Thursday, November 07, 2013

On Contemporary Christian Music

I recently went to the local Christian bookstore to pick up a new album. It's not a habit I try to keep, but for some releases it's just easier (and cheaper) to have them order it in, rather than trying to order it from Amazon or even through HMV. In this case, the album was the new collection of worship songs from Dustin Kensrue - the former lead singer of Thrice and one of my favourite songwriters - entitled The Water and the Blood. I took a few minutes to look around the store, as I often do, mainly as a way of keeping in touch with what has been happening in the Christian music and publishing industry in recent history. The question, it seems, is why I would feel the need to do that; the answer, I think, is multi-faceted. Part of it is market research: knowing what's out there, who's saying what, and how it might intersect with my life through the people around me who are consuming that culture. Part of it is personal interest, as every so often I find something that I would not have otherwise found, perhaps a new release from a favourite author or artist, or a book title that intrigues me. And part of it is nostalgia: a way of keeping in touch with that part of my past, whether it was my time working in a Christian bookstore six years ago or my time as a Christian-music-only listener in my early university years. I bristled as I waded through the aisles of kitschy baubles and unfortunate trifles to make my way to the music section, and what I found there fascinated me.

I took a few minutes to look through the store's selection, as well as the top releases. Among the artists featured prominently in the store's selection were: Third Day, Newsboys, Audio Adrenaline, MercyMe, Casting Crowns, Switchfoot, Kutless, Chris Tomlin, Hillsong United, tobyMac, Plumb, Steven Curtis Chapman, Jeremy Camp, Matt Redman, Sanctus Real, Jars of Clay, Martin Smith, and Skillet, among others. Notice anything strange about that list? It's almost identical to the artists that were featured in 2003, a full decade ago (and not a lot different from 1998, for that matter). So I decided to inspect the track listing of WoW Hits 2014, the 19th (!) edition of the most popular tracks in Christian music to see if it was just this particular market's idiosyncrasies or whether this was a wider trend. Of the thirty tracks on the album proper - I overlooked the "bonus tracks" which deliberately focus on new and upcoming artists - only five tracks were from artists that were newly prominent in the past five years. I was curious, so I did a quick check to see how many artists on WoW Hits 2014 were prominent in 2003, and the number was a staggering fifteen - fully half of the album's roster. Just pause for a second and let that sink in: of the most popular artists today in Christian music, half were popular a decade ago, and over 85% were popular five years ago. That's a staggering statistic.

Now, I do recognize that this cursory examination could be criticized as providing a limited perspective, and that it is entirely possible that a wider look might give a different picture. So I looked at the top Christian/Gospel songs and albums at Billboard. On the songs chart, the numbers were similar, with about half of the 25 songs by artists that have been established for a decade, and 6 or 7 songs by artists who have appeared in the past five years - slightly higher than the WoW compilation's ratio, but not much. The Christian albums chart was even more telling - of the 25 albums, three or four were by new artists (with one surprising inclusion of former Live singer Ed Kowalczyk - when did that happen?), and the remaining albums all by decade-long established artists; that's over 80%, even more saturation from artists from 2003 than on the WoW Hits 2014 song list.

So, to recap, that's somewhere between a 50% and 80% possibility that if an artist was popular in Christian music in 2013 that they were popular in 2003. I took a quick peek at the number one albums on Billboard's Christian music chart from 2003 to see if the reverse was true - that being in popular in 2003 meant you would be popular in 2013, and I found only two exceptions: Evanescence, whose career trajectory changed shortly after their initial success after then-member Ben Moody released a tirade about having been released in the Christian market in the first place; and Stacie Orrico, who apparently has a new album coming out in 2014. (The only two other arguable outliers were Michael W. Smith, who won a Dove as recently as 2012, and P.O.D., who still had a number one Christian album in 2012, long after their relevance in the greater musical world.) Granted, 2013 and even 2003 are a long way from 1993, when dc Talk's Free At Last topped the charts for 34 weeks of the year, or 1983, when Amy Grant's Age To Age was the top-selling Christian album every week of the year in the midst of an 85-week streak atop the charts, but my point should be clear by now: when you make it in Christian music, you stay in Christian music, unless you have some grave moral failing. And even then, you can regain your status and come back to the fold, as did Grant, who recently topped the charts in July with her new album.

All of these stats beg the question: why is there such a staggering lack of innovation in CCM (contemporary Christian music)? There are many arguments to be made here, all of which have likely played a part in this functional stagnation. The nature of producing and selling music is different for the entire music industry, as fewer artists are produced by major labels in general, so it is no surprise that there are limits within CCM. In addition, the ability for artists to distribute their music independently is entirely different than it was a decade ago, so many artists can now choose to distribute their music without a middleman (ie. the labels) and deliver it directly to the listener; this is how NoiseTrade started, in large part due to co-founder and former CCM poster boy Derek Webb. The internet - iTunes and YouTube and Facebook and Twitter and the like - have almost completely revolutionized the way we interact with music and musicians, starting sometime in early 2006, around the same time that iTunes reported its one billionth download (Coldplay's "Speed of Sound" on February 22, if you're interested).

But perhaps the central argument is that the scope of CCM is very narrowly limited. It is almost entirely based in Nashville, and its distribution is highly centralized. The industry's awards - the Doves - are a significantly "insider" event, and many critics of CCM have pointed out the (metaphorically) incestual nature of the industry. Furthermore, there is a very tight definition of what constitutes being "Christian" and a strict code of morality that persists anachronistically. If an artist does not adhere to that limited definition, which seems to be primarily centred in Conservative American Evangelicalism, they are not allowed into the industry. And even established artists have to earn their way in; just look at several artists from Tooth & Nail Records who started on the outside, but have now been accepted by the industry (eg. Kutless). It's far easier to maintain a relatively binary model of acceptance, both for the producer and consumer, than it is to open up to dialogue and discussion, and a narrower focus makes it easier to market and define what is "Christian music" and what is not.

Of course, many people would rightfully ask, "why should we even care"? After all, isn't this whole idea of defining music as Christian or not anachronistic in and of itself? It seems so passé to even be thinking about the idea of labels, much less Christian music, as the hyper-individualism and constant self-determination of the iTunes and YouTube age of music has created a culture in which the consumer is paramount, the artist significant, and the producer seemingly irrelevant. So perhaps it doesn't matter, or it shouldn't - except that CCM still sells albums, and it exists as a commercial force, though not a particularly influentially artistic one. Despite the fact that it lacks innovation, lags a half-decade behind in trends, has little diversity, and is almost completely culturally irrelevant, CCM still exists and influences the listening tastes of perhaps millions of listeners.

Is it entirely a bad thing that CCM is still doing its thing? Probably not, as it does appear to provide a useful service for people who want their musical choices pre-edited and sorted according to arbitrary non-musical factors (ie. the faith of the artist). I'm sure that there are arguments to be made about censorship and editing and artistic control and brainwashing and the opiate of the masses, and were I feeling more ideologically driven, I would probably take the time to make those arguments here. But it seems like a lot of effort for little return, so I refrain and treat CCM mostly as an amusing oddity that occasionally produces great artists in spite of itself. I kind of like that there are at least a few artists who make it through in CCM who are worth my attention; my current cause célèbre is The City Harmonic, a Canadian CCM worship band that I have discovered in the past two months, and one that likely would not have as much of a presence without CCM. So CCM exists, and my occasional interactions with it are enough to pique my interest, make me shake my head, chuckle at the quaintness of it all, and ashamedly recall the time a decade ago in which I listened to nothing but Christian music.

Perhaps no band better exemplifies the last decade of CCM than San Diego surf-rockers Switchfoot, who will release a new album entitled Fading West in January 2014. In the midst of that admittedly embarrassing Christian-music-only phase, I remember proclaiming in Feburary 2003 that Switchfoot's album The Beautiful Letdown heralded a significant shift for Christian music. Here was a band that started in CCM, made the successful crossover to the mainstream, and established themselves as a cultural entity with their presence on the soundtrack for the movie A Walk To Remember. Letdown had hits that made it on the main charts, and their subsequent album, Nothing Is Sound, debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 in September 2005, though it dropped quickly thanks to Sony's short-sighted DRM copyright protection. They released their final major label album, Oh! Gravity, in late 2006/early 2007 to less commercial success (No. 18 debut on Billboard), and then they went away to record a new album as an established independent band. Their two albums released so far received not insignificant airplay and attention, and the band now has artistic freedom, as well as commercial success within and without the world of CCM. They owe where they are to CCM, but they are no longer bound by it; they benefit from their exposure in CCM, but they're not limited by it.

That's perhaps the lesson here overall: CCM is still meaningful for people, but it is not the entirety of the conversation on Christian music as it was even a half-decade ago. Even though most of the artists are the same, and the industry itself has not changed, the world around it has. The listeners are better off, and even CCM itself is the better for it, even if they don't have the capacity or willingness to acknowledge it.

1 comment:

  1. This is definitely a side point, but: City Harmonic! I'm so glad you're into them too.



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