Wednesday, February 15, 2006

CCM and Broken Plaster

This is something I wrote on an early Internet newsgroup, oh, about 16 years ago. In some ways I've changed. In other ways I haven't. Here is one area where my views have not changed.

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The CCM industry, like every other industry, exists to make money. We can put a noble face on it and talk about the Christian witness provided in the music, but historically those Christian musicians whose witness hasn't led to increased album sales don't get the chance to keep on witnessing via recorded music. The bottom line is and always has been this: witness all you like, and be as artistic as you like, as long as you make money.

Certain concepts are intrinsic to the operation of the CCM industry, namely that Christian music is a ministry, and Christian musicians are ministers (in the church leadership sense) who are accorded the same privileges and responsibilities as pastors. I think these are highly debatable assumptions, but for argument's sake let's assume that they're true. My question, then, is this: is there something inherent in those assumptions that would promote and lead to higher profits in the CCM industry?

I would argue that there is. The alternative to the "ministry" view is that Christian musicians are Christians with musical abilities. Nothing more and nothing less. They compete in the marketplace with other people with musical abilities, some of whom are Christians and some of whom are not. However, CCM labels are at a distinct disadvantage in this competition. Their CDs sell for, on average, $15 - $16, while those of their competition (non-CCM labels, or, if you prefer, secular labels) sell for, on average, $12 - $13. How, then, do you convince the music-buying public to pay that extra $3 per CD?

I think you do it by promoting the uniqueness and the exclusive nature of Christian music. CCM musicians are more than Christians with guitars. They're ministers. They're annointed. They're called by God. They feature evangelistic messages designed to lead people to God (this despite the fact that the overwhelming evidence shows that it is Christians, not non-Christians, who listen to CCM). Furthermore, those musicians who don't record for CCM labels are *not* ministers. They may be Christians, but they haven't been zapped in the same way. This is the special "oooomph" that CCM needs to compete in the marketplace. Never mind that Brother X might be a brand new Christian who was signed because of his abilities to sing, play the guitar, and string together rhyming words like "loss" and "cross." If he records for Word or Myrrh then he's a minister.

How do you get people to buy this stuff? You simply tell them that the music is annointed. You emphasize the (false) dichotomy between "Christian" music and "worldly" music. You carefully control your product so that only overtly religious material or upbeat, wholesome material is released. You carefully control your artists so that they are presented as larger than life and Superstars of Holiness, and you ensure at all costs that their sins are kept hidden from their followers. And if one of them slips up and lets his sin become known, you have no choice but to boot him out of the club. How do you justify the extra $3. Simple. You tell people that they're not only getting music, but music from Giants of the Faith. And God help the poor wretch who doesn't live up to the image.

More and more I believe that the CCM world is absolutely based on a lie. That's not to say that God can't and won't use it. He does. But He uses it in spite of the wrong motives and untruthful messages, not because of them. The vast majority of CCM artists are no different from you or me except in one area: they have musical abilities. Setting them on a pedestal will inevitably lead to broken plaster. It also leads to bigger bucks for the CCM labels. These profits are made at the cost of the truth and the lives of those who swallow the whole pathetic charade. Is it worth it?

27 comments:

teddy dellesky said...
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bd said...

how about boycotting CCM craptastic music?

Mark K said...

Andy,

I saw your post on John M's blog about Larry Norman. While I agree some of his songs may lack a certain artistic quality, he was an early pioneer in the field. When faced with the choices of traditional gospel, the Bill Gaither Trio, Andre Crouch, and Larry Norman, the young Christian who wants Christian rock is forced to pick Larry, however embarrassed he may be today for doing so.

Andy Whitman said...

Mark, no disrespect toward Larry intended. I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Larry Norman. And even though he fits within the CCM realm, I never saw him adopt the happy/clappy Christian worldview that plagued (plagues?) so much of CCM. The very fact that he references "Jesus" and "Gonorrhea" in the same song (the one I quoted) is proof of that.

He's guilty of recyling his songs about 50 times, but at least they were good songs worth recycling.

Mark K said...

Sadly, I think Larry has brain chemistry issues (I think I've heard he's bipolar). Hey, you'd be the guy to ask about that, do you know anything?

Andy Whitman said...

I've heard that rumor. And I've heard that he's had multiple heart attacks, and that he's hanging on to life by a thread. And I've head that he led Bob Dylan to Jesus (a claim Dylan denies), and that he invented rap (cough), and a million other things.

I'll put it this way. Larry Norman has proven multiple times that he may not be the most reliable source for information about Larry Norman. I don't know what the truth is there. Maybe Jeff C. has more reliable and up-to-date information.

mommy zabs said...

Hmmmmm. Very good and challanging words. I wish so much that I were able to write well and fully respond to this post in an eloquent way. Instead, i have scattered thoughs... some that want to stand up and give you an AMEN! and some that want to defend CERTAIN (only certain) aspects of the industry... or maybe just certain people in it.

I struggle with getting jaded at the industry myself. In most respects I don't understand whey there has to be a ccm and then a general market industry. I think the concept is quite silly. Music should be taken in as music. But I think in some ways it is what came first the chicken or the egg?

The industry was partially formed as such because of the people with in the mainstream church that want to feel "safe" about music and artists. Instead of having to think, explore, digest,and analyze music that is out in the general market. They feel if they go to the christian store they can be "safe" and therefore not have to pay attention to what there kids listen to and so on.

This is also true when Church's book musicians. So many are calling looking for someone who is "safe". And then once they feel they are "safe" they assume they are some annointed special higher than them minister.... which as you stated is really not a given what so ever. God uses words of truth despite that... but there are many cases where these are the very people that have lost sight of God and have more of the spirit of a "celebrity".... yuck.

I do agree that the CCM industry monopolizes on this narrow minded thinking. It's like they saw the opportunity and took it. Often some of the more outskirtish, non-mainstream of christian music does not sell as well (unless they "cross over") b/c it is the music churches and shiney happy Christians feel is to unsafe, maybe the number of times they say JESUS in their songs is low or something :). Maybe being 10 years behind the sound of the general market industry is 'safer' for some reason. Baffles me.

All this being said. There are certainly those within CCM that believe in what they are doing, and at times are lights in the very darkness of the Christian industry. I have met a few that I have a deep sense of respect for. I still know they are all regular joes... but they are good people and i can not lump them in with the gross parts of the industry. (including my husband)

I do fight often getting bitter and jaded having been in and surrounded by the industry. I try not to share it too much simply because sometimes I wonder that everyone needs to know how ugly it does get???? I mean maybe if they are ministered to by the music that is enough. I don't need to shatter their bubble and ruin it for them... but since you brought it up :)

Also, On the note of cost... I really would need to double check on this... but i'm rather positive that if you buy a christian cd at walmart or best buy that the cost is lower... i think it is the bookstore market that marks it up because they make much more prophet on a book... and therefore are not satisfied with the normal market on music. but like I said I would have to confirm this.

zena said...

andy,

on an unrelated note. would you drop me a line through my blog page so that we can email you directly about getting lunch whilst in columbus town?

thanks,
z

John McCollum said...

"the young Christian who wants Christian rock is forced to pick Larry, however embarrassed he may be today for doing so."

Mark,

I'd argue that most young Christians who 'want Christian rock' only want it because they've been told that secular rock is patently and categorically ungodly.

I think that, unless you're looking for worship songs (which I would put into a whole other category), CCM is usually an imitation offered to guilt-ridden Christian kids who have been denied the real thing.

That having been said, I love Larry Norman. I'm an almost-fully recovered legalist, and I can listen to whatever I like, but still spin Larry's tunes on a regular basis.

Andy Whitman said...
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Andy Whitman said...

Elizabeth, thanks very much for your comments. You know, I don't doubt at all that there are good people within CCM; probably many of them, in fact. So when you read "CCM" in my comments, please interpret that to mean the industry in general, not every single person within the industry. I got to hang out a bit with one of those good people, your husband Jeff, a couple nights ago at the Sigur Ros concert, and I enjoyed that very much.

You wrote something that I thought was very telling:

"The industry was partially formed as such because of the people with in the mainstream church that want to feel "safe" about music and artists. Instead of having to think, explore, digest,and analyze music that is out in the general market. They feel if they go to the christian store they can be "safe" and therefore not have to pay attention to what there kids listen to and so on."

I think this is very true. And I understand the appeal, both as someone who can be sucked into the world's thinking, and as the parent of children I genuinely want to protect.

Unfortunately, I don't know if such a place exists, even in a Christian bookstore. Ironically, I find a lot of CCM to be more "false" (from the standpoint of not being biblically true to the fallen world we live in) than a lot of so-called "secular" music. It's more informed by Walt Disney and Little House on the Prairie than by the Bible.

This is a tough issue, and I recognize that different people will come to different conclusions about the best way to do this, but it seems to me that one of our primary goals is to let our faith inform every area of our lives. For example, I think it's ultimately better to learn to think as a Christian about issues such as sexuality, politics, economics, the arts, etc. than it is to ignore those issues in favor of a safe and non-controversial message.

Sure, I realize that parenting imposes its own concerns on this process, and no sane parent is going to expose his or her kids to every aspect of our current culture. We certainly can and should protect our kids from some things. But ultimately, even there, our goal is to raise up kids who have learned to think as Christians about every part of their lives and every part of our culture, including those parts that are not wholesome, but which have to be dealt with.

I guess where I ultimately come down is that the notion of "safe" art is a myth. The best art often challenges us, makes us feel uncomfortable, makes us see life in a new way. It is not safe. And that's a good thing. Certainly Christians can participate in this process, and I will tell you that even though I listen to music from people from every philosophical/religious/non-religious background imaginable, much of the art that I hold most dear has been made by Christians. But ultimately "safety" is pretty far down my list of desirable qualities.

Jeff (your brother, not your husband) is fond of calling us to get out of our comfort zones and to get dirty, engage life in all its complexity and confusion and, at times, ugliness. And to do it as Christians. I agree with him, and I'm looking for music that does the same thing. Unfortunately, much of CCM does not seem to be interested in moving in that direction. So I'm torn. There is a part of me that recognizes that good people, and good musicians/bands have come out of CCM. I believe that. And there is another part of me that wants to blow it all up, the whole industry, and encourage Christian musicians to see the big picture, and to make music that reflects their love of Jesus and how that impacts their love lives, their disappointments and sorrows, their dreams, their careers, their marriages and their parenting, their encounters with a desperate and fallen world, with the sin that still resides in them and battles for supremacy, everything. Just blow it up and start all over again, and learn from the lessons of the past and leave the concert altar calls and puppy and kitty posters and Precious Moments figurines behind. But that's just me.

Mark K said...

John,

"the young Christian who wants Christian rock is forced to pick Larry, however embarrassed he may be today for doing so." is a reference to myself back in the day (the mid 1970s). [I know, I know, you weren't born or were 2 years old or whatever, I'll stipulate that I'm old.]

I ran in different circles than you. I was buying Larry Norman one day and Hendrix the next.

Mike Grimm said...

Andy,

Thanks for the thoughtful comments on CCM. It reminds me of how Mark Heard felt about the industry. There's a story in his biography about a CCM executive telling him that if he could just refer to Jesus (or the Holy Spirit, or whatever) a few times per song that he'd be a lot more marketable. So Mark wrote some pap using all of the right words and the executive was happy, but of course Mark never would have recorded it.

Can you post a link to John M.'s blog about Larry Norman so I can read it. He wasn't my first intro to CCM (that was DeGarmo & Key and Daniel Amos), but he was an early one.

Oh, regarding Larry and the bipolar comment. In the liner notes to Larry's album Home At Last, the writer says that in 1978 Larry was on a plane that was landing in LA, and the luggage compartment above his head fell onto his head. Later it was determined that he had suffered a "bi-polar trauma", which I take to mean an injury to his brain, rather than bipolar disorder, a chemical imbalance.

mommy zabs said...

Andy,
I seriously could not agree more on just about every word you wrote in your last comment. I feel the same mixed emotions. It is easier probably for me to have less grace and judge those parents who have chosen the non-thinking "safety" theory since I have babies and not teenagers. I know having teenagers it has to be much harder when everything in you wants to guard your child. I hope I will react differently though. My mother did something I hope I will always bring into my relationship with my children. She always engaged in dialog with me. I was never forbidden from music or art of any sort... but we talked through it often. We pretty much discussed most of the "grey" issues and she always encouraged me to seek God and go to the word. Even in my dress, which she didn't approve of at all times, she asked me what message am I wanting to send out... was what I was wearing consistant with that. And so on... Because of this I think she raised a critical thinker. I find myself drawn to people that think certain things are just "bad" and I love to challange it... I have sure made my share of mistakes at times in working things all out, and i am sure I will continue to make mistakes. I think it is so cool how God tells us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Its about our hearts and our desire to please him more than what lines we end up drawing. I hope that all makes sense. It does in my head :) I'm basically saying in all this that I totally agree with you. I would rather err on the side of working it out. Oh and- I agree, much of what we find in the christian stores is less based on the bible and more on "walt disney and little house". Some of my favorite worship is actually general market music. Life houses first cd... and Moby for starters. (moby doesn't claim he is making worship, it's just worshipful to me, because it is pretty...)
Very Very good topic.

bd said...

Mark Salomon (Stavesacre, The Crucified) wrote some words of wisdom in his book Simplicity, an extended treatise on the "mire for pigs to wallow and root and suffer in" that the CCM industry has become:

This room is not a place that encourages or even values the things we are supposed to hold as precious and sacred. You should get out now, save what is worth saving—if in fact you can find anything of the sort—and get out. Get out and help with the gasoline and the matches...And knowing that side, knowing how that side treats all those guilty of treason, you find that it not only feels right to turn your back on it, but it feels even better to join the other side and start fighting the true good fight. Because the fact is: The side you’ve been backing is bad—probably evil...There is joy out there; it’s rare—but when found, it’s refined and
held high as gold. Here, in this dusty, dry, old room, joy has been marketed, prostituted, and sold for a shameful pittance.


Read the first Chapter of Simplicity (PDF link)

Get your own copy of Simplicity from Zambooie (2nd edition)


And Macbre Schwab from Project86 has some interesting points to be read in We Caught You Plotting Murder and Do Not Disturb.


Personally, I feel that much of the mire of CCM has been caused by a consumeristic church (speaking of the church on a very macro level) where there is an emphasis on "merit badge earning", resume building, and looking the part. It's important to have the right music to go with the khaki pants and polo shirts.

Andy Whitman said...

Elizabeth wrote:

"Some of my favorite worship is actually general market music. Life houses first cd... and Moby for starters. (moby doesn't claim he is making worship, it's just worshipful to me, because it is pretty...)"

Sure, that makes perfect sense to me. Music touches places in our souls that nothing else can reach. And it doesn't have to be overtly Christian (although it can be, and I have no objection to worship music per se) to elict the kind of response you're talking about.

In fact, I talked for an hour and a half at a recent music conference at Messiah College in Pennsylvania about searching for the music that does exactly what you're describing.

Each person's list will be different, but when you find music that evokes a sense of wonder and awe, longing and yearning, whatever it is that makes you feel small and God look big, latch on to it and hold on tight. That's pure gold.

For me the music of Sigur Ros does it for me fairly consistently. It's incredibly, powerfully soaring and beautiful. And although it's dangerous to speak of a universal response to music, I've talked to so many people who have the same reaction to Sigur Ros that I think there may be something to the notion that their music has a spiritual quality that most people pick up on. Monday's concert was a prime example. A lot of people emerged from it and talked about worshipping God. Does the band intend their music to be used for such purposes? I have no idea, but probably not. But God uses it for his own purposes anyway.

So yeah, listen to Lifehouse and Moby and whoever else elicits that response. That's a great thing, and worth pursuing.

Amanda said...

It seems to me that you have vastly overgeneralized here. While there are flaws in CCM, you can't presume to know the hearts of the musicians. Yes, CCM artists are Christians who are musical. But, for the most part, they have chosen to take their God given gift and use it to honor and glorify God. Have you ever been to a CCM concert? The events are more than "concerts." They're outreach ministries. I've seen people give their life to Christ as a result of one of these events.

And I realize that not every artist or group who chooses to identify themselves as CCM artist are doing it for God. Yes, some are doing it for their own glory or for the money. But you will find that in every industry out there. You will even find that among pastors.

Andy Whitman said...

Mandi, thanks for your comments. Yes, I've been to many CCM concerts. I suspect we're coming from very different places, so I'll leave it at that.

2 K's are Better Than 1 said...

Andy,

After spending a brief time in and around the Nash-vegas CCM scene - I couldn't agree with you more. Better to be honest and call a spade a spade - it doesn't take away from an artists sincerity it just makes them a bit more fallible.... imagine that?

mommy zabs said...

sounds like that concert monday was amazing. Amy Paxton and I went to a moby show at Newport probably 6 or so years ago. We left feel like we encountered God. It was so amazing. I love what people can do with sound.

Peter Pant said...

Speaking as a strict non-christian, I look at the topic from a completely different perspective than what I've read on here. Take my perspective or leave it as you will.

The primary flaw with Christian music is that it attempts to cater to a singular group: Christians. Please understand that I only find one major flaw with this line of reasoning: most people existing on this planet are Non-Christians and simply do not have the same mindset as Christians. To understand this, listen to secular vs nonsecular music. Read a nonsecular book, visit a nonsecular play, or just listen to nonchristians talk. We talk, act, and quite simply think differently from you.

That being said, how is a business going to create profits in a finite marketplace? By my mind, they have 2 choices: either minimialize the differences or accentuate them. I believe they have chosen the latter, basing that choice on the narrowness of Christian thinking as percieved by the world at large. This perception has created the Christian music system as you see it today; a system that does not reach and will never reach those like myself. We simply don't relate to these songs.

I can honestly say that I have not knowingly listened to Mr. Norman, but have listened to a number of Christian artists and have found the songs to be basically the same thing, simply regurgitated with a slightly different sound and synonomous wording. While this is unfair (as it is stereotyping), it is nontheless the reputation that Christians have built for themselves, by themselves, to the nonchristian community.

I have enjoyed the perspectives offered in many of the comments listed here (including yours) and hope that Christian artists can stop preaching and start talking. Us Non-Christians relate alot better to that kind of thing.

jackscrow said...

"Christian Music" as it is, hasn't had a good, original/non-conformist singer/songwriter since Rich Mullins. bless his soul.

I stopped listening to the overproduced unoriginal product years ago. It galls me when I search the dial and land on a station and hear the bland, mainstream copies that passes for "Christian" music. I've gotten to the point where I can't even listen to the "kareoke" cd-backed solos they sing in church.

I kept the faith and left the cliche ridden crap behind.

I've been listening to people like John Gorka, Cheryl Wheeler, Todd Snider, John Prine, and many others who write and play their own music. And for my gospel fix, the Holmes Brothers, Fairfield Five and others.

Of course Bruce Cockburn could be considered "fringe Christian", but I don't think that he would like the label.

Awright, guess I've vented.

"Got to kick at the darkness 'til it bleeds daylight." - Bruce Cockburn

Phil said...

Andy, very interesting and thoughtful post for me as an aspiring "Christian musician/songwriter". I'm just curious? What do you think of the David Crowder Band? Do you think they're bucking the trend at all, or do they share some of the same tired characteristics that you've described?

Fred Kohn said...

The other day somebody mentioned that a certain song at a certain concert sent chills up and down their spine. It occurred to me that that hadn't happened to me in a long time. But as I thought about it, I realized I was wrong. It probably happened a couple of times this year, although I probably listen to a lot less music than most of youse guys.

Andy, how many times a year would you estimate you have the "chills" experience?

Cameron Lawrence said...

Andy, just happened to search for your name as a result of enjoying what you've written for Paste.

You're right: safe art is a myth. How does keeping things safe convey the power, majesty, and wonder of God's Kingdom? How about the character of its King?

This is why I love the work of David Eugene Edwards, and the Danielson Famile. It challenges and even frightens me a tiny bit in places, but in a beautiful, inspiring way. I'm thirsty for more art to be made this way.

Anonymous said...

Christian music is to be defined by the lyrics, not the musical style. The only difference between contemporary Christian music and hymns is the musical style. There is no reason to be angry with someone for playing or listening to contemporary Christian music. Many churches have split over insignificant issues of taste such as this. The lyrics make it worthwhile Christian music.

Anonymous said...

I found this in an online article about Charles Wesley:

"There was another aspect of the early Methodist worship service, and that is the singing. A selection of Charles' hymns was first published in 1739. Charles worked with many composers to find just the appropriate tune for his hymns. Many were German chorales, classical and popular melodies, and new psalm tunes. They became popular."

With that text in mind I say that I think the CCM artist do just what Charles Wesley did, and that is make songs popular. How many CCM songs are now found in churches across America? How many priase songs would we sing without Twila Paris, Rich Mullins, Matt Redmen? Maybe the success in the CCM world is God working in their "business" if you will. And, as far as higher cost for CD's, thats only found in an independent Christian Book store. Check out Best Buy, or online at itunes, and find the same price on ALL cds.

Thats all I have to say.