What’s the Value of Music?

October 17, 2019 - By 

As a choir leader or committee member, what percentage of your overall costs do you budget for the music you use and perform? This is a question that I’ve been able to ask quite a number of times over the last couple of years (we also ran a survey asking this very question before we launched ChoirCommunity) and the answer has often been quite interesting, if sometimes a little questionable.

…Because the answer is quite often a variation of either “I don’t know”, or “as little as possible” or even “we don’t really have a budget for music”.

It was clear when we set up ChoirCommunity that obtaining choral music was often a challenge for community and leisure-time choirs. Understandably, the budget for music is often tight and some of the more established online sources charge a very high unit price for copies of even quite simple songs (without necessarily a high degree of evidence that the quality is all that high, or the arrangement suitable). If the ‘correct’ number of copies were bought from some of these sites, at the standard price of around £3 a copy then a choir of 50 is looking at £150 for a single piece of music, possible lasting 3 minutes or so.

So it makes total sense that a culture has grown up of choir leaders arranging their own music and teaching it by ear so that no actual hard copies of the music exist, with an accompanying belief that this somehow avoids a copyright issue. The big problem occurs when these pieces are swapped or passed around for nominal fees, with no reference to the ownership of the music, which should be 100% with the writer/publisher.

However we don’t believe that this happens dishonestly. What has been proved countless times in both the music and film industry is that as long as the product on offer provides demonstrable value for money then people are generally always happy to pay for it. All the draconian measures which these industries tried to impose in the nineties and early noughties have largely been done away with. Yes, there still is a level of piracy and fraud – there always will be in any business of this sort – but this exists in a context where more music, film and TV is being consumed than ever before and the complexities involved in distributing royalties (eg via Spotify and You Tube) are still being worked out.

We believe the same thing applies to choir music. Yes, everyone could swap and photocopy arrangements which have been downloaded for free, but if provided with a good service guaranteeing a consistent quality of music at a fair price, then most choirs will always choose to obtain their music from a source where they know it is properly licensed and the artists are getting recognition and reward for their work.

What are the real costs of running your choir? You pay a hire fee for a venue (£15 per hour seems to be the average, unless of course you live in London where prices seem to rise to £50 or more!), you pay your director hopefully a decent wage for their work, so where does the music fit in?

We would be fascinated to find out more about the answers to these questions, indeed our future depends on knowing your situation and adapting to it, so if you have comments to make please feel free to add them below. And we will aim to feature a growing library of great community choir friendly arrangements of copyright cleared titles at affordable prices!

  • I value composers and arrangements that work.
    I use Choir Community and Music notes to browse and buy.
    Our choir meet weekly and pay£2 to come and sing on a sing and pay basis. We are getting to 50 regulars so approx£100 a week. We pay£40 to the church where we rehearse.
    As director I charge nothing and our pianist charges nothing. We are looking at realistic succession planning for when I retire and I have made it clear that the choir must look for a paid director and pianist so that is an additional cost.
    So looking at working on 6 to 8 songs a term that is £1000 pound or there abouts.
    To cut that down a little we invest in Community Voiceworks which has great arrangements and photocopiable songs and is a great resource.
    We put on two concerts a yearChristmas and Summer which raise about £1000 which we try to give to local, national and international charities on a three year rolling cycle.
    One option is to reduce this and keep more in reserve for music.
    All of this is a bit of a headache but is more than worth it for choir members even though they don’t appreciate the cost of music. Also more than worth it for the enjoyment I get from seeing the choir in full flow and certainly worth it for the audience reaction

  • I agree with everything you have said.
    Often, the costs of buying from the large suppliers, is prohibitive for small community choirs, and doesn’t represent good value overall. I have wasted so much money on this in the past, only to find that the arrangement was poor, or the ranges were wrong for my choir, and usually, there are no rehearsal tracks.
    I am very grateful therefore, for your resources. For me, at any rate, you represent good quality and an efficient service, at a realistic price.
    It’s difficult to work out a percentage spent on music, as the numbers in my choir fluctuate, and I have to cut my cloth accordingly, so it varies from term to term.

    • Thanks Elaine for your contribution and support of Choir Community – and we are glad you are finding things you can use – especially excited about the Spike Milligan performances!

  • in our community choir we firmly believe that all singers should have a copy of the music – even though not all can read music. It is part of the shared experience, part of giving singers all the tools and information they need to be as proactive and independent as possible, and part of supporting singers to develop their skills. I also firmly believe that in our choir it helps to communicate our high expectations.

    We are a volunteer-run choir (including musical director), asking for nominal termly fees. We perform the odd self-arranged piece, and are lucky enough to have a member who composes and some contacts who arrange pieces, although this is not the mainstay of our repertoire. We are fully prepared to pay for our music. We have only been in existence for three years, but this is a good point at which we can return to previously sung pieces, which means that we can save some money there. We also fundraise and apply for grants where we can. Until recently we also had an accompanist who was also part of the choir – now they have left, our fixed costs are higher and we may need to be more creative when looking at the cost of pieces, and more choosy about where we buy our music from.

  • I run a charity health choir, which is quite confined by the situation of members. I’m an experienced director but chose to donate my time to this group. Owners deserve payment for their intellectual property, that said, it’s still a minefield getting a suitable arrangement, especially a medley, and it’s expensive to legalise something modern or individuall6 arranged even if an arranger chooses to donate it. Have always tried to keep legal, but it’s easy to see why and how people don’t. It’s easier to get music than before but still a long way to go for everyone to have easily accessible fairly priced music, I can’t compose and have great respect for those who do, and have no problem paying a reasonable price, but surely having people singing music is recognition and the legacy of composers? We don’t want it free, but keep the price reasonable and more will buy and immortalise the music! Currently our venue and my direction are donated but about a third of our finances are spent obtaining music, hope that’s helpful?

    • hi Lesley – thanks for your valuable contribution to this debate, we hope you will find a way to get rewarded for your input too!

  • I lead a small group of ten four-part harmony singers and we present charity concerts [raising money for different local, nothing national, charities] approximately every six weeks. We rehearse in my lounge at home each week and book a variety of different venues to do our sings. Top copy music which I order, is paid for by each member or I download digital copies and am therefore authorised to have and pay for as many copies as I need. It all seems to work ok. Each singer pays me a nominal sum each week to go towards heating and lighting costs … I do not take a fee. Whatever money we raise is all given to the charity. If we are asked to sing for an organisation, then I take a fee and that pays towards our venue hire.Our favourite is the Art Gallery in our local Museum but that fee has been rising for a few years now, so we shall have to give that up I fear. I complete PRS forms each time we publicly sing, therefore the composer/arranger/publisher will be compensated. I believe I am abiding by the law which I am anxious to do of course.
    Helen Bird

    • Hi Helen – so many choirs have a charitable element to their process, and yours sounds very commendable, especially since you don’t take a fee. We would be interested to know where you source the music. Thanks so much for posting!

  • My husband and I run a weekly choir of about 35 people who pay £6 a session . This all goes to the arts centre where we meet. It is a charity. We fund the music ourselves but could ask the charity to refund us ! it is a good idea …

    • Thanks for the useful reply – £6 per singer sounds like a lot but we haven’t done much of a survey yet, hope you get something back from the charity – they have done well through your efforts!

  • I run a couple of community choirs but they are part of my freelance musician work. I try to keep costs reasonable for them. One choir pays £3.50 (payg) and the venue hire is £52 for two hours (expensive!). The other choir pays £3 and venue is free (in a pub!). The first group has refreshments thrown in too. I pay myself a professional rate for 2 hours of work – although they appreciate that I spend hours getting everything prepared myself, music run off if it’s digital and in most cases, recording all the voice parts for them to practice at home with. Every member has a music copy, so the money that doesn’t go towards my salary, refreshments, insurance or venue hire goes into the music fund. It’s a difficult balancing act. There are always requests and I spend hours looking at all the music sites trying to find good arrangements of popular songs that the choirs would like to sing. I also try to introduce them to material they haven’t come across before. I recently had a go at arranging a song for the choir myself but went through the Sheet Music Plus ‘Arrange Me’ site to make sure it was covered by copyright laws because they make me very twitchy!
    I really value the cost effectiveness of Choir Community’s catalogue and also its clarity on the level of difficulty of arrangements. This was particularly useful when setting up a new choir last year. Both choirs are enjoying learning the lovely arrangements of Gaudete and the beautiful Halsway Carol at the moment and the cost of both these carols was under what one piece from any other catalogue would have cost. It was also great to buy the vocal recordings and for my choir to listen to some lovely voices, instead of mine!
    Despite the fact that I take a salary from this work, we have still raised about £1300 for charity this year with one choir alone.

    • Thanks very much for your comments Clare and it sounds like you get the balance about right. Really glad you’re enjoying a couple of our Christmas arrangements too.

  • I love Choir Community. I’ve bought more music in the last 6 months than I have for ages. I think part of getting a better understanding about what choir leaders can afford to pay for music is to look at the bigger picture of what it means to be self employed today and by that I mean employed. If your only source of income is your wages/earnings then today it’s quite tough. The cost of living has gone up and what we can charge our choir members most probably hasn’t. Perhaps some choir leaders do this as a part time job along side caring for family or indeed, doing another paid job. I think most of us find that our disposable income has shrunk over the years so maybe that’s a factor in what choices we have to spend our money on.
    I really value this website. It’s not just about the songs it’s about a community too, which I really like because that reflects how I feel about the choirs I run. So thank you for setting this up!

    • Hi Janet,
      Thanks so much for such a wonderful post. It perfectly reflects the reason we set up the website too so I’m really delighted that you’re enjoying and also making the most of it. It’s also a great boost to us to keep going and continue to find the best arrangers and arrangements to put up on the site. Thank you!

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