Joshua 24:15: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
At the 2018 IASPM-US conference in Nashville, I organized a roundtable of Christian music executives. Many popular music scholars know Nashville as home to country music and a hub for professional songwriters; tacitly absent from this identity is Nashville's importance to evangelical Christianity in the United States. The city and its surrounding suburbs in middle Tennessee—referred to colloquially as the “buckle of the Bible Belt” and (sometimes derisively) as the “Protestant Vatican”—hosts the executive offices of several evangelical Christian denominations. The region provides religious training at many Christian colleges, universities, and seminaries. Thomas Nelson, one of the world's largest Bible publishers, anchors Nashville's Christian print publishing industry. Many of these institutions pre-date Christian rock and what we now call contemporary Christian music (CCM), which emerged alongside the Jesus People Movement on the West Coast in the late 1960s and early 1970s.1 The nascent CCM industry grew throughout the 1970s and 1980s, sometimes in step with existing music industry infrastructures that distributed older genres of Christian popular music, including spirituals, black gospel, and white Southern gospel music, among others, but at other times in competition and conflict with these markets for resources.
Nashville's importance to evangelical Christianity is underscored by its central role in the Christian music industries: as the market for Christian popular music continued expanding in the 1980s, in part due to the popularity of CCM and artists such as Amy Grant, Sandy Patti, Michael W. Smith, and others, Nashville emerged as the hub for Christian music companies, and thus, for Christian musicians and songwriters. In the 1990s and early 2000s that growth accelerated, as the major record labels acquired many Christian labels and several Christian artists achieved crossover success on top 40 radio and Billboard's Hot 100 chart: DC Talk, Amy Grant, Jars of Clay, P.O.D., Sixpence None the Richer, Michael W. Smith, Switchfoot, and many others. Today, the three biggest Christian record labels are headquartered in or near Nashville: Capitol Christian Music Group (CCMG, a subsidiary of Universal Music), Provident Music Group (a subsidiary of Sony Music), and Word Entertainment (a subsidiary of Curb Records). These institutions anchor the area's Christian music industries, which include numerous independent labels, publishing houses, and sectors in artist services, music business education (at both Belmont University and Trevecca Nazarene University), songwriting, and studio recording, among others. Christian music's major industry trade organizations, including the Gospel Music Association (GMA), are also headquartered in Nashville. In short, Nashville is home to Christian music, as it is also home to country music.
The 2018 conference in Nashville provided a unique opportunity to gather Christian music executives to discuss the unique challenges and issues they face in a popular music market for which religious identity is necessarily a core component. Roundtable participants have worked in A&R, executive leadership, higher education, music ministry, music supervision, production, publishing, radio promotions, and recording, among other roles, and represent more than 100 years of cumulative experience as music industry professionals. Our panelists were:
Dean Diehl, the Senior Vice President of Strategy and New Business for Provident Label Group and Director of Music Business for Trevecca Nazarene University, where he is also an assistant professor. In his capacity as Senior Vice President, Diehl directs overall marketing and content strategies for the label group, whose roster includes Casting Crowns, Matt Maher, Tenth Avenue North, Zach Williams, and Tauren Wells, among others. At Trevecca, Diehl oversees the music business program and teaches courses on record label operations, marketing in the music industry, and small business management. Diehl recently completed his Ed.D. in Leadership and Professional Practice.
Chris Hauser, an independent radio promoter for Christian artists. He started in college radio in 1979, moved to a full-time Christian AM/FM station in Syracuse, and was hired by Myrrh Records (a subsidiary of Word) in 1987. At Myrrh he worked with Amy Grant, Russ Taff, Philip Bailey, and others; after Word was acquired by Warner, he worked with artists such as Take 6, Michael English, and Caedmon's Call. He left Warner in 1998 and went into independent radio promotion. In the last twenty years as an independent radio promoter, he has worked with seminal artists such as LeCrae, Chris Tomlin, Lauren Daigle, Needtobreathe, Newsboys, Gungor, and Danny Gokey. Hauser was only the second record label-related executive to receive a Lifetime Achievement award from the Christian Music Broadcasters trade organization in 2016.
Gina Miller is a Senior Vice President and the General Manager of Entertainment One Nashville (eOne), which also includes Light Records and IndieBlu Music. Miller manages the day-to-day operations for one of the leading independent record labels in the world. Anchored with beloved and top-charting gospel and urban inspirational artists and worship leaders, their roster also includes popular urban (R&B) artists. During her fifteen-year tenure at this label, she has created and spearheaded campaigns for Shirley Caesar, Todd Dulaney, Jonathan McReynolds, Karen Clark Sheard, Donald Lawrence, Michelle Williams, Lalah Hathaway, John P. Kee, James Fortune, JJ Hairston, Dorinda Clark Cole, and many more. She is one of only a handful of African American women to have held a similar role in any genre. Miller is a musician, a licensed music teacher, and an industry veteran, having worked in record label relations, marketing, sales and promotions. As a member of many organizations (including NARAS), Miller regularly donates her time to multiple boards and philanthropy work.
Jackie Patillo, the President and Executive Director of the Gospel Music Association and Foundation. She started in the music business in 1989, working for Star Song Communications (a Christian record label) to develop Christian and gospel music. Eight years later, Benson Music Group recruited her to its A&R department. In 2001, Patillo joined Integrity Music and initiated the formation of Integrity Gospel. In 2006 Patillo moved to New York, where she was the Vice President of A&R and Artist Development at Verity Records (a subsidiary of Sony Music) and led the creative division of the largest gospel music company in the world. She left Verity in late 2010 for the GMA position.
John J. Thompson, a thirty-year music industry veteran, author, songwriter, artist, record producer, and teacher who currently serves as Associate Dean at Trevecca Nazarene University's School of Music and Worship Arts. He is also a Creative Director at eOne Music. Thompson previously served as Director of Creative and Copyright Development for Capitol Christian Music Group Publishing and as Director of Marketing and Communications for the Cornerstone Festival in Illinois. He founded and managed True Tunes Etcetera and its internationally distributed magazine and website, True Tunes News and TrueTunes.com, from 1989–2000. Thompson is a frequent writer for various music publications and websites; his book Raised by Wolves is an important history of Christian rock.2
Our on-stage conversation in Vanderbilt University's Turner Recital Hall was wide-ranging, addressing the strength of the Christian music market, contemporary worship music, the impact of streaming, publishing norms (including Christian Copyright Licensing International, or CCLI, which provides blanket licenses to churches for the reproduction of copyrighted song lyrics and other uses), the relevance and importance of Christian music to the broader culture, Christianity itself as a lifestyle “brand,” and predictions for the future of the Christian music industries, among other topics. I launched the conversation by asking panelists to explain their work in Christian music in more detail. Their responses and dialogue are printed below, edited for concision and clarity.
Gina Miller: At Entertainment One we offer a full-service label, digital distribution, and various parts of label services. I'm excited right now, I think this is a great time for music. It's a great time for the music business and in our office particularly, I feel that we could be as creative as we can more than ever before. I've been at this company for fifteen years, and there was one point in time when we weren't able to be as creative, and there were a lot of rules and a lot of boundaries to do most everything. And now we can cut down some of those lines and take some of it away and blur them in other places, and be creative to do new things that haven't been done before. We are absolutely still developing artists. There was one point in time when we were heavily reliant on radio and reliant on church to be the place that we found an audience, and those still are the driving forces for us. But now, because of social media and other different outlets, there are a lot of different ways to engage and find who your audiences are, and to target those people in those places. I pretty much oversee operations from bottom to top, top to bottom. Everybody that walks in the door gets to sit with me, and we plan out what their career looks like and who they are and come up with a plan of action.
chris hauser: I get songs played on the radio. Our industry has about thirty-five people in my position, promoters who work for labels or independents, as I'm independent. We're working songs to about 115 reporting radio stations around the country. About 95 of them are adult contemporary. If you live in America, you can probably pick up a network called K-LOVE—K-LOVE is the adult contemporary [AC] Christian network. They've got about 16 million people who listen to them every week. It's a massive, massive network. The other format is like a top 40 CHR [contemporary hit radio] format that is typified by a network called Air-1. You can find Air-1 in a lot of places in America as well. They've got about 7 million listeners weekly.
All promoters, collectively, have about 50–75 songs that we are working to those 115 radio stations. Each one of those radio stations has, on average, one available playlist slot a week. So, those 50–75 songs are battering against that door at each of those radio stations, trying to get that one spot. When that one spot gets taken, when that station goes, “Okay, this is our song we're adding to our playlist this week,” then those 49–74 remaining songs roll to the next week. The process starts all over again, but with more records that come in the next week. Eventually labels, clients, artists decide we can't go any further. We can't dump any more money into it, we're done. But there are four, five more records to take their spot. Being independent for twenty years has been a great experience for me, where I get to pick the records I want to work by the artists that I respect.
October 2019 update: Air-1 changed to a Modern Worship format in January 2019. It was a shock to their listeners, and they are rebuilding their brand. The Christian top 40 CHR format has splintered a little more. A new “Hot CHR” format is more open to rap and hip hop artists like LeCrae and Andy Mineo, as well as crossover (from secular to Christian) artists like Zauntee. The best examples of this new format can be found in Houston at NGEN radio 91.7 FM and in St. Louis at Boost 101.9 FM.3
john j. thompson: My main full-time job is as the Associate Dean at Trevecca School of Music and Worship Arts. I did not see this job coming, and now I've been there a little over two years. Prior to that, I was at Capitol [CCMG] for almost ten years, which is also a job I did not see coming. At Capitol, I was in publishing, and I oversaw film and TV and print music. I never thought I'd end up working at a big company because most of my career had been in the indie space, production, concert promotion, and trying to introduce people to music that I thought would really impact their life. It was people on the fringes that I was (and am) drawn to. The Capitol experience really opened my eyes and was a very fortunate experience. The last half of my time there I spent mostly working in black gospel music, which I actually liked quite a bit more in a lot of ways than working in CCM music. It also set me up for working with eOne for the last couple of years, where I helped them set up a new publishing company. This is a small community of people in the Christian and gospel world. You can fit all of us in one bus probably. There's not that many of us. And relationally, I've been blessed to serve a lot of different people in a lot of different ways.
My role at Trevecca is to connect the school to the music industry and the creative community in Nashville and vice versa. So, I've created a couple of different ways to do that. I created some experiences where I bring artists and industry people to the campus to speak to the students. I also created an artist development program on the campus for one student at a time that I take through a process very similar to the artist development process we did at Capitol. I take that student to the industry for meetings and other experiences. I get to work with students who are just starting their process and have not yet experienced anything. They're coming up in a pre-industry world. Their slate is completely blank a lot of the time. Most of them are not coming up with a lot of role models. They don't have a lot of models in their head that they have already constructed. They're literally bright-eyed and have no idea what they're going to do. And it's fun to connect them with mentors and experiences and to watch a vision coalesce.
I also do all kinds of consulting and production. I produced the Roots Gospel Americana blues record for an artist named Sean Michel last year. I still perform concerts every so often with my wife and our band, The Wayside, and I still write—I was writing a song yesterday. I lead a small church in our house, and we worship here and there and do music of our own. I also do consulting and artist development for clients on the side, so I work with churches or independent artists that want to take their music and their work to the next level. It's all kinds of problem solving and creative work, and every day is totally different than the day before.
jackie patillo: I've spent the majority of my career in artist development and A&R. I was very fortunate in that I was able to work in both the genres, contemporary Christian music (CCM) and gospel. I even did a rap record back in the day, and some metal. But up until seven years ago, my world was facilitating the creative process and working directly with artists at various labels. Then I took on the post at the Gospel Music Association (GMA). It was a surprise to me, but God had a plan, and it has turned out to be a very pleasant one in that all my relationships and my experience have collided into now serving the entire Christian and gospel music community. The GMA is a trade association that serves all genres and styles of contemporary and historic gospel Christian music. We look at it as a past, present, future model; our mission is to preserve, educate, and unite. We have an event in May called GMA Honors, where we will induct four of our trailblazers into the GMA Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and we'll also honor four people from within our community for their philanthropy to show that there are deeper depths to our artists than what is often seen on the stage.
Our June event is called Immerse, where we gather industry professionals and artists to educate the next generation of artists and Christian music professionals and leaders. It's our effort to speak to that next generation. We feel a real heavy responsibility, to take our years of experience and help the next up-and-comers so that they don't have to make the same mistakes as we did, and also to help them pave their way. Some of them need to decide whether they're going to pursue an education in music or in music business. It's a lot easier to do that in a three-day music training program than getting into an expensive university and deciding maybe that's not really for you. The biggest event that we're known for is our Dove Awards. The GMA Dove Awards happens in October and is a televised awards show. It's the only stage where all styles of Christian and gospel music come together for one night. We have over forty-two categories that we honor. And it's an awesome thing to be able to bring such a diverse group of people and musical styles together and present that for the world to see.
dean diehl: I am a senior VP for Sony's Christian music group, Provident Label Group, and I do high-level strategy development for them. As we've watched the entire music industry move aggressively into streaming, it's caused major changes in the way we do things at Provident. Even the way we think about marketing: we no longer ask people to buy things; we ask people to listen to things. It seems pretty simple when I say it that way, but it is actually a major overhaul in everything we do. I don't get bogged down into the minutiae on an album-by-album or song-by-song basis. My job is to direct the top-level overall strategy.
I'm also a full-time professor at Trevecca, where we have a music business program. I started there in 2008. We have two programs. One is a commercial music program, over in the School of Music, which is where John is. I work for the School of Business, where we offer a bachelor of business administration degree with a music business concentration. Like John, every day is very, very different.
andrew mall: What is one thing that you would want popular music writers to know about Christian music and its industries?
jackie patillo: We want you to know that we are alive and well. Christian and gospel music are genres not defined by style but by message. You can be a rap artist and considered under a Christian and gospel music umbrella. There's all of these various styles. Black gospel and Southern gospel are considered American music art forms. They originated here in the United States, and they thrive and exist here. And at the Gospel Music Association (GMA), that is something that we honor at our events.
I'd want you to know that, regardless of how things are going on the sales and the brick and mortar side, Christian and gospel artists are touring. And the tours and concerts are thriving. For example, Winter Jam goes out in the spring and the fall, twice a year.4 In 2016, more people went to a Winter Jam concert than a Beyoncé concert. Another example, right now, is Toby Mac's Hits Deep tour, and they're selling out arenas across the nation. The live experience is still thriving. People are still being inspired and nourished and enjoying as entertainment, as well as for their own spiritual avocation, Christian and gospel music.
john j. thompson: From a creative perspective and a sociological perspective, as recently as ten years ago there used to be much more “margin” in Christian music—there was a lot of music that wasn't core Christian radio music. As the industry has contracted and faced increased financial pressures, the record labels have had to pull in the reins and those margins are essentially gone. There really are no creative margins left. There are a couple of anomalies to that, but by and large, the companies don't have the margins to play with the way they did in the 1980s, '90s, and early 2000s. The margins were where most of the faith-based music that crossed over to the general market came from.5 The crossover stuff twenty years ago, a lot of the bands like Switchfoot, Sixpence, Relient K, and P.O.D. came from the margins. Right now, we've got a really tight, very finely tuned genre of contemporary Christian music (CCM), but we don't have a lot of margins. If you're researching or looking at Christian music, you're going to miss the margins because it's still there, but it's not happening in the Christian industry, it's happening independently.
There's lots of music that's happening from a faith-based perspective, and music being made by people with a spiritual Christian perspective, but it's not happening under the auspices of the industry at all anymore. Because the walls and access gates are down thanks to digital distribution, artists don't necessarily need the industry the way they did in the 1980s and '90s. People trying to get a handle on Christian music are missing a huge swath of art that's happening that has a Christian perspective to it because they're only looking at the stuff that's happening at Christian radio or the stuff that's happening in worship music, and they're missing a lot of really interesting music that's happening in rap music, for example. You're seeing with Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, and others that there is more Christian thought and content happening in rap music and mainstream, “secular,” although I don't believe in secular music. In indie music, there's more and more artists that are just happening and out there doing it.
I think that it was nice while it worked, when the margins happened, because the Christian community could cultivate some of those artists and give them a little bit of traction. Sixpence None the Richer worked for seven years in the margins of Christian music—seven years of touring and recording four albums before “Kiss Me” became the biggest song in the world [in 1999]. I think that that greenhouse effect was really powerful, and I liked that Christian music helped impact the world with some really great work: Relient K, Lifehouse, Switchfoot, Sixpence, P.O.D. On the gospel side, Kirk Franklin's “Stomp” was twenty years ago, also Mary, Mary. But the margin is going away, and I'm bummed out that the Christian market is going to have a harder time springboarding stuff into the mainstream as we've lost those margins. I'm interested in what the impact of that shift is going to be. But there's a lot of cool stuff happening in the independent scene. It's just really hard to find it because there's nothing to direct people to that stuff. It's all very much relational, viral, and hard to find.
The Jesus Movement that birthed contemporary Christian music started in about 1967. That early Christian music was a genuine cultural expression, very similar to the counterculture that was happening amongst young people toward Vietnam, toward civil rights issues, and all kinds of stuff. The fact that teenagers in the '60s were taking up guitars and writing protest-type folk songs that had a Christian tone to them actually makes a ton of sense. It's not really anachronistic at all. Even when you look at the theology of the early Christian music, they were resonating with this new-to-them presentation of Jesus as this countercultural, social justice advocate, long-haired, revolutionary kind of character. That Jesus was in sync with the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-Vietnam movement.
That generation that birthed the earliest form of Jesus Music, before it was even called contemporary Christian music, was a genuine moment that perfectly fit with the culture of the time. But generations later, it became something different. It became sort of a safe alternative to real music—a Christian alternative to secular music. And today, we've got a modern evangelical culture that's disconnected theologically in a lot of ways, and it is going to be interesting to see how younger generations respond to that creatively. But it's all going to be on the margins because the mainstream of CCM music doesn't have room financially to really foster those margins right now. So it's going to happen independently, and it's going to happen somewhere else. And it's hard, commercially, to find that stuff. I'm hoping that that kind of stuff can coalesce into some movement. I don't think anybody in the industry is against it. Everybody would love for that stuff to get traction and work. It's just hard economically to find out how to coalesce that into something, like a brand.
dean diehl: One thing that we have to keep clear is that there is a Christian music industry and then there is a Christian music genre. And the two are not necessarily the same thing. Christian music is a lyric-based genre. So, any song that would represent a Christian worldview would technically be a Christian song, right? But the Christian music industry is a collection of record labels, radio stations, retailers (but they're going away quickly), concert promoters, songwriters, and publishers. At one point there was no Christian music industry, and these songs started emerging, and an industry grew up around the songs in the movement. I think we attempt to try to define and control what is a “Christian” song. But it's really not something you can control. Sometimes you're reaching the genre, but you haven't encountered this industry, and a lot of the problems John's describing are industry problems, not genre problems. It has to do with economics.
Another thing is that the average Christian consumer is aging rapidly, and we have to figure out how to find young consumers. Right now, the young consumers are consuming worship music, which is music written for actually singing in church.6 For years we just sang hymns in church. It was the same songs for, like, 400 years, and now we've got a new song every week. I have trouble going to a contemporary worship service because I spend the whole time going, “Is that one of my songs?” I found myself texting the worship leader during the service, “Hey, how did you hear about that song? We haven't even released that yet.”
But the worship music is where we're seeing young people. And the cool thing is, like all genres, as we move into streaming we are beginning to see a separation happening between radio and what people are consuming. Look at the top 50 songs happening in radio, and the top 50 songs people are consuming on the streaming platform, and they don't line up. And when we were in a CD world, there was a much more natural connection: you would have the top 50 songs on sales, and every one was having significant airplay somewhere. Well, these worship songs have practically no airplay.
A lot of independent artists are starting to find their way onto playlists. We're really curious to see, as our listeners migrate onto the streaming platforms, how is playlisting going to supplement or even replace radio and allow for music discovery? A lot of radio stations play twelve to fifteen current hits. So, at any given time, out of the 200 or 300 songs they play, only twelve of them are new songs. But on Spotify, we have a playlist of 100 songs that are all new. So, the opportunity for new music discovery is greater than ever. We're seeing more opportunity for independent artists to be discovered—I think the people who program Christian music playlists for Spotify are huge champions of independent music. We're going to see some major changes, not just for Christian music but all formats. Playlists—not just on Spotify but also Amazon, Apple, Pandora, and iHeart Radio—are creating more opportunities than terrestrial radio for artists to get discovered, and there's also more access.
chris hauser: One of the things that people like to say in our industry is that we're the only genre where we know where every buyer and listener is for three hours every Sunday morning. No other form of music can say that. We know where these people are every Sunday morning. New worship movements, such as Elevation Worship out of Charlotte, North Carolina; Bethel Worship out of Redding, California; and Hillsong United out of Australia are releasing records, and their songs are bubbling up in streaming and digital sales. As a radio promoter, I see how songs are connecting with people in Spotify streams, sales, or YouTube views.
For example, a record was released by Elevation Worship a year ago [in 2017] called There is a Cloud with a song called “Do it Again.” “Do it Again” has 29 million streams in a year's time. Now is the time to release that song to Christian radio because we're saying, “Look, we've taken out all the guesswork for you. This song is loved everywhere. You can put this song on the air and within three days your audience knows it, or they're already singing along to it in church.” It doesn't take them two months to become familiar with the song and then be like, “Well, do I like it? Do I not like it?” It's very, very competitive out there, so this is the way that we're getting hits. And it's also, in some ways, making Christian radio sound more banal. It's creating more of a standard for how Christian radio sounds. But it's what people love, and these are the brands. In the 1980s and '90s, the brands were Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith, Steven Curtis Chapman, then MercyMe. And the brands now are Mosaic and Hillsong United and Bethel Worship. And, as Dean said, it's attracting people in their late teens and twenties, all the way on up—these concerts are multi-generational concerts.
audience question: How do you, from an industry perspective, connect streaming to publishing? If you want people at church to get ahold of your music, how do you aid that?
john j. thompson: The publishing piece with churches and Christian music goes through an organization called CCLI, Christian Copyright Licensing International. CCLI licenses churches to display the lyrics of worship songs on the wall.7 Most churches pay a small fee to CCLI for the right to do this and other services, such as access to free charts for learning the music. Those small fees that each church pays get piled up into a lot of money, but it's all related to publishing. It's not recording. The publishers then divvy up that money based on what churches report [about] which songs they're using. A representative sample of churches report, and then that gets extrapolated out over every six months.
There's a chart, just like the way the radio charts work. Similarly to how the PROs [performing rights organizations] break out royalties for publishing for radio, CCLI extrapolates that money out over a sample report from churches and pays publishers. The publishers then pay the songwriters. Radio used to not play worship music, and now radio does play worship music. So, radio is a very important marketing piece for publishers and labels to promote worship music that they then monetize through publishing. Stuff like Hillsong and Jesus Culture and Bethel. Matt Redmond, for instance, writes a lot of big church songs. He releases records and the songs go to radio. But the majority, I would imagine, of Matt's revenue is coming from his publishing. His records are there to promote his songs. His songs earn more money through CCLI than they probably earn through the recording.
dean diehl: CCLI was just bought by SESAC as well. After ASCAP and BMI, SESAC's the third PRO [in the United States]. They bought CCLI. It's kind of a deep secret of Christian music that there is this whole revenue stream that nobody else has access to, of this money that's coming in from the churches, from people doing the songs in the church. So, our writers have this other whole leg of the stool that other writers don't have access to.
john j. thompson: I was music supervisor on a movie a few years ago called Grace Unplugged. At the end of the movie, a worship song called “You Never Let Go” plays. One of the producers was sitting there while we were playing an early edit. And at the end of the movie, they put the words up on the screen while the song played. One of the directors, his vision was that at the end of the movie, people were going to be so moved that theaters full of people were going to start singing the song during the credits. As the music supervisor I was like, “Well that might be a little ambitious,” but I liked his heart for it. This particular producer said, “So tell me about the CCLI thing?” And I told him basically what I just told you. He's like, “So, we should license all the movie theaters in America to be CCLI reporters, so that if everybody sings a song, then all that money goes to this one song.”
I do think it's important to understand something else that Dean said at the beginning about the publishing revenue: this is one of the reasons that the industry is still important. As much as I am always advocating for independence and artist development, when you are an independent, it is really hard for you to coalesce enough streams and enough eyeballs and enough ears to generate enough volume for those tiny little fractions of pennies to amount to anything. The industry collects and generates that kind of mass, and that's really where the revenue comes from. On a publishing level, it really requires the bigger administrators to be able to go after Spotify and say, “We're going to collect all of that.” They've got the bigger hose to connect and suction out more of those fractional pennies than the indies do, and I'm afraid that as this coalesces, it's going to be harder and harder for the smaller entities to get their fair share, when the bigger companies suck up everything.
audience question: People of other religious faiths, what involvement might they have in your industry, and what are the interactions like between Christians and people from other faiths?
gina miller: I think that there is a lot of room for a diversity of people of different faiths to coexist together, and create community, and create products, and create music, and create jobs, and create ideas. There are all types of ways to find inspiration. If there was anything I could tell you about what Christian music and gospel music means to me, it's that it is simply an extension of my faith. That's the simplest, purest form of what I can tell you. It's an extension of what I believe. And I think there is a marriage—some way to navigate the professional world in which you find people whose beliefs are closely related to what you believe. You have an understanding of their belief system and maybe why they believe what they believe. Sometimes that doesn't even have to come into play. There's no secret here that some of these companies may or may not be run by Christian people. So that's one part of it. But I do believe that, by and large, most of us who work in the Christian genre, the company where I work specifically, we are all professed Christians. We live in this space day-to-day, both the church space and outside of church.
When I think about mainstream, all you have to do is look at The Voice and American Idol over the last few seasons, and more and more Christian songs are being sung on these huge platforms. That tells you what people are drawn to. Sometimes people are drawn to something, and it may be less about a faith and scriptural, theological, or doctrinal standpoint or viewpoint, and more about just something that made them feel better—hope, inspiration, being uplifted. Those are some of the main differences from mainstream music. When you think Christian music, you hear more scriptural references a lot of times, and at other times there are just lyrics that feel good and make one think that they can be better, but it may not be as steeped in a scriptural, religious perspective.
Those kinds of moments are meaningful for people of all faiths because ultimately if you are a person of any faith, you believe in something higher than yourself. And whatever you're drawing from in those songs, it's probably a lyrical difference from mainstream, and less a musical one. I don't know that we would say that the music is the dictator of what is defining the sound. We've had that moment. What does gospel sound like? Because we can't really pinpoint a specific sound and say, “Oh, this is gospel or not.” There are always exceptions to the rule. You may be listening to some gospel that lends itself to be more bluesy. It may lend itself to be more jazzy. It could lend itself to be more traditional. There are a lot of differences, from a stylistic perspective, as to what the sound could lend itself to.
I absolutely believe day-to-day they we're walking hand in hand with people of all faiths and backgrounds that are doing great jobs in whatever part they bring to the table, from production to different promoters that bring about events to their cities. They may or may not be decidedly Christian, but they want to bring something that's positive to their communities, and they want to bring something that inspires people to think higher and better. That's the kind of music that they want to be a part of what they're doing.
“Secular,” to me, is probably very clear for people who are not of any faith background. I also do a lot of mentoring with producers and writers and musicians. And there's a misnomer that most of them that play and write for other genres outside of the Christian gospel space, that they've lost their church, they've lost their faith because they've lost their way. I've had R&B singers that have decided to create gospel albums. At my company [Entertainment One], we do gospel as well as urban adult contemporary music. And we do have quite a few artists that sing rhythm and blues and that's what they do. But they don't refer to themselves as “secular” because they're not secular artists. Secular means without God. And they're still Christian, even though they may be singing rhythm and blues or soul or classic jazz or something that's not a faith-based entry point for them into the music space. We have a number of musicians and writers as well as artists that may not be singing Christian music, but we refer to them as mainstream artists or just rhythm and blues or soul, as opposed to saying secular. More times than not, most all of them are beating us to church on Sunday morning, or are practicing their faith outside of the four walls of the church. It requires some intentionality, to see people for what they do bring, and for who they say they are. One of the things that I do believe about what the music does, what music has an opportunity to do, is prove to us that we really are more closely related and closer in kinship than we are different. There's more of a commonality that we could probably find throughout the threads of all the different styles of music. And they all lead themselves back to the foundation of this art form that we call Christian and gospel music.
john j. thompson: When I say I don't believe in “secular music,” I mean that I don't believe secular music exists: all music is inherently spiritual in some point or another. Even a cheeseburger ad is effective, I think, because it has a spiritual essence to it. It's how we use that spirituality that's either honorable or not. But I agree with everything Gina said. There's tolerance and there's diversity. There's also plenty of people in our community that, for example, if you're not Presbyterian enough for them, then you're not saved and you're not Christian. There's plenty of super-judgmental, hyper-judging people that are going to say, “It doesn't matter if you're another religion,” you could even be Christian, just not quite the right shade of Christian for them. I don't think that's any different than any other group of people, you're going to have folks on all ends of the spectrum.
Back to what Jackie said at the beginning about the nature of Christian and gospel music: this is a type of music that's really defined by its lyric. It's also defined by its intent, and that's what the lyrics come out of, is intent. There's a missional aspect to Christian and gospel music. It's written with a certain intent. If someone doesn't share that missional intent, they're going to have to at least understand that that is the intent. There are plenty of people that I've known and worked with in the industry that say they're not necessarily Christians. Maybe they don't know what they believe, but they're down with the intent—they're down with the mission, and that's cool. A couple of times I bumped up against people that get really cynical and jaded and bitter and I'm like, “Why are you here? This is what the intent is. Everybody said the bus was going to Cleveland. Why are you bitching that we're going to Cleveland?”
audience question: There's also the question of the audience, or demographic marketing. I remember hearing, in the early 2000s, two very different versions of the song “Let it Rise.” It was the exact same song but two very different recordings, clearly intended for different listenerships. I was wondering if you could speak to that, because that's something that the contemporary Christian industry does differently from what we often find in the mainstream business.
dean diehl: We're going to see even more of that than ever before because as we move into streaming, we're becoming much more of a song-oriented business. That's not just Christian music. All music across the board is becoming much more song-driven rather than artist- or album-driven. Just sit with a teenager sometime and let them DJ for you while you're driving and just keep asking them over and over again, irritatingly, “What artist is that? What artist is that? What is that?” “I don't know, I don't know, I don't know,” they'll say, because they're into songs.
One of the things that's been an innovation since I've been with Sony is that we talk about “song-based marketing,” where the song really is the star, and we'll produce multiple versions. We had a song last year called “Hills and Valleys” by an artist named Tauren Wells. We probably released five different versions of it. And the reason you do it is because one version gets on this playlist, and now we've got access to these 300,000 listeners. Now another one shows up on this other playlist and that's another 150,000. This playlist over here, this one's got half a million followers, if we just had a version with cowbell, boom, we're in. We are developing song-based marketing strategies that are almost like Motown back in the day—when they would have a big song, all of their artists cut it. And we're doing more on these big worship songs, like this song called “Tremble” from a group called Mosaic. I want at least five of our artists to do a cover of “Tremble” in the next six months and put it out. Because it's at the song level that you really can blow things up much easier.
I can make you love a song in 30 seconds. How long does it take to make you love an artist? But if I can make you a fan of a song, I can monetize that at a much higher level than an album because it's all about driving numbers now. I got to get you to listen to it over and over again for a really long period of time. I don't care if you listen to the whole album or just one song over and over again. I get the money the same way. So, I'm going to work the songs.
john j. thompson: There's also the fact that the genres are blurring. They're not as siloed as they were.
dean diehl: There's going to be no genre. Genre's going to exist on our side of the table. But on the consumer side, genres disappear.
john j. thompson: My 13-year-old, Simon, loves classic rock and Guardians of the Galaxy. A movie like that comes out with nothing but '70s music, and you've got little kids that are going, “Okay, I need more Electric Light Orchestra in my life, dad.” And you go, “Yes, you do.” And I go to my vinyl collection and I pull out all my ELO records and I go, “Here you go.” And the genre lines, whether it's black and white and Hispanic, those don't exist to millennials and younger. Those are vestiges of a bygone era. And streaming, there are no separate radio stations. There are no separate record stores. There are no nothing. There's zero divide. And when the kids start building the playlist and following each other's playlist and you've got the Bachman Turner Overdrive version of something followed by the Prince version of something, it's all going to go away.
gina miller: I had a long conversation with our film and television crew last week. They're looking for a song for a movie that's going to be the gospel song or the Christian song. That's cool, I appreciate that. But I also am trying to train them to consider some of the other music that they need as well because I have a whole crew of musicians that can play anything. They're on the road with country artists week in, week out. They're on the road with pop artists week in, week out. One of our producers is on the road with [hip hop artist] Dontre right now. A lot of these guys have their teeth clenched in other genres and work for high-level artists outside of the Christian space in which they're connected to me. And a lot of them have trained even beyond that and have a level of expertise that they can absolutely score a movie that could rival John Williams. So, I would also add to this conversation to not take at face value the idea that you can only do Christian or gospel music. Just give us the benefit of the doubt and not exclude us from the conversation before asking if something is a possibility for anyone in our camp.
john j. thompson: I think the industry is realizing that. And that's cool, because the kids are leading it. So, Dean, hearing that you guys are doing five versions of a song—the industry is just going to follow what the market demands. They're not going to sit there and demand that kids only listen to a certain style of music. Streaming provides pretty instant results. They're going to see it overnight. If people are streaming a certain version of a certain song, they get instant results. There's no mystery. But you could play a song on the radio and not have any idea what people think of it or how many people really heard it. But with streaming, you know right away how many people listened, how long they listened to the song, and how many times they played it. You get a lot of instant market research.
audience question: I'm curious about the promotion side of things. What is it that a Christian radio station is trying to sell? What is it that your station contacts are trying to draw listeners to?
chris hauser: A couple of the big marketing phrases that they use draws listeners. K-LOVE says, “Positive, encouraging.” The Salem market stations, which are “Fish” format around the country, they say, “Safe for the whole family,” or, “Safe for the little ears.” So, they're saying that we won't be talking about anything that's going to embarrass your kids in the back seat or embarrass the parents. But I don't see it as what are they trying to sell, rather that they're trying to keep people. They're trying to have songs on the air that keep people engaged and not wanting to punch out to Rush Limbaugh or another station. Because there's more and more competition. So, they're trying to have the best songs, and they are increasingly restricted to very tight playlists. The radio stations' program directors will say, “Our audience doesn't know what they like. They like what they know. If we tighten our playlist from twenty-two current hits down to twelve or fourteen currents, then listeners are hearing songs they know and they're not going to be tempted to tune out of it.” That makes things very, very challenging for us in the label world to break new artists. But it does happen because sometimes the songs are just good enough, great enough that they break through.
dean diehl: Christians have strong brand affinity, which helps when we talk to people to sponsor tours or to buy ads on radio stations. If a Christian sees a brand as friendly to Christians, they tend to be intensely loyal back to that brand. When Christian commercial radio stations are talking to brands, they tell them that if you can warm up to this demographic, they will be intensely loyal and will choose you over your competition because you were on the Christian radio station. They affiliate. Christianity is a lifestyle brand. We used to have these Christian bookstores where you walk in and they've got books and movies and gifts and music; it's like an entire lifestyle in a store.
When you're selling a lifestyle brand, that's a strong appeal to advertisers who are willing to risk alienating people that would be offended by them cozying up to Christians. There are some brands that can do that easier than others. One of the famous ones right now is [fast food company] Chick-fil-A. Chick-fil-A has been very loyal to the Christian industry, and Christians are very loyal to Chick-fil-A for a simple thing: because they close on Sundays and they play Christian music in a lot of their restaurants. That's the kind of affinity that advertisers want, that they can cozy up to that lifestyle.
john j. thompson: In Chicago, where I grew up, WLUP was cutting-edge radio when I was a kid, on the talk side, and the humor side as well as on the music side. And then it just slid into playing boring old classic rock, whatever, and no one cared, because if that's what you want to listen to, there's plenty of options and who cares about WLUP. It lost its reason to be, and now it's K-LOVE. Christian radio, I predict, is going to have a huge problem if they keep this existing M.O. My grandmother in her nineties can now stream music on her iPad while she's playing Wheel of Fortune on it. My parents in their seventies are streaming music on their iPads with ease now. They don't need my help anymore doing it. This is permeating older and older, and getting easier and easier and more intuitive for people to do, and the technology is becoming more seamless. Now, I'm out doing chores in the yard and I'm listening in my Bluetooth earbuds, and then I get in the car to run to Home Depot and whatever I was listening to on a podcast or Spotify starts playing in my car. And then when I get out, it starts playing on my earbuds again, and then it starts playing in my car again and then back in my earbuds. As that stuff seamlessly starts working, the old guard has a real problem on their hands because we can start curating our own thing or finding other trusted voices to curate it for us.
But the problem is that Chris's radio programmers are right, I think, that sometimes listeners don't know—if it's left to us listeners to decide what to play, we tend to go with stuff we already know. We're fatigued when it comes to thinking about new stuff, but we do want somebody else to curate for us. We want serendipity, we want happy accidents, we want to be enchanted by things. Finding that balance between serendipity and comfort—that's where we've got the potential for a technological innovation or disruptor to completely change the game.
Christian music is not any different than classic rock or easy listening or anything else. It's facing the same challenges that all of them face. But the twist is that there's a missional component. People are listening to Christian music because it spiritually enhances their life. But when we have access to all the songs ever recorded, the question is going to be, who emerges as the trusted voices to coalesce those things? As the younger generation comes up without those genre boundaries and limitations, they're going to want to listen to gospel music, right next to worship music, right next to 21 Pilots, right next to old stuff, right next to new stuff. That is going to be the next wave of what happens with Christian and gospel music. And I'm excited because I think that's going to be a total game changer for the whole industry. That's when the rest of the world will start to rethink the way they've prejudged the validity or the relevance of Christian and gospel music. Because then the best of the best stuff can actually rise up to the top. That's what people will experience. And I don't think that's necessarily what people always experience when they encounter what is marketed as Christian and gospel music.