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wSunday, April 27, 2003

GOSPEL GOLD: Here's another article from my final issue of the Report. I post it here because an egregious edit toward the end of the piece made me sound like an arrogant Christer. (Yes, the opening is dry. I wasn't allowed to open with a quote. Please soldier on through.):

Amazingly profitable grace
Gospel music is big business, but not without controversy

For the last few years, two entertainment stories have made predictable seasonal blips. The first is the dismal state of the music industry in general. Sales of new records are down, profits have plummeted and a large number of young people feel nothing but contempt for the record companies after the shuttering of Napster.

The second story is about how Gospel music, known inside the industry as Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), has bucked this trend. According to SoundScan stats, for the first six months of 2002, CCM sales were up 18% over the previous year, at the same time as both rap and rhythm and blues saw roughly the same percentage decline. That would be no small gain: according to Mark Allan Powell, author of the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music, the CCM industry claimed roughly US$1 billion in business for the year 2001.

However, Mr. Powell says that such figures, like much else in the CCM industry, are fraught with controversy. "At issue is what 'counts' as contemporary Christian music," he explains. In 2002, "the GMA counted the soundtrack to the movie O Brother Where Art Thou, one of the big sellers for the year. Granted that the soundtrack does consist of pop-country and bluegrass versions of Gospel songs and was beloved by CCM fans, it was also bought by many who could care less about religion."

Another reason for the difficulty is in nailing down what exactly constitutes CCM music. The genre has its own group of bona fide stars, including solo acts as Michael W. Smith (worship), Twila Paris (worship), Steven Curtis Chapman (country); more eclectic groups such as Jars of Clay (light rock meets Gregorian chants); and more energetic acts such as Audio Adrenaline (rock). But there are a number of groups about the periphery that share the same assumptions of those in the CCM industry, as well as many of the same customers.

Case in point: Creed is a rock group whose most recent album, "Weathered" went triple platinum in Canada, and double platinum in a whole host of other countries, including New Zealand and Thailand (and six times platinum in the U.S.). Some of the lyrics of their last three albums rail against abortion ("we kill the unborn/ To make ends meet"), contemplate the crucifixion ("I feel the pain that was given/ On that sad day of loss") and endorse the idea of original sin ("The covenant has been broken/ By mankind"). And yet, the band's website claims that they "are not a Christian band." Their music is not distributed by Christian specialty shops and sales of Creed albums do not count towards "Gospel" in the SoundScan tally of record sales.

There are several reasons for some musicians' reluctance to embrace the CCM industry, including the bottom line. One artist consulted for this story estimated that since he converted and tinkered with his music to reflect this fact, he lost about a quarter of his audience. By eschewing the Christian label, acts like Creed are able to create just enough ambiguity to keep their millions of secular fans from jumping ship.

CCM music reflects the quirks and desires of a distinct subculture and is seen by many as a ghetto art form. Rolling Stone magazine has argued that evangelical Christian music constitutes a "parallel universe." Mark Joseph, editor of the Rock Rebel website (www.rockrebel.com) and author of The Rock & Roll Rebellion: Why people of faith abandoned rock music--and why they're coming back explains, "The CCM industry was set up by executives who saw the music devout young artists were making and decided to help them market it to fellow believers. Only the artists themselves hoped to take their music to non-Christians. That has always been the conflict: niche marketing vs. the Great Commission."

The desire to reach a larger audience has led several CCM artists to "cross over" to secular record labels and some to bypass the industry entirely. Mr. Joseph, both the chronicler of and the loudest cheerleader for this change, observes that Christian artists "are beginning to make inroads into the mainstream entertainment culture." Groups such as Sixpence None the Richer, Lifehouse and Creed are able to be heard on most music radio stations, even if the songs that get the heaviest rotation are usually not explicitly Christian songs.

However, Mr. Joseph may be too quick to write off the CCM genre entirely. Without a very profitable "parallel universe" to prove the value of Christian music, it's unlikely that secular music labels would be snapping up young talented Christian acts, or allow them to express their beliefs in as unfettered a manner as is presently allowed.

Curious about what actual CCM artists thought of the industry, this magazine contacted Jamey Bennett, lead singer of the hip hop group Royal Ruckus (www.royalruckus.com), based out of the CCM Mecca, Nashville, Tennessee. "We grew up on this stuff. I was listening to 'Rapping for Jesus to the Beat' at age six, so we've definitely been part of the subculture since we were young," says Mr. Bennett, with a laugh.

Though Royal Ruckus is "having a lot of fun," he says, the industry is not without its share of frustrations. Such as? "It's very hard to get a song out there that could express something that isn't easily categorized as explicit Christian content. There's definitely a little thing that people joke about in the industry: Jesus per minute: JPMs…We could not get away with 'Puff the Magic Dragon' unless he gets saved."

Many also find the conduct code that is expected of CCM artists to be stifling and/or hypocritical. "I know a lot of Christian artists get away with this, that and the other, including scandalous things. It's a very visually oriented conduct code. Don't be seen," says Mr. Bennett. Most record companies, for instance, expect CCM musicians to be public teetotalers.

Also: "I think Christian music, as long as it maintains a truncated worldview--where every song has to have a moral--, never will be where rock music is. It won't be as effective and it won't be heard by as many."

So there isn't likely to be a CCM version of "Sympathy for the Devil" in the near future?

"I don't think so," he says.

posted by Jeremy at 1:57 AM