An Interview with Don Hinshaw
by Marshall Sanders
Creator celebrates every church musician and worship leader, and the ministry of which they are a part. We regularly turn the “spotlight” on people involved in local ministry in order to help inspire and provide ideas for others. In 1975, a sacred publishing firm opened its doors, a beginning based on consumer—a church musician's—needs. Since then, Hinshaw Music has grown from thirty-five titles to a catalog of several hundred. In Creator's September/October 1980 issue, we published an interview with Hinshaw's president and founder, the late Don Hinshaw, now deceased.
How did you get started in publishing?
Well, it's a really long story, but I can try to abbreviate as much as possible. I really have difficulty remembering when I was not involved with the church in some way. I grew up in a simple Methodist church, and because of the lack of anybody to do it, I became the pianist. I was nine years old at the time. Believe it or not, you would look at my body size, and I could barely reach the pedals, but I played fairly well.
I remember the first piano lesson I had. We didn't own a piano so I went up the road a mile or so to the neighbor's to practice. I played through the entire John Thompson Fingers To Play; for some reason music just made sense to me. After that first lesson when the teacher taught me about middle 'C', it all just made sense. The hymn book was the next place to go. I had sense enough to know that those flats and sharps had something to do with making music. I looked through the book until I found a piece that didn't have any of those "funny things." It turned out to be Work For the Night Is Coming.
From the church pianist through High School, and through college, I have been involved in church music in one way or another. My college training was in music education with a degree in music, and a major in piano. I was also getting involved with church music and was beginning to direct choirs and then decided to get a degree in church music in New Orleans. There my major was in organ and conducting.
My first full-time music job was in North Carolina where I taught various church music and keyboard courses at the local college. Then I took a sort of flight into the fancy. I was offered a very attractive job with a tobacco company in public relations. I decided to take the job, and of course was condemned to the lower part of Hell by my friends. From public relations I was promoted to a management position, and was given super, super training. Eventually I was sent to the Philippines to manage a cigarette factory. It wasn't long before I realized I had made a mistake. It was not terribly creative to watch a machine make cigarettes, and I felt my talents were really not being used. I then decided to go back into music, but have always felt I gained invaluable management training at the expense of the tobacco industry. It seemed logical to try to put the two aspects together. I went back to New York without a job, but in just one short day of "job hunting," was working for the Carl Fischer publishing company. I was there almost eight years.
How did you make that contact?
Well, I just walked in off the street and presented my credentials. It just so happened they were looking for someone.
In the music industry, it is rather rare to find someone who knows something about business and music. There are many people in the industry who know a lot about one or the other. It was an odd combination that I had to offer. After working for Fischer for those years, I knew many people and fortunately became inbred into the music business. Those older firms like Carl Fischer and G. Schirmer, are today, much of what was inherited or passed down from generation to generation. These were men who were musicians, and had sort of an old Nineteenth century understanding. I think some of these guys have lost some of the true understanding that should exist between composer and publisher.
My sensitivity to the composers began to develop with the friends that I met. Composers kept encouraging me, saying "Don, we are for you, not a firm," because I tried to be that middleman who understood where they were coming from and then tried to translate that into business and then publication. There were some things that happened at Carl Fischer that provoked me to consider my future. Composers began encouraging me to start my own firm. That encouragement is what propelled it. Against some pretty good odds, I was able to put some money together, because I really believed there was a tremendous role for a publishing house that was sensitive first of all to the needs of the musician—to the needs of the composer.
Was that the unique thing that is still your goal—the thing you don't believe others are doing?
I think so. In a nutshell, that is the uniqueness of my company. When anyone asks me what is unique about Hinshaw Music, I say that I consider the role of the publisher as something like a midwife to the music making process.
I am very much aware that the general public thinks that the publisher is getting rich on publishing, but that really isn't true. You are talking about two things in the pot. Yes you can get very wealthy if you have a hit tune, but that's because you are willing to take huge risks. I still like to think that I am a musician who is contributing to the music making process. Because, here we have the composer who is the creative artist—the genius who has the ideas he wants to develop—and here then comes the publisher whose job it is to transform that creative material into printed form to disseminate this to the world, so to speak. The third process then is with the performers, the choral groups, and the artists who perform the work. It irks me when people look at the publisher as a cold entrepreneur.
Many composer's don't have the business head or even the time to be able to distribute their own material.
Well, that is just it. Anybody who has access to an offset printing press can start printing. But the contacts of distribution are the real secret to this, and, of course, an understanding of business as well. Most people don't understand that the majority of music in my company is sold by music dealers and in stores. I have really bent over backwards to cooperate with the music stores. There is just no such thing as music franchising, like General Motors. It's not in the music industry. But at the same time you have to really cooperate and work with the music stores. Back in the old days when there were only twenty-five publishers, it wasn't AS important. But, now there are several hundred, and you want to be cooperative with the stores so they will display your things to the customers.
When did Hinshaw Music start?
We began in June 1, 1975.
How did you become a leading choral music publisher as fast as you did?
Well, I modestly feel like part of it was my dream. In the first place I had established a credibility with composers and with people in church and choral music. In general, I had established a sincerity in making good choral music a part of our society. I think composers appreciate that—it's kind of an honest approach. If you could have seen our first catalog.
That first year we published thirty-five titles and it was like a "Who's Who" in American choral music. There were composers like Alice Parker, Natalie Sleeth, and many more. This alone established a credibility among choral directors in the country; that here is a new company we should take a look at. It's rather exciting to look at our catalog now. It has twenty-four pages! So there has been a tremendous response to our music from choral directors. Composers want to be involved with the type of thing we are doing.
Plus the fact I believe so strongly in the grass-roots operation. People tease me in the industry because they say where two or three are gathered together, Don Hinshaw will do a reading session. It's really true, because there are so many people starving for good literature. You have to realize too, that the average church choir in this country has a membership of only 12 to 15. We're not just talking about the big choirs; we are talking about the average choir. And it is hard to find good material for those "9 sopranos, 2 altos, and 3 men."
Do you think that most church choir directors have a hard time selecting material without hearing it first?
That is the key! In the first place, I don't think they have a lot of time to spend on this, but many people actually cannot "hear" material by looking at it on the page. And of course, choral music doesn't "come off" the page when played on the keyboard. Therefore, if there is any kind of audio reproduction they can hear, or if they can sing it through, then they get the idea. This is the best way to promote sales. Of course, you can get me on a soap box very quickly. I think many directors are lazy. They want us to hand them things. I think that also accounts for a lot of the necessity for the reading sessions.
What can be done to change the director's approach?
Well, of course, I have strong feelings about that, but it is going to sound like a condemnation of our academic process. I lecture my academic friends whenever I get the opportunity. We go to good colleges, and learn the best literature. The realization is that after graduation you don't go to the small church and expect a choir of fifteen people to do the Bach Magnificat, which you learned at school. I think this is a real problem. Not only do I see this in churches, but I also see it with school teachers. They come right out of college and go into that junior high school and expect them to do a major work. The first thing they all do is come screaming to the music store and ask "what is available—what can I do?!"
"Will you educate me in a hurry," in an area that they didn't?
Exactly! I think this is where our academic process is somewhat idealistic. Now don't misunderstand me; I do think the school and church musician must be the best-trained musician on the block. And I think there are a lot of musicians who look down at the church music program. I'm always hearing about the church musician who tends to hide "behind the Cross." It's a simple understanding of literature and taking the people where they are and training them where they can be.
I totally believe that any good musician can teach anybody anything! Training—that is part of our job. We must musically educate the people, but so many people simply want the "easy way out." "Just keep the congregation and choir at the level where they've always been." I could spend the rest of the day telling you funny stories I have had on that subject. I was very fortunate in my first job, that I had a very sophisticated congregation. My choir appreciated good literature, but there were those in the congregation who liked an old gospel thing too. Well, as a responsible minister of music, I had to minister to everybody. But if I was to do Jesus Loves Me, I wanted to do it well. So in that congregation, there would be the Bach Magnificat, or a work in Latin, but the next Sunday they might get a lovely presentation of a good gospel song that everybody could relate to. This is one of the things — one of the lessons—that students don't learn in school. Balance is important!
In getting the music into their ears, we have workshops and seminars, and then we can do choral reading sessions alone. What other methods are there? Don't some of the publisher clubs send a preview tape of their choral releases?
At Hinshaw we don't do that at this point. My main thrust is still the reading session itself. I want to get the music into their hands. There is no question that sound does sell, however, I come and do a reading session and accomplish two things. One, I am promoting my product and two, I am listening to what people are saying. They are saying we need S.A.T.B. things or more two part things, and so on. When I say it is a grass roots thing, I am listening to the people's needs. Then I go to composers; however, I never tell them to "write this!" I simply say that there is a need for a particular kind of material and "if it sparks your creative instincts," then let's consider it. One of the real problems today though, is that we are all publishing too much stuff. How does the poor minister of music sort it all out? I would really like to see us all say we are not going to publish everything we see.
You would make more money and the minister of music would save a lot of time.
The publishers point of view has been "let's just publish, publish, publish" and there will be a few that will emerge as a successful piece. And from a business point of view, that is true. But why put out piece after piece? I'd like to walk into a reading session with just ten pieces that I really think are super good. It would be much more effective than turning out a hundred jobs a year.
Do you publish some legit things as well as the contemporary?
Part of my philosophy is that I want to be a broad-based publisher. Every choral director, whatever his taste or style, should be able to find something in our catalog that he can use. It has taken me a while to get to that point. We have started a new series called the Choral Traditions music. There are a lot of really fine choral works that have either gone out of print or have had rather bad editions—unscholarly sort of editions. We have been going through those and are just now beginning to release some rather classical standard works. We have done some editions of purely classical literature as well. I'm always looking for that sort of thing. I am not too impressed, you know, with people who are locked into a certain type of music. So much of the "good" music was written over one hundred years ago and many of today's things are overlooked. Even at the ACDA convention where we're supposed to demonstrate the epitome of choral music, we still perform the Brahms Requiem, a piece every attender could whistle in his sleep.
That must be frustrating.
It is. What bothers me is that I am so anxious to encourage today's composers, but if our own colleges don't perform their new works, how are they ever going to become known?"
The thing that comes to my mind is that the works that are being composed today are in most cases, of the gospel/pop idiom, rather than actual choral works, which would give the choir the same musical challenge as the Requiem or Magnificat.
Well that would certainly be controversial. Maybe those type of compositions are being written, but who'll give them a chance—who'll do that first performance. That is what I am really trying to say. On your point about the kind of things that are being written and performed today, we are still in what I call the backwash of the '60's. We had the era of "you know let's just try anything." The whole openness of the '60's was in many ways very good and I have also maintained that if you will check music history, that there have always been the changes and through it has emerged someone who could solidify the good elements and stand head-and-shoulders above everybody else. You can almost pick those composers through history. I think we have just come through this type experience in the '60's and '70's, but don't have anybody who really put it all together. Now that is not to say that they are not "out there," but just that none of us have really "uncovered" them. Goodness knows that I would like to be the first one to do that. You know, interestingly enough, the church is usually two decades behind what is going on in the secular world.
Is there anything that can be done? Like you said, the person who figures that one out will be the winner.
I don't think there is any question. You look at the established composers today. They are using the elements of the '40's and the '50's, and even older, and the interesting thing there is that a lot of them think they have a new popular style, but it sounds so contrived. I have seen things that are supposed to be jazz, but obviously the composers knew nothing about jazz. He was imitating, only imitating. Hank Beebe, on the other hand, is truly a Jazz musician and that is why his things are always appreciated.
...and they sell.
They sell very well. There are a lot of people who don't like that style but that is why they sell vanilla and chocolate. This is why publishers all need to be a little more diversified in their taste and smart enough to recognize the contributions of many composer types. I don't mean this to sound trite, but I really think that church music is something special. It is not for everybody and that concept relates to my whole feeling about worship in general. Worship is a creative act and I believe we should approach God with the very best that's in us.
Do you ever publish a worship-type work that is still musically challenging.
We just released a work this year of Alice Parker's called Journeys, a really wonderful piece. But it's going to be hard to sell.
What is it's concept?
It's about an hour-long program that deals with the idea that everybody in the United States came from somewhere else. She used folk/hymn melodies and sets them in beautiful arrangements.
Any other works of this type?
Well that's the hard part. For financial reasons, I just can't afford to publish everything I feel might be worthy of it, especially major works."
What is the dominant trend in the sales life of a piece?
Well, a good piece of music sells well the first year. Then the second year, after the word gets around, it will really take off. Then it will usually begin to decline. Generally the trend is a sort of sharp peak, a taper off, and a sharp dive. Then it reaches the point where it is not commercially possible to reprint.
What are some things that have broken that trend and are still selling?
Anything Natalie Sleeth or Hank Beebe write. They continue to sell year after year. There are other things in our catalog like the Ray Robinson things. They did not have a spectacular beginning, but have strong consistant sales. They may never sell thousands and thousands, but they enter into the standard repertoire and sell.
How have accompaniments evolved and which ones are you publishing?
Today, practically everything is permissible when you get away from the more conservative churches where anything except a pipe organ is considered heresy. That's another thing that the '60's opened up for us. At one time, even the guitar was something that you would never consider taking into the sanctuary. The '60's opened up all sorts of options. Before that, some churches would not even allow a piano in their sanctuary. I think the style of the music must dictate the type of accompaniment. Today we are using more and more full instrumental accompaniments. Some churches even have an instrumental ensemble, a chamber orchestra, or a small "symphony." If someone is good enough to play in High School, get him in to play for the church. I see a trend toward more full instrumental accompaniments associated with choral works. I'm certainly all for that.
There is going to be a desire or a need soon for publishers to offer extensive orchestral arrangements-vocal or no vocal—or things that are already published. There may even be a need soon for some orchestral composing. I haven't heard of anybody composing new contemporary orchestral works that would fit well into the church. It may not be profitable yet.
That's the problem. The need is growing and I predict that these things will happen in the near future. The high cost of these low production releases is in the engraving. We'll have to go to some type facsimile printing.
You're talking about the handwritten "jazz band" look? That's fine, isn't it?
Sure. Most musicians don't object to it. I think they would rather wade through that, than not have anything. Of course the cost of producing anything is phenomenal.
You also publish things that are not church materials, don't you?
Strictly school educational type things?
How did that start? Was that in the original plan?
No, no. But I've always been interested in school music as well as the church thing. I find, however that it is one of the hardest areas for which to find material. There has always been a real controversy relative to school systems being able to do any kind of religious material. Most of the old legitimate things however are somehow related, and this is a real problem, especially at Christmas. It's difficult to find good secular literature that doesn't have some reference to God. "The sun shines bright and so it is going to be a beautiful day." Those are beginning to wear out.
What do you feel that the minister of music is looking for these days?
I think that depends on the minister of music and the concept of his church's music program. If his concept of his job is just to please the congregation and the pastor, then he is going to take the easy way out. If he has a burning desire for music ministry, he is going to look for a variety of material through which he can teach music and also theological concepts. Through the music, he can educate and give tremendous uplift to his people. It's sad that so many ministers of music are victimized by the senior pastor who has had little if any training in music, and doesn't appreciate the educational benefit of a church teaching music. Pastors need to be at least minimally educated in music. I think that is one of our problems with seminaries—with theological training. That is what throws the minister of music into conflict with his "supervisor."
What are your goals? What do you want to do in Hinshaw's future?
My goal is to get to know as many choral directors as I can in this country—to sit down and talk with them and say, "Look here! What are your needs?" I want to be flexible in supplying and being responsive to those needs. Most of all though, I want to stay up with the times. The very minute that I sit in my office and think we have "arrived," then we are dead. That's what has happened to many of the old established firms. My goal is also to be alert and alive to the changes, and then support those changes.
This new era which stresses the importance of the music program in the church, will help, won't it?
I think it is wonderful to travel and look at all the workshops that are happening all over the country. It IS a new era. This is the outgrowth, this is the excitement that I see for the future, because we have better trained people in the churches, full-time ministers of music.
You know when I started—I won't tell you when—there were really very few full-time people in church music in this country. Now however, every respectable church has one or is trying to get one. There's just so much more activity. Every major denomination is growing each year in music. It's super, and I want to be there and I want to be a part of it. As long as I have a need to do Hinshaw Music, it is going to be that way. I refuse to let anyone else look over our submitted manuscripts. I look at each one of them personally. These people have entrusted me with their creativity and I want to find at least something to tell them that is good. I want to encourage composers and new performances. I would like to see more and more performances of contemporary things because this is the way you encourage.
Another thing that I want to do is encourage church groups to commission works. This is another way of assuring that the body of literature is going to be continually growing with new and exciting input. Most of the composers I know are really anxious to know when a piece is going to be performed. Generally, they are much more interested in the performance, than the money. To know that a piece they are writing is going to be performed is exciting to them, and of course, exciting to me as a publisher.