Music Philosophy

As I was speaking with a fellow musician today (he is the teacher in whose classroom I am student teaching), we got onto the subject of jazz. I mentioned that I can’t stand to listen to a jazz station for long periods. This got us into a good conversation about modern music and what gives good music its “edge.” I have a few philosophical points to share on this:

  1. All music comes from somewhere. It may be an outgrowth of the culture from which it springs. It may be a facsimile of what the musicians have heard before. Music has origins, from a child playing chopsticks to the newest punk rock band. If you analyzed every musical influence which has brushed past my ears, you could probably identify where every good musical idea I’ve had was used by somebody before me. Real musicians steal. No, I take that back. Real musicians take existing elements and organize them into a recognizable, effective form. Isn’t that what God did when creating the world?
  2. The best music is organic. I don’t mean that it’s free from pesticides and genetic modification. I mean that the best music has a refined human element. Various software tries to emulate human musical performance, and some do a good job. But the best music is felt not only by the audience, but by the performer in the very act. It contains human characteristics (like trademark imperfections) that make it real. The best music is never played the same twice, because the right interpretation for the moment is determined by the venue and the audience and what the musicians had for dinner. Little things that seem inconsequential change the performance immensely for musicians who are willing to follow the natural unfolding of music.
  3. Good musicians are becoming fewer in the world. Why? Attention span, for one. How many children have the drive to practice an instrument daily? How many adults? I see a critical difference between this generation and the generation of our parents: mediocre music no longer requires musicians. Before the technology of the 90s and beyond put a studio within the grasp of any bozo with a synthesizer, making music required live musicians. There were, of course, recordings, but they were made with live musicians as well. Now, musicianship has become novel. It is one thing to play Guitar Hero and quite another to be a musician. But disturbingly, many of us under 30 devote significantly more time to video games than to any real skill-building activity.

Colombia

I just returned from a fantastic week in Colombia. Yes, that Colombia. I participated with a choir from our university in an international festival of sacred music during Holy Week. It was fantastic. I will not give an extensive travelogue at this point – I will only say that there are two Colombias: the one you see on CNN and the one I visited. They hardly resemble one another. The people were completely warm and welcoming, and for most of the journey, I felt completely safe. Also, some of the beautiful Latin people I visited expressed similar sentiments – we as people did not reflect what they knew of the United States as a whole.

All people are children of God, and this was confirmed to me in a land where U.S. government employees are forbidden to ride the bus.

State of the LDS Music Union 2007

On the LDS Musicians Yahoo group, Michael R. Hicks proposed that we look back on the past ten years in the LDS music industry and reflect on our progress in specific areas. To avoid posting one huge block of text, I will post my “State of the (LDS Music) Union” address in topical segments, beginning with the preamble:

Disclaimer:

In 1997 I was a freshman in high school and I had never heard of EFY (I subsequently attended in 1998). I started seriously writing LDS music in 2000, but I did not do any performances of it in the U.S until 2004 or make any attempt at publishing until 2006. However, I am quite familiar with what is out there – when I go to Utah, I always stop in at DI and look for “vintage” LDS recordings, and I have analyzed much of the currently available repertoire with some detail.

Essentially, I am new, but not inexperienced.

First off, I think we need to define the difference between “LDS music” and secular/general Christian music by LDS artists. They are not the same. Kenneth Cope and Jon Schmidt, for example, have significant followings outside the Church because they produce a segment of their products for the general non-LDS public. In this analysis, I am talking about music specifically produced for and marketed toward members of the Church.

Now to the list…

Songwriting (as a craft):

Much improved. I am especially encouraged that more LDS musicians seem to be writing on themes of the Restoration. Looking a decade back at the songs of Michael McLean and other similar artists, many of them were quasi-ecumenical songs (pretty, but with not much doctrine) which were mostly designed to make the listener feel good. I sense that among the good LDS songwriters of today (and there are also plenty of bad ones, as always), we have learned to teach truth with more accuracy and boldness while improving the music to which it is set.

On the other side of the coin, the LDS consumer has been conditioned to accept and perpetuate musical rubbish simply for the fact that it is “LDS.” Listen to KZION, for example (I do), and within an hour you will hear some lovely, well-conceived, well-developed music alongside some terrible, yet heartfelt, songs with four chords and lyrics that don’t fit into the musical lines. Many LDS people are well educated in music, but consciously ignore their musical sensibilities when it comes to Church music. This was necessary ten or fifteen years ago because of the lack of good music, but we need to have a paradigm shift as a people and begin demanding excellence. We also need to become willing to pay for excellence when we find it.

Production values and Recording Quality:

They have increased and decreased at the same time. Part of this has to do with the reduction in cost for decent recording equipment and software. If I had started out doing what I do ten years ago, the technology I have now would have been far beyond my means, and I run a pretty bare-bones operation. It is possible to set up a home studio for $500 if you already have a computer. This means that more people have access to recording and distribution of music.

On the high end, production values have increased tremendously. You can listen to the current EFY CDs, and they are much better in sound quality and production than in 1997. However, a flood of amateur music is washing over the industry in general, and that is especially the case in LDS music where (as I mentioned above) the consumers don’t seem to care about quality.

Arragements:

I hesitate to say they are better. For recorded music, they require more gadgets. Synthesizers have improved, so the arrangements sound better in production. Some, like Mack Wilberg, Tyler Castleton, and Enoch Train, have certainly bloomed in their arranging skills in the last decade. But as far as the overall quality of most arrangements we hear, both on CDs and in Church, I think we are continuing to settle for less.

Vocal performance:

Again, at the high end, we see that it has improved slightly, but the style has not changed radically. On the amateur hobbyist end, things are worse than ever because we hear so many more of them. (I should say at this point that I probably ought to consider myself an amateur hobbyist, but I do take pride in what I do and try to make it the best possible considering my resources.) I have not heard a new LDS singer/songwriter in the past 5 years whose vocal stylings were irresistibly wonderful beyond what is already available. So much is pitch-corrected, overproduced, and overcompressed (especially in the EFY subgenre) that actual vocal talent seems less of an issue today than it was ten years ago.

Other Considerations:

  • Marketing: It has generally become less ethical. Yet LDS people have also established a pattern of illegal copying, which makes real sales harder to make. This will be a big issue in the industry in the next ten years.
  • Distribution: It is more widespread, and thus more competitive. The advent of self-distribution online is good for independent artists, but not necessarily for the quality of product received.
  • Style overall: Too similar to what was available 10 years ago. We see many LDS songwriters but few great LDS composers.

Overall analysis:

Of course we have made progress, but I foresee that the next ten years will be significantly more challenging for the LDS music industry. There will be increased demand, but it will be fulfilled more and more by several small companies rather than a large Deseret/Seagull conglomerate. And Deseret will fight back, trying to buy out the little guys as they become popular. I predict that the songwriting and arranging styles will have to undergo a major overhaul in the next decade, and that LDS consumers will start becoming more discriminating in their tastes, so LDS musicians will have to rise to the challenge of producing higher quality music for which the LDS consumer will willingly pay. Overall, our industry is suffering from piracy and divisions within, and I do not see that those problems will be easily solved in the next several years. However, some will succeed, and they will be the ones whose focus is on sharing the truth more than turning a profit.

Free Music?

On the discussion board at KZION LDS Internet Radio, John Hesch asked me:

“…Nate, can you please explain why you think that spiritual music should be given away for free? Why should an LDS artist like yourself give away your music just because you song is about our faith? I don’t understand that way of thinking and you’re not the first person I have heard this from. LDS authors don’t give away their books, LDS movie producers don’t give away their movies, LDS artists don’t give away their paintings. As an LDS consumer I expect to pay for your music, art, books, etc. What I don’t want to do is pay more for your music, art or books just because it is about our faith.”

This is a question I get often, and a question with which I continue to struggle. I am posting my answer here as a statement of my current feeling on the subject.

Good question. I don’t think all music of a spiritual nature should be just given away, but I do think that it should be accessible. At this point I choose to give mine away because I have reasonably low overhead and I can afford to do so. But any way you slice it, 17 to 20 bucks for a CD with one good song is highway robbery (pardon the pun). Sometimes the ones who really need to hear it are those who can’t afford it.

I suppose it depends on the nature of the music and the goal of the artist. For fun songs or songs mostly for entertainment purposes rather than spiritual teaching, I have no problem charging whatever the market will bear. However, if I actually believe the concepts about which I sing in my so-called spiritual songs, I should share that testimony freely to all who would benefit from it. If I claim any degree of divine inspiration in writing a song, it should be primarily for the building up of God’s kingdom.

There are production costs. There are administrative costs. I don’t generally give away or sell my copyrights or place much music in the public domain. Music is still a business. I just feel that by allowing free access to the music and asking for donations, in time those with more resources will pick up the tab for those who cannot afford to pay. Call me a hippie public radio tote-carrying idealist fool. Maybe I am. At the moment, we are doing better than breaking even on web hosting costs, so I have no real complaints.

This is not to knock artists who use different business models. When I go into the studio to do session work, or when I teach private lessons, do I turn down my rightful payment? Of course not. I also encourage donations when people download my music, I do occasional commissions, and if I was offered a good job making LDS music, I would seriously consider the offer. If I decide to release a CD, I will certainly charge for it. But I will do my best to make it affordable, and I will always offer a good amount of spiritual music for free.