The Shady Business of Christian Music
Published on September 21, 2012
Everyone has fantasized about being a superstar at least once in their life. You see yourself walking onto a dimly lit stage amidst a cloud of dry-ice induced smoke as the crowd roars to life. Pyrotechnics explode all around you, sending the enthusiastic audience into a euphoric frenzy. By the end of the show, drenched in sweat, you make your final bow as the crowd screams its approval, then you run backstage to be whisked away in a limo to your extravagant hotel suite. Sounds awesome, doesn’t it?
Honestly, this scenario is only a small sliver of the music industry experience. Ninety percent of the music business is actually “business” and it is not pretty, which makes the concept even more interesting when you add the word “Christian” in front of the term “music business”.
Regardless of what you might think, the music industry is cutthroat and ruthless and that fact does not change just because your genre of choice is Christian music. I know that sounds pretty cynical and a little bitter, but allow me to explain.
Many years ago, when I was a member of a secular hip hop group, we ran into our share of shady individuals and even shadier business deals, but we assumed that was how the industry worked. After all, we had heard all the horror stories about artists who had been swindled out of their rightful earnings. We had done our research about label deals, publishing, points, etc., so we felt like we were fairly educated on the matter.
When we made the commitment to Christian music and began to do business with Christian folks, we really thought things were going to be different. Well, we should have known something was amiss the first time we had to strong-arm a promoter into paying our agreed-upon performance fee for an event. We should have assumed the worst the first time our set time got switched and shortened at the last minute because the promoter wanted her artist to get more stage time. Then again, it could have been the time that we were approached by a manager who ministered to us, then turned around and offered us a contract that would have given her forty percent of everything we earned. Let me reiterate that the people that committed these unsavory actions called themselves “Christian”.
The one incident that really hit home with me was when we participated in a contest at a music festival a few years ago. This particular festival was one of the premier Christian festivals in the United States and featured some of the biggest Christian artists on several stages. We signed up for the contest because we wanted the exposure and the winner would compete against winners from other festivals for a deal with a prominent record company. So we gathered up some money, drove to the festival, performed on the same stage where TobyMac, Group 1 Crew, and many other artists had also performed, and actually won the contest. We were scheduled to compete in the finals and things got strange soon after that.
Again, we gathered up some money and made yet another long trip. Our thought was that even if we did not win, this was still going to be a great opportunity. So we get there and the venue is filled to capacity with a plethora of artists, each representing different subgenres of Christian music ranging from techno, hip hop, and R&B to pop, rock, and so on. We were blown away by the huge amount of talent that was represented. We did our thing and once the other artists were done, we waited patiently for the A&R representative to give us the verdict. He walked onstage and said this:
“Hey, we really appreciate everyone for coming out and sharing your gifts with us; however, we are a CCM record label, so we are looking for CCM artists…”
With that one statement, I could sense the air escaping from a lot of the artists in the room. Just like us, they did not fit into the typical CCM mold and I am sure they were thinking the same thing we were thinking. We had scrounged up money for gas and a hotel room, travelled all those miles, and we never really had a shot. We were crushed not because we did not win, but because we were never going to be considered in the first place. If it had been disclosed that they were only looking for CCM artists, we would not have made the trip. To say that we were angry is a severe understatement.
So what’s my point? I think it’s pretty simple…Business is business. The label was looking for a CCM band because that is what brings in the most money. Christian record labels are just as concerned with the bottom line as any other label and they want to make a profit, too.
If you think about it, there is a definite parallel between stepping into the Christian music industry and becoming “saved” for the first time. When you accept Christ in your life, you assume that all Christians that you come in contact with are going to be Christian all the time. When you realize that is not true, you can become disillusioned.
Look, being a Christian does not mean you are suddenly perfect. It just means that you are forgiven for your imperfections by God’s grace. We are all flawed human beings and we tend to do flawed things from time to time. That does not necessarily mean that every person you come across has an ulterior motive.
During our travels as a group, we met Christian folks who lived up to the ideals of Christ and assisted us in ways you could not imagine. Some of them opened up their homes to us, fed us well, and lent financial assistance to our mission. As we grew in Christ, we learned to lean on our own discernment to decipher who was being real versus who was having a “flawed” moment.
As for the music business, it is what it is. Regardless of what genre you choose, you should do your research, be prepared, and protect your gift. Create a team around you that will genuinely support your mission. Above all, keep Christ first and allow Him to sharpen your discernment to help you navigate the music industry minefield.