Why We Publish Simple Recordings

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Some of you who regularly visit Reformed Praise and listen to our songs might wonder why many of our songs have such crude recordings, especially compared to other publishing companies or performing artists who write or share worship songs. I thought it would be helpful to offer an apology for why we choose to publish such simple audio tracks for our songs, especially if they sometimes disappoint your sonic pallet.

If you step back and survey all of the worship songs being published or shared today, you'll really only find two publishing models. Even though I run the risk of conjuring up stylistic associations with these terms, I'm going to use the words "contemporary" and "traditional" to describe the two publishing models.

The traditional model has been around for hundreds of years: it relies largely on written music such as piano scores, hymnals, or choral music to share and distribute songs. I have worked with Hope Publishing Company and got to interview them about their business and they assured me that this method of influencing the church and getting songs out is alive and well. Hope still publishes many, many hymnals. For many churches, they only use songs with fully scored sheet music, limiting their choice of worship songs to what comes from a traditional publisher's catalog.

The second model for publishing worship songs is what I've called the "contemporary" model. This approach relies chiefly on performing artists to promote the songs with concerts and albums, and in turn relies on marketing such as radio airplay to spread excitement about the recordings. In this model the recording is the focus, not sheet music. And these recordings need to be up to the level expected from professionally produced music. When radio hits are born, they are rarely sung by the actual songwriter (Chris Tomlin is a notable exception).

I know that both of these models are moving into the digital age, but they are still emphasizing either sheet music or performance recordings at their core. Both sides work with CCLI to collect royalties when songs are used, irrespective of whether or not sheet music or recordings have been purchased.

I'm sure you're wondering why I've gotten so technical about all of this. I've done this to help us think about what a worship song really is, at its core. Is it a particular piano arrangement like you'd find in a hymnal? Is it simply the melody line, or does it imply chords and a harmonic structure as well? I don't think I can answer that definitively, but I do know that melodies can be copyrighted but a chord structure can't. For my working purposes, I define a "song" as the melody line and chords intended by the original composer or writer. Let's also define what an "arrangement" is. A song is often cast into many different kinds of styles or tempos, instrumentation is varied, intros and outros are changed, chords are altered, instrumental solos are added, repeats are varied, etc. These kinds of changes don't alter the fundamental, identifiable nature of a song. At its core, a song is made up of its basic parts – a verse, chorus, maybe a bridge, pre-chorus, etc. The most useful songs for public worship are those that work with many different arrangements or styles. Why? Because every church's team of musicians is different, and every church's abilities and stylistic preferences vary as well. A song that requires a thirty-second note riff at the introduction in order to "work" won't be used by very many churches with average skilled guitarists.

When I write music for churches to use in worship, I know that they will almost always make the song personal by introducing changes. Sometimes those changes are because of a lack of musicianship and aren't intentional. Sometimes they are changes to the chords, and often the arrangements are created spontaneously with different introductions, interludes, etc.

First Reason
The first reason we publish simple demos and lead sheets is to capture the song at its most basic level. This will give individual musicians more freedom to create their own way of playing the songs.

Second Reason
The second reason we publish simple demos is so that there is a record of the correct, unembellished, melody. On performance tracks, vocalists often take liberties with the melody for aesthetic reasons. I think this is wonderful, but it's not wonderful when people try to learn a song from a performance track. From verse to verse the singer often changes the melody significantly, or uses techniques that most people can't imitate like scoops. The vocals on our demos are very plain and don't attempt heavily stylized singing.

We also think it's really important to have one official, correct recording of the song published because of how quickly the melody gets changed when it gets put in wide usage. You know the old game "telephone" we played as a kid where one person whispers a phrase to someone, then they whisper it to the next person, until the end of the line? That happens all the time when musicians learn songs by ear. They simply don't remember the tune exactly, which means they will teach it to their people slightly differently than the song was intended. This can make it difficult to sing a song even when you think you know it. A great illustration of this comes from a time I visited a church that uses some Reformed Praise songs. The melody to one of the songs had been changed so much that I didn't even recognize it as one I had written and it took me a while to learn how to sing the "new" version.

Third Reason
Another reason we publish simple demos is because the average American church in America only has about 100 people in attendance. Churches this size often don't have professional musicians but average pianists or guitarists helping their people sing. Since there is an implicit expectation to mimic recordings, both in arrangement and instrumentation, church music directors can become discouraged by performance because of their lack of skilled musicians. They could never realistically produce something that sounds even close to the performed version, and when they try it usually sounds worse than doing something simple well. Sometimes performed worship songs feature incredible guitar licks or a great drum beat, but if you don't have an electric guitarist or drummer, you may be left feeling a bit insecure about the strum pattern or piano rhythm you came up with. Most of our demos feature one instrument and voice – either a guitar or piano. And when we add other things like percussion it's really just to hint at a suggested style, and we try to keep it simple. We hope that by doing this we can encourage humble musicians that playing our songs won't require endless hours of practice and special equipment. Our singers (often the writers) are also of pretty average skill… perhaps that will encourage some worship leaders whose primary instrument is not their voice.

Four Reason
A final reason for creating such simple recordings is time and money. It costs a lot of money to make a professional produced recording, and we would rather spend that money on writing and promoting more songs and teaching and preaching about worship and music. We also write many more songs than we produce because we are primarily writers, not performers. Perhaps the Lord will continue to add performing artists who cover our songs on their own projects.

I hope that helps you understand why we publish songs the way we do. Over the years I've been amazed at the songs particular churches or individuals choose to use and how the Lord uses them to encourage and instruct His people. Sometimes songs I think are near the bottom of the pile of usefulness end up being used, while others I think might be "hits" aren't noticed. God loves to remind us that His decision whether to use us in ministry is based merely on grace, not on skill.

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Comments

I fully support you in this endeavor. I think that all of the above listed reasons are extremely legitimate and something that I greatly appreciate about you guys. As a church music director I sometimes get bothered by people who think that we must do the song exactly as it sounds on THE recording (which is often not even how the song was originally done) so I appreciate the freedom that I have with your songs since there IS no recording for my musicians to listen to. (I typically listen to your recording for my benefit and then teach the song from there with my musicians never having heard the song).

Keep up the great work!
» N Good on February 24th, 2011

I read this article the day after I had been listening to one of your demos, appreciating the fact that is was "rough". My church's music ministry is limited due to size/skill levels and having just a basic recording allows us some creative wiggle room and we can play the song in a style that is more in line with our church's philosophy/mission. There is an expectation that a music team play a worship song like the recording and makes it hard for small churches.
» Dawn on February 26th, 2011

Nicely said, David! Thank you for your insight to the needs of other musicians.
I appreciate the simplicity for another reason. I like to use this venue for private worship and sing along in harmony. It's easier to concentrate on the words.
» Karlene Gade on May 25th, 2011
 
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