We asked Dan Holder about his songwriting and other music-related activities.
inSpire – Dan, I know about you because of your Tranquility album that I used to listen to back in the 70s (I believe that’s when it was). That was good stuff. But let’s back up a little. Tell me about yourself and how you became passionate about songwriting and playing guitar.
Holder – My childhood was spent in Brazil, which was rich in exotic rhythms and beautiful folk music. Everyone in my family was a musician, and I had been given piano lessons and violin lessons, but nothing stuck. In Brazil, the guitar was king. At age eight, after about a dozen lessons from a local folk singer, I began accompanying my older sister, who played flute, and later began playing with the family in churches and other functions. After returning to the US in the late 60s, I came ear-to-ear with the folk and rock-n-roll music of the era, and realized that I had learned the perfect instrument to “fit in.” Problem was, all I knew how to play was “bossa nova” and other Brazilian jazz and folk styles. I worked very hard to learn some new techniques, mostly by watching other players and then copying their fingering. But the Brazilian influence remains to this day – and some of my favorite compositions employ a bit of the Amazon flavor.
My 8th-grade English teacher, Miss Bieber, had us write for the first 15 minutes of each class – anything we wanted; jokes, poems, stories, song lyrics, anything. I had never really cared much about writing, but I did know how to rhyme, and Miss Bieber encouraged me to write lyrics to some of the chord progressions she had heard me play on my guitar during recess. By the end of that school year, I had written about a dozen songs (one of which was worth playing), and some of the other kids took notice. Pretty soon, I was taking verses from the Psalms and constructing songs around them. I had a rather high voice back then… uh… and still do – somehow my voice never graduated from puberty. But my love of guitar music and of songwriting has only grown stronger since those days.
I have written well over 500 songs so far (of which 50 or so are worth playing). I call it “music tithe” – the 10% of my songs the Lord gave me to share.
inSpire – OK, please tell us about Tranquility and how you became involved with that project and experience.
Holder – In 1973, I left college and moved to the Redlands, CA area, working as a computer programmer, and doing recording sessions on the side as a contract guitarist and vocalist. The first studio I played at was Starrett Recording Studios, owned and operated by Buz Starrett. One day I arrived early for a session and got to hear the last few minutes of another recording session that featured Alan Pierce on guitar. I was humbled by his guitar skills. We struck up a conversation and then, since my client was running late for my scheduled session, Al and I jammed for a while. He like my melodies and chord progressions, and I was blown away by his lead guitar pickin.’ We decided to get together and jam some more.
Within a couple weeks, Al and I were playing every other day, learning each other’s styles, songs, Christian philosophies, and musical ambitions. We started by offering our services as a guitar duo for functions, backup performances, and studio artists. After a few months, we had built up a large repertoire of songs and were booked into a few local churches and schools for concerts. Next, we recorded a demo tape and sent it around, getting the attention of a couple record labels – and Max Mace, founder of Heritage Singers. Max invited us to use the Heritage Ranch to form a band and rehearse our act. We found Monte Moses (keyboards, percussion) and Mark Foster (bass), who were willing to work with us on faith that we could make a living on the road. Max agreed to finance our recording session in hopes it would be picked up by a major Christian label.
In 1976, we entered Martinsound studios in Alhambra and recorded our best songs at the time, with orchestrations by Tom Keene. It sounded great, and a few days later, “Tranquility” was officially the name of the band and the album, and we signed a contract with Tempo Records under their “Chrism” label. In 1977, the album hit #5 on Billboard’s charts for Christian music, and it remained in the top 20 for many months, as the band toured the U.S. In fact, during that year, we appeared 377 times, often making a radio and TV appearance the day of a concert.
Most importantly, our music and message was having an impact. We offered non-sectarian, Christ-centered content, and about a dozen styles of music – something for everyone. The approach got us accepted into hundreds of churches and schools of all denominations, truly making our ministry an outreach. We witnessed the work of the Holy Spirit as hundreds of people accepted Christ after our concerts. These experiences repeatedly inspired us to write more songs and experiment with new styles.
In the spring of 1978, we toured the UK and Germany, playing to packed venues. Despite the apparent success of our music and ministry, very little income was realized; certainly not enough to support a band, and so our last concert as “Tranquility” was performed before 5,000 people at All Souls Langham Place in Piccadilly Circus, London. I returned home alone the next day; Al remained in Europe to record with some other artists, later returning to California, where I was able to record with him again in 1979 – but that’s another story!
inSpire – The problem for fledgling songwriters has always been how to get their music heard. The process of writing, recording and publishing a collection of songs can be daunting. Do you have any tips you can share with readers who may be wanting to publish their music, but they who aren’t quite sure how to do it?
Holder – There are two ways to get your song heard, and both require that it be recorded: one way is to record it yourself, the other is to let another artist record it. The advantage of the latter option is that, even if your song is the least popular on the other artist’s CD, it will make as much in mechanical royalties as the most popular song(s) on the same CD. The disadvantage is that the songwriter loses control of the quality and production values for the song. It’s difficult for any singer to sing your song exactly the way you envisioned it to be sung. Unless the other artist is Peter Cetera and the song is produced by David Foster, it won’t sound as good as you could’ve done it (in your mind, at least).
Fortunately, modern recordings can be made without expensive studios – just expensive microphones and a good computer with digital audio recording software. When I started recording in the 70s, making records in somebody’s garage actually sounded like we were in a garage. Today, we can make music sound like anything we wish with a good-quality mic and the right software.
“Publishing” today is also a lot different than it was when I started. Today I can post something on YouTube and it’s considered “published.” Selling CDs used to require the buyer to show up at a concert or a record store. Now the buyer can download a song or an album without the artist’s participation. This fact, while convenient, is also the reason why it is difficult to “sell” CDs in the Christian market. For each person who downloads an iTune song and pays for it, twenty-plus people will obtain it for free from someone else.
I propose another way – a technique for getting your Christian songs and ministry into the homes of everyone who attends your concerts. Originated and proven by the late Keith Green, it turns the traditional way of distributing CDs on its head – and it’s completely faith-based.
1. Have special business cards printed for this purpose – something difficult to reproduce.
2. At each concert, have greeters pass out one business card to each family who attends.
3. During the concert, let the audience know the secret of the business cards – explaining that your ministry works on a “pay it forward” basis, and that the previous audiences have already paid for the business cards each family now holds; and each card is good for a FREE CD of their choice. The goal is to quickly spread your ministry into their homes. Explain that the CDs retail for $15 or $20 and that all you need is to raise enough funds to pay for the next audience’s CDs.
4. Near the end of the concert, have the venue take up a “pay it forward” offering, with all proceeds going toward the CDs for the next audience.
5. Set up a table with your CDs in the lobby, but accept the special business cards in trade for CDs. If an audience member wishes to buy CDs as well (especially if you have more than one), this is just an extra blessing – the key is to keep paying it forward each concert.
Keith (and others who’ve tried it) “sold” more CDs than the record companies ever did; and he generated more funds for his ministry than the standard “love offering plus CD sales” model that most Christian artists employ. Of course, not everyone who attends and receives a CD will have contributed; but that’s okay – the idea is to at least cover your costs of producing the CDs you gave out. A few attendees will donate well above the retail value of the CDs, but almost everyone will put something into the offering plate. After all, you’ve given them something of value just for attending. Have faith that the Lord will bless your ministry as he multiplied the loaves and fishes at Galilee.
Supplement this model with YouTube clips that lead people to your website, and maintain a social media presence.
Make your songs and collections available on all major downloading sites, including: iTunes, Rhapsody, SoundCloud, BandCamp, Amazon, and CDBaby. Just because some sites pay less to the artists than others is irrelevant. The key nowadays is to “say yes” to customers wherever they shop.
Finally, do not make deals with anyone or anything that would compromise your sound or message. Some record labels, for example, require that you surrender creative control of your songs in order to gain their distribution channels. My answer to such entities is: “If you’re so smart that you know what my intended message, audience, lyrics, chords, voice, and instrumentation should be, then you don’t need me.”
Granted, sometimes we need help from more experienced producers. But even with their help, you should never compromise your message; such as by replacing all your “God” words with watered-down words in order to make your project “more commercial.”
Paul said in Romans, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto eternal life.”
inSpire – Wow. this kind of stuff is very helpful. As you look ahead, what do you want to do next musically? What keeps your creative juices flowing?
Holder – Musically, I continue to explore new ways of expressing Christian music. I am convinced – in the age of online media and a culture of instant gratification – that the only way to reach people with the Gospel is to go where they are and communicate with them in a language they understand and like. Take, for example, the sacred hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”: In reality, it is Martin Luther’s lyrics put to the melody of a German drinking song (that is still sung in taverns today, but with different lyrics). Such powerful words in that song – but the only way to reach people with Martin Luther’s message was to package it in the popular music of the 16th Century. It is no different today. If you want to reach kids who only listen to rapp, are you instead going to play them songs from the church hymnal, or classical, or southern Gospel? Let me put it another way: To catch fish, go where the fish are.
This is exactly what Tranquility did – we wrote solid Christian lyrics and put them to music of many styles. Each song was a departure from the others; there was at least one song in every concert that everybody liked. And when they liked a song, they listened to the words. Mission accomplished.
Back to your question; I am always seeking new styles of music that reach people I never reached before. And I’m always studying the Scriptures to back up my lyrics with clear theology. God’s truth does not change – it was truth in the beginning, and still is. But there are many ways to say, “Jesus loves me, this I know,” some more poetic than others! Our job, as a music ministers, is solely to lift up Christ; it is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict the listener of his or her need for a Savior, and give them the gift of faith to believe that God’s Grace, through Christ, is sufficient for Salvation. (John 16; Eph 2:8-10)
My creative juices, therefore, are always flowing. For example, while we complete the mixing and mastering of my next CD (“Nevermore Alone”), which contains some of the never-released recordings I did with Alan Pierce after the breakup of Tranquility, we are also recording the songs for the CD that will follow (“Lift Him Up”). God willing, both CDs will be released in 2012. New styles will be introduced in both projects that continue from where Tranquility left off. I believe that many will have never heard uplifting Christian music played this way; and that is what is most exciting for me, keeps me playing guitar, and keeps me searching for ways to improve the craft.
For example, on April 11th, I attended an “Acoustic Alchemy” concert in Fort Worth. Two British guitar players (with backup band) who do amazing guitar gymnastics to create a style and sound far better than the sum of its parts. These guys have inspired my guitar playing for the past 20 years, almost as much as Al Pierce inspired it in the 70s and early 80s. Again, “Alchemy” doesn’t play Christian music, but many people who need to hear the Gospel attend those concerts and buy their CDs. How am I going to reach them? Now you know the secret!
Listen to “Nevermore Alone” by Dan Holder
This interview was conducted by Rich DuBose, Director of Pacific Union Conference Church Support Services and the inSpire project© 2017 - 2018 inSpire. All rights reserved. Click here for content usage information.