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:
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.