A few months ago, I used my column to remember some thoughts and contributions of the late singer, songwriter, producer and author, Mark Heard. Soon after, I received a warm letter of appreciation from Mark's mother, Jean Heard, full of more memories and truth. She wrote: "Your article on Mark in the June CCM Magazine brought tears to my eyes. Even as a small child, he was a complicated person! I never realized how very sensitive he was to things for years, though he cried as a baby when certain parts of 'Happy Birthday' were sung. He was... a person of integrity in everything. The Lord did bless us with his 40 years on earth. There's not a room in my house that doesn't have some of his handiwork in it - photos, cross-stitch, fish prints, silk-screen prints, etc., as well as LPs, CDs and cassettes. He always reminded us that he couldn't write just what people wanted to hear - he had to write 'what came out.'"
That last part should stick in all of our minds. They were his own words, used once in an interview. He writes "what comes out." It's a simple call to integrity in light of a market largely inundated by other concerns - what sells, what will make a hit, what people feel comfortable with, what happens to be popular at the time.
Something tells me there's not enough of what-comes-out in Christian music and a little too much of what-the-people-want-to-hear. When we let the market dictate what comes out, the prophetic voice is silenced.
Imagine what would have happened if Ezekiel, Isaiah and Jeremiah had been more concerned about what the people wanted to hear than what came out of their mouth when they let God speak. Ezekiel even talked about "eating the scroll" of God's word, ingesting it spiritually, and then speaking what came out to the people. In most cases their words were not favorably received because the people were being disobedient to God at the time and He was using the prophets to call them back. It may be somewhat different for the artist - not all artists are prophets - but all artists are intuitive, and to be true artists, one must put a high premium on the intuitive voice.
In my own early days as a songwriter, I can remember sitting by the ocean or taking my guitar to the mountains and simply writing what came out. There was no market in those days to consider - only what you had to write. Then came the encroachment of an industry and the demands of record companies, producers, friends and other musicians. It's easy to quickly lose one's internal perspective. I would venture to guess that most artists can readily identify times when they subverted their inner voice to the many other voices outside themselves. It's a struggle to keep one's integrity.
Mark Heard used to love to tell the story of how once, in the midst of producing a painstakingly creative album project, he satisfied the incessant demands of a record company executive for at least one hit single for radio. How? He made up a song in 10 minutes, told the musicians in the studio to "play stupid" on it, mixed the second take in 30 minutes (the first wasn't "stupid" enough) and overnighted the results to the record exec, who called the next day to compliment him on his "brilliant" piece of work. So much for artistic integrity in the marketplace!
I'm not at all suggesting that there is no place for marketing concerns in an artist's priorities. One would be a careless steward of talent to not be shrewd about the business aspects of the music industry. Jesus told His followers to be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves. Business concerns and artistic concerns are both important to the artist, but one must not come at the sacrifice of the other. Somehow, in the midst of the demands of the marketplace, artists must find a way to still write what comes out.
One way to do this is to write first and worry later. Write what comes out and concern yourself with the market after you see what you have. Writing what you know people already want to hear is a guarantee of non-originality, since people only want to hear what they already have heard and know they like. Writing what comes out gives priority to the intuitive and often paves the way for truly original work. New trends are never set by giving people what they want to hear. Trends are set by taking people a few steps beyond what they thought they wanted and inviting them to experience something new.
Writing what comes out is usually not the road to mass appeal, and Mark's own works have exemplified that fact. It is one of the reasons why truly original artists are often not appreciated in their lifetimes. It takes a while for the rest of us to catch up with them. And yet these are the artists who leave the door open for others to follow, who lay themselves down as a sort of human bridge to those who will probably be far more successful than they. As Mrs. Heard said in her letter, "The years since Mark's death have flown by, but the emptiness is still here, helped tremendously, however, by many young people with intelligence and great spiritual insight, and the ability to communicate their faith with freshness and originality."
Obviously, these are people, like Mark, who have learned how to write what comes out, even in the midst of what others want to hear.
Copyright © by John Fischer for CCM Magazine, September 1997 issue.
You can explore the thoughtful works of Mr. Fischer
at his excellent web-site The Fischtank
INTERVIEWS & ARTICLES