But why isn’t everything free?

Why free music at all?

This year marks my tenth anniversary as a self-publishing composer.  While I was writing music before that point, 2006 was the year I started my first music website.  I posted a few PDFs of original hymns with no price tag attached.  I had no idea what I was doing.

Since then, I’ve spent a lot of my musical life creating, promoting, and benefiting from free music.  I love that free distribution methods allow composers to build strong connections with performers.  I love that performers with limited means can access good scores.  Free music can build great relationships.

Also, in certain religious contexts, I think it’s admirable for talented composers to give a portion of their work freely as a gift to God and those who worship.  I would be quite uncomfortable if my spiritual life was directly tied to my business model.

A gradual change

Those who have followed my work over the past few years have surely noticed a shift.  I still publish several small pieces each year for free – usually children’s songs and hymns.  Sometimes I’ll also publish something larger without asking for compensation.  But most of my new choral arrangements and larger works are published or distributed by methods that have a definite price tag.

Why?  Have I abandoned free music?  Am I just another sellout who started with generous intentions, but somehow became ensnared by capitalist greed?

Not exactly.  Here are my big three reasons for limiting (not eliminating) what I give away for free:

First, “free” isn’t free.

It’s easy to extol the virtues of free music, but it is only free for the consumer.  In order to produce and distribute it, I still get to pay for instruments, recording equipment, computer hardware, software, web hosting . . . plus the education that helped me learn to compose was certainly not free, either.

I’ve accepted donations since I started publishing, and I’ve had several very generous donors.  But those donations don’t cover half of the expenses I just listed.

In essence, I pay to give stuff away.  I do it gladly, because I like it.  But over time, it’s not a sustainable model.  I want to be generous, not stupid.

Second, my time is worth more now.

I’m not talking about professional billable time here, although my value has risen in that way as well.

When I started publishing free music online, I was an unmarried college student.  I could spend hours and hours composing for the fun of it, and the worst consequence was usually a headache the next day.

Now I have a beautiful wife and four kids, and a pretty demanding full-time job.  If I want to compose for six hours, I either take that time away from my family (not good) or away from sleep (better, but tough).

I still make it a priority to compose, because it’s not just something I enjoy doing; it’s a big part of who I am.  But the time I spend to compose is not trivial.  I don’t do it because I’m bored.

Third, people value things with a price tag.

Right or wrong, to many serious musicians, the fact that a composition is offered for free implies that it has little musical value.

If I’m honest, I have to admit some snobbishness in this area myself: I’ve discovered that many of the free scores I have tried with my choirs are free because they are unsellable.  Bad writing and editing are common in the free music world, partly because the internet has made it so easy for anyone to publish anything.

Of course, that criticism is not true of every free score or every composer of free scores.  Some I like very much.  But mining through the reams of mediocre free music to find a rare gem is not a time investment most experienced directors will make.

Good musicians expect good music to have a cost.  Right or wrong, it’s a cultural expectation.  And I take it personally.  If I am going to sell something, I work hard to make sure it’s truly good.

Of course, I don’t sabotage my free works so my paid pieces look good.  I just make sure that I give extra thought, care, and attention to detail when I’m writing something I expect others to purchase.  And it seems to work.  I have received some great positive feedback about my paid scores.

So am I done with free music?

Of course not.  What I’ve published as free will remain free, and I’ll regularly add to that collection.  But alongside them are some great compositions that are worth the price of admission.

Whether you’re a paying customer, a donor, or just a fan of the free stuff, thanks for your support.  It’s been a great ten years.

Epilogue to the “Parade of Losers” Series

Several months ago, I wrote a series of posts with advice about sending music to the annual submissions for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  I did this by featuring my losing entries.  This is the series, in case you missed it:

  1. I Am His Son
  2. Baptism
  3. Sonnet on Endurance
  4. Series Summary

I mentioned that I finished the series before results were announced.  Now the 2013 results have been out for awhile, and I’m not going to spoil any secrets by talking about it here.

My submission for 2013, Like Sunlight Gleams Thy Grace, O Lord, has a long and strange history.  My good friend David Macfarlane wrote the hymn, and he submitted it in the hymn category a few years ago.

No award.

When that happens with my own work, I usually shrug and pick something else to send the next year.  But I really liked the message and melody of this particular hymn, so I asked David if I could arrange it as an anthem.  We submitted it.

No award.

At this point, I was pretty disappointed.  It was not because I just wanted an award and didn’t get one; I received a different award in the cultural arts submissions that year, so I certainly didn’t qualify for any pity.  I just knew that David’s hymn was beautiful and powerful (and honestly better than some of the anthems I’ve heard at previous Church Music Festivals), and I wanted people to hear it.

So I did something I’ve never done, something I wouldn’t recommend.  I revised the anthem arrangement and resubmitted it.  I worked hard to make it look good on the page.  I made some of the divisi optional in order to make it more accessible for ward or stake choirs.  I also included a digital recording (which is allowed only for orchestral works and multi-voice anthems).  I stuffed it in a manila envelope, mailed it off, and tried not to get my hopes up.

Award of Merit.

Did my edits change the substance or suitability of the piece?  Not really.  But according to one musician “in the know,” judges for the annual submissions can change from year to year.  As I said, I would never recommend that a musician should resubmit a piece to the same competition two years in a row, but I had an exceptional motivation and desire regarding this piece, so I submitted it against my better logical judgment.

I’m not sure if there is a moral to this particular story, but I do know that David’s hymn is awesome.  You can hear it at this year’s Church Music Festival on Temple Square.  It’s on Valentine’s Day this year – February 14, 2014 at 7:30 pm.  I’ll be there (weather permitting), so catch me and say hello if you attend.

And remember that this year’s submissions close March 31.  Let’s make some more great new music for use in the Church.

Next on Parade: Baptism

If you haven’t read my first post about this month’s parade of losers, start there first.

To review the big lessons learned from the first featured piece, I Am His Son:

  1. Follow the guidelines, including ease of performance for amateur musicians in the Church.
  2. Submit a song that will be flexible enough for use by a broad range of Church members.  (One exception might be the Relief Society Music category: you don’t have to write men’s parts to be inclusive).

Let’s explore a little more.  Today’s entry that didn’t quite make the cut is called Baptism.  It received a Special Recognition in 2008, which is similar to a runner-up.

I’ll be honest about this piece: when I submitted it, it wasn’t ready for prime time.  The sheet music I released today is not the same sheet music I submitted to the Church.  Some changes include:

  • Improved handling of repeats (yes, the repeats in this piece were even more confusing in my earlier drafts)
  • Dynamic and expressive markings
  • Fixing typographical errors

This piece was certainly not polished when I submitted it.  Additionally, as I look at the writing nearly six years later, some things could be improved.  The intro/interlude figure is nice, but it may be used too much during the piece.  The verses’ mixed metaphors may also become confusing.  And the piece just doesn’t look great on paper when compared with how I imagined it.

This brings up a big point: the committee that judges these pieces only sees your score.  If they heard you perform your song, their opinions might be different, but recordings are not accepted (except for complex multi-voice anthems and instrumental works).  That means that a submitted piece is only as good as its notation.

Still, I liked the song.  I still do.  The bigger lesson from this piece is simple: sometimes others will submit great music in the category you choose.  I’m glad to lose to excellent music.  It gives me a reason to work harder the next year.

Stay tuned for the next installment in this series.  At the end of the series, I’ll post a full list of my recommendations for musicians who are thinking about submitting their music.  The Church really does need more great music, and I hope that this series will help that to happen.

The next installment is here.

Let the Parade of Losers begin!

Wasn’t that a catchy title?  It’s true.  I’ve decided to post some songs in the next couple of weeks that have lost (i.e. not received an award) in the annual Church Music Submissions.

This is also my backhanded way to give advice on how to win an award in the Church Music Submissions.  No, I don’t have a magical formula, but I can give some solid advice based on success and failure.

I need to say up front that I’m not a sore loser.  In this competition, I’ve won my share of awards, and I’m grateful when I do.  But in the past few years I’ve submitted some pieces that are a bit outside the box, hoping that I can in some small way elevate the musical culture of the Church.  I expect that some of those risks will not pay off in the competition.  But when they do, I’m thrilled.

Generally, my losing entries are perfectly good songs.  But they didn’t win for a variety of valid reasons.  Of course, since the committee does not give the submitters any critiques, these reasons are just guesses.  But I think they are pretty educated guesses since I’ve had the privilege of hearing so many of the winners over the past several years.

The losing entry I’ve posted today is I Am His Son.  I submitted it in the Primary Song division of the General Music category.  Why do I think it didn’t win?  Triplets.

There may be other reasons, too, but I think the triplets were the biggest drawback to this piece.  A lot of people think triplets are hard to sing and play.  Remember that one criterion for these submissions is ease of performance, especially Primary music.  I decided to take a risk by submitting a primary song that had a whopping 5 sets of quarter-note triplets in the refrain.

Add that to the fact that the song is written specifically for boys (so the whole Primary wouldn’t be able to participate in performing it), and it was just not a winner for this competition.

That said, the song fulfills the purpose for which it was written.  And for the record, the triplets in this piece are remarkably easy for kids to sing (my 3- and 5-year-old boys can do it).  It’s just not what the committee wanted.

Click for the next loser in this potentially fascinating series!

Practice is theory is practice.

I’ve been pondering the idea of music theory lately.  As some of you know, my choral setting of the text Far Far Away on Judea’s Plains has recently been published by Jackman Music.

Having a print publication out there opens me up for some criticism.  On the one side, I’ll hear from people who know just enough theory to be dangerous: “Um, didn’t you see all the parallel fifths?  They’re even in the first measure!”

For the record, yes.  I saw them.  Actually, I wrote them.  On purpose.

On the other end of the spectrum, I’ll have some comments from people who are very well-versed in theory: “It was a good attempt, I suppose.  But didn’t you it came out a bit predictable?

If you equate listenability with predictability, I suppose you’ll apply that label to most music.

The trouble is that for so many musicians, a working knowledge of music theory gives a false sense of expertise.  Traditionalists want stringent adherence to rules.  Never mind that the greatest composers in history intentionally broke those rules on occasion; we must honor their memory by following the rules without deviation.

Some modernists, on the other hand, find the rules of tonality and trite and boring, and they dismiss any music that follows the rules as unoriginal, repetitive, and dull.

The problem in music theory, as in politics, is that there are so few moderates.  I suppose this makes sense: how many people are passionately moderate about a given subject?  I have never seen a rally to encourage moderation on any issue; it’s either left or right, either for or against.  In music theory, it’s either traditional or modern.

Here’s my trouble: I agree that music written strictly by the rules is often dry and unappealing.  I also agree that music written without any rules is often unpleasant and irrelevant to the audience.  I want to have it both ways.

So like so many other composers do, I pick and choose.  I decide when I want to be tonal and when I want to be atonal.  I sometimes resolve suspensions properly, and I sometimes don’t.  I am not a Mozart or a Beethoven, but I do something they did: I write what sounds good to my ears.  My audiences generally seem to appreciate and agree with those choices.

In my listening, I also try to be empathetic.  I listen for what the composer was trying to accomplish and the road he took to get there.  I consciously choose to avoid thoughts about how I would have done it differently.  All composers (even those I really can’t stand) have lessons to teach and techniques to examine.

Theory is a science that simply examines practice.  Practice comes first.  Musicians make music first, and then theoreticians dissect it.  Some theoreticians do become great composers, but they must bring more than theory to the table; they must combine their knowledge with an undefinable human element in order to make organic music.

Essay: Why I Don’t Listen Like You

I teach music for a living.  At the beginning of the semester, kids who are just getting to know me always ask the same question: Mister, what music do you listen to?

I never know quite how to respond.  If I say I don’t really listen to much music, I sound like the least credible music teacher in history.  Occasionally I fib and name a few styles that I enjoyed . . . back when I listened mindlessly.  The truth is that I still listen to plenty of music, but the way I listen is weird.

Getting Consumed

Let’s go back for a minute.  Do you remember the days when the primary way to find new music was the radio?  For decades, we cared about the top 40 – that is, the top 40 songs that were played on the radio, as chosen mainly by people who ran the stations.  The record companies and station managers largely dictated our taste in music.  They were right a lot of the time.  From the Beatles to Sinatra to Journey, they placed pop music in our ears that was worth hearing.  They also promoted some music that was not so great.  That’s radio – delivering popular products to a large consumer base.

Fast forward to this decade.  Radio is still around, but we have Pandora, last.fm, and hundreds of smaller internet radio options.  Those services still take on the job of curating and promoting music, most often by genre.  Although the range of options has expanded, the idea is the same: you will hear what somebody else thinks you will like – and what they think you will buy.

We’ve added deeper social connections to the process, too.  Now if I listen to a song on just about any online music service, my contacts on Twitter, Facebook, and other networks can see what I heard and click to listen themselves.  The addictive system is optimized for maximum consumption.

YouTube, MySpace, and related technologies have democratized music promotion a little bit.  It is now possible for a kid making music in his mom’s basement to become moderately well-known (like Adam Young of Owl City); however, the big labels are still heavily promoted, and the little guys with real talent are hard to discover.

So basically, it’s very difficult to find music that I like because I like it, and not because a company is trying to sell me something.

Learn More = Consume Less

When I first began really looking at the labels on the food I eat, the immediate effect was that I consumed fewer calories.  I never try to diet, and I still eat some junk, but simply knowing what is in the food I eat causes me to make conscious choices.

Music is similar.  A person without a good music education may happily listen to whatever music is in the environment.  When people truly don’t know about music, they can listen without listening.  They can consume without caring.  But as soon as they start to understand how music works, they cannot listen without noticing – and having a strong opinion about – certain components of every song.

For me, that means that much of the pop music my peers have adored over the years seems bland and formulaic.  After a very satisfying half hour listening to Brahms, it’s hard to turn around and try to enjoy Taylor Swift’s latest offering.  I suppose if you’re accustomed to eating handmade artisinal cheese, it’s really hard to go back to Velveeta.

That’s not to say that all people who know a lot about music end up liking the same music.  Whether it’s the Foo Fighters or Stravinsky, interesting music will always have educated critics and advocates.  But education always encourages the formation of an opinion, one way or the other.  There is no neutral ground.

That’s why the radio (analog or internet) is hard for me to consume: if I have time to listen to music, I want to choose what I hear.  The iTunes music library is already so vast that I cannot hear everything in it by the time I die.  Life is literally too short to waste with music that I find annoying or uninteresting.

The Real Reason

These frustrations are not the primary reasons why I don’t listen to music nearly as much as my students.  They are convenient excuses, but they don’t tell the real story.

I listen less because when I listen to others’ music, I am not creating my own.  This applies to the broader scope of creative experience: When you read, you are not writing.  When you watch videos, you are not creating them.  Consumption and creation do not generally happen at the same time.

I have students who claim they cannot do homework without listening to music or watching TV at the same time.  Conversely, when there is music playing, I cannot ignore it.  I may dislike it, but my mind must dissect it.  Analysis has become involuntary.  That is the biggest reason I must do all of my real work in silence.

One of my kids stuck the change from my ashtray into the tape deck in my car, and the resulting electrical problems rendered my radio useless.  That was about two years ago.  At first, I was annoyed at the inconvenience of having to fill long drives with my own thoughts instead of having them given to me over the air.  Now, I appreciate the rare solitude provided by my inability to tune in during my brief commutes.  I develop my best musical and poetic ideas when I am on a bicycle, but now my car is a close second, because I have to think for myself.

Music is more powerful than we acknowledge.  The next time one of my students asks What do you listen to?  I’m still not sure how I will answer.  But inside, I know what I will think:  Less is more.

May we all consume our media with a little more attention and intent, and a little less by accident.

Notes on For the Beauty of the Earth

After Martin Prachař had spent many hours working on a beautiful instrumental recording of my men’s choir arrangement of Abide with Me, I asked him if I might arrange one of his favorite hymns.  He said, “as the spring came in fast this year and brought in hope, I have been really feeling like singing For the Beauty of the Earth…”

I began work immediately on an arrangement that I soon discarded.  When I arrange, I want to bring something fresh to the song.  If I cannot improve upon the original, an arrangement is a waste of time.  I felt that the tune of the hymn was already well harmonized, and I didn’t want to tinker with it too much.  I got frustrated and walked away from the project for over six months.

In January 2013, my family and I attended the funeral of a brilliant mathematician and scientist, John Downing.  The closing hymn at the service was For the Beauty of the Earth.  This brought the song back to the front of my mind.

Last week, I was sitting at the piano and working out a little tune, and the lyrics to For the Beauty of the Earth began to fit with it.  I wrote and harmonized the tune, and then I went back to the original hymn tune by Conrad Kocher.  I was able to quote that melody in the bass line of verse 2.

To me, beauty in music is achieved through shimmering dissonance as much as consonant chords.  That aesthetic idea guided the voicing of this piece.  See and hear the results here.