Dear CCLI: Here are 5 ways you can become better

I have been using CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing International) for years now as a service to make sure I legally sing, copy, rehearse, perform, and project the worship songs I choose to make part of my congregation. I guess I did not really have a choice in the matter, but still. They offer lots of services to the worship/song leader and are all but indispensable (whether I like it or not, and that's how music publishers like it*).  Even so, as the years have gone on a few things have stuck out to me as ways their service can be greatly improved. Here now are my suggestions, written in the form of a letter to them. (Also, here is another worship music related post from last week, on why I don't sing Matt Redman's "10,000 Reasons" at my church)

Dear Christian Copyright Licensing International,

As a worship leader who leads his congregation in both "traditional" and "contemporary" hymns, I have become both greatly appreciative of but also greatly dissatisfied with the service you provide. I would like to offer you a few (unsolicited, I know) suggestions I think would greatly improve how you serve worship music leaders and the greater Church:

1. Your search feature: It would greatly help song leaders if when searching for a song there were more than just general themes into which songs are categorized. So along with themes and subjects such as "adoration," "devotion," and "sacrifice" we would also be greatly served if songs were better categorized according to the Church calendar (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and other lesser holidays), the liturgical order of a service, and to different Bible passages and stories.  Now, I realize you already have these themes present in your search engine, but at the moment it is seriously lacking as an aid to song leaders. 

Let me give you a few examples. Thinking of the church calendar, if someone types in "Epiphany" (the holiday that falls on January 6 and marks the coming of the Magi [Wise Men] to worship and give gifts to the Christ child) "We Three Kings of Orient Are" is not tagged with this corresponding holiday but only with "Christmas" and "rejoice". A more contemporary example that would be used during a holiday, Paul Baloche's "Hosanna" is not tagged with Palm Sunday (but only the tiresomely general "praise" and "worship"), nor is his "Offering" tagged with Epiphany either. For that matter, Matt Redman's "Light of the World" is not tagged with Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, or the Transfiguration, even though the song works great throughout all those seasons.  Here is one last seasonal example: if I search for "Easter" I immediately get 1,096 results. However, of those results I only get 11 chord sheet choices or 16 lead sheet choices. FOR EASTER. Might I suggest adding "Mighty to Save" or "In Christ Alone" as well as many other possible choices. In terms of the worship service itself (or the liturgy) an example where the search feature is lacking is in a term like "Baptism", where only three songs with lead sheets available come up. 3! What about tagging obvious choices like "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" or "All Who Are Thirsty" by Brenton Brown? And finally, what about songs that directly relate to passages of Scripture? I believe those should be linked as well. For instance "Revelation Song" could be tagged with "Revelation", "Book of Revelation", "eschatology", "heaven", "prophecy", "new heavens and new earth", "throne room", "lamb of God", "agnus dei", or "King" instead of again the horribly bland and unhelpful "praise" and "worship". It would be great if specific verses could be attached as well when they are explicitly quoted in a song, such as Matt Redman's "Breathing the Breath" which quotes from Romans 11, for example.

All in all, I know this would be a lot of work for a group of researchers you would have to hire. Even so, the benefits of such a project would be extraordinary for pastors and worship leaders.

2. Your rankings charts: The "Top SongSelect Songs" and "Top CCLI" charts are not all that helpful as a way showing what people need to be singing in their churches. I certainly do want to know what is currently the most popular songs (although it is never made clear what criteria goes into how the SongSelect and CCLI charts are formulated) but if this is the only kind of chart available a disservice is being done to the great works and artists of the past. Here is what I would like to see in addition to the current charts:

  • A chart for each decade of songs that are currently under copyright. So, for example, we could see what songs are most popular of those written in the 50's, 60's, 70's, 80's, 90's, and 00's.
  • A chart showing which Public Domain songs are most popular. I think it's great there is a separate section just for Public Domain songs on your site, but I'd love to see them ranked by popularity.
  • An all-time most popular songs chart. Just like Box Office Mojo lists the highest grossing movies of all time, I would like to see a list containing the most sung songs throughout the decades CCLI has been in existence.
  • And finally, an ongoing list that includes rarely sung and thus over-looked gems that have been handpicked by the staff.  This would be like when someone would go into an old video rental store and there would be a section of staff picks. This was great because instead of just the new releases or the most popular selections the "staff picks" section would expose people to movies they would not have heard of otherwise. A couple examples of this would be (if I were given the opportunity to be a guest selector) Matt Redman's "Breathing the Breath" (as mentioned above) or Fernando Ortega's "Sing to Jesus".

3. The length of lead sheets: As someone who personally likes to sing from lead sheets—which contain the melody as well as the chords and lyrics—and not just the chord sheets—which only have the chords and lyrics—nothing is more annoying than when I choose a song that for some reason is spread out over 3 and even sometimes 4 pages. This makes it nearly impossible to adequately display the pages on a music stand. It completely flabbergasts me whenever I see the verses of a song separated from each other; that is, where instead of marking the lyrics for verse "1" and then having all subsequent verses directly underneath the first verse, the music is instead almost through-composed, with verse 2 3/4th of the way down a page. I understand the verses to a lot of modern worship songs do not follow the exact same rhythmic pattern from verse to verse. Still, in my opinion lead sheets should be as intuitive as possible. 

Here is an example of what I mean:

This is preferred:

This is NOT preferred:

If for example a song has an instrumental interlude or various tags on the end these should be relegated to sheets 3 and (if necessary) 4 if they do not fit onto the first two pages. I understand there is a function that allows me to shrink the notes and text on a page. Oftentimes though, the longer songs still come out to be 3 pages long. I would like to see as much effort made as possible to get each worship song to a length of two pages.  

4. Including image files with the vocal melody for each song: There is an epidemic occurring 

within American culture in general and church culture in specific: people no longer know how to read music and they are becoming less and less comfortable singing in public, even if it is singing in a large group together in unison as people do in church. Therefore, I would like to encourage you as an organization to see your role not just as a service to facilitate the worship and music of congregations, or to ensure that publishers and artists are getting the proper payment and recognition for their work, but also as a means through which public singing can be revitalized in our culture.  I am not sure how aware of this you are, but despite the numbers of people present in many mega-churches across the country the occurrence of people heartily singing together to God in those times of worship is getting less and less (read this to see what I mean). It would seem the bigger (and louder) the music production the less the people are actually singing.

And thus here is my suggestion:

Every song should on SongSelect include multiple slides of just the melody line linke with the lyrics. These would need to be Power Point/Keynote/MediaShout/ProPresenter/EasyWorship ready with the songs broken up into logical phrases. I realize you offer a "vocal sheet" version of many songs (Public Domain songs are often free, whereas copyrighted songs can be accessed with a fee), but these versions look more like what is in a hymnal and contain chords above the staff, and thus still are not usable by the vast majority of churches who project their lyrics onto one or more large screens during singing. Perhaps you would have to charge extra for a while, but eventually, after the residual cost is taken care of, my hope is this service would be available to all congregations as part of the package they pay for. 

I realize this may cause song leaders to have to actually teach their worshiping communities what all the lines and little black dots mean, but as I see it, this is a good thing.  Let me reiterate: offering this service is essential for ensuring that congregational singing is revitalized within our churches. And again, I know this would takes lots of work to get all these slides prepared for thousands of songs, but in my humble opinion this is an utter necessity. As a worship leader and musician I am fully capable of creating my own melody/lyric slides for worship every week (assuming I have time) or even cropping the "vocal sheets" into different image files, but my guess is at the moment doing so would (technically) be illegal. Is there a way to keep me and others safely within copyright law if we want to teach our congregations worship songs using actual written music as our method? 

5. Keep adding lead sheets and vocal sheets for hymns: Your site already includes many many Public Domain hymns that contain lead sheets and vocal sheets.  My encouragement is for you to keep going. I would love to see lead sheets of Charles Wesley's "Jesus Lover of My Soul" or Luther's "Savior of the Nations Come" on CCLI.  I mean wouldn't it be wonderful for every known hymn in existence to have chords attached to them for guitar players and worship bands to play along with and sing to?

And here is one last suggestion before I go. I am not exactly sure how to ask it, but here it goes: Whatever you do in the future do your best to balance the needs of the Church and of local congregations with the needs of publishing companies, record labels, and recording artists. I could be wrong but sometimes it seems as if the needs of the economic side of the worship music world comes before the needs of God's people, that is, the worshippers who make the music come alive each week. 

Thank you for your attention and time. Many blessings,

Chris Marchand


*Getting into the ambivalence I feel surrounding how commerce and the work of the Church intersect in the realm of worship music, is a topic for another time, but, does anyone else just feel icky about the all the controls put on churches in order for them to be 100% legal in how songs are sung/presented? I am all for making sure artists get paid, so in that sense what CCLI does is great, but something seems missing in the intent to over-regulate everything, or perhaps in the over-regulation more vital aspects of the people's song are squelched.  Forgive the vagaries, these thoughts are not yet fully worked out. Needless to say, be legal, yes, pay artists, yes, but also don't create a hegemony where the Spirit is meant to move on God's people. Put another way, do the songs belong to God and God's people or are they merely renting them for a short time on Sundays?  Where do the songs actual exist: in the hearts and on the lips of the Body of Christ and in the air in which they are gathered, or do they exist in a database where their consumption can be controlled?  Do the songs rise on the praises of the people up to God as a sweet aroma only after a CCLI fee has been paid? Of course this doesn't have to be an either/or situation, but I am leery of how modern copyright law hogties artists and church communities who are trying to create a space where art and music can come alive.
Related Articles:
The Moment I Began to Lose Faith in Contemporary Worship Music
The Great Worship Music Binge of 2015
Why I've Never Sung Matt Redman's '10,000 Reasons' At My Church
Music Matters: Two Versions of Aaron Keys "Sovereign Over Us"
4 Things I Learned About Worship By Being on a Podcast


Anonymous said...

Many great points here. Point 1 is the main reason I don't use the ccli site at all. You mention that it would cost money to research and cross-reference every song, but if CCLI made a user-maintained, editable database (wiki) it could probably be done pretty quickly and cheaply.

ursula said...

Those are god suggestions.

Anonymous said...

I've admittedly only been searching for CCLI info on SongSelect for about a week for a church project, but I can only take the frustration for about an hour at a time. The main issues: 1) too many results that seem to be in no particular order (i.e., correct title doesn't seem to prioritize results necessarily); and 2) unhelpful filters for the 1000+ results. Adding more terms to the search engine, like the complete title and a composer's name (Google-style), seems to just blow its mind and give trash results. What a relief to see a blog post where someone isn't in love with it, either! Any suggestions for more efficient search? I would love to search on hymn numbers from our hymnals to narrow down the versions we see of standards like "Be Still My Soul."