Modern Christian music, i.e. contemporary Christian, Gospel, Worship, and Christian Rock, may be an afterthought for some analysts and secular consumers in North America. This is no longer right. Faith based music sells well and is increasingly in the crosshairs of mainstream talent and their marketers. Pop and Country stars, including Blake Sheldon, Carrie Underwood and Trisha Yearwood, are crossing over and a proliferation of new films and record breaking tours are turning heads in the business.
Recording revenue is earned mostly through the sale of physical CDs. Christian music purchases of sound recordings tend to lag behind the regular market, which is mostly digital, by two to three years.1 It accounts for 3.6% of all album sales in the United States, and it is on a par or exceeds the Latin music market and the burgeoning EDM market. It does much better than Classical, Jazz, and Children’s. Moreover, the fastest growing radio market in the United States is Christian music. Traditional media does well for the genre.
Projections are good, in part because Christian music audiences come from all walks of life and ethnicities. The genre can thus continue to grow due to its universal appeal, something that may be missing from other niche genres (even though it may not command the vast market of Rock and Pop). For instance, a recent report concluded that in a given month in 2014, 215 million people listened to Christian music, that seven out of ten Americans were exposed to it, and that an overwhelming proportion of African Americans were following.2
It also appears that Christian music is growing rapidly as the faith-based film market expands and secular companies begin to use religious music to sell their products and services. Throughout 2014, firms like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and NASCAR made use of Contemporary Christian Music in commercials and other marketing efforts, giving legitimacy to the Gospel Music Association’s assertion that their music has appeal across genre boundaries and religious sects.3 Adding to the popularity of these religious artists is the commercial success of movies such as God’s Not Dead and its sequel, which together grossed over $80 million. More Christian films are in the making and will be released throughout 2016, including Risen, 90 Minutes in Heaven, and Miracles from Heaven.
These films yield substantial and predictable box office revenues, and often drive music sales. The biggest all-time collection goes to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which netted $612 million and received two Dove awards for its original score and a compilation album of songs related to the movie (the Dove award is similar to a Grammy and is presented by the Gospel Music Association).4 The soundtrack of The Passion received a nomination for the 2005 Grammy Award in the category Best Original Music Score. It sold over 100,000 units, unheard of in film soundtracks. Music publishers are having a field day licensing synchs and new music from the genre.
Massive tours add value. The Winter Jam Spectacular has been the #1 first quarter tour for five years in a row, catering to 550,000 attendees, surpassing Bruce Springsteen’s 2014 tour and Beyonce’s.5 Charging only $10 per ticket, the same price it has maintained over the last decade, and offering a $49.99 deluxe admittance package, the event circumvents major ticket vendors and promoters to keep ticket prices down (and spread the faith). But there is plenty of merchandise sales, and even when free admissions are occasionally considered, the tours generate very healthy balances. The New Song Ministries and Premier Productions, INC, the leading producer, is obligated to invest any earnings back into their ministries and their community. It most likely does, but a cursory examination of their website fails to inform how exactly the money is spent (although it appears that Holt International, a faith centered adoption, child services and humanitarian agency based out of Eugene, Oregon, is a big beneficiary).
A very successful Contemporary Christian Music Act is the band Hillsong United. Hillsong United falls under the aegis of the Australian based Hillsong Church, with many international ministries. Tickets on the primary market for the band’s current tour sell from $40 to more than $250 in both the primary and secondary markets. These are mainstream stadium concert prices. Ancillary revenues are all there: merchandise income from t-shirts starting at $40, fan club memberships, and record sales.6 Hillsong United has sold more than 1.2 million albums since its debut album in 2007. Its single “Oceans” went platinum. The church earned more than $4 million dollars on sales of its entire recorded music catalog (with bands other than United) out of a global total of $70 million. This, of course, doesn’t take into account live performance revenue, which suggests that music is one of the keys to the fortunes of this Church.7
It does not appear that artists are making money hand over fist, though. One the one hand, these are non-profits that funnel funds to the leadership and pay substantial income to the founders. On the other hand, the purpose of many Christian artists may not be to get rich, (even with the credo of a “prosperity gospel”).
With the exception of a few elite artists such as United, and others like Casting Crowns, Mercy Me, Newsboys, making a living in the industry is an even greater challenge for independent and up-and-coming Christian musicians. This is because of ticket prices, radio, and piracy.
As shown with the Winter Jam Spectacular, many touring artists in the Christian music scene earn less because of reduced ticket prices. This is true as well of ministry shows at large churches, where tickets go for $10-$15 apiece, probably making it hard to break even.
Moreover, those who listen to Christian radio frequently will be made aware that many stations that play religious music are “listener supported”, meaning that in general they have smaller budgets to work with and in turn can only afford to pay artists whose music is not broadcast in traditional radio stations.8
Finally, for an industry that reaps rewards from the sales of physical CD purchases, piracy is still a concern and detracts from new label ventures (comparatively little Christian music is streamed).
Another issue is that Independent CCM artists often find themselves in a difficult position, for it is a challenge to break through the established acts in and it is easy to lose a footing in the mainstream secular market without altering one’s image, name or belief. There are exceptions: Katy Perry (formerly Kate Hudson)9 eschewed her CCM image for the flashy appearance of a pop superstar; Sufjan Stevens, “The Poster Boy For Hipster Christianity”, has retained a similar look and image, though his lyrics are now more main- stream. But sadly, for numerous other artists, Christian music has a reputation of producing somewhat of a “ghetto”, in the sense that those artists that rise to any sort of prominence within the genre have a challenging time crossing over into the general market.
Overall, Christian music is becoming stronger and more important in American culture. Therefore, it is just as likely to be a candidate for continued inbreeding as it is for cross-pollination from the outside. If the genre is going to scale well, though, it will need more attention. Taking a musical and market based perspective, U2 front man Bono points out that the genre ought to be more honest and forthcoming with the emotions and the thoughts of its creators.10 The profusion of “glory”, “majesty”, and “kingdom”” in Christian lyrics, for example, does tax the patience of secular listeners, and is a barrier to the genre’s projection. Finding ways of putting faith on record in a more intimate and less jarring context, and with a different aesthetic, could make the form thrive, somewhat like Country did with Pop in the mid 1990s. If so, Carrie Underwood, Blake Shelton, Trisha Yearwood may be pioneering the future of Christian music.
By Spencer Ritchie
Brokaw, J. (2016, 1 1). 3 things you need to know about Christian music industry and the economy Read more at http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/gospelsoundcheck/2008/10/3-things-you-need-to-know-abou.html#r5XV9Fcx01xRZ9pE.99. Retrieved 5 15, 2015, from Gospel Soundcheck: http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/gospelsoundcheck/2008/10/3-things-you-need-to-know-abou.html
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Langley, J. (2016, 5 2). Bono isn’t totally wrong about Christian music. He just hasn’t found what he’s looking for. Retrieved 5 13, 2016, from Christian Today: http://www.christiantoday.com/article/bono.isnt.totally.wrong.about.christian.music.he.just.hasnt.found.what.hes.looking.for/85214.htm
Marsden, R. (2015, 4 2). Why don’t Christian Contemporary Music acts ever make it into the mainstream? Retrieved 5 12, 2016, from The Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/why-dont-christian-contemporary-music-acts-ever-make-it-into-the-mainstream-10153287.html
Perkins, J. (2013, 6 8). A Christian Band With Secular Business Practices. Retrieved 5 12, 2016, from The Chrtistian Diarist: https://christiandiarist.com/2013/06/08/a-christian-band-with-secular-business-practices/
Rau, N. (2015, 6 27). 68% of Americans listened to Christian music in past month. Retrieved 5 13, 2016, from The Tennessean: http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/2015/06/27/gma-research-shows-popularity-christian-music/29353693/
Rau, N. (2014, 3 14). For Winter Jam, success creates more than just ticket sales. Retrieved 5 13, 2016, from The Tennessean: http://www.tennessean.com/story/money/industries/music/2014/03/14/for-winter-jam-success-creates-more-than-just-ticket-sales/6422701/
Snow, D. (2015, 11 14). Inside the Hillsong Church’s money-making machine. Retrieved 5 13, 2016, from The Sydney Morning Herald: http://www.smh.com.au/good-weekend/inside-the-hillsong-churchs-moneymaking-machine-20151026-gkip53.html
Williams, L. (2015, 5 12). 16 Things We Learned At The Music Biz 2015 Gospel/Christian Music Meetup . Retrieved 5 13, 2016, from The Sound Opinion: http://thesoundopinion.com/2015/05/14/16-things-we-learned-at-the-music-biz-2015-gospelchristian-music-meetup/
1. (Ingham, 2015)
2. (Rau, 68% of Americans listened to Christian music in past month, 2015)
3. (Williams, 2015)
4. (Judge, 2016)
5. (Rau, For Winter Jam, success creates more than just ticket sales, 2014)
6. (Perkins, 2013)
7. (Horowitz, 2015)
8. (Brokaw, 2016)
9. (Marsden, 2015)
10. (Langley, 2016)