In the time of monarchies, when a king died the people shouted,
“The king is dead. Long live the king.”
This was a way of honoring the dead king and then looking forward to the reign of the new king. Today Christian musicians can shout, “The Christian music industry is dead. Long live Christian music!” What I mean by dead is not that the industry no longer exists. It is simply no longer in control of the market. I suppose it may be more accurate to say that the Christian music industry is becoming less influential or important as technology continues to change the way fans consume music.
Under the old reign of the music industry, both secular and Christian alike, music became fully integrated into our lives. It was no longer heard only at special occasions and specific places, but in cars, stores, offices, and at home. To be sure, the music industries reign increased the amount of music people listened to and we came to expect to hear it almost continually. Television shows, video games, phones, and even our alarm clocks are expected to play music. But, this spread of music was expensive. It required the creation of new technology and administrative jobs. Fans became addicted to increasingly extravagant shows and bigger festivals, which also became more and more expensive. This led to the downside of the reign of the music industry: the artists, people who actually created and performed the music, were almost never paid fairly for their work. Because of the great need for money to finance the expansion of the music industry, the music “system” was closed to all but an extremely small percentage of musicians – those who could sell the most music. Musicians sacrificed everything in the hope of becoming part of the elite group that was signed to a big label. But that success eluded most of us.
There are no accurate statistics to show the percentage of Christian musicians who ever “made it”. But here are some things to consider:
• It’s not hard to believe that there are at least tens of thousands of Christian musicians in the United States at any given time. For proof, simply try to calculate the number of musicians on church worship teams in your home town and multiply that out across the country.
• Additionally, consider how many Christian musicians do not play on worship teams.
• Of all those musicians only a very small percentage ever thought about doing more with their music. Many of them were not able to think about doing more because of the financial obligations of their homes and family. Simply put, most musicians could not afford to take money from their personal income to play.
• A very few musicians were able to forge ahead and formed bands or started solo acts. And they paid. They paid to create a fan base through touring, websites and recording all in the hope of creating an amazing demo and enough of a stir to attract the attention of a label. Usually, they spent years paying, sacrificing time with their families and standard of living.
• Everyone wanted a label to pick them but only an extremely small percentage were ever heard let alone chosen by a label. Eventually most musicians gave up and returned to a more normal existence after paying off the debt.
• Those who were chosen by a label were catapulted into you guessed it – even more debt! Most artists never saw a dime from their recording projects because they needed to sell more than 300,000 units on average to get any royalties. The artists who did receive royalties usually had to wait about 2 years to get their first (small) check.
• In the meantime, all musicians were expected to tour extensively to support their release while creating new music for their next release. Some labels helped pay for the cost of touring, but usually only for the top tier of musicians (meaning those who sold the most music got the most help).
• Most musicians never released a second CD.
• Of the remaining musicians many struggled on for years in the knowledge that they could make much more money in a more normal career. They lived in smaller homes, they relied on their spouses to make up the financial difference and they were not at home much because of the touring.
• A very few Christian musicians made it to the top – being able to make and sustain a reasonable living from their music. What would you guess? Less than ½ of a percent of all Christian musicians reached their full potential? I would guess far, far less.
• The cost of going for the dream but not succeeding was often traumatic, taking years to recover both financially and spiritually.
Some would say that only the best musicians, the cream of the crop made it to the top. Some would even go so far as to say that the Christian music industry’s process was designed to make sure that happened. I disagree. I don’t think there was a plan to make sure we presented the very best Christian music, we simply copied the pattern of the secular music industry. Because of the Christian music industries great need for money to keep growing, the musicians who made it to the top were the ones who sold the most units of music. The ability to sell the most music does not always equal being a great musician or a great music minister. Many of our most creative and talented people were left behind.
So I can wholeheartedly say, “The king (the Christian music industry) is dead – meaning:
Thank you to everyone, both artists and industry professionals, who served in the Christian music industry. Christian music would not be where it is today without your tireless efforts. You brought modern Christian music into the limelight as a legitimate expression of our faith and as a tool to evangelize the nations. You have made it possible for future generations of Christian musicians to fulfill their ministries.
But I can also wholeheartedly say, “Long live the king (Christian music)!”
The increase of technology has given this generation of Christian musicians the ability to build on what has been done by generations before us. More than in any previous generation every one of us has the tools we need to completely fulfill our calling and ministry potential. We no longer have to wait to be chosen by a label or go into debt in the hope of being noticed. Our ministries are not limited by few distribution channels, reporting radio stations, or the number of venues willing to host a Christian concert. We can now buy the equipment we need for a recording studio for less than what it cost at one time to record one song. We can stream concerts live from our practice space or upload them to be viewed at any time in the future. Our music can be distributed worldwide in an instant on a variety of websites. And, even if we sell only a few units we will put more money in our pockets than most artists who have gone before us. We can specialize and promote and sell in almost any way we can imagine.
Each one of us has what no other generation of musicians has ever had – the opportunity of a lifetime – the ability to use our music to bring people from every corner of the world closer to Jesus.
The reign of the future king looks promising. No musician needs to be left behind. Every one of us can fulfill what God has called us to do with almost limitless ways to do it. Every ministry can be specialized and specific; and every music minister can touch the hearts of an extremely targeted audience. Targeting the average and the middle, which resulted in cookie cutter Christian music, musicians and ministries is a thing of the past. From here on in, no two music ministries need to be alike. The future holds the promise of variety, creativity, and unleashed passion in ways that we have never seen before.
What is the cost of this promising future?
Of course, we will have to pay the price of persistence and sacrifice. But, most of the cost of our future music ministry has been paid by the generation past; by the artists who struggled to survive while the industry struggled to grow and by the industry professionals who wrestled with doing what is right before God in an increasingly dangerous environment. We owe them our gratitude. We have a responsibility to honor their efforts by going farther in ministry than they ever had the opportunity to go. We have the privilege of laying the next course of building blocks for future generations.
We want the Christian music ministers who follow us to be able to wholeheartedly say, “The king is dead. Long live the king!”
This article is an excerpt from The Christian Band Handbook.
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