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.

My best Craigslist ad ever

See it on Craigslist:

Here’s the text:

Philosophers Wanted: Get Your Ideal Existential Crisis Car – $1999 (Fort Morgan)

Are you tired of the shackles of economic materialism? Dude, you’ll never gain any street cred with the proletariat if your sporty late-model sedan makes you a poster child for the bourgeoisie. You need this 2000 VW Passat Wagon now.

Let’s be real for a minute. If Max Weber, Karl Marx, or Georg Hegel were alive today, would they be driving Huyndais? Heck no (assuming you believe in Heck). You need some precision German engineering to help alleviate the pain of ontological shock.

Don’t be constrained by deontological constructs which dictate that a car should offer heat, air conditioning, or power steering. After all, Nitzsche says you are an Übermensch who can create your own values, right? Plus, if you die in a fiery crash (perhaps by driving into the abyss?), you can stay calm in your smug nihilism, because life and death are entirely devoid of meaning anyway.

Think about the intellectual thrill of pondering balance and dualism while scraping the windshield on the outside and the inside. Cars with working defrosters simply can’t offer this depth of philosophical experience.

If you’re more of a John Stuart Mill type, this car is more utilitarian than a sport utility vehicle. While providing necessary transportation, it provides very little opportunity for harmful hedonism. It won’t even tell you the outside temperature (see photos).

Sartre fan? Of course you are. Consider the benefits of the broken sound system with AM/FM radio, cassette deck, and CD changer. You will hear no sound from this radio, which is clearly a superior nothingness compared to listening to no sound from a simple AM/FM model.

By the way, if you happen to be a hard determinist, you will buy this car regardless of your contrary preferences or desires. You might as well send your money now. Speaking of determinism, you Aquinians out there will be particularly pleased to know that this car has never been in an accident, because accidents do not exist.

On the other hand, if you follow Berkeley and his explanation of bundle theory, the car is simply a collection of various properties, and the object itself does not exist. A few fender-benders shouldn’t be a deal-breaker if you don’t believe in the car in the first place (see photos if you are willing to temporarily suspend that disbelief).

You Whitehead-loving process philosophers out there will be ecstatic to know that this vehicle has experienced a change within. The motor was replaced around 130,000 miles by a previous owner. No documentation of this work is available, but don’t worry, just channel some Solipism, and realize that nothing can be known, anyway.

I am asking only $1999 for this extremely valuable vehicle (unless you are nihilist, in which case value is nonexistent, but you still can’t have my car without paying for it). You may think that this is a high price, but I subscribe to Adam Smith’s idea of enlightened self-interest. By giving you the opportunity to own my 2000 Passat Wagon, I receive remuneration that enables me to buy another car that will allow me to carry my entire family, which is not currently possible due to non-Sartre-approved oppressive government regulations regarding safety seats. As long as my children grow up to serve the greater good, the world will benefit from your purchase.

However, my asking price is intentionally high because, like Hobbes, I maintain that humans are inherently evil. This leaves room for negotiation between us.

The car is located in Fort Morgan, Colorado. The town is not the birthplace of Alfred North Whitehead, but it is the birthplace of Robert G. Whitehead, the man who marketed Blue Star Ointment. That’s close, right?

Act now, because if Heraclitus is correct, the car, my offer, and the world itself will have changed by the time you read this.

  • Location: Fort Morgan
  • do NOT contact me with unsolicited services or offers

Liberty and Integrity

Earlier today, I tweeted:

A few people asked me where I got the quote.  I am unaware of anybody else who has said it in those exact words, although the idea is very old.  The freedom of our nation and the morality of our choices are bound together.

For me, this sentiment is a matter of faith as well.  An ancient prophet was told by the Lord:

Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; and inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall be cut off from my presence.

(2 Nephi 4:4)

The Book of Mormon is filled with stories about groups of people who either lived with integrity and enjoyed freedom and prosperity, or else they turned away from their promises to God and suffered in bondage.  It’s one of the main themes of the book.

For me, those stories are even more poignant because they took place in North and South America.  This is a promised land, a place that has been blessed by the hand of God.

Many of us in America like to argue about the best ways to fix our nation.  We like to blame current and former political leaders, corporations, media executives, and others.  We spend so much time arguing that we don’t accomplish much.  Perhaps we should go back to the basics, beginning with this promise about our land:

And now, we can behold the decrees of God concerning this land, that it is a land of promise; and whatsoever nation shall possess it shall serve God, or they shall be swept off when the fulness of his wrath shall come upon them.

(Ether 2:9)

I’m not a doomsday type of guy, and I don’t think the United States will be destroyed next week.  After all, the Bible tells that God would have spared Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of only ten righteous souls.  (Genesis 18:32)  The backbone of America is a core group of good people who follow their convictions and live according to the light they have.  But if we’re wondering how to really fix the country, this is still the fundamental answer: we have to serve God.

So on this Independence Day, I hope we can all do a little more in this one nation under God to live up to our motto – In God We Trust.  Most often, we can serve him best by serving His children.  He has entrusted to us a land that is choice above all others.  We can entrust our future to Him.

May we maintain our liberty by maintaining our integrity, and may we save our nation with the goodness of our lives.

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.

A radical approach.

On the day when the Aurora theater shooting occurred, I posted a Facebook comment that got more feedback than anything else I’ve ever posted.  It went like this:

A terrible event. This reaffirms my belief that positive, lasting change will not come from external forces like new laws or new technologies. The “bad guys” will always innovate and adapt. No, true change must occur in the hearts of the people. If we can become a little more civil to each other, if we actually get to know our neighbors, if we genuinely care about those we meet, if we take time to listen to the lonely and empathize with the hurting — perhaps we can help some turn before they become “bad guys” in the first place.

It’s true.  The politicians will give long speeches on the types of controls that need to be put in place.  From gun control to birth control, they will give their answers to society’s problems.  But the only true control is self control.  If we can instill an intrinsic desire to work with love for the benefit of those around us, our society can turn around in just one generation.

Perhaps that will require shutting off the video game and talking to the people around us – a radical approach.

Who cares if you listen? Me.

The musical landscape has changed dramatically over the past half century. In 1958, Milton Babbitt’s article known as “Who cares if you listen?” appeared. Among other things, he questioned the need for composition with an audience in mind.  With the possibility of technologically-assisted performance at very low cost, Babbitt reasoned that an audience might not be necessary in the future.

That future is here.  With the technologies available, it now seems common that composers make music without any regard for the audience. The modern art music scene is especially trending in this direction.

Maybe the problem is inherent in 21st century creativity. We constantly strive to be unique, to travel some previously undiscovered musical course.  Perhaps, some think, the universe’s pleasing combinations of notes have all been taken, and to be truly artistic, we need to use only the permutations which the old masters left alone.

Maybe it can be simply attributed to ego. The composer is simply so smart that the masses will never comprehend his work.  This elitism is common among theoreticians who also compose.

I hope that in the future, I will be seen as a composer who dabbled in music theory, rather than a theoretician who just happened to compose.  Natural composers allow their music to be governed by sound; they let their ears take the lead.  Theoreticians are often more concerned with process and procedure than product and purpose.

Please understand, I do not advocate a return to strict tonality or a stop to innovation.  I simply suggest that music must be written for a listener, even if that listener is only in the composer’s imagination while the piece is being written.  Music written exclusively for the composer’s pleasure is contrary to the nature of music.

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.