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The Christian music industry is a small part of the larger music industry, that focuses on traditional Gospel music, Southern gospel, contemporary Christian music, and alternative Christian music. It is sometimes called the gospel music industry, although this designation is not a limitation on the musical styles represented.
Christian artists generally use secular styles, pairing them with lyrics that display faith and spirituality to varying degrees. Generally speaking, the industry is influenced by mainstream culture. Musical trends, for instance, follow those of the secular scene, though usually a few years behind. The Christian music industry carries the distinction of being the only music subculture whose content is labeled by its lyrical dimension rather than its music. Still, music within the industry is sold by its musical style rather than lyrical content.
Christian music's critics point to the divergent interests of commercialization and ministry, which have, according to some, polar opposite goals. Aspects of Christian music have long struggled to gain general acceptance, even within the Christian community. What some see as secularization and a lacking of direct theology, others see as artistic ministry. This opens up questions of the definition of "Christian music" that have lingered over the industry since its inception.
The Christian music industry experienced explosive growth in the 1990s. Christian music sales grew to exceed those for classical, jazz, and new age music. Even so, the Christian music industry has experienced the same issues as the general market in recent years.
The contemporary Christian music industry has roots in the late 1960s and early 1970s Jesus Movement and its Jesus Music artists. The Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music points out three reasons that the Christian music industry developed as a parallel structure to the general music industry. First, the Jesus movement produced a large number of bands in a very short period, which the general market was unable and/or unwilling to absorb. This was in part due to a lack of appreciation for the ideology expressed by such artists. Finally, Jesus music artists tended toward mistrust of secular corporations. According to another critic, the industry in this period was defined by four characteristics: lack of audience acceptance for styles, inferior production, inefficient distribution, and lack of wide radio exposure. Petra, for instance, struggled to find an audience for their hard rock sound, partially due to limited distribution to Christian bookstores.
Even so, the 1970s saw established corporations become involved in the Christian music market. Word Records, founded in 1951, was bought in 1976 by ABC. Other music industry giants also got involved, CBS started a short-lived Christian label, Priority Records, and MCA also fielded a label for a time.
While the Jesus movement had ended by the 1980s, the Christian music industry was maturing and transforming into a multi-million dollar enterprise. The early 1980s saw an increase Christian booksellers taking product, and an increase in sales followed, despite the recession. As a percentage of gross sales, Christian music rose from 9% in 1976 to 23% in 1985. By her 1982 release Amy Grant had saturated the Christian marketplace and made significant inroads into the general market. Sandi Patti and Michael W. Smith also gained influence within Christian music, each playing significant roles in the development of the industry.
Harder forms of Christian music, such as heavy metal, also began to gain acceptance. This is largely credited to Stryper, who had begun making inroads into the general market by 1985. Still, rock and alternative acts faced a longer battle for acceptance than contemporary acts, as the form was opposed by prominent religious leaders such as Jimmy Swaggart and others on the Christian right. While in 1981 total gospel music industry revenues were approximately $180 million, only ten years later they would total $680 million, according to CCM Magazine.
According to RIAA data, market share for sales of Christian music albums more than doubled between 1993 and 1997. In the 1990s the Christian music industry became the fastest growing segment of the music industry. This was due to several factors, including consolidation of record labels, and independent Christian bookstores into chains.
The Christian music industry began adopting SoundScan in 1995, although implementation was spotty even into the millennium. Even so, the adoption caused the visibility of Christian artists to increase significantly, and brought credibility to the industry as Christian albums became integrated into all Billboard charts.
In 1985, 90% of Christian music sales originated at Christian bookstores. By 1995, that number had dropped to 64%, with general retailers taking 21%, and the remainder accountable through other methods, such as direct mail. At that same time, the industry was estimated to gross $750 million, with $381 million in album sales. In the late 1990s, general market retailers, especially big box stores such as Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Target, and Blockbuster began carrying a wider selection of Christian music products. By 2000 those stores had surpassed Christian retail in terms of the number of Christian albums sold, according to Soundscan numbers. This phenomenon was partially responsible for crossover successes. P.O.D., for example, sold 1.4 million albums in 2001, although sales at Christian retail outlets accounted for only 10%.
The new millennium has brought challenges for the record industry as a whole, and these have affected the Christian music industry as well. Contemporary worship music, a long time staple of the industry, began to gain significant market share in about the year 2000. By focusing on marketing worship music to youth culture, this genre became a growth driver despite the downturn in the general music industry.
Growth continued until about 2003, but has generally followed the trends of the larger music industry since that point. In 2009 a The New York Times op-ed placed the entire music industry on a "deathwatch," pointing out that new forms of media, piracy, and new pricing options are driving gross sales down. In another example of parallelism, the Christian music industry has experienced largely the same phenomenon. In the Christian marketplace, music consumption has risen by as much as 30% since 2005, but overall album sales have dropped to about half of their 1999 levels. However, some critics point out that the current downturn may have long term positive effects for the industry. John J. Thompson told Christianity Today that "The lack of monetary benefit has filtered out some of the people who should not have been doing this in the first place. If the people who are in it for the money are gone, it leaves more turf for those who had something a little bit loftier in mind."
Christian music is sometimes cited as a "ghetto," meaning that the majority of artists in the industry are pigeonholed to operate solely in it. These artists are isolated from the mainstream public, to Christian media, including radio, magazines, and book stores. For many this is a conscious choice, however others, not content to stay in an isolated industry segment, attempt to "cross over" and gain acceptance in the general market. For many artists, being called Christian becomes a stigma.
A 1997 study revealed that a self-identified audience of "Christian music listeners" had what was considered a lacking recognition of Christian artists. The survey was commissioned by the Christian Music Trade Association and Z Music Television. The study looked at several artists including Amy Grant, BeBe and CeCe Winans, Carman, Steven Curtis Chapman, dc Talk, Sandi Patty, and Michael W. Smith. At the time of the survey, each of these artists was active in Christian music and had been so for at least nine years, was a multiple Dove Award and/or Grammy Award winner, and had albums certified Gold or higher.
Even so, the survey found that the Christian music audience was no more familiar with artists in the field than they were with Hootie & The Blowfish, a popular act at that time. The study concluded that the word "Christian" was the problem, causing a stigma. "It's the label, not the music, that dissuades," one Christian music executive was quoted as saying, agreeing with the survey.
Another aspect of the "ghetto" is that some artists have trouble gaining audience with Christians due to their non-conservative image. Stryper is a well-known example. Stryper received large amounts of criticism from groups on the Christian right, who argue (among other things) that their image as rock stars contradict their espoused faith. One critic wrote that the marriage of secular and religious elements in "Christian music" "violates all that God has commanded in the Bible about separation."
The "ghetto" has several effects, critics point out that the audience of such artists are often already Christians, thus limiting the impact of any supposed "evangelism." Another is that artists sometimes have trouble appealing to and maintaining both secular and religious audiences. For example:
The problem, as summed by one critic, was that the music was too religious for secular audience, while simultaneously too aggressive for religious audiences. One critic describes the situation, stating that for a band "to be taken seriously outside the Christian scene, a band must stay far, far away from that scene."
Mutemath, for instance sued their record label with the goal of removing their product from the Christian market. Their first release sold almost 30,000 copies, with "bulk of sales coming from the Christian market," according to Billboard. The band had been placed in the Christian market by their record label largely because their lead singer, Paul Meany, was previously with the band Earthsuit, whose only major label release was released on a Christian label.
This caused the band to not get taken seriously by music critics, and by the release of their full-length album the band began expressing discontent with their situation. Meany told Tucson Weekly "...we began to see ourselves getting pigeonholed into this particular world that we weren't necessarily proud to be associated with... We're not trying to preach through our music; we don't have some kind of evangelistic agenda with what we're doing... You know, you don't want to be ashamed of your faith and your beliefs, but you don't want to be marketed by that, either."
On the other hand, some artists operate solely within the "ghetto" of Christian music, and find great success in doing so.
An early Christian record label, Lamb & Lion Records (founded by Pat Boone) reported in 1978 that it was their goal to produce crossover artists, but they were limited by lack of distribution to the secular marketplace. Both problems affected Christian labels into the 1990s. "Since people don't understand [the term] 'the Blood of Jesus, '" stated a manager for Lamb & Lion, "...music that communicates must approach it another way. We've got to present a subtle but sensitive Christian message." Lyrics with subdued religious content have become commonplace in the industry; One critic points out that the secular hit "Spirit in the Sky" "has more explicit religious references than do many recent Christian radio hits."
Some critics have alleged that CCM often uses "minimal direct theology," and promotes a "Jesus is my boyfriend" image of God. Using downplayed religious content in lyrics has allowed some artists to "cross over" and make significant impact into the general market. Some Christian bands are able to do this while maintaining their identity in the Christian market. For example, MercyMe, whose double platinum album Almost There produced the Christian and secular chart hit "I Can Only Imagine." However, the lyrics of the single, while Christian in nature, contain what one critic calls "rather vacuous theology."
Sometimes "crossing over" creates ambiguity over whether an artist is Christian (a "Christian band"), or the artist is composed of Christians and produces music that appeals to Christian music fans but doesn't cater to the Christian market ("Christians in a band"). Such artists are:
The trend continues when examining religious videos. Many Christian bands produce videos with rotation on MTV in mind, however, the images can lead to an ambiguous impression of the portrayal.
In 1981 MTV featured two videos, "Constantly Changing" and "It's Mad", made by the Swedish Christian rock band Jerusalem to support their 1981 release Warrior. DeGarmo and Key was the first Christian band in the US whose video appeared on MTV, made a video for their single "Six, Six, Six" off their 1984 release Communication. While the video was shown on MTV for a short time, it was subsequently pulled for a scene which depicted the Antichrist engulfed in flames, which MTV described as "senseless violence." Eventually the video was re-edited for MTV—however, the unedited version continued to play in Christian bookstores and on Christian television networks, like Trinity Broadcasting. The video received a Dove award in a category created specially for it, "Gospel Music Visual Song" in 1985.
Another artist, Brian Welch, whose solo debut was released to Christian markets, found their album pulled from some Christian bookstores after the music video for "Flush" was released. The video is an interpretation of the authors personal experience with methamphetamine, before his religious conversion. At the time the album was pulled, Brian Welsh released a statement about the visual content of the video, relating its symbolism to his personal experiences of addiction and redemption. He also issued the following statement: "The video for 'Flush' is about crystal meth addiction and the crazy things anyone addicted to meth will do while they're high or to get their fix. Everything the models were doing in the video is what I was wrapped up in while I was addicted to meth... I believe I would be dead right now if I continued using meth, but instead, I chose to surrender my life to Christ and die to myself so He could share His resurrection with me... There is a huge message of hope on my CD and I believe those retailers that are pulling the CD from their shelves are robbing someone spiritually by taking it off of the shelves."
A study of visual elements of Christian music videos on Z Music Television, a now defunct MTV-like channel for Christian music, found that almost one third of the channel's videos could be described as "Ambiguously Religious" at best (red area, right). The conclusion was that the channel's programming was designed to make its Christian nature "apparent only to those willing to listen for it."
Some critics describe the Christian music industry as being committed "to the goals and strategies of the commercial marketplace - industrial growth, increased market share, and greater profits." This became more apparent in the 1980s and 1990s as the largest Christian record labels became subsidiaries of the "mainstream" labels (who are themselves owned by huge media conglomerates like Viacom and Time Warner). Others see the industry as taking on the roles traditionally reserved for the church. Concerts are the equivalent of religious services, and commodities symbols of faith. Under these conditions "evangelism becomes rhetoric—justifying the propaganda value of the industry's work – not spiritual reality." One critic comments that "perhaps the 'ghettoization' and parallel institutionalism of CCM manifests itself nowhere more apparently than at numerous Christian rock festivals."