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Salt over sugar

"Salt over sugar" Continued...

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

Mars Hill Music, which partners with Tooth & Nail Records, is made up of the worship bands at the megachurch’s 15 sites. They write songs for their church and later record them at a recording studio in the church office. From the redone hymns of King’s Kaleidoscope to the roots-rock band Ghost Ship to Kensrue’s solo alt-rock album, each band performs in its own artistic style. A Mars Hill pastor and Kensrue vet each song to ensure it is theologically sound. “Made Alive” is now sung at churches across the country, while Citizens’ debut album reached No. 20 on Billboard’s top Christian albums.

Acoustic-folk duo All Sons & Daughters also didn’t see fame and fortune as their end goal. Instead, Leslie Anne Jordan and David Alan Leonard, the worship leaders at Journey Church in Franklin, Tenn., specifically didn’t want to be part of a band that would take them away from their church family. They wanted to write songs for their church and what their church was going through: “They were songs of desperation, acknowledging of our need for God, allowing ourselves to talk about brokenness and ask questions,” Leonard said.

As they started recording EPs for their congregation, a fellow church member invited them to join Integrity Music, a label that supplies worship music to other churches. Last year All Sons & Daughters released a trio of EPs, with The Longing hitting No. 5 on Billboard’s top Christian albums, and Reason to Sing hitting No. 5 on the Top Heatseekers, which tracks new artists. All this without any radio play; instead fans found them through social media or hearing their songs like “All the Poor and Powerless” at church.

The two are surprised about the group’s success but most excited that local worship leaders use their music. “We come from a community of honesty, so we’re given the ability to say things others don’t have the freedom to in all contexts,” Jordan said. “We’re excited to be able to be in this conversation in the churches.”

For those without a church platform or radio and label backing, it takes more than good songs to make a living in the music industry. Hurd said this new digital age of music isn’t necessarily an easy time for new artists, but “this is a good time for artists who want to learn how to be marketers also.”

MAKING IT ON THEIR OWN: Jenny & Tyler perform at the University of Delaware.
Peter Gaultney
MAKING IT ON THEIR OWN: Jenny & Tyler perform at the University of Delaware.
A COMMUNITY OF HONESTY: All Sons & Daughters.
Handout photo
A COMMUNITY OF HONESTY: All Sons & Daughters.
A COMMUNITY OF HONESTY: Dustin Kensrue.
Handout photo
A COMMUNITY OF HONESTY: Dustin Kensrue.
A COMMUNITY OF HONESTY: Derek Webb.
The Union Network
A COMMUNITY OF HONESTY: Derek Webb.
A COMMUNITY OF HONESTY: Citizens.
Handout photo
A COMMUNITY OF HONESTY: Citizens.

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One of the first artists to explore this brave new world was Derek Webb, a former member of the Christian band Caedmon’s Call. He left the band to start a solo career in 2001, and caught criticism by the CCM community for his controversial song topics.

Without the support of Christian radio, he built his fan base by playing house concerts, giving away music online, and offering special promos with his albums. He also helped start NoiseTrade, which allows listeners to download music from independent artists for free, because he found that giving away music pays off as new fans will buy tickets to concerts and future albums.

“Some of the new music business will train you to focus more on a smaller, really committed, supportive group of people rather than trying to get everyone on the planet to know about what you’re doing,” Webb told the online journal The Great Discontent. “That’s the secret of the new business–if your ego can bear it, there’s a great blue-collar living to be made as a professional musician.”

And Jenny & Tyler are following that path. The two met in college and after getting married, moved to Nashville in 2006 to pursue their dreams of making music. At first they were concerned about being considered part of CCM, but “then we realized the songs we were led to write were more obviously about God,” Jenny said. Part of it was a pride issue and not wanting to be put in a box, she said, but they soon realized that they loved their Christian fans.

For the first few years, the Somerses did everything on their own, writing and recording their own songs, producing their own music, designing their own website, and promoting themselves. They ran Facebook ads and gave out free songs to anyone who would give them their email addresses. They put their music up on NoiseTrade, Spotify, and Pandora. They asked 100 fans to join their launch team for a new record by promoting it on social media. In return, each fan gets an advance copy of the EP. While playing more than 100 shows each year around the country, they’ve been able to build relationships with their fans.

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