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Church Culture Opinion

A Few Reflections on the Christian Music Industry

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Editor’s Note:  The release of the new movie “The Jesus Music” (which we cover here), has brought new attention to the history of the Christian music industry and its impact on the evangelical church.  The following article is an excerpt from Warren Smith’s 2009 book A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church.  This chapter examines Christian music and Christian radio and highlights the fact that the impact has been both positive and negative.

The merchant can please God only with difficulty. —Saint Jerome

OPINION–In his farewell address to the nation, Dwight Eisenhower gave a speech that became famous because it used the expression military-industrial complex. Eisenhower said, “A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.”

But Eisenhower warned of great danger if the military preparedness of our nation came to be seen as a market of private industrial interests. Eisenhower did not fear that military men would seek war, because whatever attractions war may have to a certain kind of soldier, Eisenhower knew that soldiers ultimately paid the price demanded by war with their lives.

Rather, he feared that leaders of industry would have no such check on their baser instincts. They could reap the benefits of war without having to pay the price of war. Eisenhower viewed the relationship between the military and industry as not merely symbiotic, but parasitic and pathological.

I use this historical example so that it might be easier to see that a similar pathological relationship has emerged between the Christian retail industry and the Christian church, which I call the Christian-industrial complex.1 In chapter one we saw some of the ways the church has been co-opted by the Christian conference industry. But the Christian meeting and conference industry is just a small part of the rapidly expanding Christian Industrial Complex, as we will now see.

The Growth of Christian Music

When contemporary Christian music emerged in the 1970s, it was enough for most Christian music consumers that the songs contained Christian lyrics. On the very few radio stations and radio programs playing Christian music, it was not unusual to hear the easy-listening pop sounds of B. J. Thomas and Amy Grant and The Imperials, the edgy lyrics of Larry Norman, and the heavy-metal blues/rock of the Resurrection Band being played in quick succession. Christian music began to be described as “the only genre defined by its lyrics,” not by musical style.

Of course, secular radio was not all that different.  The granular segmentation of radio was only beginning. The Top 40 charts of the early 1970s would often include the disco of Donna Summer, the easy-listening of John Denver and the Eagles, and the hard rock of Led Zeppelin or The Allman Brothers on the same chart.

But the radio world itself was undergoing a radical transformation. In the 1960s AM ruled the radio airwaves. Atlanta was like many cities across the country. WSB-AM was the number one station in the market. It was a clear-channel, 50,000-watt station. “Clear channel” means no other station in the country could broadcast exactly on its channel or frequency of 750 AM, and it means that WSB could broadcast with the maximum power allowed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Most major cities had such a “torch,” as those in the industry called these powerful stations: WLS in Chicago, WWL in New Orleans, WSM in Nashville, KOMA in Oklahoma City, WCBS in New York, and KFI in Los Angeles.

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WSB in Atlanta was typical. At one time the station held a 50 percent market share, which means that at any given moment, over half of the radios that were turned on were tuned to WSB. This dominance was not uncommon. All the other stations in the market split the rest of the listeners. But because there was only AM radio and because the FCC tightly regulated the number of stations in a market and the distance between the frequencies, there was plenty of audience to go around.

This situation created several phenomena. For one, this was the very tail end of the era in which radio was the most democratic and mainstream of media. A station with a 50 percent market share had children and old people, male and female, married and single in the audience. Second, the barrier against entry for new formats, such as Christian music, was enormous. There were only a limited number of stations, and those stations had to have at least 5 percent of the market to be financially viable. A format that could be expected to pull only 1 or 2 percent of the market didn’t have a chance. So Christian music, such as it was in the early 1970s, had no radio outlet.

But it did have parachurch youth organizations, independent concert promoters who were often also youth ministers, and Christian bookstores. The Christian bookstore industry was mostly a mom-and-pop affair in those days.  A few small chains existed – such as Logos Bookstores.  And there were denominational stores such as Cokesbury and Lifeway.

More typical, though, were stores like The Carpenter’s Shop in Athens, Georgia. Dwayne Chambers was a successful local entrepreneur, church deacon, and civic leader. He owned a dry-cleaning facility that had some extra space in its building, so he started selling Christian books there. This was purely a ministry activity, a way to give back to the community for this man whose impulse to serve would eventually earn him a seat on the Athens City Council and then a long tenure as mayor.

Athens is a college town and even before the days of REM and the B-52s, it had a vibrant music scene, so it was not unusual for kids to come into the Carpenter’s Shop and ask for music. In those days Christian bookstores were often also church supply stores, carrying sheet music for choirs, and much of this music was published by Word Publishing. Word, the first exclusively gospel music label, had been started in Waco, Texas, in 1950. Its first recording artist was the classically trained baritone Frank Boggs, who ended up recording more than twenty albums of mostly hymns and gospel standards for Word and who sang at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1958. By 1970 Word Records was a multi-million-dollar recording and publishing company, having bypassed secular distribution channels by going directly to retail outlets such as Chambers’s Carpenter’s Shop. Few people were getting rich, aside from the senior managers at Word, who ultimately became very rich.  The thousands of retailers who valued the ministry component of the business were just getting by.

But things were about to drastically change in the Christian music industry. In 1969 Larry Norman had released Upon This Rock, which is now considered to be the first true contemporary Christian music album, though it was released on the secular label Capitol Records. And a few years later, Explo ’72 brought more than eighty thousand young people to Dallas for a mass rally that became an archetype for Christian music festivals and such organizations as Promise Keepers and Women of Faith. The size of the event surprised everyone but its organizers, and it became the defining moment for what came to be called the Jesus Movement. Billy Graham preached six different times at the event. Many young people who attended the event say their attendance at Explo was a defining moment in their lives. Greg Laurie, who later founded Harvest Crusade Ministries, was there. The Purpose-Driven Life author Rick Warren was there.

“It was a defining moment,” said Southern Evangelical Seminary former president Alex McFarland, who has studied the event. “For better or for worse, Explo ’72 defined what a successful ministry event looked like for many people who became leaders in the modern American church.”6 The emerging contemporary Christian music industry was represented by the top acts, including Larry Norman, Love Song, and Andre Crouch. The event made the cover of the June 30, 1972, LIFE magazine. Christian music—and the modern evangelical movement—was finally beginning to penetrate the popular consciousness.

Changes in technology were also contributing to the growth of the Christian Industrial Complex by allowing a proliferation of radio stations with targeted Christian formats.  In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the popularity of FM radio increased dramatically. By 1972 FM radio became standard equipment in most cars, doubling the number of viable stations, and fragmenting the listenership into tribes. The clarity of the FM signal made it perfect for music formats. FCC limits on the number of stations a single company could own kept the prices of radio stations relatively cheap, so suddenly there was a proliferation of viable stations. Whereas in 1968 WSB-AM/Atlanta had a 50 percent market share as the number one station in the market, by 1978 WSB was barely hanging on to its number one spot, with about 20 percent of the market. Smaller stations found that they could pay the bills with as little as 2 percent of the market.

In the 1980s and 1990s technological and regulatory innovations continued, increasing the pace of change. AM stereo dramatically improved the sound quality of AM radio, breathing new life into the band and allowing further fragmentation of the medium. Digital radio began to replace analog, allowing for greater precision of both broadcasting and reception. So the FCC ruled that the distance between signals on the FM band in a given market could be decreased. In crowded metropolitan markets, that rule change created as many five new FM stations.

Targeting Becky

With more and more stations available, the age of highly targeted programming had fully arrived. Christian music, which had quietly built an audience over the years on the backs of small, ministry-minded entrepreneurs such as Dwayne Chambers, suddenly became extremely lucrative. Amy Grant’s Age to Age became the industry’s first album to go platinum (one million in sales) in 1987. A few years later, Word Records was bought by ABC/Capital Cities in a deal that at the time was worth nearly $100 million.

The stakes became huge, and success was no longer measured the way Dwayne Chambers measured it, in changed lives. For one thing, many of the record labels were no longer owned by Christians, but by equity funds or the public markets. The new measurements for many of these companies were earnings per share and market share points. Tens of millions of dollars could be made or lost based on a single percentage point difference, more or less, in the ratings.

That’s when Christian radio decided that a mythical young housewife named Becky was its target customer. If you walked into a top Christian radio station in the 1990s, and to a certain extent even today, the staff will know Becky, though they may have a different name for her at their station, an ironic and furtive attempt to make Becky their own. Becky is the one person they want to listen. Every little thing the station does is done with Becky in mind.

“We call her Debbie, “but it’s the same idea.” said Joe Paulo, who at the time I interviewed him was general manager of WRCM/Charlotte, one of the top ten Christian radio stations in the country and a finalist in the Gospel Music Association’s “Station of the Year” category in 2003.  (The station has since become a part of the K-Love Radio Network.)

“For years, our target was the twenty-five- to forty-four-year-old female,” Paulo said. “But no one is twenty-five to forty-four years old. You’re either twenty-five or forty-four, and your tastes and lifestyle are very different depending on whether you’re one or the other,” he said.

Paulo knows exactly who Becky is and what she cares about. “She’s thirty-five years old. She has two kids. She drives a minivan and is married, but her marriage is not all she dreamed it would be. She goes to church pretty regularly, but not every Sunday. She is mostly a stay-at-home mom, but she may work a few hours a week or may work seasonal jobs at different times of the year to bring a few extra dollars into the household.”

Paulo also knows what Becky thinks. “She cares about issues that affect her kids,” he said. “Food, education, health, family, leisure-time activities.” Paulo said everything his station puts on the air must pass this test: “Will Becky care?”

That question and its answer have changed Paulo’s station, as they have all of Christian radio. When WRCM went on the air in 1993, it immediately became one of the top ten radio stations in Charlotte, which is a top-twenty-five U.S. media market. But the way the station sounded in 1993 is significantly different from the way it sounds today. In 1993 the station aired news at the top of every hour. During midday and in the evening, programs from Focus on the Family and other top ministries played. Today, news is gone and so are the programs.

Focus on the Family’s daily thirty-minute program was dropped in part because of a show about same-sex marriage that the station judged to be too graphic for Becky and the young ears in her minivan. When Paulo asked Focus on the Family if he could air a repeat of a previous program in that show’s place, Focus representatives refused, and the station chose to drop the show rather than have Focus on the Family dictate what it could or could not air.

“We love Focus on the Family and what they stand for, and we understand their point of view,” Paulo said. “But we also think it is fair for us to make the final decision about what goes on our station.”

How Ratings Drive Liturgy and Theology

These changes to Christian radio have many implications.  One of them is that Becky often picks out what we sing in church.

To understand this, consider that when a congregation sings Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” no money changes hands. But when that same congregation sings the popular praise and worship song “God of Wonders,” written by Steve Hindalong and Marc Byrd, both men and their music publishing company get a small payday. That’s because “A Mighty Fortress” is in the public domain, but “God of Wonders” belongs to them. And churches that use these songs must pay a licensing fee to an organization called Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI). The size of the copyright fee depends on the size of the church, but a 200-member church would pay $300 per year.  In 2009, approximately 140,000 churches are CCLI license holders.  CCLI is a private, for-profit company, so financials are not available.  But it is reasonable to estimate that at least $50 million per year is collected and redistributed to copyright owners. And this large and growing number is just one part of a growing CCLI empire. CCLI also allows churches to pay additional fees to use movie clips as sermon illustrations.

It’s probably no coincidence that the CCLI’s founding in 1984 corresponds more or less with the beginning of explosive growth in the contemporary Christian music industry and with the growth of worship music in particular. CCLI provided the third leg of the stool for Christian music promoters. The growth of Christian radio provided a way to introduce new material to the market, the churches themselves started using the music in their services, and CCLI allowed the promoters to get paid by the churches that used them.

I want to be clear that CCLI is not a villain in this process.  Indeed, CCLI is in some ways filling an important and vital need. Without an organization such as CCLI, the rights of songwriters to be paid for the use of their material would have no protection.  Churches would be forced to break copyright laws every time they wanted to sing a contemporary song. CCLI was born of good intentions. My point, however, is one that is a theme of this book: despite these good intentions, bad consequences sometimes ensue.

And the bad consequence here is that Becky determines what gets played on the radio, and what gets played on the radio becomes familiar to listeners, and those listeners are often the same people who make decisions about what gets played and sung in church.

Contrast this with the historical method of choosing songs for worship. Hymnbooks contain songs that are mostly in the public domain and have little or no licensing fees. They have historically been published by denominational publishers that make them available to congregations more or less at cost. They were not aggressively marketed or promoted because they are typically denominationally specific, reflecting the doctrine and liturgy of a particular church. Indeed, the selection of songs for hymnals is an elaborate, painstaking process.

This process has several obvious negative sides.  Many consider the process bureaucratic and the product staid. But one thing you can say about a denominational hymnal: it is not an accidental or incidental process, but one that has historically been considered vital to church life. This is a key point: the hymnals are informed by and reinforce the theology of the church. Said plainly, hymnals are discipleship tools.

Contemporary worship songs, on the other hand, are a revenue stream for copyright holders and music publishers. They are aggressively promoted and now make up a significant share of the $4.5 billion Christian retail market. Indeed, no matter which side you are on in these worship wars, both sides can agree on this simple observation: for the most part, the traditionalists have lost this fight, at least in the evangelical church. Virtually every one of the one hundred largest and one hundred fastest-growing churches on Outreach magazine’s list is a church that has one or more so-called contemporary services.

So here’s the larger point: there was a time when theologians and the wisest minds of a church determined what was said and sung in a church. Today, who makes those decisions? Becky. What Becky likes gets played on Christian radio, and what gets played on Christian radio gets promoted to church musicians and church leaders, both intentionally, as a part of the machinery of the Christian-industrial complex, or unintentionally, just because these songs are in the air. The result: our churches are filled with songs not because they reflect our highest and best thinking and artistry or because they remind us and teach our children important truths, but because they are—as many Christian stations say about themselves—“safe for the entire family.”  Some of us cannot hear that tagline without experiencing a bit of unintended irony. We remember C. S. Lewis’s description of Aslan from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: “’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”  The modern evangelical church, on the other hand, has become satisfied with a lion that no longer roars. The church has become safe, but no longer good.

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Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine, and Vice President of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 25 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.