Saving Christian Bookstores

Saving Christian Bookstores February 28, 2011

I got a call the other day from a magazine writer who wanted to ask me about Christian music, since I own and run ChristianMusicDaily.com. He was doing an article about Christian bookstores introducing customers to other styles of music than what they always buy. In other words, he wanted my opinion on how to get young people to go to the Christian bookstore in their area and instead of buying Casting Crowns and MercyMe CDs, maybe they’d take a chance on “liturgical music” or “Southern Gospel.”

I laughed at his thought. I have been the publicist for a major Christian music festival for years, and every summer I hang out with thousands of young people and see what they’re into, and liturgical/Southern Gospel music ain’t it.

If you were to ask a young Christian person today if they know of Lady Gaga, Eminem and Katy Perry, nine times out of ten they’re going to not just know those artists, but have some of their songs on their iPod.

I told the magazine writer what I’ll tell you: kids today spend all day text messaging one another, and they trade MP3 songs without thinking they should even pay for music. In the old days, you went to a Christian bookstore and paid $15 for a CD from an artist because you liked their one song you heard on Christian radio. Then along came Napster, iTunes, and artists having their own personal websites where they could sell their music files, and in the span of a few short years CD racks went from dominating stores to being an afterthought.

So what kinds of music do kids care about today? Hip-hop, upbeat dance music, and guitar rock—and anything else just doesn’t really sell, even if some of you insist it does. This applies for Christian as well as secular audiences. You could make the argument that Country music still sells well, and indeed it does, but it’s not the primary music style on the radar screen of most teens.

I offered this nugget of gold to the magazine writer: if Christian bookstores want to stay around, they’re going to have to become relevant to young people. How do they do that? Offer something to people they cannot get anywhere else—something they can’t get at Wal-Mart, Target, or online at amazon.com or iTunes. Example? If a Christian band beams their big concert via satellite ONLY to Christian bookstores, then fans of that band have to go there to see the concert, and stores can charge admission and/or sell food and drinks to those who attend. In other words, Christian bookstores can attract shoppers by offering communal experiences one can’t get on the net.

Say the Newsboys were releasing a new CD which you could get at itunes, amazon, Wal-Mart, Target and your local Christian bookstore. Now imagine that the Christian bookstore’s version of this new CD offered 2 bonus tracks not available anywhere else, as well as a devotional book written by the band, a wall poster, and a cool keychain with the Newsboys picture on it, all for a reasonable price. If I was a diehard Newsboys fan, where do you think I’d go, then, to access their new music?

Music is ubiquitous these days—it’s “in the air,” and therefore, the attitude toward music is that it’s free. Artists kind of know this, and that’s why they are making their money through live performances, where they can charge high prices for tickets, as well as through merchandise sales—they can make a decent living selling t-shirts at live shows.

I concluded my talk with the magazine writer by saying that you know it’s a tough economy when Borders books has declared bankruptcy and is closing down most of its stores. If Christian bookstores don’t want to meet the same fate, they need to adapt to these Internet times and figure out ways to draw people in by making their stores places people want to “hang out with friends,” where they can eat, drink, read, and talk. Otherwise, Christian bookstores will go the way of cassette tapes and VCRs.

Mark Weber is a pop-jazz recording artist (www.meetmarkweber.com) who also happens to own and run www.ChristianMusicDaily.com and www.BuffaloChristian.com. He describes himself as “raised Catholic with a Protestant worldview.” He earned his Master’s in Journalism from Pat Robertson’s Regent University, and has written several books about Christian music at www.lulu.com/christianmusic.


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4 responses to “Saving Christian Bookstores”

  1. Or, start focusing on diversity. The biggest problem with Christian bookstores is that, on a whole, they focus on a very narrow margin of what is being created by todays artists. It was rare that I found anything in a Lifeway store that wasnt featured in CCM Magazine when I was 15, and needing music that appealed to my tastes, but also grew me in my faith.

    Then my family discovered a local Christian bookstore called The Shepherds Shop, and my eyes were opened to the world of Christian hardcore and metal. The bookstore changed my life because I was able to discover music, not just buy it.

    The iPod generation is all about diversity, if you can hold 1200 songs, then chances are you wont want 1100 of those to be from one genre. That gets boring. If Christian bookstores continue to ignore the vast array of faith-based music in every genre, and dont embrace artists that exist outside of the Christian Music Machine, then they are doomed to fail simply because they are irrelevant.