German churches are hit by new music tax

German churches are hit by new music tax


norman lebrecht

March 27, 2018

A dispatch by the composer Graham Lack:

For many years now the two main Christian churches in Germany, the Katholische Kirche (representing the Catholic faith) and the Evangelische Kirche (essentially the Protestant/Lutheran tradition) enjoyed a good relationship with GEMA, the “Gesellschaft für musikalische Aufführungs- und mechanische Vervielfältigungsrechte”, the German equivalent of PPL PRS for Music in the UK.

Each parish church paid via its head office an annual, one time, lump sum of €45 to cover all concerts taking place in a church building, liturgy excluded. All each parish church needed to do up to now was submit a “music list” of composer names and works performed, without receiving any additional post-concert bill as music-making was covered by a blanket agreement.

Upon receiving each list, GEMA paid royalties to the composers. Interestingly (as with concerts in regular concert halls), this was done neither on the basis of pre-concert ticket sales and money taken at the box office, nor was it done according to the promoters’ apparent net profit: composer royalties are independently based and calculated according to the length of each work and the performing forces required, regardless of what happened promoter side. This is entirely fair when compared to what happens, or does not happen, in the UK one might note, where promoters of classical music pay a percentage (standard 4.8) of net admission receipts. Hence, GEMA paid out substantially more money to composers than was ever received from the churches.

Some time during 2017 GEMA raised the parish fee from €45 to €75. The Evangelische Kirche quickly settled the issue and signed a new agreement. The Katholische Kirche refused the new tariff point blank. So, as of 1 January 2018, each Catholic parish church in Germany that presents concerts of church music is faced with a GEMA bill for performing music that is not in the public domain.

To understand the enormity of this one needs, as I say, to grasp the way the GEMA system works: a promoter in Germany pays a fee not according to income from the concert, but based on the greatest possible income, or “targeted gross”, if the concert were to be full, regardless of actual takings or profits. The GEMA fee is actually calculated according to the size of a space in square metres (be it a church or a concert hall), the total number of seats, and the price of the tickets. The GEMA fee for a sold out concert would be the same for one with only 10% attendance.

Composers’ royalties are calculated, as explained above, independently of the promoter/GEMA calculation. Again, this is entirely fair. One example should suffice: the composer of a string quartet (four independent polyphonic voices, i.e. four players) lasting three minutes receives the same royalties regardless of the size of the hall. The same goes for a composer who has written a work for very large orchestra, one with 46 independent parts (16 violins count as one “polyphonic voice”) that lasts 70 minutes. The same royalties are paid to the composer whether the space has 2400 seats or 400, or whether the ticket prices were ca. €80 or €15, or whether the promoter made a profit or a loss.

The upshot is that many concerts are being cancelled by Catholic parishes. German choirs planning a longer work by John Rutter, are finding that their parish can not or will not pay a GEMA bill that might amount to anything from, say, €120 to €800. Composers of sacred music urgently need the Catholic Church in Germany to negotiate a new deal with GEMA.

Here’s more on the subject in German.


  • Holyfield Worthington says:

    Then I would assume the church would also expect to not pay for electricity, wine, robes, or Bibles. Do priests perform weddings and funerals for free? No, of course everyone must be paid for their work in order to survive.

    75 EURO for a year for a blanket license is peanuts considering the value that music adds to the church’s brand, and the emotional impact that music has in creating a relationship with the consumers of the church’s product.

  • msc says:

    German bureaucracy should be as common a phrase as is [exaggerated] German efficiency. Amazing…

  • John Borstlap says:

    Given the vulnerable position of contemporary music in general, the royalties question seems counterproductive. It seems a much better idea to reward composers for performances through a system independent from the promotor / performer, so that performing contemporary works of composers who are still living, is not burdened by extra financial factors.

    • Scotty says:

      GEMA supports contemporary music by taking from the rich (pop composers) and giving to the not-so-rich (in their words, serious composers).

      That said, even among serious composers, extreme inequities exist between payments to members of the GEMA old boys club and newer members.

      • Graham Lack says:

        Good points; the internal “tax” on composers doing well is a healthy thing; a certain abuse is inherent in any system I suppose.

    • Herbert Gussett says:

      By contemporary music you must mean the dreary “wrong note” variety which most modern audiences despise, rather than say Bach’s b minor mass or Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. This week I will attend performances of Telemann’s Brockes Passion, (Rene Jacobs) Biber Rosary Sonatas, (Daniel Sepec, Hille Perl, Lee Santana, Michael Behringer) Buxtehude Membra Jesu Nostri, (Konrad Junghanel) Pergolesi’s Seven last words and Stabat Mater (Rene Jacobs & Rinaldo Alessandrini). I have given up wrong notes et al for Lent!

  • Alex Davies says:

    I have a feeling that there’s something I’m not understanding here. Each Catholic parish in Germany was faced with a bill of an extra €30 per year. But rather than pay €30 per year they are now facing a situation in which they may have to pay up to €800 for a single performance of a single work. Wouldn’t it make more sense to pay the extra €0,58 per week and be done with it? The Catholic Church in Germany is not poor like it is in the UK. The German Church receives €6 billion each year from the Kirchensteuer, plus subsidies paid directly from the treasury totalling hundreds of millions of euro p.a., and benefits from various tax exemptions, and that is before one takes into account the Church’s assets, which are probably worth something in the region of €440 billion, although I don’t suppose anybody really knows. German parish priests, who earn about five times what a Catholic priest earns in the UK, could find the extra €30 by skipping a dozen lattes. Or have I completely misunderstood?

    • Graham Lack says:

      You hit the nail on the head.

    • Scotty says:

      You completely understood. It was more than shortsighted for the Catholic Church to reject the 75-euro annual fee. Now they are being treated like any other venue. Worth mentioning is that many Catholic Churches are used for New Music concerts (some of which I play in or have my works performed in) that have nothing to do with a particular church’s religious functions.

      Also, people who are raised within a religion in Germany are legally compelled to pay an extra tax that is passed along to that religion unless they formally resign from whichever religion in which they belong. The compulsory contribution from a single parishioner would be enough to cover the rejected fee.

      • Graham Lack says:

        Actually, one can legally opt out of paying church tax, or “Kirchensteuer”.

        • Scotty says:

          True. I mentioned that. It used to be that you had to provide a letter from whichever a representative of religion you were raised in confirming that you had exited the faith. I don’t know if that is still true. My accountant said that I was required to declare myself as Jewish and that my contributions would go to “the Jewish church.” I declined.

          • Graham Lack says:

            Sorry, I overlooked that, but yes of course. When I arrived in Germany and filled out my residence permit I put CofE in the box marked religion, but was told I had only two options, “K” or “E”. So I left it blank and was automatically opted out.

    • Graham Lack says:

      PS: You are right in essence that a parish church now faces a GEMA charge for the performance of one work. The situation, quelle surprise, is a little more complex: the bill is calculated by the GEMA for the submitted programme (the “Musikliste”) as a whole, thus, if all works performed are in the public domain there is no charge; if only one work (regardless of its length and the forces involved) is GEMA registered, the promoter gets a 50% discount; if two works are registered, the promoter gets a 25% discount, but if three or more works are registered, the bill must be paid in full. Thus, three very short SATB a cappella works by e.g. living composers might be quite expensive, depending on venue/promoter factors outlined above.

  • Scotty says:

    The article in German says that the 75-euro per year offer is still on the table. Why the Catholic Church prefers a game of chicken with GEMA is beyond me.

    Also, Mr. Lack, are you sure that the size of the venue doesn’t affect the payment to the composer? My impression has been otherwise, although decoding GEMA statements is so difficult that it’s possible that I misunderstood.

    • Graham Lack says:

      Good question: by way of example, a 15 minute string quartet generates 57€ for the composer and 28€ for the publisher.

    • Graham Lack says:

      PS: the best link is where it is possible to ascertain that, e.g., a choral work for 1v to 4vv either a cappella or with 1-2 instruments and that is 5 minutes or longer but shorter than 10 will earn you in the category “Ernste Musik” (E, i.e. serious or classical not U, “Unterhaltungsmusik”, i.e. entertainment or popular) 96 points, which will then be calculated as royalties, i.e. quarterly remuneration.

  • Herbert Gussett says:

    Germany has an odd church tax if you opt out of paying it, they will not hatch match or despatch you!

  • Sue says:

    Well – Jesus, Mary and Joseph – what next!!

  • Sharon says:

    Maybe there is something I am missing here but I know that at least in the New York City the Catholic churches and their church halls, in contrast to other churches, seldom rent out their facilities to outside organizations or even related private events. For ex. there will not be a wedding reception in a Catholic church social hall even after the ceremony which is held in the sanctuary. Occasionally an exception will be made for a fundraiser for a charity the church supports, but that will not generally be in the sanctuary. Once I even attended a chamber opera in a sanctuary in a Catholic church in New York City but that was very unusual. The church generally does not need the money for the rent of the hall or sanctuary and it seems to me that they believe that outside activities like providing venues for organists and others to perform modern secular music may somehow distract from their main purpose, especially if the event is to be held in the sanctuary or may contaminate or disrupt an altar in some way.
    Perhaps something like this is going on in Germany; the dioceses involved want to discourage local churches from involving themselves in outside arts activities, especially those involving sacred spaces, and are using the price increase as an excuse to do it.

    • Scotty says:

      As I wrote above, that isn’t the situation here in Germany. It seems as though hosting contemporary arts is a strategy for reaching out to the community. I’ve performed in, had my music performed in, and attended many concerts of contemporary music in churches here, primarily Catholic, since I live in a predominately Catholic province. My guess is that the national representatives of the church just didn’t anticipate GEMA’s action.

      • Graham Lack says:

        Very perspicacious of you. I think the Catholic Church in Germany simply wants fewer concerts in general, and is trying to focus or refocus at least its congregation on things liturgical and inherently purely faith based. They might not have sensed that the GEMA had meant business, but the church’s advisors in the field of media are a canny lot. For those with German, the link to the “Verband der Diözesen” (Association of Bishoprics) is: and they might be seen as the villain of the piece, as it was their decision not to accept the new (wholly fair) terms and allow the GEMA to let the annual contract run out at the end of 2017.