Christian Music Industry

The Christian music industry is a small part of the larger music industry, that focuses on traditional Gospel music, Southern gospel, contemporary Christian music, and alternative Christian music. It is sometimes called the gospel music industry, although this designation is not a limitation on the musical styles represented.

Christian artists generally use secular styles, pairing them with lyrics that display faith and spirituality to varying degrees. Generally speaking, the industry is influenced by mainstream culture. Musical trends, for instance, follow those of the secular scene, though usually a few years behind. The Christian music industry carries the distinction of being the only music subculture whose content is labeled by its lyrical dimension rather than its music.[citation needed] Still, music within the industry is sold by its musical style rather than lyrical content.

Christian music’s critics point to the divergent interests of commercialization and ministry, which have, according to some, polar opposite goals. Aspects of Christian music have long struggled to gain general acceptance, even within the Christian community. What some see as secularization and a lacking of direct theology, others see as artistic ministry. This opens up questions of the definition of “Christian music” that have lingered over the industry since its inception.

The Christian music industry experienced tremendous growth in the 1990s. Christian music sales grew to exceed those for classical, jazz, and new age music. Even so, the Christian music industry has experienced the same issues as the general market in recent years.

History of Today’s Praise and Gratitude Music Industry

The contemporary Christian music industry has roots in the late 1960s and early 1970s Jesus Movement and its Jesus Music artists. The Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music points out three reasons that the Christian music industry developed as a parallel structure to the general music industry. First, the Jesus movement produced a large number of bands in a very short period, which the general market was unable and/or unwilling to absorb. This was in part due to a lack of appreciation for the ideology expressed by such artists. Finally, Jesus music artists tended toward mistrust of secular corporations. According to another critic, the industry in this period was defined by four characteristics: lack of audience acceptance for styles, inferior production, inefficient distribution, and lack of wide radio exposure. Petra, for instance, struggled to find an audience for their hard rock sound, partially due to limited distribution to Christian bookstores.

Even so, the 1970s saw established corporations become involved in the Christian music market. Word Records, founded in 1951, was bought in 1976 by ABC. Other music industry giants also got involved, CBS started a short-lived Christian label, Priority Records, and MCA also fielded a label, Songbird Records, for a time.

While the Jesus movement had ended by the 1980s, the Christian music industry was maturing and transforming into a multimillion-dollar enterprise. The early 1980s saw an increase Christian booksellers taking product, and an increase in sales followed, despite the recession. As a percentage of gross sales, Christian music rose from 9% in 1976 to 23% in 1985. By her 1982 release Amy Grant had saturated the Christian marketplace and made significant inroads into the general market. Sandi Patti and Michael W. Smith also gained influence within Christian music, each playing significant roles in the development of the industry.

Harder forms of Christian music, such as heavy metal, also began to gain acceptance. This is largely credited to Stryper, who had begun making inroads into the general market by 1985. Still, rock and alternative acts faced a longer battle for acceptance than contemporary acts, as the form was opposed by prominent religious leaders such as Jimmy Swaggart and others on the Christian right. While in 1981 total gospel music industry revenues were approximately $180 million, only ten years later they would total $680 million, according to CCM Magazine.

According to RIAA data, market share for sales of Christian music albums more than doubled between 1993 and 1997. In the 1990s the Christian music industry became the fastest growing segment of the music industry. This was due to several factors, including consolidation of record labels, and independent Christian bookstores into chains.

The Christian music industry began adopting SoundScan in 1995, although implementation was spotty even into the millennium. Even so, the adoption caused the visibility of Christian artists to increase significantly, and brought credibility to the industry as Christian albums became integrated into all Billboard charts.

In 1985, 90% of Christian music sales originated at Christian bookstores. By 1995, that number had dropped to 64%, with general retailers taking 21%, and the remainder accountable through other methods, such as direct mail. At that same time, the industry was estimated to gross $750 million, with $381 million in album sales. In the late 1990s, general market retailers, especially big box stores such as Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Target, and Blockbuster began carrying a wider selection of Christian music products. By 2000 those stores had surpassed Christian retail in terms of the number of Christian albums sold, according to Soundscan numbers. This phenomenon was partially responsible for crossover successes. P.O.D., for example, sold 1.4 million albums in 2001, although sales at Christian retail outlets accounted for only 10%.

The new millennium has brought challenges for the record industry as a whole, and these have affected the Christian music industry as well. Contemporary worship music, a long time staple of the industry, began to gain significant market share in about the year 2000. By focusing on marketing worship music to youth culture, this genre became a growth driver despite the downturn in the general music industry.

“The money is just drying up. And it’s not being replaced.” John W. Styll, president, Gospel Music Association and longtime CCM publisher

Growth continued until about 2003, but has generally followed the trends of the larger music industry since that point. In 2009 a The New York Times op-ed placed the entire music industry on a “deathwatch,” pointing out that new forms of media, piracy, and new pricing options are driving gross sales down. In another example of parallelism, the Christian music industry has experienced largely the same phenomenon. In the Christian marketplace, music consumption has risen by as much as 30% since 2005, but overall album sales have dropped to about half of their 1999 levels. However, some critics point out that the current downturn may have long term positive effects for the industry. John J. Thompson told Christianity Today that “The lack of monetary benefit has filtered out some of the people who should not have been doing this in the first place. If the people who are in it for the money are gone, it leaves more turf for those who had something a little bit loftier in mind.”

Facts About Christian Music Industry

  • Christian/Gospel music is considered one of the fastest growing areas in recorded music history.
  • Total music sales are more than a half billion annually.
  • There are more than 1,400 radio stations and 80 million listeners of Christian/Gospel music.
  • Listeners age 12 and up spend an average of 9 hours per week with Christian/Gospel radio programming formats.
  • 73% of Christian/Gospel listeners are 25-54 year old and account for more than 50% of all record sales.
  • Women 25-44 define the core Gospel/Christian music consumer.
  • Major mainstream brands such as Pepsi MidAmerica, Cracker Barrel, Allstate, NASCAR and McDonald’s, among others, have aligned with Gospel/Christian artists, releases and festivals and events to promote their brands.

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