The advent of iTunes, Amazon music, Spotify, Pandora, and all the other legal means of purchasing, streaming, and distributing music and other media electronically has been a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it has never been easier for artists both new and established to get their work seen and heard by thousands of people in a very short period of time. The severely diminished role of record labels as gatekeepers for new music means that just about anyone with the performing skills, time, money, and marketing savvy needed to produce and promote an album can do so with a much smaller number of middlemen than before. Of course, there is a “flip side:” while it is perhaps easier than ever to produce a professional quality album, it is harder than ever to make a reasonable amount of money from doing so. Fewer listeners than ever before actually buy whole albums, much less albums distributed on hard copies like CDs, and royalties paid even from legal download sites and streaming services are extremely small, on the order of a fraction of a cent per play. Artists who once made thousands of dollars per night selling recordings after concerts now make practically nothing in that way; solo recordings have become little more than expensive business cards. I don’t even have to look to other people’s examples to illustrate this. My own solo recording, which cost well over $10,000 to make, has yielded less than $300 in royalties for me since it was released in 2015. Of course, my reasons for creating an album were as much academic as artistic—the target audience was teachers and students, and my university provided the lion’s share of funding for the project. I never expected to make money. Had I needed to make a profit—or even break even—for the recording to be considered a success, I would have never done it in the first place. If there ever was much money to be made in recording brass music, there isn’t any longer.
While I could go on about the effects of electronic downloads and streaming on the recording industry, my main purpose in writing today is related to a less serious effect of the advent of iTunes: the labeling of every track, every movement, every piece of recorded music (and even spoken text and other non-musical sounds) as a “song.” While I have no desire to be that snarky musician who constantly reminds people that “it’s not a song; it’s a piece,” as a music teacher I have a reasonable expectation that my students will be more precise in their writing and other classwork than in colloquial speech. When writing and speaking about music in this way, the word “song” refers to a piece of music that is, well, sung, thus using that word in reference to a concert band piece, a movement of a symphonic work, a piece of chamber music, or anything else that is not a song is sloppy and will receive a merciless rebuke from my red pen. (Yes, I still grade in red, but that’s another topic altogether.) Needless to say, as we move closer to having a generation of college students who do not remember a world without the iPod (the current freshmen were two years old when the first iPod was released), imprecision in speaking of music with regard to genre has lamentably increased.
My desire for precision in speaking and writing about music might make my main point for today even more surprising: I am finding it increasingly helpful for both myself and my students to think of the pieces we are performing as “songs.” The first time I said this to a student who had suffered through having papers marked up for such usage the student was understandably surprised, but all have quickly come to understand my point in using the word figuratively in this context. Although this tendency manifests itself differently with players of different instruments, instrumentalists of all stripes are prone to making playing a more physically demanding activity than it is, recruiting muscle groups that are not immediately necessary and with all this effort adding tension and diminishing response and quality of sound. Low brass players in particular have long invoked the metaphor of singing to illustrate the method of playing we should instead choose, one which involves a relaxed body, the free movement of air, and an approach to phrasing that mimics that of a great singer. While the utility of this approach is particularly evident when playing more lyrical pieces, even the most technically demanding works can benefit from a more intentionally “songlike” way of playing. This weekend I’ll be performing the both the Trombone Sonata and the Tuba Sonata by Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) at the National Association of College Wind and Percussion Instructors National Conference, and I have written the word “song” on multiple pages to remind myself of the importance of this approach. Even the intense and not-traditionally-tonal works of a composer like Hindemith benefit from a more “singing” style.
So, students, I guess I’m backtracking a little bit. There are times that you can refer to your “pieces” as “songs,” as long as you are doing so figuratively and with the intended ends of relaxing the body and enhancing performance. Otherwise I’ve still got my red pen in my front pocket!