Can “Live” Reading Sessions survive?

by vernsanders on January 26, 2010

Church musicians know that we are at the beginning of “the winter season.” Between the first of January and mid-March there are any number of conferences and reading sessions taking place across the US. I was at two of them — Winter Music Texas, sponsored by Kempke Music, and Music Atlanta, sponsored by Pine Lake Music — last week, and I came away with some interesting (well…at least to me…) impressions.

I’ve been attending reading sessions of choral music for many years, and leading them since at least the mid-1980s, when I was a music publisher. Those were the “good old days” for both publisher and musician — there were no sample recordings, so the sessions were generally packed (I remember doing a session for an NPM conference as the only “Protestant” publisher at the primarily Roman Catholic gathering, and walking into my session early to find that I had to fight my way through the crowd OUTSIDE, because all the chairs were already full…yes, we did run out of packets…). From the publisher side of things, we didn’t need to sell 3000 octavos just to pay for the cost of the recording, which meant that you could take more chances on a piece of music that was not so…um…”commercial.”

Not only that, people sang! And for the most part they could read.

Flash forward. At most of the reading sessions I watched last week (my Creator Honored 10 session was an exception, for which I’m grateful), it was like a rock concert. People got up, walked around or out (gotta answer that cel phone), and, for the most part, sat passively while they listened to tracks of the pieces being read.

So I got to thinking…

Is this restlessness due to the frantic need for productivity? (I would guess at least 10% of those attending the reading sessions had their laptops out…do you think they were just making notes about the music?) Is it our societal Pavlovian reactions to the umbilical “bell” of our cel phones/pdas?

Or is it a manifestation/symptom of something more frightening?

Consider this…suppose that the reason people were getting up was not that they were rude, but that they had already seen this piece of music before? Between the sample CDs that the publishers send out, and then the print music dealers send out, and the fact that, for many publishers, the arrangement is a “knock-off” of a tune that was/is popular on the radio, is there anything new…really new…anymore? If somebody has a “seen that” reaction to a considerable amount of the stuff being read, will they think twice the next time before they spend the money to attend a session?

I don’t want to go all conspiracy theorist here, but both publishers and dealers know that a piece of music with a “name” writer will sell more than the same piece of music with a “no name” writer. And, just like Hollywood learned many years ago, a copycat or sequel piece of music provides a certain comfort level, and takes less thought to promote. This is the “dark side” of the 1000 True Fans economic model that I blogged about recently. In the vernacular, it reads this way: when you’re hot, you’re hot…and when you’re not…you’re not…

And, as Paris Hilton has proved so well…what’s “hot” is generally what’s new, particularly in this age of the seemingly insatiable appetite for gossip and knowing something before anybody else does.

What do you think? Are reading sessions becoming obsolete? Do you find that you see the same music multiple times? Are you bored? Please leave me a comment below.

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