EXPLORING TRENDS IN THE CHRISTIAN MUSIC INDUSTRY By Beau Black Several years ago, my friend Bob told me his teenaged kids had spotted the members of rock band Skillet in a restaurant in west Texas and fl ipped out. Autographs and pictures ensued, and then the band piled back in the van and headed off. That little episode stuck with me— lots of artists inspire that kind of fan-thusiasm, but not many so obscure as Skillet was then. Why? Today, Skillet is many things, but obscure isn’t one of them: the band’s found new homes for 300,000+ of its new CD, Awake (Atlantic/Ardent/ INO), and it’s touring nice-sized venues this spring fi rst with Shinedown and Puddle of Mudd and then co-headlining a killer bill with tobyMac. And it has singles scoring on multiple radio formats. (At press time, “Monster” was No. 4 on the mainstream active rock charts). So why Skillet? It’s not just the band’s music— they’re good, but so are lots of bands. And it’s not just girls crushin’ on the lead singer—he’s married. The band has not had the single breakout song that hiked Switchfoot and P.O.D. up to the big leagues. The members tour a lot—but so does everyone (or everyone who wants to pay the bills). A phone call later, and the band’s “secret” became clearer. Zach Kelm, who has managed the group since 2001’s Alien Youth, recalls that “when I got involved [a little after “the sighting”], they weren’t at 100,000 units yet, but they had already earned a hardcore following of Panheads. No matter where they were, fans would show up because of their energetic live show.” Kelm knew John Cooper and band had something special—that intangible “it factor.” But fi guring out how to take that to the next level was going to be tricky. The band was still considered niche in the Christian market, and “the only way they’d been able to build a bigger audience was touring. John knew what his audience liked about his show, and so we tweaked that.” They also knew they had to move beyond the relatively small market for Christian hard music. Eventually, someone at Atlantic subsidiary Lava caught on to what the Panheads loved, signing the band in 2003. Before that, “A couple of labels came calling but couldn’t get past the ‘Jesus lyrics,’” Kelm says. Lava could, it seems, and would release Collide. Parent company Atlantic released successive albums Comatose and Awake, each selling more than the last and spewing a fairly steady stream of mainstream active rock and Christian rock radio hits. “People always talk about the ‘it factor’ relating to an act. That can manifest in many ways—with songs or performing. John has that in many facets,” says Kelm. “He’s come into his own as a songwriter and producer, but there are very few frontmen who have the charisma he has. He comes off as somebody who’s funny, a little bit self-deprecating, very relational and relatable. The music backs that up. “Everything that’s happened for Skillet has happened because of their live show” and the connections Cooper & Co. make with their audience. “How did they get there? You’ve got to be in constant communication with your fans, work on your transitions live, and work on communicating your message,” says Kelm. That, and having that little something extra doesn’t hurt. “Everything that’s happened for Skillet has happened because of their live show.” – Zach Kelm, Q Management A Sucess Story: Skillet’s “It Factor” WHAT’S NEXT 38 CCM