The Indescribable Sound of Christian Music
You've probably been there - channel surfing on the radio, landing on a station and within a fraction of a second, you know you've landed on a Christian song. It's that indescribable sound that tells you with 100% confidence, this song is definitely Christian. You don't even have to hear a single lyric. Just hearing a half second of any part of the song screams from the highest mountain tops, Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) is hard at work. Or is it?
Let me ask you a question. Does Christian music suck? See, much of the world believes it does. We know this because they are voting with their dollar and their streaming playlists. If this is true, why is this? Why don't more people listen to Christian music? To get to the bottom of this, we need to understand why Christian music sounds the way it does.
Somewhere between 75%- 83% of the people in America identify themselves as Christians. That's 260 million people. But only a 1/3 of those people, 80 million people, listen to Christian music (radio, streaming, etc..). Some number far less than that actually buy Christian music.
Unfortunately, most people don't care for Christian music. This is primarily because people can't help but to compare CCM to Top 40 music. To the same tune, we might as well compare the latest Ferrari with a Greyhound bus. They are both vehicles of transportation, but the goals between the two are very different.
Christian music makes up a whopping 4% of the music sales in a given year. It's basically a dent in the music industry. But unfortunately, what we hear on Christian radio is a much smaller section of that almost visible dent. To some degree, this is Becky's fault. Becky controls CCM radio, while the rest of the stations are not concerned with her at all. But more on Becky later. For the purposes of this discussion, we'll put everything in two categories: CCM, and everything else. Because lets be real, pretty much everything else sounds better than CCM. I'll explain.
The foundation of most CCM songs is to present the same concept in new ways. It's almost as if CCM has one goal, one cause, and one subject. Everything else (think Top 40, Pop, R&B) has thousands of causes, infinite goals, and infinite subjects. To understand why the indescribable sound of Christian music exists, you must first understand this: in CCM, the music is secondary to the message. In everything else, the message is secondary to the music. This is where the indescribable sound starts. CCM starts in a box, and tries so hard to sound like it's gotten out. But it hasn't. Every ten years or so, a wall is shifted, but Lord help us, it's still in the box. Everything else starts outside the box, and it doesn't matter where it goes from there. In CCM, the message is typically about God. In everything else, the message is about... well, everything else. It could be about love, war, God, other gods, heartbreak, drugs, politics, loneliness, sex, anger, rebellion, and on and on the list goes, forever and ever amen.
This creates a massive challenge to CCM artists in the effort to present compelling music to the masses. That is, the dream of Christian music finding its way out of the box, and maybe even crossing over to Top 40 radio. Few songs have done it, and they truly are the rarest of unicorns. Still, for some reason, the CCM artists feel forced to make the message more important than the music, while their mainstream counterparts have the luxury of making the music more important. To prove this point, ask yourself (without googling), what are these songs about?
1. Chris Tomlin - How Great is Our God
2. Coldplay - Clocks
3. Stone Temple Pilots - Plush
You're probably thinking, and in this order: God, who knows, and no one knows.
Earlier I mentioned Becky. And no, I'm not making that name up. That is the name that the Christian Music Industry has given to their target audience. In their world, "Becky" is 38 year old, minivan driving soccer mom, who not only exclusively listens to Christian radio, but is involved at her church, lives in the suburbs, loves her family, and volunteers at the local food pantry. The Christian labels know that to sell music you have to get radio time, and to get radio time (according to them), Becky has to like your music. This whole concept, often referred to as "Becky Analysis" is a huge problem. As if radio by itself wasn't a powerful enough force to homogenize music, Christian radio has taken it a step further by demanding that if Becky doesn't want to hear your music, then no one hears your music. So when you hear "safe for the whole family" next time on the radio, what they're really saying is, "this is Becky's radio station."
I believe Becky is the response to Top 40 radio's own deepening rut. For example, if you want to give it your best shot to be heard on Top 40 radio, then consider the following rules. First, your song needs to be around 100 beats per minute (bpm). It helps to be led by female vocals. It should be between 3:00 and 3:30 minutes long. Vocals need to be heard in the first 15 seconds of the song, and the word "you" needs to be in the first 10 seconds of vocals (and several times thereafter). You need to evoke an emotion, any emotion. You need clear distinct repeated & predictable patterns for verse and chorus and your bridge must start by the 2 minute mark, because that two minutes is the outer wall of the listener's attention span. If you don't offer something different before dropping that chorus again, you risk losing your self-concerned listener's interest. Oh, and keep it upbeat and happy. No complaining, whining, preaching, struggling, or basically anything other than making that listener feel good about themselves. Especially women - if you follow all those rules and make women feel good about themselves, you're setting yourself up for the best chance of pop radio success.
Now you may be thinking, man that sure sounds like secular music is formulaic, as if it's in a pretty strict box too. And you would be right. It is in a box. But the secular box is much bigger, deeper, and wider than CCM's Becky box. Remember, CCM artists are in a box with one topic, and there's an extra bonus if the song makes Becky feel good about herself. It doesn't even matter that there are a thousand ways to sing about the one topic. Because singing about a 1000 topics, in a thousand more ways is an infinitely bigger box. And in that secular box, more people care more about what they hear, than what they hear actually means. Let me repeat that - more people care more about what they hear, than what they hear actually means.
This is why judging on music quality alone, everything else sounds better than CCM.
If you're old enough, you probably remember the phrase Y2K. It meant "the year 2000", and in the late 90's there was quite a bit of undue panic associated with Y2K. People thought the world was going to end. People thought planes were going to crash, and cruise ships would turn upside down. It was like a dooms dayer's dream. Panic, fear and more panic, all because of the 4 digits of 1999 turning into 2000. In hindsight, very little happened as Y2K passed us by. But right around that time, something was happening in CCM that we didn't even see, or see coming. Somehow the Christian artists and Christian radios perhaps unknowingly decided to take the box they lived in, and proactively make it smaller. And over the next 10 years, that's exactly what happened. See, CCM used to have all kinds of songs and sounds from people like Michael W Smith, Amy Grant, Petra, Whiteheart, Caedmon's Call, and Jars of Clay. There were many more but I'll stop there. What we had pre-Y2K was Christian music written outside of the developing "worship" box. Point being, these Christian artists were writing music, fast and slow, happy & sad, uplifting and convicting, that were not written for the purpose of being sung in church on Sunday. The CCM box was much wider then. The passing of Y2K somehow brought in this new rule, over the course of several years, that to be successful in CCM, you needed to write songs that were for Sunday morning worship bands, AND Becky. See, Becky demands a very specific song and vanilla sound, and the Church's congregation demands that it be simple and easy to sing along to with an astounding amount of repetition. The CCM box was getting smaller. After just a few short years, songs that would have easily been in the old CCM box were now ousted. Not Becky material? Not Sunday worship Material? No play for you.
Christian artists, labels, and radio must look at history here. The hay day of Christian music was the 90s. In that time, the industry could see 50 million Christian albums sold annually. By 2014, that dwindled to 17 million, just a 1/3 of what it used to be. And I'm talking about album equivalents too for you streaming experts. By their own hand, they shrunk the box they force themselves to live in.
Outside of rare unicorns like Mercy Me's "I Can Only Imagine" (major release in 2001), or Lauren Daigle's "You Say" (2018), CCM songs crossing over to Top 40 are like a double rainbow sighting... in the desert. It's well beyond rare.
Chris Tomlin's most successful album sold 1,000,000 copies. By the mid-2010s, CNN believed that on any given Sunday there were between 20 & 30 million people singing along to a Tomlin song. This fueled the new "worship" requirement to CCM's box.
Shania Twain sold 40,000,000 copies of Come on Over. Even now in the post 2000 streaming era, both Eminem and Adele have albums in the 30 million+ neighborhood. Now, I'm not trying to say that Tomlin's best album should be in the 30-40 million territory, but we shouldn't ignore the size of that gap. Remember, around 80% of American's claim Christianity, but as music sells, the Christian music fights to get near 4%. Why do so many Christians spend their dollar on secular music and not on CCM? The only possible answer is this: secular music must be better. It sounds better, it's more innovative, and it covers a 1000 topics in a 1000 ways. So while we can't ever really expect CCM to sell like Top 40, surely it can grow beyond 4%. What CCM needs is a massive jolt of innovation - innovation on topics, moods, sounds, genres, all that and more. CCM is in a box, and the box is getting smaller. The numbers prove this emphatically.
Now, some of you may feel like I'm wrong, pleading "say it isn't so," or "CCM isn't as bad as you say it is." If that's true, Christian music would be selling more than 17 million albums/album equivalents collectively these days. If that's true, Christian music would have more than 4% of the market in a country where 80% of the people claim Christianity. I think we, Christian musicians especially, have to be open to the possibility that the vast majority of Christian music is somewhat lame. On top of that, we're reaching new lows by shrinking the box just a little more each year by playing follow the leader and monkey see / monkey do. It's as if Christian musicians all over the world say to themselves, "Tomlin's latest song just hit it big... let's write stuff exactly like that." Or worse, "let's just cover that popular song from last year." Oh the plague of Christian artists constantly covering other artistsí songs. Let it end already. The unwritten rule in secular music is that once you are 3 albums into your successful career, you "earn" your cover song. Covering songs is not how innovation and market expansion happens. And I know, this is not going to be a quick fix. But it IS possible.
See, if someone can tell in one second that the song is Christian, then it will never break outside of the 4%. Take a listen to Lauren Daigle's "You Say." If you'd never heard it, and had no idea she was a CCM artist, how long would it take you to realize it's a Christian song? Certainly longer than the 1 second that it takes to recognize over 90% of Christian music. And it's no wonder - because that song sounds a whole lot more like Adele's "Someone Like You" than it does the typical CCM song. And that parallel is no accident. See, music scientists have discovered that a potential hit song need only be 20% innovative. Artists have to give the listener a lot of what they are expecting, with just a mere 20% pop of something new and innovative.
And by all means, I'm not saying Christian artists shouldn't write entire songs about God's love, redemption, the Trinity, or any number of overtly Christian topics. But CCM needs to branch out a little (or a lot). What Christian music needs is more music, better music, and more music variety. The radio will catch on soon enough. They might be the tail that wags the dog today, but it doesn't have to stay that way.