Friday, May 13, 2011

Who owns the music?

I am reminded of the old joke where the contemporary Christian music speaks to the congregation:  "The Lord gave me this song last night and now I want to give it to you but if you use my music without my copyright permission and a fair royalty payment, I will sue your pants off..."  Over at First Thoughts, Joe Carter started a firestorm by publishing his list of 80 of the best of CCM or Christian Pop.  As I read his post and surveyed the comments, I was struck by the "ownership" of the music by the CCM stars and singers.  There were more folks who complained that he left off of the list particular individuals even more than there were those who complained by the song choices themselves.  It started me thinking... and we all know that is a dangerous thing!

Even though I often marvel at the great ability of the hymn writers of old and their heirs in the modern age, I do not think of hymns as belonging to the individual who wrote them.  I am sure that copyrights stand and all that stuff but, at the very same time, I consider the hymns as owned by the Church more so than owned by their individual authors and composers.  Perhaps this is one of the great differences between CCM or Christian Pop and hymnody -- the songs are owned by the writer and the singer even when they are used in the context of worship.  They tend to be first of all performance music in contrast to the hymns of the Church which are participatory.  Oh, sure, I am not an idiot and know that some (maybe many) congregations sing with the singers, but the point is the singers and their back up bands own the stage even when people are singing with them.  This is far different from the hymns of the Church which are 99% participatory.

Therein lies much of what I consider to be the problem with CCM or Christian Pop:  it is owned by the singers and song writers, identified as theirs in the minds of the people who listen to them, and this is solidified by their similarity to secular music on the radio, CD sales rack, and download service.  The truth is that most folks who open their hymnals do not even pay any attention to the names of the authors or composers.  Only a small number of musicians and clergy actually think about the author or composer.  Even when these modern day folks own the copyright, the music is, at least in the mind of the people, owned by the Church --- in a way far different from CCM or Christian Pop.

Now I am sure that there are folks who will dispute this but, even in our Lutheran Service Book, the two contemporary hymns on "the Lamb" are seen very differently.  One is owed by Twila Paris and everyone who thinks of that song thinks of her and identifies it with her (except those who are bronze agers like me).  The other was written by a wonderfully talented and gifted individual by the name of Gerald Coleman (whom I am privileged to know and whose Bronxville choirs were hosted a couple of times while I was at my former parish).  Yet even though I know this guy and love "his" hymn, I do not think of it as "his" at all.  It is a song of the Church and owned by the Church and her people (no matter what the copyright says).

Everyone who reads this knows I am NOT a fan of CCM or Christian Pop.  Personally, I wish people would listen to the great hymns of the faith all day long like I do.  But what you might NOT know is that I DO use Twila's song every now and then and that our hymnody reaches deep in the past, uses the best of the recent past, and even many brand new hymns that have not made it into any current hymnals.  I believe in using all the inherent diversity of the Church's song but, in the minds of me and most folks, CCM or Christian Pop does not belong to the Church.... which is one more reason why I feel uncomfortable with the way this music is used in so many (even Lutheran) congregations today.  The music, as well as the setting, seems to remind us that this song belongs not to the Lord or to His Church but to one or several individuals.  We can listen in and even chime in when invited but it is a private domain.  Call me cranky, but that is how I see it.


Anonymous said...

"Personally, I wish people would listen to the great hymns of the faith all day long like I do."

My kids do and they like it, but hey, they haven't heard much CCM/Pop Christian music, so what do they know?

I worry that by constantly immersing our kids in poor quality music day in, day out, they will come to prefer it just because it is familiar. Why do we just assume they won't like the good stuff? Just play it in the CD player next to the crib every night and they may just take to it.

Why deprive them of such good stuff and keep pushing the uh, other stuff?

Lee said...

"You're not making Christianity better, you're just making Rock and Roll worse!"

- Hank Hill, King of the Hill.

Cheryl said...

Very interesting. I think you are on to something. Probably explains why some people react to CCM in church in ways that I personally don't. I don't ever listen to CCM so if I hear a CCM song in church it doesn't have the baggage of the performer or style for me. For me it's just another song, and if it is good music with a good text done in a churchly way it doesn't seem out of place to me. I don't think of Twila Paris when I hear "Lamb of God." I have no idea what Twila Paris looks or sounds like or how she sang that song. So I just tend to evaluate "Lamb of God" on its own merits. Certainly I have seen bad CCM done badly in worship. But I have also seen good CCM done well and appropriately in worship.

I think a big part of what accounts for the identification of the song with the singer/composer these days is simply modern technology. The ability to make audio recordings has changed music in so many ways. The mass marketing of recorded music makes it much more likely that a song will come to be identified strongly with a particular performance of that song. In the "old days" music was only a live phenomenon. Once canned music came along, something forever changed. But it seems unfortunate that a good piece of music with a solid text may be dismissed by someone as unsuitable for worship simply because it is associated with a particular performer or performance.

Rev. Paul Beisel said...

I don't know if there is much of a difference. It seems that CPH owns all the hymns, hymn texts, tunes, etc. today.

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Anonymous said...

I repefer the more traditions and sometimes the older hymns.

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

There are several semi-contemporary hymns in the service book that have the sort of appeal of the one who performed it rather than the hymn itself. On Eagle's Wings is one that I notice this phenomena. However, my parent's generation had the same reaction to "How Great Thou Art" as sung by George Beverly Shea. In fact they often sing it as he did rather than as it is written.

PS; I've never been able to sing or hear "On Eagle's Wings" with a straight face since an elderly gentleman sitting next to me at a funeral leaned over and said 'How can I take a hymn that begins with "YOO HOO" seriously? In my day You hoo was something you drank."

Anonymous said...

The "great" hymns of our Christian
heritage were not all written by
Lutheran authors. What makes a
hymn great is its proclamation of
Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior
who out of love went to the cross
to forgive our sins and rose from
the dead to give us eternal life.

Colleen Oakes said...

I'm one of those rare people who likes hymns and contemporary Christian music. I wish more people were open to both sides - they both have goodness to offer, and there is crap on both sides as well (Yes, I said it, there are crappy hymns). My CCM of choice isn't the K-Love lameness either. The Autumn Film, Dan Craig, JJ Heller...these are all pretty unconventional artists. Some of the best Christian music I know comes from a band that would never label themselves as a Christian band - U2. Who I am going to SEE THIS WEEK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!