), or the choir, or want to leave the manner of presentation up to me.  Songs have been shared to honor someone's graduation, birthday, wedding anniversary, or to remember someone's life or the anniversary of their passing.  Many times we already have the required music, and our small church can provide a couple different vocal soloists and instrumentalists as needed (all volunteer).  I carefully decide on the presentation:  Is it folky, should we use small group or choir, should I enlist my husband on cello, or someone on guitar, etc.  Even if it's just a hymn, I try to tweak it a little, to make it slightly more special than regular.  On the appointed day, the song, the donor and the appropriate info are listed in the bulletin, a record of the giving goes in a special book in our fellowship hall, and I personally buy a rose to give to the donor, along with a handwritten thank-you note.  (People love receiving the flower.)  Sometimes, one of us even hugs the donor right after the song is shared.  Okay, we're small potatoes, but it all seems very meaningful to those donating, and with about 8 of these per year, $200 added to our little budget is nothing to sneeze at.  If I need to buy special choral music for the "bouquet", I ask for a slightly larger donation, to cover the full cost of the anthem.
on January 22, 2014 7:41pm
Sweet idea, Nancy - thank you for the detailed description. I think this might work especially well in May, which at our church concludes with a memorial-themed service remembering church members who have passed in the previous year.
on January 22, 2014 7:43pm
To all who have replied so far - I so appreciate your taking the time to share your perspectives & a wealth of ideas.  I welcome further comments and suggestions, as well. Thank you so much!
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