In Random Neural Firings, Thoughts on Writing

About twenty years ago, I had a conversation with the late Grant Cunningham, a superb lyricist, about the struggle of Christian songwriters to meld the three ideal elements of a successful Christian song: Art (creativity), Money (commerce), and Jesus (theology). As we chatted, a Venn diagram emerged, which I’ll show you in a moment. But first, here is where the diagram came from…

Any songwriter/composer chasing only the creative impulse is free to focus entirely on Art: pure creativity with no restrictions. You want to write a song with a 32-bar jazz piccolo solo? Go for it! How about a word-for-word setting of War and Peace – in Russian? It’s art!  A Concerto for Trombone and Triangle? Sure, why not! The Art target is wide open and welcoming. You may never make a penny from your efforts, but nobody can tell you what to write. But…

The moment you decide it would be nice to make money from your creative efforts, you have to concern yourself with the marketplace. What do people want to hear? What is popular? What will sell?  This is where every creative person inevitably discovers the demands of Money tend to trump the freedom of Art. And our target, the place where Art and Commerce overlap, shrinks considerably. By the way, I don’t mean to imply this is a Bad Thing. It is simply a reality. 

Enter the Christian songwriter, who, unlike all other songwriters, must add a third layer: Jesus (theology). If there is a natural tension between Art and Commerce (and there is), an even greater strain pulls at Jesus and Commerce. (Just think of all the times in the four Gospels Jesus spoke about the inherent dangers of money.) As a result, the target for the Christian songwriter/composer gets smaller still. 

Here is the basic diagram that Grant and I came up with that day. 

You can see the overlap between Art and Jesus is bigger than the other overlaps. Grant and I agreed that creativity and theology get along pretty well. Jesus taught his disciples using stories, humor, and metaphor. We are free to do the same. We are made in the image of our Creator, so we should indeed be creative. The overlap between Art and Commerce is smaller. The overlap between Jesus and Commerce is smaller still.

The tiniest target in the diagram, where Art, Money, and Jesus all overlap, is the spot Christian songwriters have to aim if they hope to be creative, remain faithful to good theology, and still make money. It is no easy task.

My own success rate at hitting that tiny target has been okay, I suppose. I’ve had my share of hits on the radio, thanks to successful marketing as much as anything, I suspect. I’ve also written music that has enjoyed “critical” acclaim. (For the record, critical acclaim doesn’t pay as well.) Through it all, I’ve tried tried to maintain solid theology in my writing. When I’ve missed that target it was probably because I was either ill-informed, or I turned the creativity knob a little too far.

I’ve never met a songwriter who didn’t desire success in the marketplace. Christian songwriters are no different. The danger for we Christian songwriters comes when the marketplace drives us more than does creativity, or even theology. Christian radio stations, record companies, and publishers are in the business of making money. So they understandably value songs that rise to the top of the radio and sales charts.  The Church (another marketplace, if we are being honest with ourselves) is susceptible to gravitate toward songs sitting atop the CCLI popularity chart. But success in the marketplace is not an indicator of the quality of a song or the Truth of a song. 

The quality and depth of our creativity and theology wouldn’t matter if we weren’t writing Christian songs. But we are. Let’s not forget that as we take aim at our next target.

Showing 11 comments
  • Ed Rush
    Reply

    Good read Robert. When you write the trombone/piccolo diet, keep me in mind. I will be happy to do the recording — that is if you remember that a trombone is not a piccolo. Ha.

  • Shari (Hightower/Hanna)Turner
    Reply

    Thanks, Robert. Love your music and always glad to hear your input.

  • Larry White
    Reply

    Brilliant! I have been trying to get pastors I have know to preach the sermon about “what kind of capitalist Jesus was?” I still don’t have any takers. But it was so pleasant to read this honest message! Thanks

    • Robert Sterling
      Reply

      Thx, Larry. I’m all for capitalism. Despite its inherent flaws, it still beats all the other economic “isms” out there. But I tend to free art (both Christian and secular) from the bonds of capitalism these days. I think the final 80 years of the 20th century fooled musicians into thinking music was a mass market product that would always make money for us. But I’m thinking those years may have been the exception to the rule. That’s why I wonder if a return to patronage is maybe the thing to save good music. Symphony orchestras have known this for a long time. But I suspect that all quality music needs patrons to support it – with no expectation of a financial return. And who better than wealthy capitalists to do just that? 🙂

  • Bob Morrison
    Reply

    Robert – Thank you for posting your blogs, as well as other things, in our ChoirPrompt List group. It’s exactly the kind of material this group is designed for. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say how much I love your arrangements…always have! And you just continue putting good stuff out!!! A couple of Sundays ago we did your arrangement of “Give Me Jesus;” like so many of your things, it’s a keeper. Thank you for helping us local church folks have the tools we need to do our jobs…and thereby lead our little corner of the Kingdom to worship in spirit and truth.

  • Bob Morrison
    Reply

    Thanks, Robert, for posting your blogs in our ChoirPrompt group. It’s exactly the kind of material this group was designed for! Thanks, also, for helping us local church guys be more effective in our jobs by consistently providing meaningful and quality arrangements for us to use. You have thru the years, and you continue to do it today. A couple of weeks ago we did your arrangement of “Give Me Jesus”…absolutely beautiful and moving. Never stop writing!

    • Robert Sterling
      Reply

      You’re welcome, Bob. And thank you for your kid words and for creating the Choir prompt group.

  • Vince
    Reply

    Robert, if you don’t mind, I’d like to share this excellent blog with my Music Publishing class at Trevecca Nazarene University. Well done!

  • Ed Kee
    Reply

    Great post, Robert. If you ever update your songwriting book, this would be a great addition.

    • Robert Sterling
      Reply

      As I was writing it I had that very thought. Thanks for confirming my hunch, Ed.

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