Category Archives: Music

#163: So You Want to Be a Christian Musician

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #163, on the subject of So You Want to Be a Christian Musician.

I have been a Christian musician–performer, composer, arranger, founder and/or director of bands–for near half a century now.

It might be argued whether that alone puts me in a position to give advice on the subject.  After all, although I have recorded an album, it would be debated whether I was ever a “successful” Christian musician.  I am not in much demand on the circuit and never have been.  However, from the time I was in high school, later in college, and then during five years as first a disk jockey and ultimately program director of a major Contemporary Christian Music radio station I talked to dozens, possibly scores, of successful Christian artists, and nearly always asked them that question:  what advice do you, as a successful Christian musician, give to anyone who wants to do what you do.  I asked such people as Noel Paul Stookey, Dan Peek, Phil Keaggy, Scott Wesley Brown, Glad, Brown Bannister, Chris Christian–well, I don’t even remember everyone I asked, let alone what they all said.  However, four of them I do remember, and I will give you something of the gist of what they said for your consideration.  I will also comment on that advice, because I think it worth contemplating.  I also think, in retrospect, that it is probably good advice for anyone who knows what he wants to be or do, and particularly for those who want to pursue artistic endeavors.

Larry Norman, perhaps the original nationally known self-identified Christian rock musician
Larry Norman, perhaps the original nationally known self-identified Christian rock musician

I will mention Barry McGuire first–probably the first truly prominent secular musician to become a leading contemporary Christian artist, who had been with The New Christie Minstrels, starred in the Broadway production Hair, and soloed with the hit Eve of Destruction, but whose signature song following his salvation was Happy Road–mostly because I do not think I can articulate what he told me.  What I remember is that the concert somewhere near Boston had ended and he was out among the audience, mobbed by people, but he heard my question and focused his entire attention on addressing it, addressing me and the rest of the audience, as if the question genuinely mattered.  What he said, and perhaps what he did, caused me upon returning home to write a song entitled Mountain, Mountain, about being what God made you to be instead of trying to be something you perceive to be great.  That actually is a good starting point for this, but we will return to it.

I was one of several reporters interviewing B. J. Thomas at Creation ’83.  At that time he was probably the most successful secular artist to turn to Christian music as an entertainer, his song Home Where I Belong introducing the singer of Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head and I Can’t Stop This Feeling to a Christian audience, and he had a hard time in the Christian music field precisely because he was an entertainer, not a minister.  What he said, though, was don’t think you missed your break, or that you are still waiting for your break to come.  If you are diligent, many breaks will come to you, and if you are good you can make one of them work for you, and if you miss it, another will come.

Ted Sandquist was probably the original contemporary Christian worship leader, with songs like Eternally Grateful, All That I Can Do, and Lion of Judah.  I’m afraid that when I caught up with him after a concert, his answer could have been a wonderful book, delivered orally in under a minute.    He spoke about things he called scope and ministry, and to a large degree was the first person ever to get me thinking of some of the things I discussed recently in the music ministry series–along with whether your calling is to be nationally known or simply serve in a local congregation.  In short, his advice was to think in terms of ministry, whether you are called to it, and what is the nature and extent of your calling.  If you follow this web log, you have already seen the extensive materials I have written on that.

Finally, I caught up with Larry Norman after one of his concerts at Gordon College.  Larry is probably the original nationally-known Christian rock musician, best known for I Wish We’d All Been Ready, Sweet, Sweet Song of Salvation, and the album title Only Visiting This Planet.  The intensity of his response was overwhelming, and the focus of it was in the question, why do you want this?

Before I address that further, I should mention two things about Larry that I learned separately from that.  One is that he was known for a gift of discernment, that he could see things about people that they often did not recognize about themselves.  It may well be that he would have given different advice to someone else, but that this was what he thought I needed to hear.  The other is that he had a very hard life as a Christian rock musician.  Often he would play a concert and after the fact be informed that “apparently the Lord did not provide” enough money to pay him.  He was then criticized for subsequently insisting on signed contracts for concerts that could be enforced against those who did not pay what they agreed, and quite specific terms concerning what his hosts would provide such as accommodations.  He rubbed shoulders with people like Paul McCartney, but he did not find the life at all glamorous or enriching.  That might have impacted his view as well.

However, I think that there is a level to that advice that we all need to hear:  Do not want that; it is not something to want.

It came to me recently, as I had again heard a story of some Christian band that had been formed to provide music for one event who then found themselves propelled to the top of the Christian music charts and sent on national and international tours.  The famous story is that of Amy Grant, who at sixteen spent a bit of money on some studio time to record a song for her mother’s birthday, and the recording was heard by Christian record producers Brown Bannister and Chris Christian, who quickly signed her to a major Christian label recording contract and propelled her to stardom–perhaps the first contemporary Christian recording artist to crossover into secular success.  God clearly sometimes chooses some people to be “successful” Christian artists who had made no effort to be that; it makes sense that He has a hand in choosing those whose success appears to be built on years of hard work.  There are equally many stories we do not hear, of people who worked hard to achieve what never came, and of people who hoped maybe that one day lightning would strike, as it were, and they would be propelled to success, to whatever level of fame is found in Dove Awards and Christian music chart-toppers.  If God wants you to be there, He will get you there; it may be that He wants you to work hard at your music and stay where you are, and it should be sufficient motivation for the work that God is pleased with it.

It is also the case that this is not something to want.  The work of a “successful” Christian musician is hard work–constant travel, brief stays in strange places, one performance after another.  I have seen how tired such people often are, but this is what they do, and they will do it again tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.  It wreaks havoc with family life, as either you take your family with you to hotels or more commonly in a camper, or you leave them behind while you travel for weeks or sometimes months without them, sleeping in the “bus”, a modified camper shared with the rest of the band.  Those who make it work either managed to reach a high enough level of success before marriage that they were able to do very short tours and fly to most events, or have other jobs frequently as pastors such that they finish concerts Saturday night and are in church Sunday morning.  And the money is not all that good–better, perhaps, than it was for Christian artists a few decades back, but the entire music industry is changing, in a sense collapsing, so that even the major stars do not make what they once did.

Of course, it is not so much the money as the recognition, that you are on stage, people are listening to your songs on the radio and the Internet, you are traveling the world singing.  That is also called fame.  But then, fame in the entire music industry is not what it was–if you heard a list of the twenty most successful musicians in the world today, it is likely that you would not recognize several of the names simply because styles have fragmented, and no one is truly informed about rock, rap, country, Christian, and the wealth of other genres that command substantial but discrete audiences.  Take it from me.  I might not be a “successful” musician, but I am world famous–as a role playing game author and theorist, defender of hobby games, time travel theory writer, and general writer–and it has almost no cash value and very little impact on my daily life apart from that I have to do the work.  Or hear Paul Simon.  He tells a story of a night when he and Art Garfunkle were sitting in a car in a park under one of New York City’s many bridges, and a song came on the radio–their song, Sounds of Silence, which the disk jockey announced was now the number one song in the country, by Simon and Garfunkle.  At that moment, Art Garfunkle said to him, “Gee, wherever those two guys are right now, it must be a real great party.”  Being at the top of the chart doesn’t mean nothing, but it doesn’t mean much.

Of course, get enough fame, and you have to reorganize your life to insulate yourself against the crowds.  You are not going to get that kind of fame doing this, and the admiration you do get will perhaps bring a smile to your face from time to time, but it’s going to prove to be much less than you imagined.

More on point, though, and connecting what Barry McGuire said to what Larry Norman said:  this is not something you should want.  What you should want is to know God, to become what He made you to be, and to seek to do what He wants you to do in life.  If that includes being a famous or successful musician, He will bring you there; He won’t lead you where you want to go, though, only where He knows you will become the best you He made you to be.  One thing I needed to learn over the years was that had I been a successful Christian musician early in my life I never would have been any of these other things–I never would have written the role playing game or become involved with the hobby gamers whose lives I have in some small way touched, never would have undertaken to write about time travel, never would have studied law or written about politics, never would have become chaplain of an international online organization, never would have done most of the things for which I am recognized.  There was so much of who I am that I never would have discovered, that no one would have known, had God moved me in a straight line to what I always thought was the only thing I could do well–music.  He wanted me to become the teacher, the writer, the influence that I am.  I might have been a great musician, but I would never have been anything else.

Peter Hopper was the drummer in a band called Rock Garden, who played their penultimate concert at Carnegie Hall.  I never talked with him despite having a more than passing acquaintance with the band’s rhythm guitarist Dennis Mullins, but a few weeks after that concert, after they had played their farewell concert, I heard him speak about it.  It was what he had wanted all his life, and as he sat on stage playing for the crowd he looked around and said, is this really what I wanted?  Why did I want this?  He told us that God promises that if we seek Him He will give us the desires of our heart, and said that in his experience God had done that, given him what he had always wanted, so he would be able to see how empty it really was, and how the only thing worth desiring was God.

So don’t want this.  Don’t want to be a musician, or anything else for that matter.  Want to know God, and to find His path for you.  That’s the only desire in life that is guaranteed to be fulfilled and to satisfy.  It is also the only path that will bring you anywhere worth being.

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#151: A Musician’s Resume

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #151, on the subject of A Musician’s Resume.

I am a musician–always have been, a music major in high school, my kindergarten teacher dubbed me her “little songbird”, and I tell people that English is my second language.  I am good at it (I do not believe God intends for us to denigrate our abilities by lying)–but I don’t get as many opportunities to do something with it as I would like.

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I belong to several online Christian musician groups, and periodically I see notices seeking someone for a band.  I am always a bit hesitant as to how to respond to these.  For one thing, I am particularly bad at self-promotion and do not like to do it; for another, I have sometimes been rejected without explanation or, worse, completely ignored, and that hurts.  (Rejected with an explanation is always better, even if the explanation is offensive.)  Beyond that, well, when you have as much experience in the Christian music field as I have, you also have a lot of questions going into just about any opportunity.  Sometimes I think that the people trying to form bands haven’t really thought through any of it, and the questions confuse them.  So to resolve all of these matters, I decided I would put details about my experience, abilities, and hopes here, and in future refer people here who want to know more about me.

This is something of a confusing and oversized page, because it really is attempting to accomplish three different goals:

  1. Convey something of who I am to to anyone seeking musicians for solo appearances;
  2. Open the door to musicians who might be interested in becoming part of a reformed Collision;
  3. Communicate my availability to any band looking for someone with one or more of my talents.

While those goals are not completely compatible, they overlap sufficiently that three separate pages would be highly redundant.  Thus there is much here that is of no interest to persons in connection with any one of those, but hopefully everything that any of them would want to know is here.

It seemed best to begin with a list of bands in which I have been a member, and what my part in it was.  I am undoubtedly omitting a number of them, but the list is extensive even so.  I fronted[1] for all of these, but always shared the position with other members of the band.

Band Experience

  • The Last Psalm, evangelism pop-rock band; founder, director, arranger, primary composer, lead and supporting vocals, electric rhythm and second lead guitars, keyboards.
  • The Agape Singers, Luther College official ministry and promotional ensemble; student director, soloist and supporting vocals, acoustic guitar, bass guitar, contributing composer/arranger.
  • Jacob’s Well, pop-rock band with unfocused ministry for playing local coffeehouses; contributing composer/arranger, lead and supporting vocals, bass guitar.
  • Aurora, formed to support evangelistic outreach meetings; contributing composer/arranger, supporting vocals, bass guitar.
  • Topsfield Fair Evangelism Band, semi-official Gordon College ministry band formed for evangelistic support; contributing composer/arranger, lead and supporting vocals, bass guitar.
  • TerraNova, evangelism pop/rock band; director, arranger, primary composer, lead and supporting vocals, electric rhythm and second lead guitars, second bass guitar, saxophone.
  • Cardiac Output, teaching ministry band; founder, director, arranger, composer, lead and supporting vocals, electric rhythm and lead guitar.
  • 7dB, unofficial worship band at the Seventh Day Baptist Church of Shiloh which was exploring other ministry directions; co-founder, co-director, arranger, contributing composer, supporting vocals, third guitar (rhythm, lead, and impact), second bass guitar, keyboards, flute.
  • Collision, evangelism rock band arising from 7dB dissolution; co-founder, director, arranger, primary composer, lead and supporting vocals, instruments as 7dB but eventually moving to bass guitar only.
  • Silver Lake Community Church Worship Band, not ever really given a name, I was asked to help the worship leader organize musicians for leading music in services; directed as a vehicle of teaching him to direct, supporting vocals, bass guitar, rhythm and lead guitars, piano.

I have also done a substantial amount of solo work[2], and filled in as requested in other bands, most recently on lead/rhythm guitar or bass guitar for several of the monthly Relentless worship services at the Bridgeton Assembly of God church.

Notes on Musical Abilities

  • As a composer, I have written hundreds of songs in many styles, from choral to rock to country to jazz.  Dozens of these are still in my repertoire.  I tend to write when I have the opportunity to perform, crafting songs to fit the available ensemble.
  • I generally have avoided doing covers without a good reason (I consider audience participation a valid reason), and so as an arranger I have always found a way to make any song significantly different from the original.  I am particularly good with vocals, having worked with as many as six parts or as few as two.
  • My vocals are tenor–I was first tenor in New Jersey All-state Chorus twice, and have had voice classes and lessons including a session with one of the top voice teachers in the country; I have coached voice.  My comfortable range runs from low C (middle of bass clef) to high A (middle of treble clef); my effectively useful range extends maybe a minor third above that, a fifth below it.  I am very good on pitch and blend, and can keep a part well enough that if someone else loses theirs I can jump to it to put them right and then return to mine.
  • Some people rave about my bass guitar playing; it seems easy to me, except when I have to play a complicated part and sing a different complicated part at the same time.  I manage.  I have played several different kinds of bass guitars over the decades, but currently own a Carlo Robelli six-string which I tune to B Standard; I probably have access to a four-string acoustic bass guitar if needed.
  • I am an excellent rhythm guitarist who can name any chord you can play and probably play any chord you can name.  I finger pick and chord frill easily and understand how the position of the chord can impact the flavor of the music.  I am a passable lead guitarist who prefers to let someone else do the lead work and coach them if they need it, providing second lead support for double leads, back-and-forths, and similar passages.  I have never been able to find (or afford) effects boxes that I liked/could use, but I have done some cry off the guitar itself, and designed and built a channel changer box I use to switch to a louder channel on the amplifier as needed.  I have or have access to several electric guitars, none of them noteworthy, and one non-electrified acoustic guitar.
  • I consider my keyboards playing passable, useful for a band that doesn’t need a full-on keyboard player but wants keyboards for occasional use.  I’ve taught beginner piano and coached more experienced players in understanding different keyboarding styles; I write keyboard parts when necessary for a particular player to capture a particular sound.  Some of my songs were written on and for the piano as the primary instrument.
  • As to other instruments, flute and saxophone have been mentioned, and there are a score of others I have played and could play again.  My saxophone is badly in need of repair, but I have access to flute, violin, viola, ocarina, dulcimer, and probably other instruments I’m not remembering.

If you hand me an instrument I’ve never seen before, within an hour I will play you a song I wrote for it.  I’ve done it with the fife, tin whistle, recorder, dulcimer, and several other instruments.  I am no longer very good at tuba and don’t have one, and my trumpet playing has never been good and the trumpet needs repair, but if you’re looking for someone who can fill in with odd instruments, I probably fit the bill.

Equipment

As mentioned, I have or have access to a six-string bass, a couple of six-string guitars, a flute, and several other miscellaneous instruments; I also have access to a midi keyboard (seventy-six keys).  I have several amplifiers and quite a few speakers, a few low-end microphones, a sixteen channel mixing board, and miscellaneous equipment such as cables and mic stands.

I also have a sound guy who will probably come with me (Hi, Mike) who has a fair amount of equipment as well, and knows people from whom he can borrow more.

Minstry Considerations

I have written extensively about the relationship between music and ministry in previous entries on this web log; I have included a list of relevant articles at the end.  My own ministry is specifically that of teacher.  Although I would hope that would be integrated into whatever is ahead, I have long considered evangelistic bands very important and have worked with many, and I have also worked with pastoral/worship ministry bands.  If I’m joining your band, I’m supporting your ministry.

All of the previously mentioned bands were ministry bands.  I have undergraduate degrees in Biblical Studies from Luther College of the Bible and Liberal Arts (formerly) in Teaneck, NJ, and Gordon College in Wenham, MA (plus a Juris Doctore from Widener University School of Law, and a lapsed membership in Mensa).  For about the past two decades I have been the Chaplain of the Christian Gamers Guild, an international interdenominational Christian organization; I have published several books on Christian life, most famously Faith and Gaming about integrating our leisure activities with our Christianity.  I taught Biblical Studies at a fledgeling Bible College in Pitman[3], and continue to do so online through the auspices of the Christian Gamers Guild.

I was an on-air personality on one of the nation’s leading Contemporary Christian Radio stations[4] for half a decade, where I interviewed many artists and others in the Christian music industry, taught Bible online, and otherwise ministered to the listeners.

My Hopes and Expectations

I have done a lot of solo work, and am certainly willing to sing and play solo anywhere that wants me.  It is not what I prefer for two primary reasons.  The more important is that it is so limiting, because there is only so much one person who is not able to use computer-generated musical accompaniment can do alone on stage.  The lesser is that I don’t like to feel like I’m putting myself forward, so I insist on sharing the stage and the spotlight with others.  I have long told my band members that everyone in the band is there to make everyone else in the band look good, not to worry about how they themselves look because that’s the responsibility of everyone else in the band.  It’s easier to do that if there’s actually a band, and I’m not alone in the spotlight.  When I do solo appearances, I try to include some time teaching, because that is ultimately my ministry.[5]

If I “had my druthers, I’druther” reform Collision.  For one thing, the band has a name and a following including an extant album.  For another, I like the concept, the minstry purposes, the goals.  But I’m not wedded to this, and if someone is interested in including me in whatever ministry they are doing, that’s something I will seriously consider.

The vision for Collision is to be the band people tell other people they need to hear, to do music that is on the rock side of contemporary, and to use it to proclaim the gospel as an evangelistic outreach.  My expectations are that everyone plays an instrument; I’d like several vocalists, but understand that not everyone can sing.  The ideal instrumentation was conceived as lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass guitar, drums, and a “fifth instrument” that floats between keyboards and other instruments as needed; at our height we replaced the rhythm guitar with keyboards quite well, and lost the fifth instrument, but ran two voices (we were adding a rhythm guitar/vocalist just before we started losing people).  Again, though, it’s flexible:  if the Lord provides a different collection of musicians, that’s what we will use.

I expect that any Christian band will have some ministry purpose, and will have some understanding of what that purpose is, sufficient to articulate it to me.

My Limitations

  • I am getting old and have had two hernia operations; I can’t easily roadie the heavy equipment anymore, although I do have a hand truck to help with that.  I also struggle with asthma, and so have to avoid smoke, dust, and pollen as much as possible so I can keep breathing.  It also limits my physical exertions somewhat, but not as much as it might.
  • I am terrible at self-promotion.  I am not a salesman.
  • I do not have a space for a band to practice.  Collision practiced in my living room when we did not have a drummer, but with the drummer we had to set up on the front deck, which is very much weather-sensitive.  Whatever we do, we will have to practice somewhere else.
  • I am located just outside Bridgeton, New Jersey (Hopewell Township), a stone’s throw from the Delaware Bay if you’re Sandy Kofax.  I can get transportation, but probably can’t travel much farther than an hour for weekly rehearsals, less for more frequent ones.  Otherwise, my schedule can be kept fairly open, and I can almost always be where I promise to be (e.g., barring medical emergencies and transportation failures).  I expect that I would be able to arrange to tour, if the tour was going to pay for itself.

I have worked with seasoned professionals, and have trained rank amateurs, and am open to discussing options with anyone who thinks I might be good for whatever they are doing, or that they might like to work with me.

My Questions

  • Where and when do you expect to practice?
  • What kind of music are you doing, and are you open to including compositions by the members?
  • What is your sense of your ministry, your ministry goals?
  • What are your hopes for the band’s future–are you wanting to stay local, hoping to go national, or what?
  • How is the band organized–is there one person who makes all the decisions, or two or three people who are in charge jointly, or is it the theory that all the members participate in all the decisions?  Or indeed, are different aspects overseen by different members–one musical director, one financial manager, one booking agent, and so forth?

So if you think I’m your guy, be ready to answer those questions and get in touch with me.

*****

Here are those hopefully helpful articles about Christian music and ministry:

*****

Footnotes:

  • 1  I use the word “fronted” to mean that I would speak to the audience, such as introducing songs and band members; it also usually included sharing some teaching or testimony.

  • 2  When I perform solo I usually play an acoustic guitar and/or an acoustic piano if one is available on site; I sometimes play an electric guitar and/or electric piano.

  • 3  The school was named The Institute of the Great Commission, and was started by a local church named The Rock; I taught one term, but then a church split undercut the funding and the school laid off half of the four-member faculty.

  • 4  WNNN-FM, licensed to Canton, NJ, with studios in Salem.  Sometime in the late 1970s it was reportedly number twelve on a list of such stations, and when I was program director I was informed by one of the major label radio relations people that we were one of the fifty stations she contacted every week.  It was sold and pirated for parts a few years after my departure.

  • 5  My teaching is readily available on many posts on this web log, but #121:  The Christian and the Law is particularly significant as an example of a teaching from a concert, and #88:  Sheep and Goats as something I taught at a service which was not a concert.

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#150: 2016 Retrospective

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #150, on the subject of 2016 Retrospective.

Periodically I try to look back over some period of time and review what I have published, and the end of the year is a good time to do this.  Thus before the new year begins I am offering you a reminder of articles you might have seen–or might have missed–over the past twelve months.  I am not going to recall them all.  For one thing, that would be far too many, and it in some cases will be easier to point to another location where certain categories of articles are indexed (which will appear more obvious as we progress).  For another, although we did this a year ago in web log post #34:  Happy Old Year, we also did it late in March in #70:  Writing Backwards and Forwards, when we had finished posting Verse Three, Chapter One:  The First Multiverser Novel.  So we will begin with the last third of March, and will reference some articles through indices and other sources.

I have divided articles into the categories which I thought most appropriate to them.  Many of these articles are reasonably in two or more categories–articles related to music often relate to writing, or Bible and theology; Bible and politics articles sometimes are nearly interchangeable.  I, of course, think it is all worth reading; I hope you think it at least worth considering reading.

I should also explain those odd six-digit numbers for anyone for whom they are not obvious, because they are at least non-standard.  They are YYMMDD, that is, year, month, and day of the date of publication of each article, each represented by two digits.  Thus the first one which appears, 160325, represents this year 2016, the third month March, and the twenty-fifth day.

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Let’s start with writings about writing.

There is quite a bit that should be in this category.  After all, that previous retrospective post appeared as we finished posting that first novel, and we have since posted the second, all one hundred sixty-two chapters of which are indexed in their own website section, Old Verses New.  If you’ve not read the novels, you have some catching up to do.  I also published one more behind-the-writings post on that first novel, #71:  Footnotes on Verse Three, Chapter One 160325, to cover notes unearthed in an old file on the hard drive.

Concurrent with the release of those second novel chapters there were again behind-the-writings posts, this time each covering nine consecutive chapters and hitting the web log every two weeks.  Although they are all linked from that table-of-contents page, since they are web log posts I am listing them here:  #74:  Another Novel 160421; #78:  Novel Fears 160506; #82:  Novel Developments 160519; #86:  Novel Conflicts 160602; #89:  Novel Confrontations 160623; #91:  Novel Mysteries 160707; #94:  Novel Meetings 160721; #100:  Novel Settling 160804; #104:  Novel Learning 160818; #110:  Character Redirects 160901;
#113:  Character Movements 160916;
#116:  Character Missions 160929;
#119:  Character Projects 161013;
#122:  Character Partings 161027; #128:  Character Gatherings 161110; #134:  Versers in Space 161124; #142:  Characters Unite 161208; and #148:  Characters Succeed 161222.

I have also added a Novel Support Section which at this point contains character sheets for several of the characters in the first novel and one in the second; also, if you have enjoyed reading the novels and have not seen #149:  Toward the Third Novel 161223, it is a must-read.

Also on the subject of writing, I discussed what was required for someone to be identified as an “author” in, appropriately, #72:  Being an Author 160410.  I addressed #118:  Dry Spells 161012 and how to deal with them, and gave some advice on #132:  Writing Horror 161116.  There was also one fun Multiverser story which had been at Dice Tales years ago which I revived here, #146:  Chris and the Teleporting Spaceships 161220

I struggled with where on this list to put #120:  Giving Offense 161014.  It deals with political issues of sexuality and involves a bit of theological perspective, but ultimately is about the concept of tolerance and how we handle disagreements.

It should be mentioned that not everything I write is here at M. J. Young Net; I write a bit about writing in my Goodreads book reviews.

Of course, I also wrote a fair amount of Bible and Theology material.

Part of it was apologetic, that is, discussing the reasons for belief and answers to the arguments against it.  In this category we have #73:  Authenticity of the New Testament Accounts 160413, #76:  Intelligent Simulation 160424 (specifically addressing an incongruity between denying the possibility of “Intelligent Design” while accepting that the universe might be the equivalent of a computer program), and #84:  Man-made Religion 160527 (addressing the charge that the fact all religions are different proves none are true).

Other pages are more Bible or theology questions, such as #88:  Sheep and Goats 160617, #90:  Footnotes on Guidance 160625, #121:  The Christian and the Law 161022, and #133:  Your Sunday Best 161117 (on why people dress up for church).

#114:  St. Teresa, Pedophile Priests, and Miracles 160917 is probably a bit of both, as it is a response to a criticism of Christian faith (specifically the Roman Catholic Church, but impacting all of us).

There was also a short miniseries of posts about the first chapter of Romans, the sin and punishment it presents, and how we as believers should respond.  It appeared in four parts:  #138:  The Sin of Romans I 161204, #139:  Immorality in Romans I 161205, #140:  Societal Implications of Romans I 161206, and #141:  The Solution to the Romans I Problem 161207.

Again, not everything I wrote is here.  The Faith and Gaming series and related materials including some from The Way, the Truth, and the Dice are being republished at the Christian Gamers Guild; to date, twenty-six such articles have appeared, but more are on the way including one written recently (a rules set for what I think might be a Christian game) which I debated posting here but decided to give to them as fresh content.  Meanwhile, the Chaplain’s Bible Study continues, having completed I & II Peter and now entering the last chapter of I John.

Again, some posts which are listed below as political are closely connected to principles of faith; after all, freedom of speech and freedom of religion are inextricably connected.  Also, quite a few of the music posts are also Bible or theology posts, since I have been involved in Christian music for decades.

So Music will be the next subject.

Since it is something people ask musicians, I decided to give some thought and put some words to #75:  Musical Influences 160423, the artists who have impacted my composing, arranging, and performances.

I also reached into my memories of being in radio, how it applies to being a musician and to being a writer, in #77:  Radio Activity 160427.

I wrote a miniseries about ministry and music, what it means to be a minister and how different kinds of ministries integrate music.  It began by saying not all Christian musicians are necessarily ministers in #95:  Music Ministry Disconnect 160724, and then continued with #97:  Ministry Calling 160728, #98:  What Is a Minister? 160730, #99:  Music Ministry of an Apostle 160803, #101:  Prophetic Music Ministry 160808, #102:  Music and the Evangelist Ministry 160812, #103:  Music Ministry of the Pastor 160814, #106:  The Teacher Music Ministry 160821, and
#107:  Miscellaneous Music Ministries 160824.  As something of an addendum, I posted #109:  Simple Songs 160827, a discussion of why so many currently popular songs seem to be musically very basic, and why given their purpose that is an essential feature.

In related areas, I offered #111:  A Partial History of the Audio Recording Industry 160903 explaining why recored companies are failing, #129:  Eulogy for the Record Album 161111 discussing why this is becoming a lost art form, and #147:  Traditional versus Contemporary Music 161221 on the perennial argument in churches about what kinds of songs are appropriate.

The lyrics to my song Free 161017 were added to the site, because it was referenced in one of the articles and I thought the readers should be able to find them if they wished.

There were quite a few articles about Law and Politics, although despite the fact that this was an “election year” (of course, there are elections every year, but this one was special), most of them were not really about that.  By March the Presidential race had devolved into such utter nonsense that there was little chance of making sense of it, so I stopped writing about it after talking about Ridiculous Republicans and Dizzying Democrats.

Some were, of course.  These included the self-explanatory titles #123:  The 2016 Election in New Jersey 161104, #124:  The 2016 New Jersey Public Questions 161105, #125:  My Presidential Fears 161106, and #127:  New Jersey 2016 Election Results 161109, and a few others including #126:  Equity and Religion 161107 about an argument in Missouri concerning whether it should be legal to give state money to child care and preschool services affiliated with religious groups, and #131:  The Fat Lady Sings 161114, #136:  Recounting Nonsense 161128, and #143:  A Geographical Look at the Election 161217, considering the aftermath of the election and the cries to change the outcome.

We had a number of pages connected to the new sexual revolution, including #79:  Normal Promiscuity 160507, #83:  Help!  I’m a Lesbian Trapped in a Man’s Body! 160521, and #115:  Disregarding Facts About Sexual Preference 160926.

Other topics loosely under discrimination include #87:  Spanish Ice Cream 160616 (about whether a well-known shop can refuse to take orders in languages other than English), #130:  Economics and Racism 161112 (about how and why unemployment stimulates racist attitudes), and #135:  What Racism Is 161127 (explaining why it is possible for blacks to have racist attitudes toward whites).  Several with connections to law and economics include #105:  Forced Philanthropy 160820 (taxing those with more to give to those with less), #108:  The Value of Ostentation 160826 (arguing that the purchase of expensive baubles by the rich is good for the poor), #137:  Conservative Penny-pinching 161023 (discussing spending cuts), and #145:  The New Internet Tax Law 161219 (about how Colorado has gotten around the problem of charging sales tax on Internet purchases).

A few other topics were hit, including one on freedom of speech and religion called #144:  Shutting Off the Jukebox 161218, one on scare tactics used to promote policy entitled #80:  Environmental Blackmail 160508, and one in which court decisions in recent immigration cases seem likely to impact the future of legalized marijuana, called #96:  Federal Non-enforcement 160727.

Of course Temporal Anomalies is a popular subject among the readers; the budget has been constraining of late, so we have not done the number of analyses we would like, but we did post a full analysis of Time Lapse 160402.  We also reported on #85:  Time Travel Coming on Television 160528, and tackled two related issues, #81:  The Grandfather Paradox Problem 160515 and #117:  The Prime Universe 160930.

We have a number of other posts that we’re categorizing as Logic/Miscellany, mostly because they otherwise defy categorization (or, perhaps, become categories with single items within them).  #92:  Electronic Tyranny 060708 is a response to someone’s suggestion that we need to break away from social media to get our lives back.  #93:  What Is a Friend? 060720 presents two concepts of the word, and my own preference on that.  #112:  Isn’t It Obvious? 160904 is really just a couple of real life problems with logical solutions.  I also did a product review of an old washing machine that was once new, Notes on a Maytag Centennial Washing Machine 160424.

Although it does not involve much writing, with tongue planted firmly in cheek I offer Gazebos in the Wild, a Pinterest board which posts photographs with taxonomies attempting to capture and identify these dangerous wild creatures in their natural habitats.  You would have to have heard the story of Eric and the Gazebo for that to be funny, I think.

Of course, I post on social media, but the interesting ones are on Patreon, and mostly because I include notes on projects still ahead and life issues impeding them.  As 2017 arrives, I expect to continue writing and posting–I already have two drafts, one on music and the other on breaking bad habits.  I invite your feedback.

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#147: Traditional versus Contemporary Music

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #147, on the subject of Traditional versus Contemporary Music.

I have probably had this discussion with quite a few people over the decades, but the one I specifically remember was Luterano, whom I knew only by that screen name through a small forum sponsored by a Lutheran Bible, book, and gift shop.  The short version of the story about what brought me there is that the editor of a now-defunct site called The Gutenberger had read my now somewhat outdated article Christianity, Homosexuality, and the E.L.C.A. and after some discussion invited me to write a piece for them, which was (preserved on my site) In Defense of Marriage, and this was the forum to which he directed his readers for discussion of the articles.

The discussion is about “new” “contemporary” Christian music being sung in churches and worship services, as against the older “traditional” songs found in our hymnals.  In these discussions I am usually defending contemporary music against someone who just does not like it, but who couches their dislike in claims that such music is itself wicked.  Luterano was different.  His view was that contemporary Christian music was simply bad, in the sense of being poor quality.  The music was trash, the lyrics pablum, the theology often weak, and the focus usually on the singer and not on God.  The songs just weren’t good Christian worship songs.

I should also mention that although I do not actually know anything about Luterano outside our forum discussions, my impression from those was that he was a young Lutheran seminary or Bible college student who was very serious about the Christian faith, but also the Lutheran definitions of it.

img0147hymnal

My defense of contemporary Christian music is not that it is better than traditional music.  I have a long history with traditional music, and have sung even some of the great works like Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s B Minor Mass, Mozart’s Requiem, Haydn’s Creation, and Mendelsohnn’s Elijah.  I have been known to break out into singing selections from some of these quite spontaneously; they are wonderful–and there are many other wonderful pieces that are less well known.  I have also sung Ives’ 67th Psalm, Poulenc’s Gloria, Randall Thompson’s Peaceable Kingdom–also all wonderful pieces.  However, these are not songs which your average person is likely even to enjoy, let alone be able to sing.  As we discussed in web log post #109:  Simple Songs, people need songs they can easily learn and sing.  That usually means songs with which they are already familiar to some degree.  The Reformers knew this, and frequently wrote Christian lyrics for popular folk or drinking songs, many of which are still preserved in our hymnals.

That is, of course, an important point:  all “traditional” songs were once “contemporary” songs.  They were of a style and manner that was familiar to and comfortable for the people of their time, and they had lyrics which touched something in the lives of those people.

That is also probably why older established churches sing a lot of older “traditional” hymns and newer fellowships tend toward the “contemporary” music.  A fairly high proportion of those who attend the established churches grew up in those churches or churches very like them.  I know most of the hymns in the hymnal of my present home congregation because they have been in hymnals in Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Assemblies of God, Methodist, and other denominational churches I have attended over the decades, and I learned them.  There is perhaps a bit of nostalgia to them; there is, more importantly, a high level of familiarity–if you’ve been singing, or at least hearing, a song since you were in preschool of course it will seem easy to you, while the same song to someone who has never heard it might be very challenging.  I love both melodies for Crown Him Lord of All, but I would not say that either is an easy song for someone unfamiliar with it.  And it is not simply whether or not the congregant knows this particular song–those of us who have sung barbershop know how barbershop harmonies work, those who have sung madrigals understand the structures of madrigals, those who have sung Bach chorales are familiar with that kind of song, and those who have not sung or oft heard these different kinds of music find them something of an alien landscape to be negotiated with difficulty.  If a song is already like songs with which people sing along on the radio, the familiarity of style and feel will make it easier to sing.  Many, perhaps most, newer fellowships, contain a lot of people who are new Christians, who did not grow up immersed in churches and singing the songs established denominational Christians have always loved (and let’s face it, even among us there are some for whom In the Garden and At the Cross are those beloved traditional hymns and others for whom the real traditional hymns are Onward Christian Soldiers and Immortal, Invisible, depending on the histories of our own churches and upbringings).

But shouldn’t we be encouraging these new Christians to learn and sing the “good” songs instead of the “trash”?

Well, yes–but how do we decide which are which?

Face it, most songs in any category are trash.  Even most of the songs that were the number one songs on the top forty charts in the nineteen fifties and sixties today have at best a nostalgic appeal to people who are sixty and seventy years old.  The best of those songs, probably relatively a handful, have a “retro” appeal to today’s listeners.  However, in some sense the “best” of them survive the test of time, and are remembered and passed on to the next generation, sometimes redone by a new ensemble.

What makes them best?  That’s complicated.

One would like to think that the songs which combine the best music with the best words would be the ones that survive.  Regretably that is not so.  Many songs which are musically interesting with truly wonderful lyrics die on the vine, as it were, forgotten before they are remembered.  For a song to succeed at all, it must primarily touch something irrational in the hearers.  People have to connect to the song in some way, and if they do they will sing it or listen to it, and continue to do so for the rest of their lives.  And those songs are the ones that capture the attention of the generation–and then it gets complicated.

It gets complicated because at least some of those seemingly great songs are embraced because they capture something vital in that time and place, something unique to those people–and those songs fade away as the world changes away from them.  The next generation does not find the same connection and does not keep those songs, and if the generation after that does not revive them, they’re gone.  Of course, some songs will capture the hearts of several generations, and they’ll wind up in hymnals being preserved; if they skip a generation they’ll often return.  Still, over time they drop from use.  Bach is known to have written over four hundred “chorales”, effectively hymn settings; if your hymnal contains five, that’s remarkable.

In fact, in our debate Luterano exclaimed that the Lutheran hymnal contained one hymn from the third (maybe he said fourth) century, as demonstration that there was great music with great words before the modern contemporary material.  I observed, though, that we can be fairly certain that during that century Christians sang more than one song during worship; the fact that this one has survived all those generations certainly attests to its appeal to believers across the years, but it also tells us that some unknown number of other fourth century tunes were lost as they were replaced by what were then contemporary worship songs, until only one from that time remained.  In the same way already songs from the Great Awakenings are being culled, leaving only those which still speak to us today; songs from the Jesus Movement are vanishing from memory.

The contemporary songs have no better claim over the older ones than that they are contemporary.  That means that they have a familiar style and feel.  It also means that they speak to many believers where we are in this time.  Some of them will continue to speak to believers for another decade, another generation; some might still be in whatever we use for hymnals in a hundred years.  Very few will last longer than that–and by then, they will have joined the ranks of the “traditional” music, as a new kind of contemporary music dominates in the new kinds of churches that exist then.

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#144: Shutting Off the Jukebox

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #144, on the subject of Shutting Off the Jukebox.

You may have seen the story:  someone complained to a restaurant about being subjected to the music during dinner.

I have much sympathy with this attitude.  I often find in public places that I am subjected to music I don’t want to hear–crying-in-your-beer country songs about adultery, popular rock songs about drug use, bland elevator music about nothing at all.  I would like to replace it all with music I enjoy, rather than risk having those “earwigs”, the songs that get stuck in your head for hours that you don’t like but have heard often enough that they stick with you once you are reminded of them.

But it wasn’t that kind of music to which the patron objected.  It was Christmas music.

img0144jukebox

Again, call me sympathetic.  There is a lot of music played this time of year I really find offensive–all those terribly secular songs like Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Clause is Coming to Town, or Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, that have nothing to do with the real point of Christmas.  Yet when it comes down to it, those were exactly not the songs to which the patron was objecting.  The restaurant was playing “religious” Christmas music.  I don’t know what in particular was being played–the Robert Shaw Chorale offers quite an extensive collection of sacred Christmas works, but so do Amy Grant and Casting Crowns, in a very different style.  What the patron recommended, though, was replacing Christmas music with “holiday” music, which I presume means songs like Silver Bells, Jingle Bells, maybe Deck the Halls, instead of perhaps The First Noel, Silent Night, or Joy to the World.  And so it seems that exactly the kinds of songs he finds offensive are the ones I would prefer, and the ones he would prefer are the ones I find offensive.

And that’s why we have our freedom of expression laws.  As we noted, the point of Ray Bradbury’s wonderful Fahrenheit 451 is precisely that if we permit everyone to veto any expression he finds offensive, there will be no expression left.  We can turn off the jukeboxes and retail store sound systems, and protect all our customers from the possibility that we might play something that offends them.  While we’re at it, we can shut off those music-playing-while-you-are-on-hold telephone systems, too.

We will be the poorer for it, of course.

As far as playing religious Christmas music, it should be noted that religious Christians are the reason we celebrate the holiday.  I know that people are going to object that many religions everywhere celebrate a holiday on or near the winter solstice, and Christians only put Christmas there to usurp the holiday celebrations that were already happening–but that’s not what I mean, either.  In the nineteenth century people were expected to work six days a week, with time off on Sunday for church, and the Federal government followed that pattern.  However, late in the century it was observed that on Christmas Day so many Federal workers called out “sick” in order to go to church that it was impossible to run government offices on the skeleton crew that reported for work.  Thus a decision was made simply to give everyone the day off with pay, and it was soon put into law (along with New Years Day, Independence Day, and Thanksgiving Day, which had previously been established as a national day of Thanksgiving but not a holiday).  Banks followed suit, because there were certain things banks needed to do when they were open that could not be done if the government was closed, and gradually the rest of the world caught up.  We can debate the ethics of Christians calling out sick to go to church, but the fact is that it was that action which gave us paid holidays.  Very few Christians go to church on Christmas Day anymore, but at least we celebrate it with our music and other festivities.  So if you don’t like the religious music, at least say thank you that there were enough people who thought the day was important enough to warrant a religious celebration that the rest of us got a paid day off work.

But beyond that, every single one of us has to tolerate some music we don’t like, because every single one of us dislikes something others like–whether it is a distaste for Beethoven or Beatles, for Rap or Rock, for Country or Classical, show tunes or ska, Ives or Jazz, there is no music that pleases everyone, and “no music” does not please everyone, either.

The jukebox worked on something of the “majority rule” system:  the owner tried to stock it with the records people were most likely to pay money to hear (the origin of “Top 40” radio), and the people picked the songs they wanted.  Not every public facility can accommodate everyone’s tastes, and so the owner or manager or someone in an executive position (even if it’s only the night waitress) picks something.  In some places, those choices are based on scientific consideration of what kind of music will get customers to spend more money; in some they are based on what the management thinks people will enjoy; in some it is based on what the manager likes, or what is available.  Most of us have no say in what kind of music people play in the establishments we frequent.

The person who complained was within his rights, and certainly in some sense was right to do so:  the management of a retail business of that sort should be aware if his music is hurting his business, and so needs to know the opinions of his customers.  It was not, however, entirely unpredictable that a large number of customers, and an even larger number of people in the outside world, would enjoy the Christmas music and encourage the owner to continue playing it.

The customer who doesn’t like it will have to decide whether the benefits of eating there are worth the aggravation of music which he does not like, or whether there is another restaurant which caters to people who want different music, or no music at all, whose food, service, and prices are as good.  That’s the way it works.

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#129: Eulogy for the Record Album

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #129, on the subject of Eulogy for the Record Album.

The record album is, if not dead, dying.  This relatively short-lived art form has fallen from popularity, and may soon be as forgotten as the vinyl long-play record that made it possible.

img0129abbey

It might be useful to recount some of the life of this entity.  We touched on this in web log post #111:  A Partial History of the Audio Recording Industry, but we’ll review relevant portions of that and continue with what is specifically of value in connection with the record album.  Originally, Thomas Edison’s recordings were one song per cylinder, but when his competitors forced him to move to disks they became one song per side.  Over time, as we described, we reached the point where a long-play twelve-inch vinyl disk running at thirty-three and a third revolutions per minute could put almost half an hour of stereo music on each side.  (There were a couple of quadraphonic albums made, but the technology failed to become popular.)

Initially a record album was probably not much different from a photo album–a collection of pictures whose only connection is that the same person took them, probably around the same time and place.  Even with early pop-rock albums, this was still the case:  early Simon and Garfunkle records are good examples of this, a collection of songs which are together only because Simon and Garfunkle recorded them.  However, gradually something else emerged:  the album as an art form in itself.

It was inevitable that it would happen.  Album art was becoming a major concept, as the twelve-inch square covers were a wonderful size for creating interesting images, and the interesting images were part of the marketing of the album.  Yet more thought went into creating albums not so much as collections of separate songs but as performance programs in themselves.  Albums like The Beatles’ Abbey Road and Tommy by The Who are prime examples of this, in which the songs connect together to create an impression, even a story.  Not every album was done this way, but it was becoming enough of the norm that it was the expectation:  the album itself says something, and was intended to be heard in its entirety, each song introducing the next, following from the one before, from a starting point to an ending point much as a symphony or an oratorio.

Indeed, when we went into the studio to record Collision:  Of Worlds, one of the points I made was that we were recording an album, not a demo.  The songs should be arranged so that they created a cohesive whole.  With a demo, you put three different songs on the disk representative of your range of style and know that you’ll be lucky if the target audience ever hears the second; you can put four, but the fourth probably won’t be heard unless the first three are truly impressive and show a range of style that warrants saying you do more than just those first three songs.  With an album, though, the transitions should be smooth, the story should advance with each song, it should all be told one step at a time.  The listener should come away at least feeling as if there was a message.

That doesn’t always happen, particularly in the hamburger mill in which record companies pressured bands to create new albums.  Artists sometimes went into the studio with no idea what they were going to record, and wrote the music while they were there–resulting in disjointed and uneven collections of compositions and performances which they then tried to promote as something meaningful.  Critics often complained that such albums contained one good song which was popular and ten or eleven others that were created as filler so there would be an album, and that complaint was sometimes valid.

Sometimes valid–but not always.  For one thing, artists almost invariably have great difficulty evaluating their own material.  It is known that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle hated Sherlock Holmes.  I can tell you which of my songs have the most meaning to me, which most impress me musically, which were the most challenging to write–but I can’t tell you which ones have the best audience appeal or are the most popular, generally.  That is, the songs I think are “good” are not necessarily the ones the audience likes.

That’s complicated by the aspect of popularity.  We’ve cited this before:  what makes a song popular is the appearance that it is popular.  Most people like the songs they think their friends like.  It’s more a social phenomenon than a measure of quality.  Many “singles” were released in which no one knew which side would get the airplay and become popular, but only one side did–the other was called the “B side”, and most people were completely unaware of what songs were on the flip side of most of their favorites.  The fact that a song is or is not popular cannot be a gauge of whether it is any good, in large part because no one could have known whether it would have been popular prior to its release, and in large part because popularity itself is not a measure of what is good.

Why does any of this matter?  The new marketing technology now has it arranged so that you can buy any song you want from any album, and ignore the rest of the album.  If you want a copy of Colour My World from Chicago’s self-titled second album (the first was Chicago Transit Authority, the second Chicago, sometimes called Chicago II for clarity), you can buy it and not get Make Me Smile or 25 or 6 to 4.  And that becomes the problem on several levels.  One is that albums often contain many good songs you will never hear because you bought the one song that you did hear.  Another is that you take the songs out of context–both Make Me Smile and Colour My World are part of what was called a “song cycle”, seven titles that formed a story unit within the album, but most people don’t know that and don’t know the other five songs because these have been excerpted from their original places.  Another is that you might like those songs you’ll never hear–and even if you don’t like them today, if you bought the album and listened to it you might discover that next week, year, decade, a song which meant nothing to you at the time now has significant meaning to you.  The first time I read The Chronicles of Narnia, what was originally the fifth book (now usually listed as the third), A Horse and His Boy, did not impress me.  A few years later I read the series again, and suddenly the imagery of Aslan having guided what seemed ordinary coincidental events to bring the right person to the right place at the right time to save his people rang so true with me that it quickly became my favorite entry in the set.  The fact that a song on an album does not catch your attention the first time through does not mean it’s not a great song that’s going to touch you deeply at some moment in the future, and you deprive yourself of that possibility by ignoring the songs on the album that aren’t your first choices today.

Besides, the concept of the album as a unit is part of the artist’s effort to convey his message.

I was on the air at WNNN-FM when Dan Peek released his first solo album, All Things Are Possible.  Peek was one of the founding members of the band America (Horse With No Name, I Need You), and it had become known in the Christian music industry, at least, that he had long prayed that if God allowed him to become successful with the band he would use that fame as a platform to declare his Christian faith.  The title track from All Things Are Possible has potential in that regard:  it was rising not only on the Christian charts but on the pop music top forty as well.

When I interviewed Peek, though, I asked him about whether he had any concerns about the fact that his song, whose title was drawn from the New Testament to suggest that Jesus made the impossible possible, was being embraced as a popular love song, and particularly among homosexual couples.  He agreed that it was possible to hear the lyrics–All things are possible with you by my side; all things are possible with you to be my guide–and miss the intended meaning, but that certainly anyone who listened to the album would know what it was about.  The true meaning of the song was, to some degree, dependent on whether the listener had heard it in its intended context.  What the artist was trying to say was not coming through to millions, because they heard what they wanted to hear, not what he wanted to say.

There is a degree to which the listening audience perhaps does not care.  If I like a song, I like it for what it means to me, and not for what it was trying to convey.  Yet that attitude does the artist a disservice.  The people who create communicative art do so to communicate, and if I’m not listening to what they’re trying to say, I am ignoring them and abusing them.  If someone has created something I have enjoyed, do I not owe it to that creator to understand why he did it?

Yet this death was inevitable.  When the MTV cable television channel went on the air, its first song was Video Killed the Radio Star, and it seems that it has moved beyond that such that the Internet has killed the record album.  Even many of my acquaintance who are serious about the music to which they listen don’t acquire albums or listen to them, preferring to compile their own favorites lists–easily done, and you only hear the songs you’ve already decided you like without having to listen to songs that did not appeal to you the first time you heard them.  We can say that the music industry lost something, but perhaps now artists will focus on producing individual songs that appeal to our short attention spans instead of major works that call us to invest something in the bigger picture.

I will miss the album, despite the fact that I have never been wealthy enough to afford to buy more than a few over the decades.  As a musician, though, I will have to adapt to the return of the what I thought antiquated singles market mentality, and focus on single songs instead of collections.

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#121: The Christian and the Law

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #121, on the subject of The Christian and the Law.

This is a rough presentation of the teaching I delivered at Living Water Connections Dinner Theater on October 21st, 2016.  It was drafted prior to that appearance and polished afterwards, but is not intended to be a transcription.

img0121commandments

Good evening.  My name is Mark Joseph Young.  It’s an easy name to remember–it’s a sentence:  mark Joseph “young”.

I apologize for that; it’s not my fault.

I have been asked to share briefly tonight, and since I am a composer and musical performer I will be doing several songs–but I am also a teacher, and it would be negligent of me not to share something valuable you can recall later.  And it happens that that first song [The Secret] gives me a wonderful opening, because it touches on an issue that is a huge problem for many Christians.  It was a problem for me for a long time, even after I had earned two degrees in Biblical studies: what is the Christian’s relationship to the Law?

We hear a lot of answers to this.  There are some who will tell you that the Christian is responsible to keep the entire Law, and that Jesus helps us do that and forgives us when we fail.  However, I don’t see a tabernacle or sacrifices, and I do see Paul making sacrifices in Acts, so I think maybe these people aren’t trying very hard.

A much more interesting solution suggests that the Law is actually several kinds of law, a ritual law, a dietary law, a civil law, but that the only part we are obliged to keep is the moral law.  Thus on this theory when I see a commandment like “Do not kill” I know that this is a moral law and everyone is obligated to obey it, but when I read “Do not boil a lamb in its mother’s milk” I conclude that this is dietary and doesn’t apply to me.  However, I notice that my Bible does not label individual commandments, this is ceremonial, this is moral, this is civil.  What about the directive that we not eat sharks?  Is this just a dietary rule, or is there some moral basis for the idea that sharks are a higher life form–not as high as man, but above ordinary animals and deserving some kind of special respect?  And what of that command about keeping the Sabbath?  That’s one of the top ten, but sounds more like ceremonial law than moral law.

What we find with this solution is that there really is no objective law but the one we decide–we make ourselves the lawgivers, and decree that God said these things and intended for them to apply to everyone, but these other things don’t apply anymore.  That’s not really a law; that’s us using scripture to support our own opinions.

It is obviously a vexing question, and you’d think that for something as important as this the Bible would have given us an answer–but it did give us an answer, it’s just that the answer is so radical that we don’t like it, so we ignore it and try to find a different answer.

You’ll find the answer–well, all over, really, but particularly clearly in the fifteenth chapter of Acts, what we call the Jerusalem Council.  The heart of the church was in Jerusalem, and several of the original apostles were there.  Jerusalem, being in the center of Judea, was populated almost entirely by Jews, and so the church there was comprised of Jewish believers who all kept the law, made sacrifices, ate kosher food, and circumcised their children.  However, up the road in Syrian Antioch Paul and Barnabas were part of a different kind of church.  Syria had some Jewish residents, but the majority were not Jews, were what we call gentiles.  Many of them had come to have faith in Jesus.  It was a mixed church.  And it was from that church that missionaries had been sent to carry the gospel to people elsewhere, so they were carrying the gospel as it was understood in Syrian Antioch, and it reached many more gentiles.

Some of the Jews in Jerusalem thought that these gentile Christians needed to keep the whole law as they did, to be circumcised and make sacrifices and stick to a kosher diet.  After all, the church’s own understanding of itself was that it was the correct denomination of Judaism–kind of like the disagreement between the Lutherans and the Catholics at the time of the Reformation, the former believing that the latter no longer represented the true faith and that they did.  If you were not Jewish but became Christian, that made you a child of Abraham and a true Jew, and that meant you should keep the Law as completely as every other Jew.  Paul and Barnabas disagreed, so they came with a delegation to Jerusalem to discuss it, and the church came to a conclusion and wrote a letter to the gentile Christans living in places like Galatia, part of modern Turkey, to tell them.  The answer was this:  you gentiles who have come to faith, you who were never Jewish, do not have to keep the Law at all.  It does not apply to you.  Oh, they suggested a couple things that should be done to prevent creating tension with the Jewish believers who were also part of the church, but these weren’t the Ten Commandments–one of them was don’t drink blood.

So does this mean that we can completely ignore the Law and do whatever we want?  Well, yes and no.  Paul explained it well when he wrote to the Galatians, probably just before this meeting, but he uses a word for which we don’t have an English equivalent because it identifies a specific household servant in households in the Roman Empire for whom we do not have a corresponding job in the modern world.  This person was almost always a slave, but he was given the task of raising the children and so was given complete authority over them.  He told them when to get up, what to do, when to go to bed; he could punish them, even beat them if necessary.  He was to see to it that they learned their academic subjects, did their homework, got their exercise and physical trainng, learned how to act in polite society, and altogether grew up to be responsible adult members of the household.  Then once he had accomplished that, he lost all authority over them.  His job was finished.

The Law, Paul tells is, is like that:  it was assigned to train us so that we would grow up to be responsible adult members of God’s family.  We who are Christians, we have become those responsible adult members of the family.  We act the way we do because it’s how our Father acts, and He expects us to act like Him.  We don’t follow rules; we act appropriately.

I have a wonderful example of this; I love this example.  How many of you remember Mommy saying, “Don’t touch the stove?”  Many of you have probably said it to your own children, because stoves are dangerous.  But gradually the rule changes, becoming “Don’t touch the stove without Mommy to help you,” then “Be careful when you use the stove,” then “I don’t have to tell you to be careful when you use the stove,” and ultimately the rule disappears–not because stoves have become safe, but because we have learned to use this dangerous tool safely.  Many of our childhood rules are like that, morphing into something else as we grow.  I still don’t fight with my brother over toys because I have learned that this is not a good way to resolve our differences.  I no longer hold my mother’s hand when I cross the street because hopefully I have learned to use the same care that she used when I was young.

This is not something I made up; the church has always known this.  It is exactly as Augustine said it was:  “The law for the Christian is love God and do as you please.”  He knew that was right because he understood that if you love someone, you try to be someone they approve, to be like them.  You don’t have any rules you have to follow; just be like God, showing love to everyone.

Which is a good segue into this next song [Free].

Video of the beginning of my portion of the evening is available on Facebook.

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#118: Dry Spells

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #118, on the subject of Dry Spells.

I seem to be going through a dry spell in my writing.  I had posted most of the “new” material I had written (the novel chapters for Old Verses New and the accompanying behind-the-writings posts being mostly material written some time ago that was reformatted for web publication) and wasn’t coming up with anything new.  I was concerned, partly because there are some things I publish on schedule, and partly because I don’t like to limit my output merely to those things I post on schedule.  I certainly have not been doing nothing; the routine writing has been moving forward apace, preparing the Bible study materials, working on the support materials for the novels.  To some degree, though, that’s a bit like practicing scales instead of performing concerts.

img0118desert

That music connection, though, reminds me that I have often had the same experience with songs.  I have gone long stretches without writing any new music, and wondered whether I would ever write another song; then I have suddenly written one, and another, and a string of new material, before going quiet again.  I no longer wonder whether I have written my last song.  On the one hand, if I have, at least I have written enough songs for whatever purposes they’ll serve in this life, and there are quite a few which have never been performed or properly recorded by anyone so I have some fresh material to use if the occasion arises.  On the other hand, I probably have not, and when it’s time to write another song, I’ll write one.

I have also noticed that I tend to write songs when I anticipate performance opportunities.    When the band 7dB formed, I wrote Heavenly Kingdom and Still Small Voice and a couple other songs that have never been performed, and again when Collision was on the rise it was Passing Through the Portal and again several other songs that I wish we’d managed to learn and play.  Note, too, that those songs were not merely arranged for those bands; they were written for them, capturing stylistic goals and utilizing the abilities of the group.  That has often happened–Selfish Love was one of several songs written for TerraNova.  Part of it is the inspiration, that I see a good idea that I can express in a song, but part of it is audience, that I have a reasonable expectation that someone will hear it.

So I am not overly worried about not having much to write today.  I will find something.  We are rapidly closing on an election, and although I stopped writing about the nonsense in the Presidential race quite a while back (after writing #67:  Dizzying Democrats and #68:  Ridiculous Republicans), there are races outside of that which will want coverage, so I’ll have to find out what they are.  I have sources and resources for that.  Besides, I know that some of you are reading, and some of you are posting my articles to your social media pages to encourage others to read, so there is an audience.

I often tell the story–in fact, I told it in one of the old Game Ideas Unlimited articles which are no longer available since the demise of Gaming Outpost (although it might still be in the printed copy of the first (and only) print installment of those), but it’s worth telling again, and this time for a different reason.  It is a story about my parents.  My mother was New York City born and bred, graduated from City College of New York at nineteen, fast moving, fast talking, efficient.  My father moved to New York from Mississippi after getting his degree from Georgia Tech, and he was every bit the slow southern gentleman.  He met her at church, where she originally attempted to pair him up with a girl from Virginia, but his interest was immediately in her.  Eventually they were “courting”, as people did then, and since they both lived on Long Island and worked in the city he rode with her on the train.  There was another man, not another suitor but an older man who had been riding on the train with her and continued to do so, who did not think that my quiet reserved father was at all the right man for my on-the-move mother.  Then one day as my mother was speaking in her rapid hundred-words-per-minute patter, she abruptly stopped, and cried, “Oh!  IForgotWhatIWasGoingToSay!” (yes, just like that, as if it were all one word–that’s how she used to talk all the time).  My father replied, without even shifting his eyes, “Don’t worry dear.  You’ll think of something else.”  The other man roared with laughter, and thereafter in his eyes my father was the right person for my mother.

I am very much my father’s child.  However, I am also my mother’s child.  I may have said everything I have thought to say, but given a moment I will think of something else.

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#111: A Partial History of the Audio Recording Industry

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #111, on the subject of A Partial History of the Audio Recording Industry.

In a previous post, #109:  Simple Songs, I said that I had some criticism of Christian record companies that I would defer to another article.  This is that.

I avoid criticism, generally, so I am approaching this more as an attempt to understand and explain why things are as they are, that is, how they got that way, by going back decades and looking at the relationship between the artist and the recording company and a few other entities that were involved in that relationship.

Thomas Alva Edison pictured with his invention
Thomas Alva Edison pictured with his invention

Audio recording of course began with Thomas Alva Edison, who invented the phonograph and subsequently founded the first record company.  His early recordings were cylinders; his competitors forced him to change to disks, which had worse fidelity but were easier to store and use.  They spun seventy-eight time each minute, were usually ten inches in diameter, and had one song on each side.  I have little knowledge and less experience of that time, so I can’t tell you too much about it other than that there are some recordings of a few nineteenth century musicians which have survived.  The invention of audio recording was followed by motion pictures and radio, both of which impacted the music business.  In the early days of radio, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) objected to broadcasters airing prerecorded music, except in the case of concerts that were aired live but recorded for rebroadcasting later.  Then beginning in the nineteen fifties television began its ascendancy, and the FCC was considerably less interested in radio; record companies saw this as the opportunity to sell records by getting airplay, and the connection between record companies and radio stations became the lynchpin of the music industry.  (This was the age of “payola”, when record companies paid people to air their records, recognizing intuitively what was later demonstrated scientifically:  that what makes a recording popular is the perception that it is popular.)  Recording technology improved, such that it was possible to put more information on a disk by using narrower grooves and more sensitive needles.  This gave us the Extended Play (EP) disk with two or three songs per side, the “forty-five”, a smaller seven-inch disk that ran at a slower speed, and eventually the Long Play (LP) album, which ran at thirty-three and a third turns per minute and squeezed over twenty minutes on each side.  Along the way, better needles began to be able to detect and distinguish vertical as well as horizontal vibration, and stereo records took over.

At this time, record companies tended to buy a recording outright.  It was possible then to use a small quarter-inch width seven-inch-per-second tape recorder with one microphone and record a single which had the potential to become popular on radio stations and sell a lot of copies.  The model in the book publishing industry had long been that a publisher paid an author for the right to print a specified number of copies of his book; the risk was then on the publisher to bet that he could sell that many at a price that would recoup his investment.  Copyright law arose to protect publishers, and indirectly authors, from others printing copies of books for which those others had not paid anything–but it did not cover audio recordings.  Thus once a record company had paid for the right to sell the recording, all the proceeds from sales went to the record company, but there was no protection against “song piracy”.

This changed in the sixties, for a couple reasons.  One was that copyright law caught up with technology, and it was possible to protect an audio recording separate from the songs it contained (previously only covered as songs when they were printed and sold on paper).  Now there was a shift toward revenue sharing–the artists began to get a percentage of the gross.  However, they signed recording contracts, which in essence meant that they worked for the recording company–they had to perform concerts as directed by the company, record and perform the songs the company said they should, and produce product on schedule.  Even The Beatles had to record songs which were not theirs, because the recording company thought they would sell.

The next big change is generally agreed to be the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club BandThe Beatles were by that time a phenomenon–they probably could have reached the top of the chart with a recording of the four of them snoring.  They told the record company that they would sign a new contract and make another record if, and only if, they had full creative control of it.  With trepidation–after all, the company thought they were the professionals who knew what would sell and what wouldn’t–the company agreed, Sgt. Pepper’s was a huge success, and thereafter music aimed at the youth market (about thirteen to thirty) included giving creative control to the artists, on the assumption that they were all young and in touch with what the young wanted to hear.  Record sales of successful musicians were good, and companies had capital to spend on new artists (which would be money lost if the artist failed).  Records made a lot of money, and record companies put a lot into promoting them.  Concert tours were in essence promotional efforts to sell records:  a band would lose money on the tour in order to make it back on the sales of records, and the company paid part of that cost.

However, as technology advanced in the recording industry, the demand for quality increased.  No longer could someone record a hit single in his garage.  Chicago‘s song Twenty-five or Six to Four was about paying for recording studio time when it was twenty-five dollars an hour or twenty-five dollars to use the studio overnight, plus the cost of recording tape–and three-inch width recording tape at fifteen or even thirty inches per second was not cheap, but it was only the beginning.  By the late seventies and early eighties, recording studios that produced the kind of quality product record companies wanted cost sometimes thousands of dollars an hour, and it took many hours to lay the tracks, check them, re-record problems, do the mix, and process the final product.  Vinyl was a petroleum product, as were most of the substances used for recording tape, and with the appearance of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) these were becoming more expensive.  The cost of making a record was rising; the profit from selling one was falling.  Record companies were paying a lot of money in promotions and advertising.  Contracts started shifting away from percent of gross to percent of net, so that artists would not get paid for their recordings until the company had recouped all the expenses.

In the film industry contracts for major headline actors sometimes include a percentage.  Ed Asner (once President of the Screen Actors Guild) has been quoted as saying to make sure it is a percent of gross, not a percent of net:  the major studios have a system by which a movie never makes any money, but always owes the studio for production and promotional costs.  The same thing has been happening in the recording industry.  If you sign a contract today, it usually says that you will be paid once all the costs of producing and promoting the album are covered, but those costs include printing copies, buying advertising, shipping product, and paying the salaries of everyone involved at the company.  As the return on investment on records fell, the balance shifted:  by the early nineties, concert tickets were outrageously high because artists got no money from selling records, and thus making a record for them was a way of promoting a concert tour.  By the dawn of the third millennium, record companies were being hit by file sharing–and many artists did not care, because they never expected to make a dime from their records and file sharing brought people to their concerts.  Record companies compensated by changing the terms of contracts so that the record company owned all rights to all performances by the band, and could get a cut of the concert income.  Artists often find themselves very famous but not very wealthy.

Meanwhile, record companies are struggling because the model has changed drastically at the sales end but has not caught up at the production end.  Artists still think in terms of recording albums; the majority of consumers don’t buy albums, they buy tracks–if they buy anything at all, rather than pirating copies from YouTube® videos and file sharing programs.  The quality that goes into making these now digital recordings is in the main wasted on an audience that listens to low quality recordings on low fidelity equipment.

The impact on the Christian market has been somewhat less, because Christians tend to do less pirating and are more likely to buy whole albums of bands they follow.  However, Christian record companies have not escaped the crunch despite the rising popularity of Christian contemporary music.  A recording contract is no longer a mark of success in the music world; in many cases it’s a badge of slavery.  It buys you a lot of help with promotions, but at a very steep price.  It is probably the right choice for some musicians, but is becoming less and less so as it becomes more and more possible to produce your own recordings and promote and sell them over the Internet without such professional assistance.  The main things that a recording contract gets you are funding for production which you will have to repay, and possible radio airplay which only happens for a few.

The problem with Christian record companies is that they are becoming obsolete and see no clear path to reinvent themselves.  I have no advice on that, I’m afraid, despite having worked in Christian contemporary music radio and done some recording myself.  The world changes and old industries fail; it is doing so now.

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#109: Simple Songs

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #109, on the subject of Simple Songs.

I find myself in the awkward position of defending a practice I don’t particularly like.  Someone criticized Christian record companies.  I think that there are serious problems with Christian record companies, but I don’t think that the particular problems suggested in the supposedly satirical video were the real problems.  I will probably write more on this subject, but first I want to talk about the problem of simple, that is, simplistic, music.  The video (undoubtedly facetiously) suggested that record companies demand that all Christian songs use the same three chords.  That’s not something record companies ask or expect.  What they expect is that songs be marketable to the people who are expected to want them, and for a certain kind of Christian song that inherently means simple.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am not impressed by simple songs and I do my best not to write them.  I had an argument with a piano player who insisted that the B# I wanted him to play (in a G# major chord with a minor sixth added–I know, ugly chord, but the song needed it) did not exist.  I cringe sometimes at the fact that so many of the songs I wrote on the piano when I was in high school and college are so similar, and eventually made a point of not writing songs on the piano unless I could do something really different.  I could probably be a lot more prolific if I weren’t so insistent that every song had to be distinct.

Worship band Hillsong United
Worship band Hillsong United

I also remember being horrified when I was in high school when someone I knew casually told me that he had been baptized in the Spirit on Friday night and over the weekend God had given him five hundred songs.  I approached skeptically, and discovered that he knew three chords, stopped the music to change between them, and sang very nearly monotone.  There is nothing wrong with the miraculous happening in connection with the Holy Spirit; this I don’t think was that.

The temptation is to think that all the musicians who write such “simple” three-chord songs with simplistic melodic lines are like my high school friend, unable to do better or even to know they are doing poorly.  The fact is they are not doing poorly; they are writing the kind of songs needed for their ministry.  One thing that helps me not judge other ministries is understanding what they are actually trying to do and why, and how that is different from what I am doing, and why that different objective requires different methods.

We talked extensively about Christian ministries.  Of particular relevance here, the 1960s and 70s were dominated by evangelist music ministry, which meant music that would catch attention of unbelievers and cause them to listen to the message.  It was frequently interesting, often intricate, always performance-oriented material.  Today, we noted, the dominant stream in music ministry is pastoral, music that benefits the sheep, with participatory worship music at the top of the list.

Don’t misunderstand.  Many great professional composers from Michael Praetorius and J. S. Bach through Charles Ives and Randall Thompson have written some great worship music to be presented by professional musicians, and there is a worship experience in which the worshipper listens and is overwhelmed by the beauty of the music and the presence of God.  However, that is not participatory worship.  When men like Luther and Wesley wanted to get people involved in worship, they took simple songs that their audience knew–usually from singing in taverns–and wrote Christian words to them, because the majority in the congregation are not musically literate and can only sing simple songs that they know or can quickly learn.  The typical congregant can’t handle complex melodic lines, intricate syncopation and time signature changes, modal and key transitions; those are for professional musicians.  Thus songs for participatory worship are best if they are simple.

Further, when someone records a song intended for worship, the expectation is less that you will listen to the recording–which is certainly part of the intention–but more that churches throughout the world will learn to play it and use it in their worship.  Johnny Smith who got a guitar for Christmas and has been trying to teach himself to play has to be able to stand in front of Little Country Church and lead half a dozen worshippers in a song they might never have heard.  If it isn’t simple, it isn’t going to succeed.

There is complex and interesting Christian music out there, because there are still musicians doing non-pastoral ministry, and pastors using music for aspects of their ministry that go beyond corporate participatory worship.  The primary forms on Christian radio though are songs of worship which ordinary people can learn easily and sing along while driving; the primary songs that get played in churches are the simple songs of worship which the congregation can embrace quickly.  They are the kind of music most Christians are buying; they are important in the scheme of music ministry; they are not the totality of it.

Returning to record companies–well, I probably have more to say about the recording industry, but for the moment to give them their due, they have to be interested in the bottom line, in producing recordings that people will buy.  That means songs that will be played on the radio and sung in churches.  That means, primarily, simple worship songs.  Sure, they produce more than that, but since songs for participatory worship are the most popular in the Christian market, they dominate product.

If you want to do something different with your music, that’s a good thing; just understand that you are not looking to reach the present core Christian market if you aren’t doing simple worship songs, not because of the record companies but because of the audience.

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