Thinking Out Loud

April 30, 2017

A Cynic Looks at Modern Church Music

The first time I heard a bridge added to a traditional hymn was the addition of Wonderful Cross to When I Survey. I don’t know if I took to it the very first day, but I certainly grew to like it quickly, and as a worship leader, I’ve since used the Wonderful Cross section with the hymn Lead Me To Calvary, where it also works well.

Modern worship music has been greatly influenced by popular songs. Whereas a hymn generally just has either stanzas, or follows a verse-and-chorus format; modern worship will use introductions, bridges, codas, etc., and is often more prone to key changes.

Amazing Grace is another example. My Chains are Gone is certainly a suitable addition, I don’t challenge the musical or lyrical integrity of it by itself, or its fit with the time-honored verses that precede it.

To make the bridge stand out — or I prefer to say break out — musically, some of the chord changes in When I Survey or Amazing Grace are made more minimalist so that the declaration in the bridge introduces a powerful, triumphant transition. “Oh, the Wonderful Cross!” “My chains are gone, I’ve been set free!”

If I had a similar idea a few years ago, I would have positioned my finished work as a medley, not a new arrangement, but the chord changes necessitate the piece to be considered a re-write. And the original composers aren’t around to protest.

So it was only a couple years back when someone more cynical than me — yes, it’s possible — suggested that perhaps the motivation for doing this was financial. Then it was more than one person. Freshly re-minted songs that were formerly public domain can be performed with mechanical royalties (album and print music sales) and performance royalties (concerts, radio, television and even CCLI playlists your church submits) flowing to the composer. Nice work if you can get it.

I remembered something from years ago when I was working in Christian television. Unlike radio which used random station logs as representative samples, TV royalties were based on all logs from all stations all the time. When the ministry organization in question received some rather meager royalty checks for some tunes they had written, a situation emerged where (and this is a fairly direct quote from someone close to the process), “People who had never written a song in their entire lives suddenly found songs pouring out of them on a regular basis.” He was highly skeptical.

So economics can indeed be a wonderful motivator. I’m sure that the person who decides to modify an existing hymn or do a fresh arrangement takes time to study the lyrics and I’m not saying that some of these people don’t do this prayerfully, both before and after the process. 

Yes, I’m a cynic when it comes to such things. But you have to admire the ingenuity of finding a way to get royalties from songs heretofore part of Public Domain. A combination of total disdain and ‘Why didn’t I think of it?’

Occasionally these improvements to existing hymns simply don’t work. They involve a change in lyrical theme or rhythm or melody so as to constitute an unwelcome intruder. Like the guy who brings his accordion to worship team practice. Or the guy who wears a Hawaiian shirt to a funeral. 

Other times I fear that a generation of church musicians is being raised up to assume that this is how it’s done, and that adding bridges to existing hymn literature is the modus operandi of worship song composition.

But honestly, sometimes these new hymn versions can be the gift that keeps on giving. If the revenue is being plowed back into ministry, that’s great. Scripture tells us that we shouldn’t “judge the servant of another,” though honestly, I now find the cynicism was, in my case, somewhat contagious. But I’ll continue to “believe the best” that the starting place for adding a bridge or changing the chord structure of a song isn’t motivated by economics.

I hope you’ll do the same.

HCSB Prov 16:2 All a man’s ways seem right to him,
but the Lord evaluates the motives.

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April 30, 2015

How to Get Royalties for Songs in the Public Domain

treble clefThe first time I heard a bridge added to a traditional hymn was the addition of Wonderful Cross to When I Survey. I don’t know if I took to it the very first day, but I certainly grew to like it quickly, and as a worship leader, I’ve since used the Wonderful Cross section with the hymn Lead Me To Calvary, where it also works well.

Modern worship music has been greatly influenced by popular songs. Whereas a hymn generally just has either stanzas, or follows a verse-and-chorus format; modern worship will use introductions, bridges, codas, etc., and is often more prone to key changes.

Amazing Grace is another example. My Chains are Gone is certainly a suitable addition, I don’t challenge the musical or lyrical integrity of it by itself, or its fit with the time-honored verses that precede it.

To make the bridge stand out — or I prefer to say break out — musically, some of the chord changes in When I Survey or Amazing Grace are made more minimalist so that the declaration in the bridge introduces a powerful, triumphant transition. “Oh, the Wonderful Cross!” “My chains are gone, I’ve been set free!”

If I had a similar idea a few years ago, I would have positioned my finished work as a medley, not a new arrangement, but the chord changes necessitate the piece to be considered a re-write. And the original composers aren’t around to protest.

So it was only a couple years back when someone more cynical than me — yes, it’s possible — suggested that perhaps the motivation for doing this was financial. Then it was more than one person. Freshly re-minted songs that were formerly public domain can be performed with mechanical royalties (album and print music sales) and performance royalties (concerts, radio, television and even CCLI playlists your church submits) flowing to the composer. Nice work if you can get it.

I remembered something from years ago when I was working in Christian television. Unlike radio which used random station logs as representative samples, TV royalties were based on all logs from all stations all the time. When the ministry organization in question received some rather meager royalty checks for some tunes they had written, a situation emerged where (and this is a fairly direct quote from someone close to the process), “People who had never written a song in their entire lives suddenly found songs pouring out of them on a regular basis.” He was highly skeptical.

So economics can indeed be a wonderful motivator. I’m sure that the person who decides to modify an existing hymn or do a fresh arrangement takes time to study the lyrics and I’m not saying that some of these people don’t do this prayerfully, both before and after the process.

But honestly, sometimes these new hymn versions can be the gift that keeps on giving. If the revenue is being plowed back into ministry, that’s great. Scripture tells us that we shouldn’t “judge the servant of another,” though honestly, I now find the cynicism was, in my case, somewhat contagious. But I’ll continue to “believe the best” that the starting place for adding a bridge or changing the chord structure of a song isn’t motivated by economics.

I hope you’ll do the same.

HCSB Prov 16:2 All a man’s ways seem right to him,
but the Lord evaluates the motives.

 

June 15, 2013

The Homogenization of Ideas

Many years ago, when my life was more about music than about books, I met a girl — name truly forgotten — who had written a children’s musical that she hoped I could help her get published. Despite the fact that I worked in the broadest sectors of the Christian music industry, my interest lay more in breaking new territory for contemporary Christian music, not in the choral music product market.

But then I listened to the tape she gave me.

Without any formal musical training, this girl had conceived an entire cantata for children — theme unfortunately forgotten also — that was truly awesome.

I made an exception and got to work on collecting contact names for choral publishing companies I was already in working relationship with, and some expressed interest in pursuing this talented young woman further.

Greetings from NashvilleProvided she was willing to relocate to Nashville.

This is the part of the story that amazed me, and one which I fought tooth and nail at the time. “What good does it do,” I asked, “If everyone in the industry is waking up in the same town, driving on the same freeways, shopping at the same malls, walking in the same parks, going to the same churches, and dare I say listening to the same music? Isn’t this going to lead to music that all sounds the same?”

Nobody listened. In the end she decided it was too big a move that was not guaranteed to offer sure returns. Your loss. My loss. Kids who would have learned and performed her musical; their loss. Don’t know what happened to her.

The other night we were listening to overseas radio stations online. Norway. The Netherlands. England (but not the BBC which is geo-blocked in Canada). The one thing we noticed was the decisive absence of the telltale Nashville influence. The American guitar-based country sound — that permeates rock and other genres here whether we admit or not — was replaced by the Euro music sound of keyboards. It was a nice change.

The more southern U.S. the sound — apologies, Third Day — the less I like it. In a shrinking world, we still get to hear too little of what is a staple musical diet for audiences in Europe. Geo-blocking of internet radio and YouTube music videos is not helping. I’d like to know how much of that blocking is European-driven, and how much of it originates with the American offices of multi-national record companies.

The Christian internet of which I am a part is no different. Justin Taylor or Kevin DeYoung writes something and Tim Challies and Zach Nielsen link to it, and then all the Challies wannabes link to it on their blogs. Sixty gazillion Christian blogs all carrying the one story of the day and the same blog referrer advertisement for the $1.99 eBook download of the day.

Yes, people exist on the fringes, and bloggers like this one who try “marching to the beat of a different drummer,” but ultimately, we witness the homogenization of creativity and the homogenization of thought on a daily basis; people striving to carve out an individual  identity, but essentially all waking up in the same town, driving on the same roads, eating in the same restaurants, and playing the same four chords. So to speak.

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