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The problem with Christian music – Part II

August 17, 2010

Hopefully you have had a chance to read part I of my rant on Christian music, and hopefully I have not been too sacrilegious thus far.

Because that’s probably about to change.

As a musician who has been actively gathering musical interests for the past 15 years, my generalized anger against Christian music has not always been as strong as it is currently. Looking back, the days of Petra and Stryper were what we thought they were: pioneering individuals trying to take the sounds of their day and add Christian lyrics to bring more wholesome sounds to the religious audience. Were these artists talented? Yes. Was their music a great revolution in the world of music? No. However, these artists did what most thought was unthinkable at the time – bring the sounds of rock to the church.

At the time, those two thoughts could not possibly exist in harmony with one another. Rock was sinful. Rock was sexual. The church was fooling itself neither of those things. It was like trying to mix oil and water. But when Stryper unleashed “To Hell with the Devil”, it brought the fury of white metal together with the majesty of Christian lyrics. Finally, Christians could throw up their rock fingers and not feel bad about it.

But as magical as this was, something more sinister happened with the advent of “Christian music”. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact time or location in which it happened, but a dichotomy arose. Within the heading of “Christian” music, there arose 2 factions. One group was the stalwart group. Thinking 8-part harmonies could forever overshadow the sounds of a squealing guitar, their music basically did not evolve. The other group, what I would call the radical group, took the idea that Christian music could be put to more popular musical styles and flourish. However, sometimes this idea was pushed to the limit, with more style than substance, which led to backlash from the stalwart group. The radicals then decided that the stalwarts were too “stuck in their ways”, and the divide opened further.

I swear this is going somewhere.

The stalwarts and the radicals were never able to reconcile. As a result, these 2 factions just began making music within their own pockets of genre. The radicals enjoyed being under the radar and breaking new ground, while the stalwarts enjoyed the success that remained as their popularity was largely the same. As things go, however, the radicals began picking up popularity, particularly in the form of younger listeners. The stalwarts’ popularity with this generation was non-existent, but as the financial support of the young is sparse, the stalwarts clung to the more mature population to love their music/pay the bills. As a result, you found a more radical style of music growing in popularity, similar to what was seen in the mainstream arena, and growing particularly rapidly compared to their counterparts. What was not seen was a paycheck to complement the increased popularity.

As the divide opened, the powers that be (aka the Gospel Music Association) had to make a decision regarding radio airplay. In the earlier days of Christian radio, southern gospel predominated, with groups a la the Gaithers getting the majority of the airplay. With new types of music evolving over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, this status quo would be unacceptable in a short period of time. It was time to make a decision that would affect Christian radio airplay as we know it today. In the interest of keeping their support base happy and pay the bills, the GMA chose to support the music that was less controversial, more like what people were used to, and generally safe.

As a result of these decisions, Christian radio has perpetually kept Christian music as a genre 5-10 years behind what is popular, if not longer. While artists such as Third Day, Stephen Curtis Chapman, and Jeremy Camp are certainly talented, their songs are not relevant in pop culture. Maybe they don’t care if their songs are relevant, and that’s fine for them. The fact of the matter is that these artists are the face of Christian music today, and I’m not ok with it. There are many other more talented artists within the Christian genre who will never see the fortune of, for instance, Third Day because their music is more progressive or their lyrics are less hokie. This is the reason why artists such as Switchfoot go mainstream. Their music will never have the same opportunity to have a consistent fanbase because of the airplay they will never receive.

Way to go, Christian radio.Through this history, I believe Christian radio has made 3 classic blunders that have impeded the progression of Christian music to a wider fan base than just middle-aged Caucasians and subsequently deadlocked the musical genre.

1. Christian radio has consistently refused to allow commercials within their airplay. Now I’m as much against commercials as the next person, but this is a childish move by Christian radio stations. By refusing sponsorship money and cutting down on airplay time of Christian music, they are forced to have the following: telethons (which is a 3-day affair for the local Christian station, but for others, is much, much, much, much longer), Christian pastoral programming (a la Focus on the Family, Chuck Swindoll), and air-time sponsorships by individuals and local businesses. As a result, Christian radio stations naturally play the types of music that their sponsors are likely to approve. No ska, punk, rap, r&b, or metal allowed here folks. Only C, G, D, and the occassional Am chords.

2. The Christian music played on these stations is not even an accurate representation of the Christian life. What do I mean by this? I don’t always feel happy. Or want to be uplifted for that matter. Moreover, there are many Christian artists who write songs regarding struggles in their life, depression, sickness, anger at God, and other quasi-spiritual matters. How many times do you hear these songs? Rarely, if ever. While there is certainly Biblical merit to lifting one another up, one cannot ignore the fact that many Biblical passages are artists writers questioning/crying out to God for answers. Get real, Christian radio, and understand that we are not all getting our Joel Osteen on up in here.

3. Christian radio has made only feeble attempts to invest in the next generation of believers. I’m sorry, but 2 hours of rock programming on a Friday night is a sorry excuse for a youth movement. There should be more songs interposed within normal programming hours, even peak programming hours. Let’s be frank: no generation X or Y-er wants to listen to the equivalent of the all-Michael Bublé station. Quick, name for me 5 Christian songs on the radio right now that could make the Billboard Top 40 in pop/rock. Good luck.

So while playing music that better fits the stalwarts of Christian music has its safe advantages, it also comes with limitations, of which the main limitation is limited fan base. This limited fan base (believers) has only so much money to invest back into programming, and these radio stations will do anything to keep their listeners. Result? More of the same. This is the death spiral that Christian music is in. Good luck ever surviving the whirlpool. The sad part is that it won’t just take down the “popular” artists. It will take down on all of the feeder records labels (Tooth and Nail, Solidstate, etc.) and force these musicians to make a choice to either quit or go mainstream.

Here’s a quick shout-out to some great artists that you rarely hear played: anberlin, emery, beloved, the almost, copeland, mae, mewithoutyou, hillsong united, august burns red, the chariot, haste the day, kj-52, lecrae, and bleach. Thank you for making good music despite the lack of mainstream airplay.

Christian radio, get with the program. There is a rising generation of believers that wants a thematic alternative to “let’s get drunk and have sex”. But let’s face it. Your alternative sucks.


From → Music

  1. jeffnearlife permalink

    #2 is a slam dunk.

  2. I have enjoyed this. Keep blogging, my friend.

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