Artists covet they neighbor’s fanbase

Bands try to strike balance of faith, popularity

Choosing to stay in the small but loyal faith-based industry or go for the mainstream stars may be the toughest decision of a Christian artists’ career.

Every successful Christian act faces the same crossroads — do you want to be a Christian band or Christians in a band? — and the industry is painfully aware that once the “Christian” label is affixed, crossing over to the mainstream can be a challenge.

CAA Christian music guru John Huie, who represents acts such as Michael W. Smith, Jars of Clay and Amy Grant, says no musician aspires to niche success: “Most everybody in Christian music wants to be Bono, a rock star who makes the world a better place through their words and actions.”

Except Bono isn’t accepted by Christian radio.

A faithful fanbase can be a wonderful and lucrative thing, but more than one major Christian act has chafed at the limitations.

Christian hit radio (CHR) is a narrowly drawn format, which can limit financial success, though one could say the same about country, rap or adult contempo radio. What makes it even more stringent terrain for Christian artists is the lifestyle expectations that accompany the musical requirements — the backlash against Amy Grant after her divorce is one such example.

It’s a harsh reality, but it’s in everyone’s best interest, says Liz Barrett, who performed with Campus Crusade for Christ outreach band Vanguard for eight years: “Christians are harder on other Christians. People who come to the concerts see you as an icon. They expect perfection. As Christians, we know that we’re flawed, we know that we need a Savior and that we can’t do it on our own. It’s an interesting dichotomy.”

One of faith-based music’s moral gatekeepers is Stace Whitmire, music director for CHRSN/WAY-FM. Before Whitmire will add a single, it has to pass several tests: “We look first for the message. If it’s a good song with a good beat, we (won’t play it) if the message doesn’t connect. Second, sonically, it has to be good quality. Third, does the artist follow our beliefs?”

Whitmire says she thinks Carrie Underwood is probably a fine Christian, but that’s not enough for “Jesus Take the Wheel” to get airplay on WAY-FM. “The album in general is a very country thematic album,” she observes. “Looking at the whole package, would we recommend our audience buy it? No.”

U2 may inspire Eucharist services, but the band isn’t accepted in the Christian marketplace because of their cursing, smoking and their doubt-ridden single “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

One music pro calls the phenomenon “disconnect.” In concert, “Beyonce basically does an altar call,” he says, “and then she goes into ‘Bootylicious.’ There’s a disconnect from the gatekeepers on what you can say and how far you can say it. If you’re in this, it’s a double-edged sword. You not only have to be a great musician, but you have to have a life that backs up what you’re singing about.”

Sam Barnhart, owner of artist consulting firm CommonRock Entertainment and a former member of Christian group Bleach, says the first thing he addresses with a new artist is vision and purpose: “If a Christian artist wants to be in the general market, then there’s no point in pushing the Christian market because they’re going to be miserable. If they only want to write music about God, then they won’t be happy in the mainstream.”

“Unfortunately, when you choose to go an overt route, you limit yourself,” agrees David Crace, who handles Chris Tomlin and tobyMac as chief marketing officer for EMI Christian Music group.

However, there are examples of acts that have stayed true to their Christian faith and Christian fans while also reaching a popular audience not turned off by the “Christian” label.

Decemberradio plays with Kid Rock, Rodney Atkins and Sam Moore but chooses to be unabashedly Christian. “We want our songs to serve a deeper purpose than entertainment, which is something I think all artists would say from differing perspectives. Jesus has given us real meaning, hope and love for our everyday lives. We want to share those things with others and are able to do so through something we love — rock music!”

Other acts, such as Mute Math, Lifehouse and the Fray, shunned the Christian label to pursue superstardom for the masses but have received unsolicited acceptance within the community. Whitmire says WAY-FM is playing the Fray’s “How to Save a Life” because, “They are believers. We know the album is morally sound and the album sits with the lifestyle of our audience.”

The Fray formed as a Christian group while three of the members were attending Faith Christian Academy in Denver. In interviews, lead singer Isaac Slade shrugs off leaving the Christian market and says they’re musicians, not missionaries.

Still, “How to Save a Life” was drawn from an experience Slade had while counseling a teen at a Christian halfway house, and “Over My Head (Cable Car)” is about his rocky relationship not with a girl but with his brother.

One way Christian acts are finding “spillover” success is through lyrics open-ended enough to be interpreted in multiple ways. Relient K’s new video “Must Have Done Something Right” (featured in “Total Request Live’s” top 10 in March) shows a soccer babe while the lyrics describe a relationship that makes the singer a better man, which could refer to either the babe or God.

One of Christian music’s top revolutionaries is Toby McKeehan, who changed the industry with multigenre/multiracial band dc Talk and continued leading new ideas into the format as solo artist tobyMac.

“For me,” he says, “you have to write songs about life. I don’t think it’s life in the box of Christendom, it’s the personal struggles we all face. Of course, my faith in God plays a role in that, but I’m not hitting them over the head.”

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