As the Easter season is about to begin, churches in Germany would usually be planning the usual series of parish concerts and recitals which mark the calendar through the summer and into the Christmas season.
However, a dispute between the Catholic Church and Germany’s main music licensing company is threatening to quiet the musical tradition.
For decades, a deal was in place for individual churches to pay a lump sum of about $55 a year to GEMA – the German equivalent of the U.S.-based American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers – for the right to play sacred music still under copyright.
From this sum, payments were made to the authors, composers, and other copyright holders for the license to play their work.
This year, GEMA raised the fee to around $90, and the German bishops’ conference refused to agree to the increase, leading GEMA to cancel the contract.
The ordinary agreement GEMA has with non-profit venues – such as civic halls – is based on venue size, attendance, and gate receipts.
This means a concert at a Catholic church could lead to a charge of as little as $25 – if it were a small children’s choir at a rural parish giving a concert for mostly family and friends – to more than $1,000 for a concert at a large cathedral or oratory.
And it’s not just concerts that are affected: The previous lump sum payment covered other events at the parish. A school dance will now have to pay to have music, as would any music performed at a parish festival. (Music used in liturgies is covered under a separate agreement with GEMA and has not been affected by the termination of the contract for music at church concerts.)
Church concerts are popular in Germany, with most parishes holding several a year, and due to declining attendance at Mass, they are often a good way for the local Church to stay in touch with the population.
“A small parish festival costs about $30. An active community, which makes four such festivals would already pay more than in the package,” GEMA’s Jürgen Baier told Munich’s BR Radio.
In fact, Germany’s association representing Protestant churches immediately agreed to GEMA’s rights fee increase, so are not facing the same dilemma.
But the Catholic Church is standing firm, even if it is the individual parish that is literally paying the price.
“We have four or six concerts a year, so we’re thinking, how do we even get that paid for so that we can offer things that can improve the cultural life here in Haidhausen [a Munich neighborhood]?” Stefan Ludwig, a church musician, asked BR Radio.
An official for the Catholic Church told the radio station that the increase from GEMA was “not appropriate,” but refused to comment on the burden placed on the shoulders of the parish churches.
The German bishops’ conference later issued a statement saying it had “a framework agreement” with GEMA that grants a 20 percent discount for the payment due to the agency, adding “the music used is to be reported and reimbursed by the church organizers.”
Even with the discount, parishes are facing a larger outlay for music. Worse for many is the uncertainty of how much they will be charged: They send the details of any concert to GEMA, which calculates how much is owed, and sends a bill.
Germany’s Catholic Church is the wealthiest in Europe, thanks to a government-enforced Church tax, in which every Catholic pays a percentage of their income to the Church, whether they attend Mass or not. However, this money goes to the dioceses, not the parishes.
GEMA, for its part, justifies the licensing increase due to the fact that under the previous lump payment system – negotiated in the 1980s – it was actually paying composers more royalties than it received from the churches.
Since January 1, parishes across the country have cancelled concerts, or switched to older works in the public domain. As it stands, there will be far fewer church concerts this year, which will affect both local communities and the country’s modern classical music composers, who will receive no royalties from music not performed.
GEMA says the lump sum payment offer is still on the table, but, for now, the Easter season may be a musical Lent for Catholics in Germany.