Recently at First Things, Matthew Block pondered the remarkable decline, both in market share and in overall quality, of the contemporary Christian music industry. Pivoting off a wonderfully named piece by Tyler Huckabee, Block offers his own analysis as to why CCM is barely a shrivel of its 90s glory:
As Huckabee and those he quotes rightly note, the CCM industry of today seems much less diverse than it was when it was at its peak. As market conditions grew less favorable, Huckabee writes, “the CCM industry began relying on sure bets, and the surest bet of all was what’s broadly known as ‘worship music’—songs people sing at church.” Worship music still sells. Christian pop and rock music? Not so much.
I’d like to suggest one reason why this is the case: much of the CCM industry’s music just wasn’t very good. Yes, there were some artists who wielded great artistic skill in their own right: dcTalk comes to mind. But many CCM artists simply could not compete against the skills of secular artists in the same genres. And yet that’s exactly how they were marketed. Walk into any Christian book/music store back in the late 1990s and early 2000s and you would see posters claiming, “If you like [this secular band] you’ll love [that Christian band].”
Block is absolutely correct about that. Derivativeness is a quality of entertainment that most secular producers/artists will publicly decry, even if their own output betrays them. What makes the Christian music industry unique in that respect is not that it was/is highly derivative (the majority of Spotify is that) but that it’s openly marketed as derivative. I remember at one point that CCM Magazine was including in their album reviews specific “Sounds Like” descriptors. To a degree that can be helpful when introducing new artists to a niche audience, but everyone knew even back then that wasn’t what was going on. Rather, artists were being marketed as “family friendly” replacements to mainstream acts.
It’s not hard to describe why that kind of approach to making music (or any other kind of art) doesn’t enrich an artistic community or the audience culture at large. Being a “safe for the whole family” alternative to those artists who are actually setting aesthetic and industry standards is somewhat analogous to designing a church worship service to resemble a sporting event, only with religious vocabulary. Even if the experience is interesting in the moment, when you back off and see what’s going on, the whole thing feels distasteful, and moreso, it feels backwards, as if the transcendent claims of religion are actually flowing downstream from pop culture.
But the derivativeness of CCM is only part of the story. It might explain the artistic stagnation within the industry, but it doesn’t explain why the industry is actually losing its audience. If stagnation necessarily led to a loss in business, then the last 10 years worth of box office receipts wouldn’t exist. So why aren’t people listening to CCM much nowadays? More importantly, why aren’t Christians?
I think the answer is that Christian consumers now have, thanks to technology, a virtually non-existent gap between them and the art they really want to consume vs the art they’re willing to consume. Block and Huckabee both mention the modern worship music industry as having delivered Christian record labels a prepackaged formula for success. That’s an observation I’ve made as well, and it’s valid, but we should all be willing to admit that Christian music is declining not because people consume too much of one flavor but because they don’t consume it much anymore at all. And the simplest explanation for that is Christians who want good music feel less inclined to turn away from mainstream channels for it.
The “safe alternative” business model that defined so much of the CCM industry in the last decade may be an artistic catastrophe but it was actually a business success. Why? Because much Christian culture, particularly evangelical culture, believed that dipping into “secular” venues for one’s entertainment (particularly music) was at best a risk and at worst an elementary failure of discipleship.
Has this belief changed? Maybe, but that might not the issue. Because of the digital revolution, consumers can get exactly the kind of music they want with little or no effort to actually go somewhere and buy it. The psychological effect of actually going into a Christian bookstore to buy The Kind of Music You Listen To is totally negated in the age of iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube. If you want Christian music, it’s just a click away, and while you’re in the digital vault, you’ll probably run across one or two artists that wouldn’t be sold in that Christian bookstore but actually sound much better (and, in a lot of cases, much more spiritual).
In other words, the success of Christian music in the last decade depended largely on its separateness and unique presence in only certain markets. That uniqueness helped support an evangelical narrative about keeping away from “secular” influences, a narrative that went far beyond actual discernment and merely played into market research-driven categories. But in 2015, it’s precisely that system that is crumbling before the digital revolution.
Image: Public Domain