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.

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.


It has taken me a lot of soul-searching to decide how to react to this week’s Supreme Court rulings regarding the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8.

Let me say to begin that no person should be treated as less than human.  We are all children of God, and if we would treat each other as such, many of the problems in the world would cease to exist.  In practical terms, this means that true Christians must treat our homosexual brothers and sisters as our brothers and sisters.  The Golden Rule applies here.

However, when we get into the issue of tolerance, I am concerned that those who decried DOMA as intolerant will exercise their own intolerance toward religions whose doctrines do not permit homosexual marriage.  In the grand scheme of things, gay marriage as defined by the state is not directly relevant to marriage as defined by the scriptures.  The state’s role in marriage is basically to create a binding legal contract between two individuals.  Looking through that lens, it does not matter who those individuals are.  But in a religious sense, that marriage contract goes beyond a state-issued legal license, and there are specific requirements for the parties in the contract.

Churches should retain the right to make judgments about who can marry within their walls.  That is freedom of religion at its core.  These judgments, of course, are not just about the issue of homosexuality.  Churches may require worthiness in other ways in order to marry their parishoners in a Church-sanctioned ceremony.  For example, in order to marry in a temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the bride and groom must live by certain standards, including exercising faith in Christ, maintaining chastity before marriage, paying honest tithing, abstaining from alcohol, tobacco, and certain other harmful substances, and being honest in their dealings.

These requirements are not meant to be exclusive; they are set by the Lord as minimum requirements to enter into a higher covenant of marriage – one that goes beyond a simple legal contract, but includes a promise of an eternal family bond.  This is not just a civil agreement; it is a binding contract between a man, a woman, and God –  solemnized on earth and carried into heaven.

So while I am a proponent of peaceful coexistence and cooperation among God’s children, I am also clearly committed to preserving the rights of religious organizations to set their standards based on their understanding of God’s commandments.  This is not a practice of hate; it is a practice of faith in a God who is perfectly merciful and perfectly just.  A religion that is based on revelation from God cannot alter its standards based on public opinion.

Some religious people have acted out in hate.  They do not represent me.  But the fact that some have taken the wrong approach does not invalidate the position of those who desire to preserve their freedom to worship.  A position against gay marriage is not automatically a manifestation of hate toward gay people.  Intelligent people can disagree on difficult social issues without being disagreeable.

I acknowledge and respect and greatly appreciate the many positive contributions of the gay community and their supporters.  I would hope that they can acknowledge and respect the contributions of those whose faith may not be completely compatible with their choices or practices.  May we finally come to a place where we can live and work together without animosity.

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.

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.

A blog? Ooh, that’s original.

Yes, I’m demonstrating my innovative spirit and individuality by doing what literally everybody else in my age range and demographic has done: I’ve started a blog.  Finally, I’m unique like everyone else.

This one is specifically linked to my musical and artistic pursuits.  You will find information about my music and the process by which it is made, beyond the brief blurbs that accompany each piece at NathanHoweMusic.com.

It’s not exclusively a professional blog, but it’s not fully a personal blog either (I promise no pictures of my cat*).  I suppose we could call it persfessional**.

Leave comments.  Agree with me.  Disagree with me.  I’ll be listening, as I hope you do.


* I don’t have a cat, so that promise is rock-solid.
** Based on some intense Google searching, I think I’m the first person to use the word “persfessional” on purpose.