Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Is "Christian" music dying?

tobyMac, originally uploaded by echobase_2000.

If you look at the headliners at some of this summer's Christian music festivals, you may wonder what year it is -- 2009 or 1999.

The top tier of Christian bands is largely unchanged over the last decade. Sure dc Talk is no longer together, but frontman tobyMac (pictured) keeps the Talk train moving. Another dc Talker now fronts the Newsboys.

Both acts will be playing this year's Sonshine Festival in Minnesota, a prime example of what's changed, and what hasn't.

Sonshine's headliners include Switchfoot, Skillet, and Relient K, all bands that are well-known in Christian circles.

That's not to say there aren't up and coming bands led by faith-fueled musicians. There are tons of them. It's just they're not following the path of the Newsboys. Like Switchfoot and Relient K, the new bands would rather be market of the general market music scene, not pigeonholed as Christian.

That's great for a festival like Cornerstone that I've been a part of. Cornerstone is more on the fringes of Christian music, and this year played host to plenty of bands that don't neatly fall in the confines of "Christian" music. Bands like Anberlin, Los Lonely Boys, Shiny Toy Guns, Underoath, and Family Force 5.

They're all bands you can download on iTunes, or if you still want a CD you can get it at Target or Best Buy. That's a big change from the '90s where new Christian acts had to get their CDs into Christian book stores.

For more than the last decade, many of the young bands whose members are Christians have gone around the Christian music industry.

That's why the headliners at festivals like Sonshine haven't changed much. New bands don't want to take their place as the top Christian bands. They'd rather be like Switchfoot with hits on pop radio.

Take Anberlin. They play the late night talk shows and chart on alternative rock radio. Or Underoath, a screamo band with plenty of mainstream credibility. They'll top the Billboard albums chart, headline the Warped Tour all summer, only taking a single pit stop to play Cornerstone.

That's the new paradigm. Make music not for the choir but music that goes to the corners of the earth, competing right alongside mainstream bands.

The Christian music industry may still have a place, if nothing else for worship music for the church. But it's probably not going to be what it was. That's not to say Christians aren't still making music. They are, and will. And we'll be better for it.


Anonymous said...

Are these bands who are on the fringes singing about a relationship with Christ, or just feel good boy/girl pap, or worse yet brooding, "I hate myself and the world" crap that bands like Nirvana were doing years ago?

These bands are on the fringes because they dislike the church and loathe authority.

Jerry Ray said...

Anonymous (if that's really your name ;-), I think the question to be asking is "what defines Christian music?" Is it simply "music by Christians" or is it "music that's explicitly about 'Christian things'?"

I grew up listening to music (like Petra) that falls into the latter category, and I think there's still room for stuff like that that's directly aimed at the church crowd (though a lot of it tends to be kind of "youth groupy" and not very good). I do still enjoy going back to that stuff on my iPod, though I have little interest in current CCM stuff.

But as I've gotten older, I find myself drawn more to bands on the fringes. A little digging to find evidence of truth in the lyrics is fun (and a lot of the music tends to be better, honestly). It's not all "feel good boy/girl pap," and it's not all brooding. (But if you eliminate the brooding and the feel good music, what's really left?)

And I think it's a huge, ill-informed leap to conclude that bands like Over the Rhine are on the fringes because they "dislike the church and loathe authority."