This post is controversial. It’s painful to write. But I believe it’s an important message for the church – let me explain. In 2003, I ‘retired’ from administrating the band United Live. This was after about six years of full-time, unpaid service. Completely willingly, I and Marcus Beaumont, a guitarist, invested our lives as teenagers, programming and creating worship. I came on as a songwriter, and ended up doing a large amount of administration and pastoral work setting up systems. I failed to create any balance between ‘work’ and ‘ministry’. No-one seemed to have a clue what I did, what time I started or what time I finished. It wasn’t really fair to the church, as a volunteer retains the kind of autonomy that allows them to be a loose cannon – whereas staff enter a contractual agreement, a two-way commitment. But in regards to the church, I don’t think I’m alone – many people find themselves spinning a wheel that never stops.
When I wrote ‘Jesus what a Beautiful Name’, I was fifteen. I loved God, and I had a crazy theory that music occurred in circles, with appropriate lyrical and melodic resolution. Music wasn’t made, it was found. It was unlike music ever before created. I often didn’t write in 4/4 and I added bars and subtracted them without a care in the world. My lyrics were informed by Anglican hymns, often dense in text. I remember once sharing my thoughts on music with a well-known worship leader, who looked me in the face and said “You need to drop that and start to learn from the greats”. He meant the existing worship songwriters – Michael W. Smith. Himself. And he was more of a square guy. At times, I think of all the circular songs that could have provided a slightly different trajectory to the path of Australian congregational music.
I wrote square song after square song deemed bad enough to go into the abyss – which, in this case was a group of big boxes kept in Hillsong’s warehouse. A couple made it through. Once, I sat down and listened to the submissions for one week alone. There were about ten. The most interesting was a guy who declared he had schizophrenia, and who pressed the keyboard demo button and sang to it while bashing some kitchen pans together. It was all kinds of beautiful. But, not really the signature sound. By age eighteen, I was crossing whole phrases out of my lines, removing as many words as possible in the hope they would stay out of the box. I formed protective strategies around all the younger musicians and singers. And, at twenty-three, I just stopped submitting. Obviously, the Hillsong albums continued, and they are great. I’m proud of the part I played in regards to the behind the scenes, and for each of the songs that did get through.
Recently, I wrote and recorded an album called Grace.
And, I need your help. Because there is a reviewer response I’m encountering that basically says, “I listened to ‘Grace’ – it’s beautiful but I hate the genre because it’s boring”. Well I’m flattered, but it’s one of the most frustrating seasons of my life, because I now have to care about reviews and the people making them. I’ll be honest. I can only look to a future creating music for a very loud crowd of frustrated twenty-something male constituents if they are willing to invest. I’m sitting in a tiny Los Angeles apartment, having worked a myriad of normal jobs to get here. On the weekends, I lead worship. Right now, I need people who are willing to say ‘hey, Tan, why don’t you try something a little more circular?’…. or even ‘here. I hate your music. take my $25 and go write something better’. The worship leaders, the singers and the musicians we have in church are the ones we create. Most get frustrated and leave. But if they’ve served you week in, week out with their worship leading, would it hurt to buy a $25 package and give it away to your mother?
Feel free to hate it – but if you buy it you become my new constituency. I’d love to write songs for you. I’d love to revolutionize Christian music. I’m happy to organise projects for you. And I’ll listen to all your pet peeves about the types of worship music you detest. If you invest.
But let’s be honest, this industry is not going to just go away. It’s not a level playing field. Publishers spend millions on certain projects and even buy back the albums they create. The ‘spin’ that there is some new dude with a guitar and brilliant talent who is going to come along and rock you out of the water is kinda mythological. Sorry. I know ten guys with guitars and brilliant talent who you won’t hear about because they refuse to write in boxes. And there are a thousand fresh-faced new sixteen year olds signing the release papers for their first bright-eyed, bushy tailed album of pop worship written by thirty five year olds who’ve gotten used to tailoring their lyrics for publishers, and who will do whatever it takes to buy a house. Kids need ways of getting music to their audiences without years of indentured labour. And in particular, Aboriginal kids need supporters. Don’t tell me that I don’t have a distinctive Australian sound – tell me that you’re interested in investing into Australians. I’d love to help with that, knowing what I know now at the age of thirty-two. But it needs a couple of clicks and a commitment. Unless of course, worship is just a business and you want to treat it as such, with no responsibilities to any of the people involved.
Two Eskimos sitting in a kayak were chilly so they lit a fire in the craft. It sank, proving once and for all that you can’t have your kayak and heat it.