The future of Christian music has been murky at best for the past few years. With the decline of music sales in general, Christian music certainly hasn’t been exempt. But changes in technology, music piracy and overall declining sales shouldn’t shoulder all the blame.
Christian consumers are partly to blame. We don’t mind shelling out $75 or more for a front row seat to see Taylor Swift or U2, but we hesitate to lay down substantially less for a Christian concert. Justin Bieber sells over 300,000 units the first week his new CD is out. Meanwhile, an unbelievable street week for the average Christian artist is 30,000 in one week, and only the elite top tier established artists see numbers like this. Lack of artistry suddenly becomes a weak argument in light of new music from Switchfoot, NEEDTOBREATHE, Gungor and The Rend Collective, among others. And honesty? We’re finally wearing our hearts on our sleeves, not afraid to share our “junk.” Don’t get me wrong. I like mainstream music, too. And there’s nothing wrong with listening to secular music. I’m just saying that our actions need to match our words. We talk about how noble Christian musicians are and what a service their music provides. If that’s true, then we should be putting our money where our mouth is. We need to support Christian artists with our money by purchasing their music legally.
But lest you think this is a rant about music piracy, let’s take a hard look at our industry. Yes, technology is partly to blame, and consumers share some skin in the game, but the industry is also to blame. There’s some truth in the fact that some Christian music is sub-par when compared to its mainstream contemporaries. However, it’s not true of all Christian music, and I think any one would agree that over the last five years or more Christian artists have stepped up their game. There is more honesty emanating from the Christian music industry today than ever before. Artists are writing songs that are connecting with a broader number of people because listeners finally realize Christian artists are human. Christian artists are singing about all aspects of life. While there’s still plenty of room for improvement where Christian radio is concerned, radio is embracing more and more of these songs and artists committed to true artistry and raw songwriting.
So what’s the root of the problem? The real problem that threatens the future of Christian music is a lack of leadership. We want to build community, but we’ve lost a way to do that. The Gospel Music Association is doing the best they can and working hard to promote gospel music with what little they have, but with a handful of staff members and volunteers and even fewer financial resources, they don’t have a lot to work with. Even they acknowledge they’re hanging on by a thread.
But maybe we shouldn’t have ever depended on an association to bind us together in the first place. It’s time we make community a priority again. Where are all the label execs willing to step up and say that our system is broken? Where are all the Christian artists brave enough to stand up and be the first to lead by the example of their lives and the artistry they create? If Amy Grant, Steven Curtis Chapman, Michael W. Smith, and Kirk Franklin are some of today’s “trailblazers,” artists like Jeremy Camp, Third Day, Casting Crowns, TobyMac, Chris Tomlin, Natalie Grant and MercyMe learned by example and bravely carried their torches with integrity. While all of these artists are still making great music and continuing to carve their unique niche within the industry, the flame is waning. It’s waiting for someone to ignite it. With the exception of a few artists, there isn’t a strong new guard waiting in the wings to take the place of these stalwart leaders. Artists like Tenth Avenue North, Lecrae, Chris August, Brandon Heath, Francesca Battistelli, and Audrey Assad are a few of the young artists who show commitment to the industry. They are more than just flash-in-the-pan talent. They pour their heart into their music. When you listen to their songs, you see their soul. They lead with integrity. But even the brightest of these stars is finding their sales are suffering and radio play is hot and cold at best.
So what’s the answer? I don’t know. But I do know we’ve lost focus. Christ should be at the center of it all, but we need leaders intent on following Him who will step up, admit that there’s a problem and even admit that they can’t fix it. It’s going to take you and me supporting this industry by purchasing Christian music. It’s going to take artists working harder than ever before to make the best music they can possibly make and staying true to their calling, regardless of commercial success. It’s going to take A&R departments signing, not good, but the best new talent. The truth is, if one leader at a time emerged, willing to at least talk about a need for change, we might look up one day to find we had a strong “new guard” there all along. If Christian music wants a future, it’s going to take leaders with enough bravery to lead us there.
What do you think the root of the problem is? Who do you think are Christian music’s future leaders? What artists would you consider to be the “new guard” in Christian music?