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The Christian Music Conspiracy

For the past six years, I have spent my career, my time, and my energy on this thing called “the Christian music industry.” One of the most interesting things about my job is the “armchair A&R rep” phenomenon (note, A&R’s are the cats who find, sign and develop artists. “A&R” probably stands for “airplanes and restaurants,” which is where this job takes place). 

I’ve had the following conversation more times than I care to recall during my career. 

Myth: There is a “Record Label Conspiracy” to push a certain kind of ideology/agenda.

Fact: Record labels do have an agenda. And that agenda is pretty much the same as every other company in 2009—avoid going broke. Bottom line: Most Christian music labels are owned by larger conglomerates, and that means they have to stay out of the “red” on the bookkeeping. So they sell what we buy.

Myth: The Christian music industry intentionally holds back “progressive” bands.

Fact: The market drives the product. I’ve seen record labels take big risks on new, progressive music, only to get burned and lose large piles of money. To this day, one of the best bands I’ve seen, period, is 4th Avenue Jones. On paper, they had it all: street cred (fronted by platinum-rapper-turned-Christ-follwer Ahmad Jones), a great album, and solid touring. 

Sadly, they weren’t even around a year. When 4th Ave opened for Tobymac at my radio station’s annual summer music festival in Chicago, even the largely 20-something Christian crowd didn’t “get” them. (Note, Ahmad is set to re-emerge this year as a solo artist—let’s not make the same mistake again.)

Christian music has improved by leaps & bounds in the six years I’ve been in it. When I first started working in radio, it was a huge deal for an artist to cross over (Stacie Orrico, P.O.D., Switchfoot). Today, it’s so commonplace that we don’t notice (Flyleaf, Jon McLaughlin, Mat Kearney, The Fray). 

But for all our improvements, most Christian music is either the “big worship band” or the “high-energy-youth-group-punkish” act, because that’s what Christians buy. Case in point, Shine.FM has recently been involved in concerts with Seabird, House of Heroes and Fiction Family (Jon from Switchfoot+Sean from Nickel Creek), and combined, these bands drew about 400 people. Conversely, Third Day and Chris Tomlin will both be in Illinois in March, and both are playing 8,000+ seat venues.

It’s simple math, really. Christian music, and radio, have a specific “sound” because that’s what the church chooses to support. 

Myth: “The sound” of Christian music is somehow damaging the Kingdom of God, by showing people that are hokey, old fashioned, and backwards.

Fact: Most of my “secular” friends don’t instantly hear the music on my stations and scream “that’s church music” (89.7 Shine.FM in Chicago  and 101.7 FUSE FM in Mid Michigan). Does the Christian radio station in your town sound pretty bad? Quite possibly. Is a specific Casting Crowns song that they’ve played to death since 2005 keeping somebody from accepting Christ? I really doubt it. 

Again, the numbers prove that the audience is what’s steering the ship here. If there’s a “problem” with the CCM music the church consumes, then it’s really a deeper issue of what we teach followers of Christ about how to appreciate, respect and interact with the arts (for the most part, we don’t touch these topics within church walls). 

Myth: Christian artists are in it for the money, or just because they can’t “cut it” in the secular world.

Fact: The music industry is exploding. The CCM world saw the digital age coming, and didn’t act appropriately (neither did any other genre, for the record). There isn’t much money right now, period. If you want to make money in Christian music, then the place to do it is in the black gospel genre. 

For instance, take my good friends The Afters. They’ve had a hit on MTV, movie exposure and presence in bigger TV shows. You know what they’re touring in? A van, not a big luxury bus. 

There’s a perception that everyone in media is making a killing right now (ironic case in point—someone just tried to sell me a $400,000 house because I’m a “major market radio host and nationally published writer.” I rent, and have two roommates). 

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As for not being able to “cut” it in the secular arena, I have heard it directly from the music directors at a couple of major rock stations that they “won’t touch” anything Christian. When KROQ, the most famous rock radio station in the world, played Jars of Clay, it was because they didn’t know they were Christians. The music director vowed to “never let that happen again.” 

Myth: “What I do doesn’t matter.” 

Fact: You have the power to help great music happen. When a Christian artist is playing a club in your city, go see them. You’d be surprised at how many Christian artists make a living playing to the secular world (my friend Manchild in Mars Ill is a prime example, since the church just won’t touch underground hip hop). 

Also, talk to your pastoral staff. Let them know that you’re passionate about great music, and connecting great music to your congregations, by singing something other than Chris Tomlin (nothing against Chris, I’m just saying that he’s not the only worship leader in the whole world whose songs we can use). Let them know that you’d like to bring in some great music like Josh Garrels, Alli Rogers, Ohmega Watts, Seabird, Sleeping at Last or another artist that you’re passionate about, but the church doesn’t normally support. 

You be the change. Introduce the church to great art. 

Many companies have long known that, when Christians get behind something, it’s a huge hit. We made The Passion of the Christ the top indie film of all time. We made Fireproof open in the top 10 at the Box Office. We made Joel Osteen, Max Lucado, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren and dozens of other pastors both rich and famous (note, Warren gave 90 percent of it away). 

If you really care about music, then we need you. We need you to buy records rather than burn or file share. We need you to be passionate about great art, and taking it to your local congregation. We need you at the bars supporting Christian artists who are going there to play. We may need you to house a band overnight from time to time (check out www.ryso.org to volunteer to do this). We may even need you to front personal cash to make a show happen.

Bottom line: As with most things in the world, Christian music will change when we start to care. Six years later, I still believe that music changes the heart, gives us a common experience that’s totally unique, and is one of the elements that makes life so beautiful. If you love it as much as I do, I hope you’ll be an active part of making great music happen. 

 

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