In the final print issue of CCM, the great Charlie Peacock offered his predictions on the future of the Christian music industry. His predictions were, in a word, ominous. According to Peacock, the Christian music industry is going away and there’s not much anyone can do about it. I couldn’t help but wonder if he was right.
Before we go much further, let’s establish what Charlie said. His complete essay, titled “The Future of Christian Music,” is currently available at www.ccmmagazine.com, but the five most important ideas Peacock put forward are:
- The major labels aren’t in danger of going under anytime soon, but they’ll be forced to depend on dwindling revenue from their song catalogs.
- The term CCM, or Christian Contemporary Music, will go away.
- Christian music that matters won’t have any affiliation with the Christian music industry but instead will be written, recorded, and released in the mainstream.
- Worship music serves a purpose within the Church, which guarantees its survival.
- The big names from CCM’s glory days (Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant, Steven Curtis Chapman, etc.) will survive, but many artists from the last decade will be left looking for a reason, roaming through the night to find their place in this world.
Those predictions fall short of blasphemy, but they were certainly controversial for those inside Christian music.
David Sessions, the editor of Patrol, an online music and media magazine, stands in agreement with Peacock’s piece. Patrol began as The CCM Patrol—“providing a lone voice of critical analysis in the Christian music industry”—so it’s clear that Sessions doesn’t regard the industry as above criticism. In a Patrol piece evaluating the final issue of CCM, Sessions described Peacock’s sentiments as “the most truthful assessment of Christian music industry probably ever published.”
Sessions says the problem with the industry from a business standpoint is that a “built-in audience” virtually guaranteed decent sales for any new artist proffered by a major label. The result for some artists is “the illusion of commercial success,” he told me via email. With music labels both Christian and reprobate feeling the crunch of economic downturn, a crowded entertainment marketplace, and digital piracy, the illusion Sessions described may soon fade as labels reinvent revenue models and trim rosters.
“What’s going to happen to them when those Christian record labels gradually dismantle?” Sessions asks. “As Peacock wrote, they’ll be floundering for a place to fit since they’ve been given a sort of ‘false niche.’ Christian music depends so much on the old model to survive that it’s going to continue to go down with the old guard of the recording industry.” For Sessions and Peacock, a survey of the industry, the product, and the marketplace is enough to inform a fatal prognosis.
Sessions is so convinced of the shortcomings of the industry that he doesn’t seem overly sentimental about the demise he and Peacock see on the horizon. “The best thing that can happen is for people to forget entirely that they once specified whether their music was ‘Christian’ or ‘mainstream.’ That divide has been the single most damaging idea to Christianity in the modern world. CCM may be as bad as ever or even going downhill, but that’s ultimately a win for Christian art, because at some point no one will listen to it anymore,” he says. That’s a harsh conclusion, but to Sessions it’s the only logical one.
The tone of Peacock’s piece shared Sessions’ lack of sentimentality regarding his vision of a CCM-less future—perhaps, like Sessions, because of the industry’s perceived shortcomings. I asked Peacock a few questions about his piece and the response it garnered, and he offered this observation: “Anyone who has studied CCM knows that it’s front-loaded with a very specious strategy—that is, the creation of a youth-oriented music to counteract the undesirable youth-oriented music of the culture at large. [That strategy] probably looked righteous in the beginning but proved very flawed.” Just like that, Peacock remains matter-of-fact about the industry as he sees it nearly two months after “The Future of Christian Music” was published.
In my research for this article, I was surprised that I was unable to find a published response to Peacock’s essay from the perspective of an artist, publicist, label employee, or impassioned fan. After all, just because something was written by Charlie Peacock and published in the pages of CCM doesn’t mean everyone in the industry agrees, right?
Terry Hemmings is the President & CEO of Provident Music Group, home to artists such as Michael W. Smith, Third Day, Casting Crowns, and Leeland. Hemmings, for one, took issue with Peacock’s predictions and was gracious enough to share his thoughts on the record: “First, I have known Charlie for 20 years or so and have always respected him and consider him a friend. That said, I found the article [to be] no more than a cynical and pejorative diatribe,” Hemmings says.
He continues: “The piece is totally dismissive of the good and important role that Christian music plays in the lives of many and the sincerity and commitment most artists and industry members possess. There has always been and will always be those that consider so-called mainstream success some sort of higher calling. I respect and appreciate those artists who pursue their craft in a label environment and through promotional channels where the mission is quite different than that of similar entities focused on the CCM consumer. I do not believe that their work is more important or of higher integrity than all of the work produced in the CCM industry, as the article proffers.”
But what about those artists who are Christians but choose to participate in the mainstream? Do the mainstream pursuits of talented Christians such as U2, Sufjan Stevens, Switchfoot, Cold War Kids, The Fray, Augustana, and Athlete (many of whom were mentioned by Peacock in the CCM article) suggest a problem or limitation with the Christian music industry?
“This is an important question in that it highlights a fundamental difference in the way many of us view Christian music,” Hemmings says. “I think many of these artists are intent on doing something with their music and career that is simply different than most of the artists who choose to pursue a career in Christian music. [In Christian music] there are talented writers and performers who very much want to minister to the Church, to feed the body, to disciple. Others, perhaps some of these artists or those listed in the aforementioned CCM article, appear to have a different intent. I can’t speak to that, as I don’t know most of them. In my experience, the mainstream (as defined by radio formats, press outlets, and label representation) is looking for something different than the CCM world is.”
Hemmings appears to distinguish between Christian musicians who enter the Christian music industry and Christian musicians who enter the mainstream based on their intent. In other words, Christian artists who make music to minister, feed, and disciple pursue a career in Christian music, while Christian artists with apparently different motives (not better, not worse, just different) pursue a career in mainstream music. (It’s bears mentioning that less than a year before the final print issue of CCM was published, the magazine changed its name from Christian Contemporary Music to Christ. Community. Music. and expanded its editorial focus to include Christian artists who were succeeding in the mainstream.) Personally, I’d love to hear if U2 agrees with that assessment or not (no attempts were made to contact Bono for this story). Beyond that, can the same be said for Christians when they listen to music rather than create it? Unfortunately, that question doesn’t lend itself to a Communication answer, and instead inspires several more questions.
When Christians desire to be ministered to, fed, or discipled, is Christian music among the channels they consult (presumably alongside prayer, Bible study, fellowship, sermon podcasts, books from the Christian Living aisle, etc.)? If so, where did all this talk about the downfall of Christian music come from? If not, is the industry missing its mark and therefore in danger of disappearing?
Is mainstream music among the channels Christians consult for ministry, feeding, and discipleship? If so, is this distinction between Christian and mainstream music insufficient? If not, why do Christians listen to mainstream music? What does it offer that Christian music does not?
Is Christian music missing something? I believe it is. I believe the Christian music industry lacks a holistic Christian worldview, a deficiency that often renders its output incomplete. A holistic Christian worldview, simply put, understands life to be a collection of intertwined parts or elements, all of which fit together and are permeated by Christ. A compartmentalized worldview suggests a person is spiritual when doing spiritual things, professional when doing work-related things, and familial when doing things with one’s family. On the other hand, a holistic worldview suggests the Christian never stops being spiritual regardless of the religious, laborious, mundane, or exciting nature of the moment’s activities.
The Christian music industry, it seems, prefers the compartmentalized approach; dividing the human experience into categories such as Spiritual, Romantic, Fun, Sin-Tarnished, Joyful, and so on. Most Christian music then focuses on the Spiritual category with the understanding that the Romantic and Sin-Tarnished categories are out of bounds or areas on which to tread lightly.
By contrast, mainstream music better fits the holistic view—songs about God, love, lust, war, peace, life, death, pain, and joy are not hard to come by. In this way, mainstream music may more accurately reflect the whole and depth of a Christian’s experiences, or at the very least, it may serve to reflect those parts of a Christian’s experience not reflected by the Christian music industry. My guess is that this at least partially explains the declining dedication (or at the least the decline in exclusive dedication) of Christian youth to the Christian music created for them.
Author and philosopher George Steiner once wrote, “To ask ‘What is music?’ may well be one way of asking ‘What is man?’” I’m told Steiner’s meaning is that music is a direct representation of man; consequently, a great deal can be learned about people based on the music they participate in. They participate in that music because they affirm on some level that the music represents them. If Christian music faces any sort of decline, it will not be because of a correlating decline in the number of Christians in the marketplace. It will instead be due to a correlating decline in the number of Christians who feel accurately represented by the industry, or an increase in the number of Christians who feel more accurately represented in the mainstream. Taking that thought further, it’s possible that many Christians may be growing increasingly uncomfortable with the separatist nature of the Christian subculture; thus deciding the Christian music distinction isn’t representative of their preference for an inclusive approach to culture.
That thought is interesting in light of an article written by CCM founder John Styll in the magazine’s last issue (also available at www.ccmmagazine.com). “I have never been one to compartmentalize matters of faith, including music,” he said. As Sessions later observed in Patrol, Styll “sheds light on … how [the industry] came to stand for things it never meant to.” For Sessions, Styll’s measure of remorse about the unintentional evolution of the industry is not without irony: “It’s quite fascinating that while none of the original artists or the writers who lived in the early days of Christian music intended to create a sub-standard subculture, it happened.”
So, is the end near for Christian music? I honestly don’t know. Peacock and Sessions speak with great conviction but so does Terry Hemmings. Perhaps the Christian music industry is built to last and will weather whatever storms come its way. Or maybe its fate is sealed, and it has no place in Christian culture’s near future. We can take sides in the debate and even resent our brothers and sisters on the other side, but whether we opt for survival or death, we will still have to wait and see what happens.
In the meantime, I humbly offer a prescription for a better Christian music industry. These suggestions may not ensure the long-term health of the industry if it is destined to fade away, but I believe they would make the industry’s remaining days—however numerous or few they may be—a time we remember fondly.
Artists—Innovate, don’t imitate. Yes, every musician is influenced by those who came before, but don’t wear your influences so prominently on your sleeve. Make music that refuses to be pigeonholed as “the Christian White Stripes” or whatever the case may be. Dream about creating music so extraordinary that a mainstream act is known as “the secular you.” View your lyrics as poetry; don’t be content with rhyming clichés and scripture passages. Don’t turn your hooks into platforms for bumper sticker theology. Great artists, regardless of their chosen medium, see the world in unique ways and create art that tells the rest of us about what they see. See the world. Create art.
Labels—Refuse to function as holiness gatekeepers with Jesus-per-minute quotas to meet. Don’t play it safe; take some risks. Don’t be afraid of edgy or outspoken artists; pursue them. Reject formulas; embrace creativity. Don’t produce what you think we want to hear. Develop a vision for the future of Christian expression through music and share it with us. If your function as an industry is to minister, feed, and disciple, why is your product marketed as safe and family-friendly? Find the disconnect and fix it. Don’t rely on promoting an ethos and the nice people who make music for you. Promote good music.
Fans—This is perhaps the simplest of all—support great art. In doing so, you reward the risks taken on the part of artists and labels; furthermore, you are explicitly clear in what you’re looking for from the industry. Then, it’s up to them to respond.
Ultimately, I suspect labels and artists don’t have as much say in the life or death of the Christian music industry as we might think (or as they might like). Instead, that responsibility might lie with us as fans, consumers, Christians, and citizens. We get to decide if we’re satisfied by a systemic commercial distinction between music that is Christian and music that is not. If we are, let us continually examine and embrace that distinction with spiritual and intellectual honesty. If we are not, let us proceed with caution. Sometimes we don’t fully realize the value of something until it’s gone.
Scott McClellan is the editor of COLLIDE.