Open Volume

I am looking for words and music for a hymnal. The working title is “Open Volume: singable, photocopiable hymns”.

The intent is to create a body of new hymnody which will be available to churches as a supplement, or as individual pieces; to showcase the work of writers and composers who might not gain the attention of traditional publishers; and to make the advantages of Creative Commons licensing of church music more widely known. The initial edition will be online, but I am very keen to do a print version of some sort too, available for costs plus a small amount to go toward contributors. Or perhaps we’ll do a crowdfunding campaign for each printing, such that each contributor can get a lump sum, rather than micropayments. I haven’t worked out the details of that part just yet!

Why do I want to do this?

People frequently complain about a lack of new hymns. And let’s face it, singing the same Victorian stuff* all the time would be boring. But the current publishing climate doesn’t make it easy for your average cash-strapped parish to go out and buy just one hymn… instead, the decision must be taken to buy an entirely new hymnbook, or at least a hymnal “supplement”. Twelve full music copies for the choir and fifty words only copies for the congregation is a pretty big investment. But something they can photocopy, perfectly legally, without needing a CCLI license or similar, is much easier. So is music that can be downloaded and printed as needed. I want to make it easier for churches to use new hymns.

But then, people also frequently complain that “new” church music is hard to sing. Well, some of it is… I don’t have anything in particular against your standard drums-and-guitars Christian Contemporary Music, but much of it isn’t great for congregational singing, especially if the instrumentation you actually have is an ailing pipe organ! I think the form and style of traditional hymnody is actually pretty accessible and versatile, and I don’t think “new” music needs to abandon that. I also think there are good poets and composers out there who might not be interested in making a lot of money from their work, but would like to be published, would like their work used. I should know: I’m one of them, and having my work used outside my own parish or those I have some close connection with is one of the reasons this project is attractive to me. Publishing a collection of hymns, rather than just a hymn here and there and everywhere else, means a better audience for all contributors.

Churches and copyright end up in all kinds of tangled knots at times, because current copyright law is difficult to understand and churches don’t have much money. I think Creative Commons offers a good solution: it isn’t always easy to grasp right away, but it is much easier to find out what you can or can’t do with a piece of music if you happen across a printed copy with only minimum information on it than it is with traditional copyright. The standard Creative Commons licence blurb is a lot more helpful than the first initial and last name of the composer, especially if the composer is rather obscure. I deal with this regularly as an organist: hymns that have turned up in one book or another, or on a sheet, but with no way of me finding out when the composer died or, if I can tell that it’s been less than 70 years, how to contact them or their agent to request permission to use their work. The Christian Copyright Licensing Initiative is one attempt to solve this problem but it isn’t exhaustive and it requires people to pay a licence fee and do extra paperwork. I want to encourage the use of Creative Commons licencing for church music whenever it is appropriate. I feel so strongly about this that everything I publish is under some kind of CC licence.

I do think writers and composers should be paid for their work. I’m not doing this to try to get free stuff out of anyone, or take advantage of people’s good will! I know there are people out there writing stuff for free already, and I want to encourage them to use an appropriate CC licence and I want to put together an anthology of some of the better material. I don’t think the publication-and-royalties route is always a good way to get paid as a composer, though obviously it works well for some and I wish them no ill. I’m also not sure that a commission conditional on signing away all your rights is advantageous, nor a large grant for a complex project where the composing takes a back seat to coordination and publicity activities. Offering a choice of two licenses, CC BY-SA or CC BY-NC, allows contributors to retain some control over their work and any derivatives, while trying out a different business model than they might otherwise consider. My business model for the hymns I will contribute? Patronage. In fact, it was meeting one of my funding goals at Patreon that triggered the start of this project. But others may wish to make their own arrangements, or none — and that’s fine. The point is to avoid some of the restrictions of traditional publishing.

If you know anyone that might like to be involved, please do point them at this page, or at the call for words and scores.

*Actually there’s an awful lot that we sing that isn’t Victorian in origin. Off the top of my head: Gibbons, stuff from the Piae Cantiones, stuff from the Genevan Psalter, from the Scottish Psalter, good solid Lutheran chorales, Irish folk tunes, plainchant. And there’s some thoroughly decent 20th-century hymnody too, I didn’t have Coe Fen at my wedding for nothing.