The Christian Music Industry...
This topic is something that has been on my heart for a long time. However, I've never articulated these things beyond private convos because I've never had an ideal public platform to express them. Praise God for blogs! (I'll warn you from the outset that this will be a longer-than-normal post because of the complexities of the issues involved)
In many ways, I've been in a very privileged and somewhat unique position as it relates to the music industry as a whole and the Christian music industry in particular. There are at least four reasons why I say this:
1. For whatever reason, in God's providence, I've been around a number of artists, athletes and entertainers (Christian and non-Christian) who are world-famous and richer than I'll ever be- both before and after their fame. I've always been the person who was really close to the person who knew So-and-So, lol. I could tell you a number of stories about situations where I've somehow wound up in places and around people that had me praying silently, "Uh...Lord? What in the world am I doing here? And when are they going to notice that I don't belong and tell me to leave!" Because of this exposure, I've been privy to a lot of what goes on behind the scenes in the music industry.
2. Although God has graced Lampmode Recordings with a loyal following, music and a name that have gained us access to privileged places, I'm enough of a "nobody" to retain anonymity as I've observed honest dialogue between different Christian artists and industry people. This might not be possible if people felt they had to watch what they said around me because of any "status" they think I may have.
3. By God's grace, my convictions about the authority of Scripture, the supremacy of Christ in all things and the centrality of the gospel were deeply implanted into my soul long before my exposure to the behind-the-scenes goings on in the Christian music industry. This may not seem noteworthy, but based on what I've observed, this would be the exception and not the norm among those who have had similar exposure. And this is extremely helpful, because it has helped me to sift things through a Biblical lens and allow that, rather than normal industry protocol to guide my decision-making as I've waded through the murky, fuzzy, compromise-friendly waters of the Christian music biz.
4. Finally, I have no attachment to the Christian music industry and therefore, I have nothing to lose by speaking honestly on this topic. I intentionally and gratefully work at a "regular" job and do not desire a full-time career in music. Most aspiring Christian emcees who desire a full-time career have no idea about what it takes, which is part of the reason why so few who desire it actually succeed. Because of my convictions about the importance of the local church, I refuse to do things that would constantly take me away from the church community that God has placed me in. Because most bookings for Christian Hip-hop artists take place on weekends, this results in my turning down more engagements than I accept. There are pros and cons to this, but at the end of the day, I can sleep well without the internal torment of wondering if God is truly being glorified through my music because of all the ungodly things that come along with the music industry. I know that some of what I'm about to say will open me up the charge of hypocrisy as I prepare to release a new album that will in all likelihood be nationally distributed. But that's OK. At Lampmode, we've weighed through the issues and believe that there is a way to produce, release and sell Christ-centered music in a way that brings honor and glory to God, which is what we've always attempted to do.
So, with that as an introduction (I told you it was long), let me share what prompted this blog. I recently came across the website of CCM artist Nichole Nordeman. I've only heard a little bit of her music, but in an interview she did with CCM Magazine, she raised a question that I've wrestled with for years:
"Armed with a guilty conscience and CCM’s permission, I was compelled to ask some other artists if they, too, might wrestle a bit with the irony that we are trying desperately, through our music, to point to the liberating love of Jesus while packaging that music in a way that points to…well…us."
Amen, Nichole! Finally, someone with a large profile in the Christian music industry is open about the dilemma that so many Christian artists are silent about because they either a) can't see the dilemma, b) can't afford to acknowledge the dilemma or c) they don't care about it. This issue has plagued me from the moment the idea of recording music became a reality. It has been the source of numerous discussions, debates and arguments- not to mention much prayer. If it's not clear already, let me try to lay it out as succinctly as possible.
The Scriptures are clear that God is extremely jealous for His own glory. He absolutely detests idolatry, i.e. giving anyone or anything other than Him the attention, adoration, affection, attention and love that only He rightly deserves. In many ways, the whole drama of redemption is about God subduing the hearts and wills of an idolatrous people who- as a result of the fall- have a natural, sinful tendency to turn away from the true God and create lesser gods for ourselves, which is a great evil and worthy of eternal condemnation in God's sight. A few texts make this abundantly clear:
"You shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3)
"It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by His name you shall swear. You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you, for the LORD your God in your midst is a jealous God, lest the anger of the LORD your God be kindled against you, and He destroy you from off the face of the earth." (Deuteronomy 6:13-15)
"Thus says the LORD, behold, I will bring disaster upon this place and upon its inhabitants, all the words of the book that the king of Judah has read. Because they have forsaken Me and have made offerings to other gods, that they might provoke me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched." (2 Kings 22:16-17)
"I am the LORD; that is My name; My glory I give to no other, nor My praise to carved idols." (Isaiah 42:8)
"For My own sake, for My own sake, I do it, for how should My name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another" (Isaiah 48:11
Many more texts of this type could be cited. But to the discerning reader, it should be obvious that the worship of any god other than God Himself inevitably results in a response of divine wrath. So here is my main point and the first part of the dilemma which Nichole Nordeman referred to:
The music industry as a whole- including the Christian music industry- is fundamentally built upon a system that is designed to make idols for the ultimate purpose of monetary gain.
I'll deal with the idolatry issue in part 2, but I'll first deal with the issue of monetary gain because it's easier to demonstrate. In fact, it's inherent in the very definition of "industry"
American Heritage Dictionary defines "industry" as follows:
1. Commercial production and sale of goods.
Webster's chimes in by referring to "industry" this way:
2. a distinct group of productive or profit-making enterprises, i.e., the banking industry
Do you see the tension? By definition, any industry's primary concern is the commercial production and sale of goods and profit-making. The people who start music companies, like any other company, do so to make money. The problem is that making money should not be the primary goal of the Christian. It's not that making money or being industrious are bad things in and of themselves. However, there is a serious problem when making money dictates the decisions that are made by Christian music artists because it opens the door for truth to be compromised. When making money is the main concern, the record buying public (and not the Scriptures) inevitably begins to dictate what should and should not be released. It becomes about profit rather than imparting of truth; sales rather than glorifying God; crowd response rather than gospel proclamation.
Of course, in the mind of the record executive, if you can do the former things and make money- great. But if it doesn't sell, the approach needs to change. This is why so much of popular "Christian" music today is so watered-down. With rare exceptions, it has been determined that weighty, difficult truth does not sell records. By and large, people don't want to be told that they are wicked sinners in desperate need of a Savior and in danger of the righteous wrath of a Holy God. The record buying public simply wants to have fun and be entertained. Christianity in America is decidedly man-centered; therefore, God-centered music is a turn-off.
Thus, we have the conflict. The Scriptures are decidedly God-centered (Romans 11:36). The Scriptures emphasize the worship of God over the exaltation of man (Isaiah 2:11). The call of the Biblical gospel is jam-packed with weighty, difficult truths (Mark 8:34-35, Luke 14:26)! So what does a Christian record executive do with this conflict? Sadly, as the history of the Christian music industry indicates, the answer is usually to compromise. (By the way, it is common knowledge in the industry that the top decision-makers concerning Christian music are usually not Christians. Most gospel and contemporary Christian music record labels are simply subsidiaries of secular companies. I'm referring here to the few Christian music executives who have a certain level of power in the industry)
This is the problem in a nutshell. For the Christian music industry, spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ is a means to an end, not the ultimate goal itself. The ultimate goal is making money at any cost. If it was determined that spreading the true Biblical gospel sold, you'd better believe that's what we would hear on the radio. But since it's been determined that it doesn't sell, we rarely hear the Biblical gospel in most of the music that claims to be gospel or Christian. Interestingly enough, even the title "gospel music" is rapidly being replaced with the term "inspirational music" at many radio stations. I actually think this is a good thing, as the term "gospel music" has added more confusion than clarity to what the gospel actually is because of the lack of the Biblical gospel in music that carries the label.
Biblically, there is no other ultimate goal than the glory of God as seen in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for sinners. Concerning our fallen state and God's remedy for it in Christ, Romans 3:23-25 says
"...all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith."
Our sin has subjected us to God's righteous wrath. In His great love, He sent His Son Jesus Christ to be a wrath-absorbing substitute (propitiation) for all who trust in the finished work of Christ's life, death and resurrection. And when we received this most precious of gifts by faith alone apart from our works, God declared us to be righteous in His sight and freed us from the penalty (justified), power (redemption) and, ultimately, the presence of sin.
The purpose of this glorious work of God is found at the end of verse 25:
"This was to show God's righteousness, because in His divine forbearance He had passed over former sins."
In other words, the work of Christ is not primarily about us, even though believers receive its glorious benefits. It's about God bringing glory and honor to His Holy name, which we saw earlier is the main point of the drama of redemption. The Bible condemns those who would peddle the gospel for monetary gain(1 Timothy 6:3-5, 2 Corinthians 2:17) and it is a great dishonor to God to treat His glorious truth as interchangeable or even replaceable with any other message that will make money.
And this is part of the dilemma that every Christian who is involved in the Christian music industry must wrestle with. In part 2, I'll deal with what Nichole Nordeman was alluding to-the issue of idolatry. I'll also give some real -life examples and seek to make some practical applications.
grace and peace,