MI Retailers Servicing Houses of Worship
“We run into some churches who don’t want to come out of the 19th century, and joke about bringing them into the 20th century,” says John Rook, of the retail music store Instrumental Influence.
But that is changing, and houses of worship are increasingly turning to their local MI retailer to help with everything from getting a new mic to planning a major install of audio, lighting, and video equipment into the new church they are building. MI dealers in smaller, more rural markets are especially benefiting from understanding how to provide for this market.
Yes, years ago, ministers came in and were happy to pick up a simple Shure Vocal Master, a pair of mics, and be done with it. But today that market is much more diversified and sophisticated. “Often I’m still dealing with the pastor, but we’re also at the other end of the scale now, getting involved with new construction, and they are wanting more than just sound systems,” says Tower Music’s Greg Maglione.
And it’s not the mega churches that are the growing source of business – though in a way they are influencing churches of every size to enhance their worship experience through lighting and sound. “We’ve grown up in a society where every day, every one is inundated with media,” adds Maglione. “If someone goes somewhere where you don’t get that, they could lose their attention, even if it’s a worship service.”
“A lot of time small churches don’t understand the value of a sound system until they get one, then they start expanding on it,” says Hank Stark, who with Gordy Wilcher, owns Owensboro Music. “Then suddenly they need more and better mics … and typically music becomes an even bigger part of the service, and then they need drum sets, keyboards, et cetera. It really snowballs.”
Kent Morris, an audio/visual designer with Cornerstone Media, has been a consultant for Peavey for 13 years, and also consulted for Electro Voice, Audix, and Shure, among others. He’s run sessions for NAMM University on this subject.
He credits Hartley Peavey with being especially in-tune with the market and helping independent music instrument retailers tap into this market: “His vision is to empower dealers, and consider these secondary markets,” Morris says. He also points to the company designing specific products for it: “The Sanctuary series is a unique church-oriented product, and I’ve been doing clinics about them to dealers, and organizations like Sweetwater.”
While he didn’t go so far as to say the church market is completely recession proof, he did point out that during challenging times people tend to revert to faith-based organizations. And in good or bad times, rarely is there a church that isn’t looking to upgrade their sound system in some way or add a few lights.
“In this post-contemporary environment, even in a 300- or 400-seat church, instead of a $10,000 PA you’re going to find they want a $40,000 one. They will want monitors, ties into the hard drives, and more.” “More” can include a retailer’s bread and butter: The trend is for the churches to supply the backline and even the instruments. “For the music store, this can be a huge bonanza. If you can keep one church happy and always coming back to you, it’s a nice source of business. It’s what I call ‘going deep instead of wide’ – selling a lot of things to a fewer number of people.”
Yet houses of worships are generally as budget-conscious as anyone, though how that’s approached differs.
“I try to determine upfront the budget, and design the system within those parameters,” Rook says. “When a budget is pre-determined to be a little low, we try to work it out – for example, can we do the project in phases? Can the church do more fundraising? We see ourselves as both a partner of and an advocate for the church.”
But there’s a number being thrown around out there of what a new sound system should cost: $100 a seat. So for a 400-seat sanctuary, a common number for a system would be $40,000.
Owensboro Music is in Owensboro, Ky., and partners Starks and Wilcher have a long history of serving churches. “It’s a big part of our business,” Starks says. “It probably accounts for as much as 40 percent.” Owensboro is on the Kentucky border, southwest of Evanston, Ind.
Stark says Owensboro Music presents every potential client with a “good, better, best” scenario. “They all start with ‘we don’t have money,’” If the representatives of the church come in and they are older, they are less likely to be as knowledgeable of all that is available as younger members. In either case, “we want to sell them the right stuff.”
Stark uses a lot of products from Grund Audio, out of Council Bluffs, Iowa. “It’s an amazing sound for its size, and we can fly them or mount them on walls. They are my go to company, and just great people to work with.” For those on more of a budget, they turn to speakers by JBL, Yamaha, and Peavey. Offering a lot of options is important. “We tell people we’re not a cookie-cutter organization. Not every church is the same. We look at every room and analyze it, and some speakers do a better job in certain situations than others.
“We used the new Peavey line array systems recently, and were impressed. Also we’ve worked with Yamaha C112-V speakers… it just depends on the budget.” For mixers, they typically recommend Yamaha or Peavey, or if the budget allows and it’s a bigger project, they will turn to Crest. “You put in a Crest, and it never misses a beat. In all the years we’ve installed those, we’ve never had a single call about them,” which is something he can’t say about all higher-end boards.
“A Bigger Business”
Since 1974 Maglione has been with Tower Music, which is located in Fenton, Mo., a suburb found south of St. Louis and on the edge of the Ozarks. Today with business partner Sylvia Hoffman they run a successful full-line store.
“We’ve really always been in the church installation business, though over the last 10 or 15 years it’s become more serious, a bigger business, and more professional,” he says. “Today we’re aware of the need to rig a system, not just set a few speakers up.”
For Maglione, the smallest act can lay the foundation of a long-term relationship. The minister can come in for a new mic, and then down the road, they need a couple more. Then a few pieces here and then, and then when wireless mics became more prevalent, he saw more ministers wanting those.
“Next thing you know, its 30 years later and not only has the total business added up, but now you’re installing an entirely new system for them.”
Stark agrees: “Anything is just a foot in the door, especially in an area like ours. We’re in the Bible belt, and we don’t think any church is too big or too little.” Plus he adds how quickly things can turn. He says his store worked with a church for 20 years, selling them small items here and there, and suddenly a new, younger minister came in, and updated the whole system at once. “The congregation’s eyes just popped.”
Morris says when one typically thinks of this market, it’s the mega churches that come to mind. But actually, that’s not the most profitable part of business. “If you have a half a million dollar job, the stakes are high.” Something as unmusical as dry wall going in late can eat into the profits. And you don’t get paid until the general contractor gets paid. The smaller jobs, the ones $50,000 and less, are more manageable and ones where “you’re going to walk away in the black.”
“Dealing with the construction of a new church is a challenge,” agrees Maglione. “Then you’re dealing with general contractors, getting proper permits, etc. Another challenge is the cost of keeping people on staff who know how to do the really big work.” What he has done is network with some local experts, people they can pull into a project when he needs to.
Sedalia, Mo.’s Instrumental Influence has built an impressive business largely on its ability to connect with houses of worship. “We’ve been here a little over 16 years, and we started with a store that was under 1,000 square feet, and today we’re in a store that is 10,000 square feet,” says Rook, systems engineer. The store, located in the center of the small town in western Missouri, has a full-line retail operation plus dedicated audio and lighting divisions.
For the large amount of church business, which accounts for 75-80 percent of their install work, Rook says: “Understanding their needs by being involved in our own churches, learning what it takes to work with and for a church,” has been a key factor.
He first got into serving churches when he joined Instrumental Influence six years ago, and he says that a quality, well-designed system should enhance the worship service, not distract. “It has to be integrated into the room.” He likes to rely on “proven brands,” which for him include JBL, Crown, and Mackie, among others.
One thing all agree on: the retailer trying to sell the most technology-advanced gear to these houses of worship are not going to do well in this market.
|Sennheiser Microphones Chosen for Grace Cathedral
Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, with its history of hosting religious leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King, Billy Graham, and Desmond Tutu, recently overhauled their microphone collection adding Sennheiser MKH 8020 and MKH 8040 high-end condensers.
“The church had been using some noisy 1970′s-era mics with acoustic properties that were poorly matched for the job,” explained Art Yeap, director of San Francisco’s Novo Group. “The church itself is huge – 220′ from the choir to the back wall – with a nine-second RT60 on the low-end. Those peaky old mics accentuated footfalls, rustling papers, and other such distractions so that listening to a recording or Webcast became an exercise in keeping focused.”
While Yeap initially selected the MKH 20 and 40 Series for Grace Cathedral, area Sennheiser representative Marke Burgstahler demonstrated the new line of MKH 8000 high-end condensers. The MKH 8020 omni, 8040 cardioid, and 8050 super-cardioid deliver extended, flat frequency response (up to 60kHz), very low self-noise, and uncolored off-axis response. Moreover, all of the MKH 8000-series microphones are small, a factor that was aesthetically important for Grace Cathedral. Although the mics would hang from a hundred feet above the floor, they would still be below windows that would provide revealing top light.
Yeap ordered four cardioid MKH 8020s to cover the Grace Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys. He placed two more MKH 8020s above the congregation to capture congregational singing and orchestral performances, and two more at the back of the space to capture the rear gallery organ. For the main organ he positioned two MKH 8020 omnis. Each mic feeds into an APB-DynaSonics analog console with the EQ section left completely flat.
“The bigger institutions already likely had a paid professional staff dealing with these situations, and they are obviously knowledgeable,” says Maglione. “But the smaller churches typically have volunteers running the equipment, and I need to understand that. I try to keep the systems as simple as I can. If you sell them something they can’t understand, you’re going to do more harm than good.”
Rook agrees: “It has to be designed for someone who uses it once a month, not every day. It’s one thing to be able to talk someone through it on the phone, but on Sunday morning when I myself am in church, that’s not going to happen. So you don’t want something that will intimidate the average volunteer. If it’s too scary to really use, they won’t feel comfortable making the minor changes during a service that would make it all sound better.”
“The smaller churches don’t want a lot of stuff,” Stark adds. “Like some of these effects processors that do hundreds of things – how many are they going to ever actually use? Three? They don’t want a lot of things that their volunteers won’t ever learn.” He shares a scenario of a church having a condenser mic on their podium, one that needs phantom power from the board. During the week the cleaning lady will notice that a button is “on” on the board and turn it off. Then before service, they suddenly can’t get the mic to work. “That’s a big one,” he laughs. “We get calls on that twice a month.
“Keep it simple. The fewer knobs, the more they like it.”
Breaking Into the Market
Marketing to churches is a long-term prospect. Maglione says for it’s word of mouth, and for Tower Music that begins in his lesson rooms: you have a kid having a good experience learning guitar from one of your teachers, and next thing you know the dad was put on the committee to update the sound system. The dad is naturally going to start with the music instrument store he’s already comfortable with.
Morris says the first thing a retailer must do to commit to this market is to be willing to personally go to the site. “You have to be there. You can’t do this from behind the counter.”
Patience is also required. A big presentation to a church board, complete with an on-site demo, may seem to go well, but the board will likely debate it … and debate it. “Don’t get discouraged – this has a long tail.” But once a church starts a relationship, they are very loyal.
“The biggest advantage the local retailer has to offer is local service. If they discover a problem at 4:00 on a Saturday, they want to be able to have it fixed, or at least have access to backup gear. Otherwise, they want to be comfortable getting everything from 9v batteries to mixing consoles from the same store.” Morris offers another loyalty-building tip: make sure that you let the church know that you know all the good musicians in town. This means you can be the source for when they increase the size of their band for their Easter service and need another great keyboardist or a horn player.
Morris says that often the larger denominations are part of some regional group that meets occasionally. If the retailer can offer to bring a small portable P.A. with a couple of mics to that event in exchange for the opportunity of handing out business cards, it can lead to relationships. “They aren’t going to say no to that offer, and they will say, ‘thanks to John’s Music for coming out and supplying the sound,’” and that will make an impression.
The next step in getting additional church business is hosting clinics specific to that market. Offer to walk through typical problems found in the small- to medium-sized churches at the local Holiday Inn, offer some finger food, stage it during a weekday night, and for a minimum cost and a little advertising, “it has a stunning effect,” Morris says. “Retailers can get five solid leads from hosting an educational event like that.”
Sometimes retailers can err in thinking they have to treat people from this market differently. Maglione says he’s not had to act any differently to this clientele then he does with any of his others. “Often, we’re talking for a half an hour before I realize they are with a church,” he says. “You just treat them with the same respect you do everyone.”
Morris agrees: “Don’t overplay the hand and act super religious. Be yourself.” This means even if your background has been playing for or being on the road in some capacity with “colorful” bands. “Churches respect those who have been on the road, though you might want to frame it in generic terms as in, played ‘with a number of traveling groups.’
“Remember – the principles of basic sound, lighting, and backline remain the same of all these situations.”
Beyond the Sound
Maglione says he’s heard the typical house of worship goes through three systems before they get it right. They have an idea of what they want, buy it, but it doesn’t meet their needs; then they upgrade it and make it a little better, only to eventually start from scratch. Getting it right isn’t easy, though. He points out that the nature of today’s churches do so much. They have a rock band on the altar, but the sanctuary is also a boardroom at times. There’s music reproduction, recorded music, ministers speaking, “there’s a lot going on. I take into consideration the most diverse set of needs and try to do as well as I can with all of them.”
And don’t forget the lighting.
“There is absolutely more interest in lighting in houses of worship,” Rook says. “Where in the past you were only dealing with lighting the room, now you’re lighting for what goes on the screen, too.” But there are challenges here as well. The church should first and foremost look like a church, not a production studio. “Anybody can wire up thousand-watt par cans and shoot it at the altar, but then it looks like a performance space, not a church.”
Lighting manufacturers catering to this market understand it and they too are providing products that can accommodate the less-is-more needs. Maglione sites that he has recommended the smaller, easier-to-work with lighting packages of American DJ and MBT with success.
Also, multimedia systems are increasingly in reach. “It’s not just the mega churches, but more midsized and smaller ones want them,” says Maglione. “And they want turnkey technology.” For that he shows all who come in the door MediaShout, software made specifically for the church market that he has permanently displayed on his floor. “It integrates different applications, and makes it easy to put Bible verses, song lyrics, and images on the screen. It’s allowing small churches to do things that only the really big churches could do 20 years ago.”
For many, working in the church market is, in addition to being profitable, a satisfying gig:
“I really do like this – it doesn’t take me long to get jazzed up and enthusiastic about working with a