For years now some of us have been agitating for a change in the way “Christian music” did its business.
Today, we’re surprised but pleased to see so many bands with Christian roots making such strong headway into the mainstream of American cultural life. In one recent week, Underoath sold 97,000 units of its record, making it the No. 2 album in the country. Bands like Switchfoot, P.O.D., The Fray, and many others are now regulars in the mainstream scene.
And now Mute Math is on the way, but not without problems—starting with its own record company. The alternative rock band, which started out as Earthsuit, used to be with Sparrow Records, a Christian music label (now EMI/CMG). Realizing that Sparrow would give them little access to the mainstream, the band re-formed as Mute Math and signed with Warner Bros. in an attempt to have more impact on the culture at large.
But then came a bump in the road: Warner also owns the CCM label Word, which began marketing Mute Math as a “Christian band”—a designation that effectively tells the wider culture “this band is for Christians and not for you.”
Mute Math fought back—with a lawsuit. Even though the band’s members are Christians, they didn’t want to be marketed that way. I don’t blame them, but some people do—including Christianity Today’s Rob Moll, who recently wrote that he finds it “hard to respect” Christian artists who are “spurning the industry that gave them their start.”
Such reactions are misguided. Instead of blaming the artists who are trying to impact the cultural mainstream, some CCM executives, who seem unwilling or unable to help these artists reach their goals, shoulder some of the blame for holding them back.
And Mute Math is trying to do just that—though they’re hardly the first. I’ve been questioning the system for over a decade.
In 1995, CCM magazine allowed three of us—Kerry Livgren of the band Kansas, the classical music scholar Patrick Kavanaugh, and me—to challenge the very existence of the genre in an article titled, “Does CCM exist? Should It?”
That led to other pieces for Regeneration Quarterly and Billboard that compared CCM to the old Negro Baseball League, arguing that just as the NBL had a vested interest in keeping its players from breaking the color barrier, so CCM’s leaders, for financial reasons, were often standing in the way of their artists being heard by the wider “secular” culture.
I later wrote two books on the subject, and have heard from many leaders in the CCM industry who privately supported my views, which told me that it was a system that few of even its proponents supported in private.
That “system” had been created by people like Billy Ray Hearn of Sparrow Records and Mike Macintosh of Calvary Chapel who had said of the mainstream, respectively, “I never wanted to be a part of that world, and I got out of it,” and “We had just come out of Egypt and we didn’t want to go back.” They in turn passed on a business model to a succeeding generation for whom its central organizing premise—escapism—was no longer operative.
Through the years, others have weighed in—like Charlie Peacock with his book At The Crossroads and Steve Turner with Imagine. And all of us took our cues from writers like John Fischer, Bob Briner and others who passionately argued against a culture of separation in popular music.
Bands like Mute Math are simply following the formula that worked so well for Switchfoot: Leaving their CCM label, signing to a mainstream label, and then giving a CCM label the rights to market and distribute their record to the Christian sub-culture.
I recommend that formula, though it’s certainly not the ideal. And the real question is, Why should bands have to follow such a circuitous path in order to be in a position to be heard by the mainstream music culture? And for bands like Mute Math who do follow that path, it’s counterproductive to then be marketed as a Christian band.
Think of it this way: Would a plumber advertise himself as a “Christian plumber” if he wanted to serve both believers and non-believers? Perhaps, but then, many non-Christians with clogged toilets might not hire him because of that designation. But if he simply presents himself as a “plumber”—still intending to do a great job and prepared to discuss his faith with any interested clients—he’s likely to get more business, earn a better living, and interact with more non-believers.
Using “Christian” as an adjective—whether you’re a plumber or a musician—is little more than a weapon, used to beat back people who might otherwise be interested in the service or product offered, but upon hearing that it is “Christian” are no longer interested.
Attacking Mute Math is easy. After all, Christians are supposed to avoid lawsuits, right?
But the real questions people should be asking is what drove the band to take such extreme action, and why can’t Christian-oriented labels like Word, EMI/CMG, Provident, and others help these artists to fulfill their mission by providing a platform from which to reach the entire culture—mainstream and Christian—with their music?
Why are artists being put in a position where the only way they think they can be heard outside of the CCM subculture is to sue their label—or to leave the CCM industry altogether and sign with mainstream labels, which are staffed by people who often don’t share their faith or sense of mission?
Imagine what would happen if Christian-oriented labels announced that they would change the way they do business—that for the artists who wanted to reach the mainstream, the labels would stop marketing them as “Christian music,” and instead develop and market artists who write songs that reference their faith to fellow believers, as well as to millions of Americans who may not share their faith but like their music.
Impossible? It shouldn’t be. Consider a recent LA Weekly review of a show by an artist named Reeve Carney. The reviewer, Stephanie Lysaght, who is Jewish, says she was invited to the gig by a friend named Joey who promised, “It will change your life.”
Lysaght writes: “Right away I see that Joey is onto something, and already feel that my $5 cover has been well-spent.” She notes that Joey then says, “Hey, there’s one thing I didn’t mention on the phone. They’re kinda religious… . Just listen. Sometimes, when you think Reeve’s singing to a girl, he’s actually singing to Jesus.”
She continues: “I spin around to see hordes of hipsters bellowing along with Carney… . Do they have any clue what they’re saying? Am I the only one who notices that Carney is singing to Jesus? Finally, I give in to the power of the band. A few verses later, I’m chanting ‘I will testify’ along with the rest of ’em. After Carney’s encore and final farewell… Joey and I discuss the show… . We languish together in the calm that permeates the room. I’ve been converted.”
CCM labels need to understand that strong statements of faith, when combined with attractive and interesting music, are not automatic disqualifiers for consideration among non-Christian Americans— provided that the marketing and labeling doesn’t frighten them away before being heard. When that happens, they’ll have an opportunity to change the way they do business.
When they learn to develop and market artists to both those who share their faith and those who don’t, functioning as ordinary labels that are part of the mainstream music business, they will eventually realize unprecedented profits—and create a positive environment for bands like Mute Math.
When and if that happens, these artists will no longer be put in the position of feeling that they need to sue their labels or leave them. And the labels, instead of standing in the way of artists fulfilling the Great Commission, can instead partner with them in winning a hearing for a generation of talented, and devout, artists.