“But Thats Not Christian Music!!!”

Edgy, innovative new music by Christian artists that was pushed underground by both the Contemporary Christian music industry and by mainstream pop, rock, R&B and country music labels and radio has found a new audience and is establishing influential roles in the hearts and minds of music fans.

In my last article I asserted that the Christian Music Industry had been pushed underground by the Mainstream Music Industry.  Generally, that means that music by “Christian” artists do not make it to the mainstream charts and are not played n mainstream music channels.  An entire industry (labels, magazines, radio stations) has grown-up around these artists.  The irony is that because the Christian Music industry sets such stringent rules to participate that many talented musicians who are Christians have been driven into an underground scene within an underground scene.

The irony upon the irony is that these Christian artists who are being driven underground are being discovered by music fans looking for exciting music not available on the radio. This is a strong, vibrant music scene growing in size and diversity every year.  Bands such as Underoath, Paramore and Emery are taking the music industry by storm.

The Contemporary Christian music industry sprang up within our lifetime. When my parents were kids (in the 60-70s), the only Christian music that was pressed and sold was gospel, hymns, and country music. For the most part, the amazing music that was being created during those times by the Beatles, The Who, Bruce Springsteen and James Brown, among others, was not rooted in Christian ethos. Young Christians during these times embraced the musical tastes reflected in that era of  pop music, and not their faith. 

This all changed in the mid 70s, when a group calling themselves The Jesus People started challenging the mindset of Christians in pop culture; and with this mindset came a whole new way of presenting faith through music.  Larry Norman, Adam Again and Glen Kaiser started using full bands, controversial lyrics, and professional recordings to talk about their faith.  For the next 20 years, the market grew beyond a handful of artist to a full blown music industry with hundreds of artists and labels under its wing.

As the industry grew, so did the number of new musicians striving to express their Christ-centered  beliefs through their music.  Over the last fifteen years of the 20th century, we began to see Christians embracing many forms of music to express their faith; hip-hop (The Grits, T-Bone and KRS One), electronica (Scott Blackwell and Sheltershed), hardcore ( Strongarm, Living Sacrifice, and Blindside), and punk (Dogwood, Slick Shoes).  The underground of the Christian music industry began to grow at a huge rate.  For many fans, it was the music they had always liked, talking about the things they knew about. 

Where as in many of the genres that made up the mainstream Christian market were focusing on worship music, pop music, and sanitized versions of popular secular genres; the underground scene was creating new music that rivaled their secular counterparts for creativity and intensity.  The diversity in the music that was thriving in this scene made it more possible for the performers to start to integrate into non-Christian markets, Underoath and Paramore have both headlined Warped Tour, Eisley’s first tour was with mainstream megastars Coldplay. Anberlin, Copeland, and Relient K are all on huge mainstream labels; and P.O.D., As I Lay Dying, Flyleaf, and Paramore have all been nominated for Grammys. The Afters have had their song featured as a theme song for a primetime drama; and the band Monarch’s music is frequently used on “The Hills”. All these artists came from the underground Christian music scene.

Most people that are reading this know the difference between the two sides of the industry. The Contemporary side is the stuff you are most likely to hear at church and youth groups;. Chris Tomlin, David Crowder, Downhere, Mercy Me and Third Day are some of the more recognizable names in this field. It is also what you will most likely hear on Christian radio and read about in Christian music magazines.  Lesser known artists such as mewithoutYou, The Ambassodor , and Ivoryline make up what most people consider the underground scene. Not because the artist or the albums are not popular or successful; but because the sound and energy behind these artist are very different from what the majority of people would consider “Christian” music.  The non-contemporary side of the industry is having an easier time crossing over into the secular mainstream due to its ability to adapt to more current music trends, genres, and attitudes.  We are seeing more of the artists you never hear mentioned in youth group going on tour with big name artists and having their CDS reviewed in magazines other than ones devoted solely to Christian music.

Now for the big irony:

What was once thought of as the underground Christian scene is achieving the crossover success that the Contemporary scene is still striving for. With the addition of better distribution for labels such as Tooth and Nail and Gotee, , this vast group of ‘underground” artists are beginning to find success by operating outside of the norms of both the Mainstream and Contemporary Christian industries..

Is it dangerous for the industry to be so fractioned; or with the growth of the scene is it inevitable?  Is there something that the contemporary side of the industry could learn from the underground side, or vice versa?

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