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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Salt over sugar

Music | The digital revolution is helping to create a new age of Christian music

Issue: "Probing international adoption," Nov. 16, 2013

The strums of a guitar, the heartbeat of a kick drum fashioned out of a suitcase, and the intertwining harmony of husband-and-wife duo Jenny and Tyler Somers flood the living room in Simi Valley, Calif., where 35 people have gathered to hear them perform. During a lull in the music, indoor pet birds chirp in response and the room laughs. Tyler walks over to the kitchen for a glass of water, and Jenny talks to the crowd, asking for song recommendations and sharing stories of their 3-month-old baby.

They sing of their marriage, Jenny’s one-eyed cat, the struggles of their Christian walk, and hymns like “See the Conqueror.” Afterward the owners of the house invite everyone to mingle and enjoy cookies in their back porch.

This was just one of the 30 house concerts the duo Jenny & Tyler perform each year. Fans volunteer their homes and enjoy a dinner and concert with the musicians as attendees pay a $10 entrance fee.

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It’s a picture of a new age in Christian music. Artists are exploring different sounds, writing more honest lyrics, and discovering new ways of growing their fan bases thanks to the digital revolution. What was once the typical road to “making it”–getting signed to a major record label and relying on radio play to sell CDs–is being turned on its head with the emergence of iTunes and music sites like Spotify, Pandora, and YouTube.

For Christian artists, this means freedom from the set sound and content that has defined Christian Contemporary Music (CCM). From indie rock to electronica, country-folk to hip-hop, new bands are finding fans and speaking out about their faith. For some, success has come unexpectedly, as technology allows the rapid spread of songs written for Sunday morning services. Other artists become a jack-of-all-trades, producing and promoting their own music. 

Critics haven’t parsed words in describing CCM. Mark Driscoll of Seattle’s Mars Hill Church calls it “prom songs for Jesus.” Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins said on CNN, “Hey Christian rock, if you want to be good, stop copying U2. U2 already did it.” Dustin Kensrue, formerly of the rock band Thrice, said his biggest issue with CCM is its oftentimes sloppy, man-centered theology. “On top of all that, there’s a cheesiness to a lot of it that comes out of a sound that’s grown from the rest of culture,” he said.

In the early 2000s, Christian radio tried an edgier format with Christian Hit Radio (CHR). In 2003, Seth “Tower” Hurd, then 19, started working at a Chicago CHR station, Shine.FM, thinking he’d found a career that he’d dedicate the next 20 years of his life to.

But over the next decade, things started to change. The rock and hip-hop-infused Christian music didn’t jive with affluent donors. Christian radio, which is funded by donations rather than ad space, realized it couldn’t make money off of the CHR format. At the same time, major secular corporations like Capitol Records bought out Christian labels, shifting the focus from missions to profits. “Artists were pushed to write songs specifically for the soccer mom or they were just dropped and had to find a new way to get music out there,” is how Hurd, and others, put it. By the end of 2012, the CHR format officially died: Billboard stopped listing CHR charts, and Hurd was fired. Although he had been the station’s most popular radio host, management said he wasn’t what the audience wanted. 

Christian radio today has reverted to its nonoffensive stance, which means not only a lack of swearing but also staying away from theological truths that could offend the wide variety of Christians who fill their coffers. Citizens, a worship band at Mars Hill Church, faced this issue when it tried getting its single “Made Alive” on the radio earlier this year. Kensrue, the head of the church’s record label, Mars Hill Music, said that stations turned down the upbeat indie rock song because of lyrics like “I once was dead in sin, alone and hopeless / A child of wrath I walked, condemned in darkness.”

Since then, a few stations like Air1 have picked up the song, and listeners have requested more play time. But for Citizens and the other bands at Mars Hill Music, radio play and selling albums were never their main goals. “We wrote the song ‘Made Alive’ because we have an 8 o’clock service and we wanted a song that’s fun and dance-y and lets them just shout the gospel and the fact that by the grace of Jesus they’ve been saved,” said band leader Zach Bolen.

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