Some cultural phenomena-rock music, for example-seem to die once a decade. Now veterans of the Christian music industry are asking whether Christian rock is dead.
Fueling the speculation was CCM magazine's announcement last month that it will discontinue its print edition in April, on the 30th anniversary of its first issue in 1978. The press statement announced that CCM readers "want information faster than a print magazine can deliver" and explained the folding of the print magazine as an intentional move to allow CCM to put its energy into online content. CCM for much of its history set the trends and made the brand among Christian youth, but over the past few years the magazine has fought a losing battle for audience.
On its face, the transformation from print to web is unremarkable: Print magazines of all stripes struggle to survive in the new media environment. But in addition to triggering media evolution, technology has contributed to the diminishing of CCM's prime readership. Thousands of artists-including Christian musicians uncomfortable with following a formula-now self-market their music. With such a selection available, including many popular choices that lack traditionally offensive content, many Christians no longer rely on Christian bookstore fare.
A desire to move out of the evangelical subculture also hurt Christian music publications. On Christian college campuses and in church youth groups where CCM used to circulate, copies of Paste or references to Pitchfork Media are now more common. More Christians are getting music information from the same places as their secular counterparts. Some Christian bands like Casting Crowns, a Grammy nominee, are still popular, but many Christian artists don't want to be in a separate "Christian music" industry, and many young Christian fans aren't primarily interested in the music that used to be called Christian rock.
CCM belatedly caught on to these trends, announcing last May that the magazine would change its name from "Contemporary Christian Music" to "Christ. Community. Music." Editors broadened its focus to include "Christian worldview music"-music made by Christians but not necessarily intended for an exclusively evangelical audience. The magazine had previously covered only music with explicit religious content, a perennial annoyance to Christian artists who believed music should incorporate all aspects of life and creation without forced utterances of Jesus' name or clichéd religious imagery.
The magazine's new incarnation was a step in the right direction but was too little too late-even "Christian worldview music" is a scope too narrow to attract some young evangelical music consumers. The broader coverage allowed CCM to benefit from the success of artists like Sufjan Stevens, but it also instantly associated him with the "faith brand," a characterization that many Christian musicians-including Stevens and The Fray-persistently resist. Individually, they contend, they are followers of Christ. Professionally, they are serious musicians who strive to be appreciated because they make great music for all kinds of people.
At CCM, even in its newer, more "relevant" incarnation, artists still gained applause more for being popular, successful Christians than for being excellent musicians. Thus even the new CCM didn't necessarily appeal to the best Christian artists, many of whom are trying to avoid the "Christian music" label that they think makes them guilty by association with the disposable, imitative art that they see as common in the evangelical subculture.
CCM's Christian music coverage will still be around, but the magazine will have to work especially hard to succeed in the competitive, crowded world of internet music journalism. Evangelicals who grew up with CCM are feeling at least a small wave of nostalgia for the publication that accompanied them through adolescence, but many are cheering on attempts of musicians and fans to break out of what had become an artistic bubble.
-David Sessions is the editor of Patrol magazine (patrolmag.com)