Music at Mars Hill: Is Cornerstone's Last Year the End of an Era?

Music at Mars Hill is a weekly column by Luke Larsen that seeks to find God amidst the newest trends in both mainstream music and independent music.

Cornerstone Festival has been the bedrock of the Contemporary Christian Music industry since its founding in 1984. Every summer, kids, families, churches, and hippies alike would gather to hear both the biggest and the most underground Christian bands rock for Jesus. And while there have been countless Christian music festivals held across the country, Cornerstone has long been one of the industry’s most important events of the year, successfully launching the careers of bands like Jars of Clay and Newsboys.

An article from Christianity Today puts it this way: “There’s nothing wrong with Christian music festivals. But when one closes, like Spirit West Coast did this year, others will fill the void. Fans of those events have plenty to choose from. But when Cornerstone closes up shop, nothing will fill its shoes.”

Although I’ve never attended Cornerstone personally, I had similar spiritual encounters with community, music, and the gospel at Creationfest Northwest growing up. I made friends, became closer to the friends and family I went with, and even had some memorable opportunities to respond to the presence of the living God there. Not having grown up in church, the flocks of concertgoers weren’t just proof to my adolescent self that Christians could be “cool” or could “rock.” It was my first time stepping into a community of that kind at all. To say it had a huge impact on my faith and the person I was becoming would be an understatement.

But this week, Cornerstone closed its doors for good and celebrated its final year. The festival is run by JPUSA (Jesus People U.S.A.), an evangelical denomination that got its roots from the Jesus movement of the late 1960s and the hippie counterculture surrounding events like Woodstock. This time period was the birth of youth ministry, Christian music, and Christian subculture—a defining moment in what it meant to be an American Christian living in the 20th century. Music festivals throughout the 70s and 80s marked a generation of young Christians who were as culturally savvy as they were profoundly set apart from the world—a group of Christians who weren’t afraid to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus through whatever means available.

But this is 2012 and there are number of reasons why Cornerstone is calling it quits. The most significant of course is that Christian music just doesn’t sell like it used to. According to a JPUSA member and festival organizer, the organization “would love to continue doing it, but [we are] just not seeing the ticket sales we need to pay for it each year.” If you need proof that the Christian music industry has been on a steady downfall in the past few years, all you have to do is turn on a Christian music television channel and count how many songs will get played that were from before the year 2005. (If you need more proof, check out Hillsong’s newest annual album—ironically titled Cornerstone—that maintains relatively the same musical style that is has used since 1992.)

But even by 2005, publications like RELEVANT and Paste began to point toward a way out for Christians who felt torn by being moved by art that the Church had deemed “secular.” This new generation of music-lovers inhabited the same spirit of cultural engagement and evangelicalism that was present in the original Jesus movement, but it was now set to play out in very different ways. Paste co-founder and editor-in-chief Josh Jackson said it this way: “I truly have nothing against artists who play contemporary Christian music or people who listen to it. But I am a little bugged by radio stations that take advantage of their audience’s fear by promising sanctuary from the evil world out there. Rather than engaging the world, it’s mostly just trying to sanitize its own little gated community inside it.” Paste’s motto embodies both a new mission and new perspective for Christians: The search for signs of life in pop culture.

The past fifty or so years of Christian subculture has given us a good place to start. We know who we are and where we have come from. But I believe we have been called into a new mission field as artists, critics, and music-lovers: the scary world of discernment and cultural engagement. My recommendation? Let’s mourn the end of an era and pay respects to the industry that has so significantly influenced our understanding of faith. The road ahead is unclear and undefined, but every day I find more and more hope in the future of the Church’s relationship with popular culture. This is only the beginning.

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  • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

    I attended the festival seven times, and it holds a VERY special place in my heart, so I’m very glad that CAPC wrote something about it’s demise. However, I want to point out that the festival was hardly, if ever, about “Contemporary Christian Music”. Sure, some recognizable CCM artists performed on its stages, but the festival’s true strength was that it focused on the fringe, on all of those Christian artists who didn’t, couldn’t, or wouldn’t fit in the normal CCM world, but rather, wanted to break out of that subculture.

    So while Cornerstone was very much a Christian event in that the vast majority of artists and attendees were Christian, it was not your typical Christian event because every aspect of it — from the musicians to the speakers to the various presentations — was focused on engaging the rest of the culture. Indeed, I would say that Cornerstone paved the way for the very outlook — i.e., moving boldly into “the scary world of discernment and cultural engagement” — you outline in your final paragraphs.

    I would also contend that, while the decline of the Christian music industry in general certainly played a role in Cornerstone’s closing, the rise of the internet also played a significant role. For many years, Cornerstone — along with a handful of other fests, like TOMfest and the Purple Door Festival — was one of the few places to find out anything about what was going on in the underground/alternative Christian arts scene; if you were in a band, Cornerstone was THE place you went to get exposure. And for those of us in that scene, Cornerstone was THE place we went to be with like-minded people. However, with the rise of the internet, it’s far easier for bands to get their music out there, and it’s far easier to connect with people. Cornerstone’s role in all of that has become increasingly marginalized.

  • http://www.theretuned.com Matthew Linder

    When I was in college I was in a Christian Alternative/Punk band and we had the opportunity to play at TomFest. I have never been to any other Christian music festivals so I have no means of comparison but I thoroughly enjoyed see all these underground Christian bands and performing alongside them. I also agree with you that cultural engagement and the making of culture by Christians is more effective in spreading the gospel than creating a closed door sub-culture. I have noticed in recent years that there has been a move from the away from the us vs. them mentality of Christians in the United States, where we protect the sanctity of the church and the world out there is pure evil to more of the reformation two kingdoms approach. I hope that the two kingdoms approach to missio dei continues to flourish and helps Christians to proclaim the gospel in effective ways in culture. However, I do not want this mindset to turn into the only tool for evangelism or engagement with culture without letting the Holy Spirit guide people in how they should speak the words of the gospel to others. While I personally see a lot of good that can come from two kingdoms theology I do not want it to become a system that thinks it can handle all the details of missional work without any work of the Holy Spirit pointing people to Jesus or else it will be empty of its potential power.

  • http://thefeedbackloopmusic.blogspot.com/ Luke Larsen

    @Jason,

    Really appreciate your comments and your perspective as a regular attendee of the festival. From what I’ve heard, I think you’re totally right about Cornerstone being a haven for underground Christian artists and that very well may have also been a haven for progressive thought about culture. The Internet most certainly has affected music and underground music on all levels.

    But I’ve noticed that in other situations (namely the indie music scene) it has proven to be a great tool for underground artists and the popularity of festivals they go to. Getting discovered at something like SWSX might not be the end-all for an indie band anymore, but the fact that Coachella added a second weekend this year certainly must indicate that other music festivals don’t seem to having the same financial trouble as Christian music festivals.