“I’d Like To Improve Your Music”

sheet-music-Recently I received a letter from a nice church person who suggested that he’d “like to make some improvements” to one of the settings of an arrangement I did for a Julia Wade CD that eventually ended up as WFM digital sheet music.  He even suggested that he had, in fact, already made these changes and performed them in a church service.

Both I and my staff were a bit taken aback by this suggestion, but totally understood that this person had it well in mind that they were doing a good thing and probably that I would be most happy to address his fixes of my composition.

There followed a series of letters back and forth in which I tried mightily to explain the awkwardness and actual legalities of the request.  In retrospect, since this sort of thing has happened several times previous to this time, I have decided to reprint portions of my attempt at explaining the “facts of life and music” to this dear man who only had it in his heart to “improve” or “better” my composition.  In the following, the names are changed to protect the innocent.

And so I wrote:

“Oddly, I wear two hats here – one as Creative Director of WFM and the other as Arranger of the work in question.  I’m going to try to approach this moment with my Creative Director hat on as much as possible. 

First, music is an interesting medium.  There are rules, and rules to be broken.  There are tastes and taste changers.  There are styles and evolutions of style.  And then there are the people, the audience, the listeners – each with their own particular tastes, and responses to genres (some people like Country music; some don’t.).  One thing I’ve learned for sure is that “ya’ can’t please all the people all the time.”  That said, we here at WFM were a bit taken aback at your suggestion to “do some improvements to the There Is A Balm In Gilead setting.” 

Let me also mention that it’s not the first time we’ve had to deal with these kinds of good intentions.  In fact, it comes up all too often and if you are a reader of my blog you would know that I do address the legalities of these kinds of good intentions from time to time.

The more concerning part of this is “We used it recently, and I thought of some ways to enrich the connective/transitional material and unify it.” This implies that you have already done this and performed it with the changes in your church.  If I am reading this implication wrongly, I apologize.

One of our staffers brought forth this metaphor in a staff meeting discussion: “It’s as if a teacher decided to rewrite sections of Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell To Arms” before she read the novel to her class.”

Now I’m not putting myself at all on the mastery level of an Ernest Hemingway, but the point here is that he is a published author whose work is intellectual property governed by U.S. Copyright laws and international agreements.  It cannot be changed.  Not one word; not one comma.  No one would try to rewrite or have the right to rewrite Hemingway or any other published author, for that matter.

So, also, I am a published author and composer, and this arrangement of There Is A Balm In Gilead is copyrighted and governed by U.S. Copyright laws and international agreements as well.  In that protective bubble we artists live safely and are able to sleep at night knowing that our work will not be changed at the whim of another.

In essence, what you are doing is illegal.

If you were to make changes to arrangements in a recording with one of the hymns from the Christian Science Hymnal (even if it were a Public Domain song) without the permission from TMC, you can bet that TMC legal department would ask you to cease and desist.  They are extremely buttoned down about this kind of activity.  I know.  I dealt with Julia’s constant seven-year challenge to get permissions to change even a single word of a song.

We creative types have to require this.  Why?  Because for some reason people have the idea that music is a different kind of intellectual property than say books or art work, (Let’s repaint and improve the Picasso)  … or widgets, for that matter.

Music is so personal that when we listen to it, we often take it in as “our song”.  So we think we can alter it to fit “our tastes”.  But we can’t.

Now what we can do in some cases – and in this case it could apply – is do a totally new arrangement of this Public Domain song.  But this new arrangement would not be able to borrow, steal or plagiarize from a previously conceived work of another.  This is the law.

Yes, an arrangement or orchestration can be placed under copyright and mine (in this case with Margaret Dorn) is.

So having, as Creative Director, spoken to the composer regarding your “improvements” and “tweeking” and also having discussed this at length with our staff, it was agreed that I would take the time and write this rather long missive and as sensitively and care-fully as possible explain the facts of life and music copyright law to you knowing that what you suggest comes cleanly from the heart and with all good intentions. 

In short, we deeply appreciate the thought and wholeheartedly reject the idea.

It’s why we’re so careful with, for instance, Mindy Jostyn’s property.  She’s not even here to protect it any more, so we’re going to do it for her. 

Composer speaking:

Perhaps your ideas were even “better” than mine, whatever “better” means, but when it comes right down to it, they’re your ideas and not mine.  That is the root of intellectual property law – ownership of ideas; not just ownership of matter.  Thank God we have such laws.  I’ve all too many times witnessed my work butchered, lyrics changed and essence lost, scans demolished, melodies clichéd, all by those eager to “improve”.  I’m not at all accusing you, Fred, of doing this.  I’ve not heard your ideas, nor will I.  It opens a whole kettle of fish that I choose not to open. 

And yet I still appreciate your enthusiasm and loving intention.  I only hope that you can appreciate my stand.

The alteration of another’s work, especially in music, is done all too often.  Where is the line of demarcation between an edit for time on a too long song and an edit that cuts the point out of the message?  What about vocal embellishments, done far too often to music today in this lick happy society, that destroy the integrity of the melody?  What about chord substitutions?  What about drastic tempi changes?  It’s all pretty un-governable when it comes to church music.  I can’t run around the country every Sunday checking. It’s easier with recorded music because the breaking of the laws are provable.

I know that people are doing things to my music that would make me cringe and I know also that people are doing things to my music that would make me weep with joy.  I figure that somehow it will all average out.  But I will do what it takes to raise the standard.  That means in most cases to educate.  Hopefully that’s the point of this letter – to sensitize and to educate. 

So I ask you, just as I have asked many others in previous moments, to play and perform my music as created by me and my cohorts.  We put a tremendous amount of thought and time into the creation of every piece of music that we publish and, though are conscious of our failings and limitations, put it out there knowing that it is what we want to communicate.  Your “improvements” may be improvements to you, but might subtly or even drastically change a moment that I preferred in my work.  Ya’ can’t decide to make the red a little brighter in a Rembrandt.  He probably wouldn’t agree.

These letters are hard – hard to take such a stand against such obvious good intention.  I hope you can read this with the same care that I feel in writing it.

Thanks for listening.

Only good thoughts,

Peter Link”

“How did it go?” you might ask.  Did he get the point?  The point here is that it doesn’t really imply here.  The real point here is to illuminate the problem and sensitize the world to a more graceful approach to the artist.  If you got something out of all this, learned something, great!  I know I did.

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