Contemporary Christian Music

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Contemporary Christian Music

In the late 1990s a genre of music, unknown to most of America, began push its way onto the popular American music scene. Contemporary Christian Music or CCM traced its roots to Southern Gospel and Gospel music, but only began to be noticed by a larger audience when the music industry changed the way it tracked record sales in the mid-1990s.

In the late 1960s, Capitol Records hassled a blond hippie named Larry Norman for wanting to call his record We Need a Whole LotMore of Jesus and a Lot Less Rock and Roll. In response, Norman decided to make and distribute his own records. Norman's records shocked the religious and irreligious alike. He mixed his strict adherence to orthodox Christianity with honest cultural observations in songs like "Why Don't You Look into Jesus," which included the lines "Gonorrhea on Valentines Day, You're still looking for the perfect lay, you think rock and roll will set you free but honey you'll be dead before you're 33."

Before long Norman's dreams of artistic freedom had become a nightmare when executives took over and created CCM the genre which, unlike the artists who dreamed of singing songs about Jesus for non-Christians, quickly focused on marketing the records to true believers. CCM had become a large industry, signing and promoting artists who were encouraged to make strictly religious records that were heavy on theology but lacking in real world relevance. CCM also began to cater to best-selling "secular" artists who experienced Christian conversions, helping them to craft religious records which both alienated longtime fans and couldn't be distributed through ordinary music channels. Among these were once popular performers like Mark Farner of Grand Funk Railroad, Dan Peek of America, B.J. Thomas, Richie Furay of Poco and Buffalo Springfield, Al Green, Dion, Joe English of Wings, Rick Cua of the Outlaws, and many others.

By the 1980s, other studios became receptive to Christian music, and allowed artists more flexibility with song lyrics. In 1983 a heavy metal band named Stryper comprised of born again Christians emerged from the L.A. metal scene and signed a record deal with a "secular" label Enigma which had produced many of the early metal artists. In 1985 Amy Grant signed her own direct deal with A&M that got her a top 40 single "Find A Way," and led to two number one singles "The Next Time I Fall," in 1987 and "Baby, Baby," in 1991. Leslie Phillips dropped out of CCM in 1987, changed her name to Sam, and signed with Virgin, a company with whom she recorded several critically lauded albums. Michael W. Smith signed with Geffen in 1990 and produced a number six hit "Place In This World."

With the commercial success of Grant and others, many CCM artists no longer wanted to be identified as such, preferring to be known simply as artists. In their view, being identified by their spiritual and religious beliefs limited the music industry's willingness to widely disseminate their music and alienated some consumers. Many of these artists left their CCM labels and signed with "secular" record labels or arranged for their records to be distributed in both the "Christian" and "secular" music markets. By the mid-1990s artists like dc Talk, Jars of Clay, Bob Carlisle, Kirk Franklin, Fleming and John, Julie Miller, BeBe and CeCe Winans, punk band MxPx, Jon Gibson, and others once mainstays of CCM, had signed with "secular" labels.

Christian artists' attractiveness to "secular" record labels increased with the introduction of a new mode of calculating record sales. The introduction of SoundScan, a new tracking system, brought attention to CCM in the mid-1990s. SoundScan replaced historically unreliable telephone reports from record store employees with electronic point-of-purchase sales tracking. SoundScan also began to tabulate sales in Christian bookstores. The result suddenly gave CCM increased visibility in popular culture as many artists who had heretofore been unknown outside the Christian community began to find themselves with hit records.

Jars of Clay, a rookie band which formed at college in Greenville, Illinois, was among the first of these success stories. Signed with a tiny CCM label called Essential Records, their debut record was selling briskly in the Christian world when one single, "Flood" came to the attention of radio programmers who liked it, and unaware that it was a song from a "Christian" band, began to give it significant airplay in several different formats. Before long "Flood" was a smash hit played in heavy rotation on VH-1 and numerous other music video outlets. Mainstream label Zomba, which had recently purchased Jars' label, re-released the record into the mainstream market and the Jars Boys—as they were affectionately known—began to tour with artists like Sting, Jewel, and the Cowboy Junkies. Their second release "Much Afraid," benefitted from the SoundScan arrangement by debuting at number eight on the Billboard Album chart.

Another band which benefitted from the increased attention that the SoundScan arrangement brought to CCM was a band which formed at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in the late 1980s and consisted of three young men, one black and two white, who hailed from the Washington D.C. area. dc Talk, as they were known, began as a rap band but evolved over the years into a grunge-pop sound which culminated in their 1995 release "Jesus Freak." Soundscan recorded the strong debut of "Jesus Freak" on the Billboard charts and had many industry executives inquiring about dc Talk. Kaz Utsunomiya, an executive at Virgin Records dispatched one of his assistants to Tower Records to fetch a copy of the album and liked what he heard. Virgin soon signed dc Talk to a unique deal that made them Virgin artists but allowed dc Talk's CCM market label Forefront to continue to distribute to the world of Bible bookstores. Virgin also released a single "Just Between You And Me," which cracked the top 40 list. And dc Talk's follow up album, Supernatural, showed the band's power, debuting at number four. Sandwiched between Marilyn Manson and Kiss on the music charts, the debut was rife with symbolism, for Manson was an unabashed Satanist and Kiss, had been labeled—probably unfairly—as Satanists for years by Christians who were convinced that its initials stood for something sinister like "Kings In Satan's Service."

But the greatest triumph belonged to a most unlikely artist named Bob Carlisle who would see his record Butterfly Kisses, displace the Spice Girls at the top of the charts. Carlisle was unlikely because he was a veteran of the CCM market who had recently been dropped by the major CCM label Sparrow and picked up by the small independent label Diadem. Carlisle had long played in CCM bands beginning in the 1970s and in the early 1990s had gone solo. Trained to write cheerful, upbeat numbers which the CCM world preferred, Carlisle prepared songs for his record with Diadem, and strongly considered not including "Butterfly Kisses," a song he had written with longtime writing partner Randy Thomas, because it was a melancholy song that was personal to Carlisle and his daughter and one which he wasn't sure the religious marketplace would appreciate. Carlisle's wife's opinion prevailed and he included it. When a radio programmer's daughter in Florida heard the track at church, she told her father who played it on the radio and received an overwhelmingly positive response. Soon word of the song reached Clive Calder, the president of Zomba Music which had recently engineered the purchase of Carlisle's label, Diadem.

In a brilliant series of moves, Calder repackaged and re-released Carlisle's album, replacing Carlisle's too sincere cover pose with an artists rendering of a butterfly and changing the serious title of the record Shades Of Grace to Butterfly Kisses. Fueled as well by a tear-inspiring performance on Oprah Winfrey's daytime talk show, a feature in the Wall Street Journal and airplay on Rush Limbaugh's radio show, "Butterfly Kisses" headed for the top of the album charts and became both a country and pop radio smash hit. Though success proved elusive for Carlisle—his next record quickly dropped off of the charts—the larger point had been made that large audiences could be interested in CCM if the music was packaged in ways that would appeal to people who didn't necessarily share the artists' deep Christian convictions.

Tens of other artists who considered themselves serious Christians wanted to avoid the restrictive CCM market. But just as they had once been told to stay out of politics by their more conservative brethren, Christians had long been told to stay out of rock music. Christians feared the world associated with rock 'n' roll and many described it as a dirty place, but others couldn't deny the impact that rock music had on American culture. Some Christians wanted the impact of rock 'n' roll to carry their messages, and wanted to avoid the stigma attached to religious music. Some of these artists included King's X, The Tories, Hanson, Gary Cherone of Extreme, and Van Halen, Lenny Kravitz, Moby, Full On The Mouth, Judson Spence, Collective Soul, and Burlap To Cashmere.

Even with so many crossover artists, some artists continued to struggle with labels that kept their music from the general record buying public. Artists like dc Talk and Jars of Clay asked to be treated "normally" and not as religious artists, but they continued to receive Grammy awards in the "Gospel" category and record stores continued to stock their music in the "Inspirational" or "Christian" bins. Nevertheless, by the end of the twentieth century, CCM had evolved to the extent that Christian music could be found not only in the traditional religious categories, but also throughout the many genres of popular music.

—Mark Joseph

Further Reading:

Baker, Paul. Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music? Waco, Word Books, 1979.

Fischer, John. What On Earth Are We Doing? Michigan, Servant Publications, 1997.

Peacock, Charlie. At The Crossroads. Nashville, Broadman &Holman, 1999.

Rabey, Steve. The Heart Of Rock And Roll. New Jersey, Revell, 1985.

Turner, Steve. Hungry For Heaven. Illinois, Intervarsity Press, 1996.