With the volatile state of the music industry and changing technology’s effect on consumers and industry execs alike, labels, artists, songwriters and media are having to get more creative about the products they deliver and the ways they deliver them. CCM Magazine’s move to an online-only format next month is evidence of this changing effect and leaves us asking the question: What does the future of Christian music look like? As such, we asked our old friend Charlie Peacock to tell us where he thinks Christian music is headed.
I’m a man with an opinion, and opinions are cheap. I’m riffing here—that’s what musicians do. Keep your eyes and ears open. See what comes true.
The music business aspect of Christian music (labels, radio, touring, etc.) will continue to follow the pattern of the world, especially as long as baby-boomers and Gen-X people are in charge. The pattern is an increasingly unsuccessful business model run by people trapped in a system intent on slow, incremental change in the face of monumental cultural shifts.
The music business, Christian and otherwise, has been a wealth-creation mechanism for a small, elite group of executives, songwriters, producers and artists. Those days are over. Still, the old guard won’t go peaceably. They’ll fight for control to the end. When they finally exit, the new music business will be underway.
Nevertheless, the majors (EMI CMG, Provident, Word) are not going out of business anytime soon. They will function as the genre’s archivists and primary copyright holders for music publishing and sound recordings. Unfortunately, the majority of the recordings created over the last 35+ years were “youth targeted” mainstream music knock-offs at their conception and designed to get past a host of gatekeepers with agendas other than the promotion of good music. This will prove to be a significant future problem. All the companies will continue to downsize and, ultimately, there may be only one major company left to steward the music of the “ccm” era.
Christian music as a genre has always been a music you move on from. Young Christian baby-boomers and Gen-X once in love with the music abandoned it in adulthood and have not returned. As a result, legacy artist catalogs (ranging from Larry Norman to Amy Grant to dcTalk and beyond) do not and will not have the staying power of their mainstream counterparts such as The Beatles, The Eagles, Elton John, Led Zeppelin, Celine Dion, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and U2. All these secular artists, and a hundred others, remain popular and economically viable today. Sadly, the pattern does not hold true for what was contemporary Christian music.
The sum of Christian music’s contribution will be underutilized and under-appreciated by the church and viewed as irrelevant by the world. I see no reason to believe that the cumulative catalog of music will increase in value and popularity. Great songs are less forgettable than irrelevant recordings though. There will be a portfolio of songs (and some recordings) that are remembered and held in esteem by the church—a kind of canon from the era. The church will perpetuate these songs, and the Christian music industry will capitalize on the enthusiasm as best they can.
Christian music’s alliances with mainstream entertainment corporations will all prove eternally less than successful, since they all bet first on the power of the market to deliver results and not the hand of God—something God has never been fond of. (See Bible for evidence.)
Ironically, Larry Norman, Bob Dylan and U2 will be remembered as the best of Christian music created during the “ccm” era. Gospel music will survive with integrity—both the variety created out of the African-American experience and the kind associated with country, folk, bluegrass or Americana. When convenient or strategic, Christian artists will return to using the term “gospel” in order to describe their music. “CCM” has faded as an accurate moniker and will disappear altogether.
All significant Christian music, apart from worship music, will be found in the mainstream (with no connection to the Christian music industry). That’s an easy one. I forecasted that almost 10 years ago with At The Crossroads. No brag, just fact. Present, popular examples from various genres, major and indie labels and age groups: The Fray, Sufjan Stevens, Paramore, Midlake, Corrine Bailey Rae, OneRepublic, Cold War Kids, the Jonas Brothers, Bodies of Water, Flyleaf, Jon McLaughlin, Eisley, etc.
True worship music in many forms will continue to prosper as it serves the legitimate needs of the church. Commercial worship music will wane. Watch how easily people and artists lose their zeal for it when it’s not as popular.
Christian music with “worldview” lyrics is dead in the church and reborn in the world where Christian indie and major label artists will carry the torch. The majority of Christian music fans and gatekeepers in the church proved too immature or disinterested to discern whether or not a lyric was speaking to a topic from a Christian worldview. The problem of immaturity and illiteracy will continue.
The best of the survivors of the “ccm” era will continue to create and find new ways to be faithful. Here I’m thinking of a range of artists like Phil Keaggy, Randy Stonehill, Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Margaret Becker, Steven Curtis Chapman, Sara Groves, tobyMac, Third Day and Jars of Clay—artists of that ilk. Another whole group of “ccm” era survivors will continue to move country music forward with great success. This includes a hundred or so Christian songwriters, several producers and many musicians. Here I’m thinking of names like Gordon Kennedy, Wayne Kirkpatrick, Chris Rodriguez, Steve Brewster, Jerry McPherson, Mark Hill, Erik Darken, Jimmie Lee Sloas and Dann Huff.
All the younger artists signed to Christian labels within the last 10 years or less will struggle to understand where they fit—if they fit at all anymore. I won’t name names, but many will exit Christian music hoping to find a home in the mainstream indie movement.
The Tooth & Nail tribe of artists will continue on. It’s about touring and live music. T&N had that right from the beginning—here’s a van and an atlas—see ya!
In the future, young musicians will think that all Christian music is dated and boring, and they will create something they think is current, relevant and exciting. They will say things like, “We just wanna show people that you can be a Christian and have fun, too.” Or, “We’re not gonna hit people over the head with the Bible. We’re not Christian musicians; we’re musicians who are Christians.” Or, “We are totally sold out to Jesus. We don’t write vague, sugar-coated lyrics.”
It will be nothing but retread hubris though. I will roll my eyes and grumble that history is hell-bent on repeating itself.
So take note, the real and trustworthy future of Christian music is Christ. Find out what He’s interested in, and let that be the music’s future.
Charlie Peacock is a producer/artist/author and founder of Art House America, a non-profit center for arts, hospitality and biblical study.