About six years ago my current website went live.  My goal was to allow people access to my music and perhaps promote some commercial activity.  For years I had allowed compositions and arrangements to lay dormant in file folders, thinking all the while that some people might be interested in them. I felt it was time to at least put them up for the world and see what happened. Even if they didn’t make me any money, they could at least get some exposure and hopefully bring some joy to people.

Over the next five years I received the occasional message thanking me for the music, but it wasn’t until after about four years that I discovered the detailed metrics available from my web host. I was excited to learn that around 20 people a day were visiting my site and downloading music. I could see which pieces were the most popular. That was gratifying in itself,  but I wondered, “Would they pay something for it?”

I also contemplated, “Is it ethical to make money from hymn arrangements that were created primarily as an expression of worship?” I’ve never been deluded that I would get rich from this music or even be able to make a living selling it, but then again, a bit from here, a bit from there can add up. If nothing else, a little extra money might give me more freedom to write.

Then there is the fact (no way around it) that we put more value on things we pay for. Even back in the 1840’s the saints were proud to mention that the Nauvoo temple materials cost more than a million dollars: it was a concrete, universally understandable way to express the magnitude of their sacrifice. The arrangements I create now represent many thousands of dollars in music training and years of service devoted to honing my craft. I think my music is of a professional quality and it’s fair to represent that quality economically.

So in January of 2015 I decided to try an experiment. I added a Paypal page, created perusal scores for the most popular hymn arrangements, and requested $10 for a printable PDF from which the buyer could make all the copies they need. I get something, and they get a nice arrangement for a fraction of the price of hard copies. I didn’t know if anyone would bite or if the traffic on my site would drop to a trickle. Turns out in one year I made enough to fund a road trip to Salt Lake for General Conference and while the website traffic has been dropping somewhat over the past six months, it’s still just under 1000 visits a month and sales have been more or less steady since February. Experiment successful.

I’ve thought a lot over the past year about the business of publishing music. I’ve had some pieces published over the years: “God Is Our Song” was published by Warner shortly after the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performed it; “Christ Child Lullaby” was published by Colla Voce a few years ago; several piano pieces have been published in a Canadian series of graded pieces for students; and the Orson Scott Card hymns have been published. But to tell the truth, while it’s great for the ego to get published, I haven’t made much money from it. The return from the website while modest, has been something. And it places tangible value on the music.

Many of you can guess the subtext of this discussion, the elephant in the room: Sally DeFord. I’ve never met or corresponded with Sister DeFord, but from her blog she seems like a very likeable and intelligent person. Her music is, well, very musical. It’s competently arranged and well within reach for average choirs (although in my experience some of the piano parts could be simplified without compromising their effectiveness). Some of the arrangements I can take or leave, but in general I like her music.

And this is the very problem: her musical competence. No one would complain if it was amatuerish product, but she produces music that many choirs would pay for and gives it away. From statements she has made, I understand her philosophy to be, “I didn’t write my music to make money; I’d like people to perform it and I’m in a position to give it away, so I do.” Which is all very laudable and altruistic, but this has flooded the market with free product. I don’t have stats, but my anecdotal evidence is extensive and I’d bet close to half the music performed by ward and stake choirs is Sally DeFord – at least it seems that way. If I’m not choosing the repertoire, you can bet I’m going to be asked to play or conduct at least one Sally DeFord arrangement at a given stake or ward event. Never been asked to play a Mack Wilberg arrangement. If you’re the average choir director looking for something nice and approachable for your choir, it’s convenient, it’s musically acceptable, and it’s free. I wonder how Jackman stays in business – really. Maybe they’re not relying on income from ward choir sales, but every Deford download is potentially a lost sale for them and other publishers – like me.

This is bad from an industry point of view and bad from a cultural point of view, in that there’s too much of the same thing. On a level playing field, DeFord arrangements would sell, but at a much smaller proportion, reflecting more accurately the true relative value. Sally, for the sake of composers needing to make money from their work, charge fees and donate the money to the missionary fund if you like.

There, I’ve said it.

4 Comments

  1. Peter Brulé

    Mark
    I agree with your observations. Most people don’t value and truly appreciate a product they don’t pay for. It becomes a right not a gift. Yes I like and appreciate free things but more often then not they just becomes more stuff. I put more value on something I’ve paid for because I had to work for it.

    This may not be related to music but it relates to value for free service.

    After an awful transit strike in Ottawa the City decided to offer free service for a period. During that period many who got on were rude, ignorant and disrespectful. After the free ride, many of those stopped taking the bus. The abuse noticeably dropped. Most of those who regularly used the bus before were grateful to have it back. Monthly pass holders and those who paid for the service.

    Go for it Mark

  2. Jacqui

    It’s not just that it’s convenient either. As a church choir director, perhaps especially an inexperienced one, you suffer the problem of feeling like a jerk for wanting to use precious ward funds on purchasing a score when there are so many perfectly acceptable options for free. Of course my own struggles are amplified because often the music I’d prefer to perform is arranged by my own father, so then you have to look real deep and ask yourself if this constitutes nepotism!

    You’re sure right about flooding the market. Sally’s arrangements are not diverse enough to be enjoyed at the volume they’re performed. I react to a DeFord arrangement much in the same way I would react to the most-played pop songs of the 90’s: my insides groan from repetition exhaustion! Make it stop! Not that AGAIN! Really detracts from the message of the music…

  3. Bruce

    Hello Mark,
    Thanks for leaving my name on your mailing list. Although I have not been given the opportunity to conduct a choir since moving to Edmonton in 1998, I had done so for many years in Winnipeg at both the ward/branch and stake/district levels. I’m interested in your comments about Sally DeFord. Her arrangements are indeed ubiquitous–not a bad thing in itself. But I do have a criticism: they have usually struck me as mini piano concertos with incidental choir accompaniment. So I like your approach, to both the creativity and dissemination of your work.

    • Nice to hear from you Bruce. I’ve thought of you lately – we’re doing “To Think About Jesus” in my ward, but with cello instead of violin.

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