Musings on Publishing

A reader sent me this e-mail Friday:

I saw in the news today that Apple is now the largest music retailer in the world and it struck me, is anyone–for lack of a better word–“selling” good catholic music via the internet? If the problem is that lousy music is picked up each week, it would seem to me that someone could publish or sell a better selection via the internet (kinda like a virtual music director). Or they could sell new, original compositions that aren’t licensed to the big publishing houses. Is it odd no one is doing this on a day-to day, practical level? Or maybe they are and I’m just not familiar with it because I’m not in music. In my business, the internet has leveled the playing field between big and small…

My friend wonders if the retail end of the net could inspire the wholesale aspect for music publishing. It’s a good question.

Despite the complaints about publishers–and usually they’re the questioning kind of complaints like “Why don’t they publish my stuff?”–they do serve a purpose, whether the medium is music or books. Publishers provide a valuable resource. They employ editors who make a call in the quality department: Is it good enough for our standards? If a publisher determines it is, then an editor will work with the composer or author to refine the output to make it better. That’s how it works in theory, anyway.

Internet publishing eliminates the editor. Thanks to WordPress or Blogspot or other software, anybody can publish in the blogging medium. A few blogs are excellent, most are undisciplined, and probably all of us could use an editor.

When it comes to online music, you can go to church musicians and purchase their music. Caveat emptor, and I’d say that if I were offering any of my own 400-plus compositions. Eliminating the editor, you roll the dice with what’s on the downloaded page matching the intent of the composer. Even in GIA stuff (and to a lesser extent, OCP) you will find enough annoying errors to waste an occasional five minutes at rehearsal or at your office computer.

The internet has the potential to recreate the ideal atmosphere a publisher should offer. As I see it, an active composer’s forum would be essential. A published person should be willing to submit his or her work to a group of peers. Reciprocally, a composer should be willing to offer input in kind. Ideally every published piece of sacred music would undergo this kind of scrutiny.

Stage two would be to test a piece of music in liturgy, preferably in more than the composer’s own parish.

A final editing phase would precede publication.

Theoretically, the internet could expand the input given in a composer’s forum. No longer are musicians bound by the people they know when they can get together locally.

Speaking as a consumer, I would prefer any published piece I’m considering has had a genesis in a worshipping community. I’m also hopeful that I’m getting a cleaned-up final work. A spell-check pass-through is not enough. A full performance of a final draft by musicians is important–that’s one stage I think publishers miss.

Most of the criticism we see of contemporary sacred music is poor quality. (“How did this %&$# get published?”) A publishing machine on the internet would level the playing field between the excellent, the adequate, and the merely poor. As a parish liturgist, I cast a very suspicious eye to music provided by publishers. On average, I purchase one piece of music for every two hours of a reading session. If I had the time to browse the net for church music, I’d have to be prepared to spend a lot more time. In light of that, I don’t mind having OCP’s or GIA’s editors sift through the lot and give me their best 3%.

Looking from the outside of the publishing industry, my sense is that discipline and commitment are indispensable. From what we all know of the internet, do you think it really has a prayer of improving on the winnowing process?

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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2 Responses to Musings on Publishing

  1. Randolph Nichols says:

    You’re correct to emphasize the importance of editors. Criticism of the editorial practices of Catholic publishers rightly extends not only to material chosen for publication but their too frequent careless presentation. Why should not accompaniments, for example, be idiomatically written for what is still the most popular church instrument – the organ? And even if the piano is the instrument of choice, why do so many contemporary liturgical compositions require the accompanist to mentally rearrange what is on the page. There is no excuse for this, particularly considering that the majority of parish musicians are volunteers who probably lack the experience and training to make such adjustments easily.

    When an author submits a manuscript to a respected magazine, he or she expects editors to make corrections, suggestions and deletions before it is accepted for publication. (Remember,editors even make major revisions of novels.) Major music publishing companies need competent editors to serve the same function. If editors were doing their job, we wouldn’t be conscious of so many shortcomings.

    Regarding on-line publishing operations, other than consummer feedback there is no mechanism in place to insure quality control. We can only hope that these composers air their efforts with trusted colleagues before hawking their creations. Even the best talent benefits from the opinion of others.

    Unfortunately, we are in a new age with unresolved dilemmas. The recent discussion on dotCommonweal about the decline of print and broadcast media, as well as the concern over blog “gatekeeping,” is both urgent and timely. The print medium has certain advantages, such as the ability to shift through letters-to-the-editors. Blog commentary, on the other hand, only goes through a selection process when confronted with excessive vulgarity, incivility and poor taste.

    The young will think me an old fogey (I’m an ancient 65), but I’m quite concerned about the down-side to this web-based world. New systems of checks and balances need to be created, discussed, and the best of which then implemented.

  2. Pingback: Musings on Publishing « Catholic Sensibility | MusicDealing.Com

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