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In Christian music, will business bury faith?

I'm a Christian, but I never really liked Christian music. It's not that I didn't give it a chance. In high school in the early 1980s, I was hungry for faith-filled music that spoke to me.

Somehow, I ended up with an album by the Bill Gaither Trio. I remember sitting alone in my room, desperately wanting to connect with their smooth harmonies and perky lyrics. It never happened.

Occasionally, I'd tune in to area Christian radio stations and find more of the same. It reminded me of the easy listening my parents favored, toned-down elevator versions of classic rock and pop songs. Frankly, it was depressing.

Little did I know that Christian music was about to explode. Today it commands more than $500 million in annual sales -- up 290 percent in the period 1985-94 and averaging 22 percent growth every year since 1991 (pop, rock and country have grown at only a 5 percent clip over the same time). Christian music is now the sixth most popular genre in the market, according to industry statistics.

Christians have their own nationally televised annual awards show modeled after the Grammys, called the Dove Awards, and Christian artists make regular appearances on mainstream album charts like the Billboard Top 200. According to one recent study, four out of 10 adults listen to Christian radio on a weekly basis, forming an audience of some 75-80 million people -- a tremendous market for Christian musicians.

Visit your neighborhood Christian book store, and music -- all kinds of music -- abounds. Retailers such as Wal-Mart and Kmart, Sam Goody and Borders have increased their Christian album selections, too; they accounted for nearly half of all Christian music sales in 1997.

Glance through the shelves, and you'll find Christian swing. Christian ska. Christian rap. Christian country. Christian urban music. Christian hip-hop. Christian alternative. Christian heavy metal. No matter what kind of popular music you favor, there's a Christian version available today.

Experts cite a variety of forces behind this growth, including an expanding Christian fan base, an inspirational message that is "more consistent with societal trends and consumer attitudes," increased exposure through mainstream media, creative marketing strategies and the takeover of formerly independent Christian record labels by mainstream companies.

Of all these factors, it's mostly the corporate investment in Christian music that has fueled the recent surge in profits -- if not always prophets.

The trend is perhaps best illustrated by the "WoW" album series. These double-CD sets premiered with a 1996 edition and claim to feature the year's 30 top Christian artists and songs. They've sold more than a million copies, and the just-released 1999 version has sat solidly on the Billboard 200 album chart for weeks now, powering in at number 12 on the 1998 Christian year-end best-seller list.

The artists featured are the heavy-hitters of Christian music: Amy Grant, who has four of the top 10 best-selling Christian albums of all time, Michael W. Smith, Grammy winners Jars of Clay and dc Talk, and Bob Carlisle, of "Butterfly Kisses," fame, who was the first Christian artist to have an album hit number one on the Billboard 200 sales chart.

The 1998 WoW CD boasts that it had "music that can make an eternal difference." The 1999 jacket says that "over the past three years, millions of people have had their lives affected by the music from the WoW projects. We're convinced that there's something here that can change your life."

Such sweeping claims are hard to verify. More clear is that however life-changing a message may be, getting on the WoW CD is just as much about contacts and contracts. All the CD's artists are distributed by the three major Christian market distributors: EMI Christian Music Group, which is owned by EMI Music Worldwide; Word Entertainment, which is owned by the Gaylord Corporation; and Provident Music Group, which is owned by the Zomba Group.

Along with its Christian branch, EMI owns both Chrysalis and Virgin Records and sponsors artists including Iron Maiden and Chumbawamba. Gaylord says it's proud of its Word artists. It's also proud of its business ventures that include the Opryland Music Group, the Opryland Hotel, and the Wildhorse Saloon. Zomba is an international corporation that bills itself on one of its Web sites as "the world's leading and largest independent music company." Together, these three distributors were responsible for more than 90 percent of Christian record sales in 1998.

Given such access to corporate deep pockets, Christian artists can tap distribution channels (and, hence, make money) that Sunday morning gospel singers could only have dreamed of even a decade ago.

dc Talk's latest album, "Supernatural," was released under both the Christian label ForeFront and to general market outlets through Virgin Records. Band members say that the record will have a bigger impact with the cross market release, that "Virgin is just a bigger cannon that's able to shoot the record out there."

Evidently, the strategy was successful. "Supernatural" premiered at number four on the Billboard 200 album chart last October and sold more than 100,000 copies in one week.

Jars of Clay, another group with widespread mainstream success, has records distributed both on Christian label Essential Records and mainstream Silvertone. Essential and Silvertone are both owned by the Zomba Group.

A Faustian pact

Some worry that this mainstream distribution amounts to a Faustian pact for Christian musicians. Cracking the Billboard Top 200, they charge, has meant surrendering some of what gave gospel music its identity.

Such concerns would hardly be assuaged by the kind of reviews Jars of Clay's second album, "Much Afraid," drew. Bob Gulla, reviewer for Internet music site Wall of Sound, said the group "buried the Christian elements of their sound well enough for us pagans to enjoy `Much Afraid' without feeling much discomfort."

That kind of talk has made some Christian musicians distinctly uncomfortable. Rich Mullins, dubbed the "uneasy conscience of Christian music" at the 1998 Dove Awards, was a successful songwriter who took a vow of poverty and moved to a Navajo reservation to teach music. Mullins was posthumously awarded the Dove award for "Artist of the Year" after he was killed in an auto accident in September 1997.

In an interview just nine months before his death, Mullins admitted that he had been "really nasty" about the contemporary Christian music industry. He complained that people didn't get the politics of his songs (for example, "there's something offensive to me about having an American flag in a church building"), and said that he wasn't sure that "people with our cultural disabilities" were capable of "having souls, or being saved."

Mullins said that U.S. Christians "grow up in a culture that worships pleasure, leisure and affluence" and that the church is "doubly damned when they use Jesus as a vehicle for achieving all of that." Other Christian musicians saw in Mullins' remarks a pointed criticism of their tacit alliance with big business.

Steve Camp, who released his first Christian album in 1978, issued "A Call for Reformation in the Contemporary Christian Music Industry" in 1997, urging his fellow artists to return to their roots, where they "fearlessly sang clearly about the gospel."

Now, he complains, Christian music "yodels of a Christ-less, watered down, pabulum-based, positive alternative, aura-fluff, cream of wheat, mush-kind-of-syrupy, God-as-my-girlfriend kind of thing." He adds, "The promise of increased financial resources, wider distribution and a larger audience is not justification for the surrender of our spiritual autonomy."

Gospel Music Association President Frank Breeden, perhaps unsurprisingly, disagrees. "There was a significant amount of fear when the big entertainment conglomerates got involved in Christian music," he said. "What reality shows us is that these companies are investing because there's a market, it's what people wanted.

"They didn't buy gospel music companies to put them out of business. They bought them because that's what the culture is responding to."

Breeden said, "The big companies are some of our best friends for our cause. They're not asking artists to water down their lyrics or faith. If anything, they say, `I spent several tens of millions of dollars buying you. I want you to be what you are.' They'll help keep us authentic and original and unique."

Christian artists certainly do sing about God's love, prayer, faith and Jesus. One example was ForeFront Records' late 1997 "What Would Jesus Do?" album which debuted on the Billboard Top 200 album chart, part of a "What Would Jesus Do? (WWJD)" movement that saw teens and adults nationwide wearing WWJD bracelets, buying albums and reading the WWJD Interactive Devotional book, which included devotionals by WWJD artists, complete song lyrics from the album and a 16-page full-color photo section.

Yet it's also clear that despite lyrics touting faith, much of the Christian music business is modeled on its secular counterparts.

It's not just that the pop/rock rhythms sound exactly the same as generic Top 40 music. Even the awards show looks and feels like a secular event.

Last year's Dove Awards were a glitzy, glamour-filled event. Cohosts Naomi Judd and John Tesh opened the show with banter about Judd's gown, which she changed twice. "Not bad, Naomi," he said. "Very, very nice."

She replied, "Thank you. It was actually either this Richard Tyler original design, or my breakaway nun's habit."

As the show's end credits rolled, Brentwood Jewelers was thanked for supplying Judd's jewelry.

Aside from charges of selling one's soul for a hit record, secular critics often bring a different prejudice to Christian music -- the sneaking suspicion that it's part of a plot by the religious right.

"Nothing is further from the truth," Breeden said. "Christian musicians are not by nature involved in politics."

Yet if Christian musicians and culture warriors don't always have the same agenda, that doesn't mean they can't be on friendly terms. Focus on the Family, for example, recently worked with ForeFront Records to release an album, "life on the edge," which goes along with a book of the same title by Family's founder, James Dobson. In album promotional materials, Fore-Front representatives said that the company has a "deep respect for Focus youth and family programs and the faithful impact they are making on this country."

Focus on the Family is, of course, a conservative Christian advocacy group that has criticized the National Education Association, opposed all forms of legalized gambling and endorsed the nationwide Disney boycott.

Still, some Christian performers seem to embrace "socially responsible" causes often associated with this country's political left. Steve Camp organized a series of AIDS benefit concerts with Tony Campolo. dc Talk members Michael Tait, Toby McKeehan and Kevin Max formed the E.R.A.C.E (Eliminating Racism and Creating Equality) Foundation in late 1997 in hopes of encouraging racial reconciliation among young people through campus outreach, a Web site, and special events.

With few exceptions, today's Christian artists are model thin, movie actor beautiful and society cool. Steve Barnett, head of Epic Worldwide marketing, said that he first became interested in increasing exposure of Word artists, especially teen Jaci Velasquez, after viewing a Velasquez video.

"Here was a fantastic singer, a captivating personality, a beautiful young woman," he said. "It occurred to me that there was no reason why an artist like this shouldn't be promoted with all the tools Epic has at its disposal."

Perhaps all this hustling for the "right look," for a sound indistinguishable from mainstream genres, and for the increased sales and profits these qualities bring, can be justified if it exposes people to Jesus.

But critics still wonder just who the Jesus is that these artists promote. Would he, for example, feel comfortable joining more than 100 industry executives, promoters, producers, and managers at last September's third annual dc Talk/Michael W. Smith Golf Classic? Would he be there, decked out in the latest golf garb, networking with cronies, striving to better his game by a few points?

What Would Jesus Do in this highly corporate, platinum-album, mega-concert industry? Only heaven knows -- and so far, none of the big labels has signed its choir.

Robin Taylor writes from Dayton, Nev.
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Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Feb 12, 1999
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