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The Fledgling State of the Contemporary Christian Music Industry

When people hear the term ‘Christian music,’ for the most part, they think of sub-par bands making lame, God-obsessed music. In a lot of ways, this is true.

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I’ve wanted to write a piece about this for a long, long time. The only problem was that I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to say, and I wasn’t quite sure how to say it. When dealing with any subject even abstractly related to ‘religion,’ or ‘Christianity,’ or ‘spirituality,’ you must come at it both fairly, and respectfully.

First off, I suppose I should present the angle that I come at this piece from: I believe in God. I consider myself to be a Christian. I read the Bible. I am not fanatical about my beliefs, and I never try to force my opinion (or ‘worldview’ if you will) upon anyone. I hate it when people associate me with those “crazy church people” that are always picketing some business for an inane reason, or ranting from a soapbox on things they know nothing about, claiming to be a representative for every person in existence that believes in God. Those types of people annoy me just as much as they do the next guy.

Now, from that background, I come at the topic of the current state of Contemporary Christian Music. Living knee-deep in the bible-belt of the Southern part of the United States; there are many very popular Contemporary Christian Music radio stations around here. (In the small-ish city I live, we can pick up at least three on the FM dial.) This being one of the most concentrated areas for the ‘Christian culture,’ many of the bands tour locally, and I’ve had the chance to see, and hear material from, many of them. For the most part, Contemporary Christian Music suffers from the same pitfalls that mainstream music suffers from. Almost every popular act sounds the same, and the airwaves are flooded with power-pop-rock and tweeny-girl-pop almost incessantly. Except for lyrical differences, the ‘Top Ten CCM Countdowns’ come off nearly identical to the ‘Mainstream Top Ten Countdowns’ a lot of the times. This is where I find the greatest problem.

It seems that all CCM is doing is taking whatever is popular in the mainstream, and making shaky, Christian-themed knock-offs to market. The problem began long-ago. The CCM radio stations and markets just evolved over the years: first as edgy, different options for younger demographics/families looking for music, and eventually it just became its own (very separate) little world. The CCM industry has its own awards show, as well as its own all-star acts. From as far back as I can remember there has always been a separatist issue present.

Now, I ’m not going to get preachy, but isn’t one of the basic necessities of Christianity to reach people with the message? To reach out into the masses, and be an influence? You should use any method available to get the message across. Dating back to before the Crusades there have been missionaries going into the world, to try and save people, to try and have an affect on people. Shouldn’t this very, very important aspect of Christianity transfer into the realm of its music? Instead of trying to reach the masses with great, inspired music written from a Christian worldview, most CCM acts instead opt to hide within the bubble, and cater only to those already living happily within it. Shouldn’t one of the main aspects of CCM be to reach out, and reach people? The CCM industry and ‘bubble’ as I like to call it is already so far-expanded, that it’s almost too late to change. All we can really do is adapt.

Recent success from popular bands such as Switchfoot and Relient K (pictured) show promise. Both are very popular pop-rock-puck bands just making good music. Period. The fact that they’re Christians, and good musicians, is all that makes a difference. It shows through in the lyrics in a non-heavy-handedly way, and it affects and reaches everyone: both people in the ‘bubble,’ and the ever-important rest of the world outside it. In my opinion, most CCM is nearly inaccessible to enjoy unless you’re already a Christian.

When people hear the term ‘Christian music,’ for the most part, they think of sub-par bands making lame, God-obsessed music. In a lot of ways, this is true. Much of the music to be found in CCM is bad (just as much mainstream music sucks). But if you just dig a little deeper you really can find some great acts. No matter what aspect or faith opinion (or lack thereof) you come at it from, there are great, accessible bands rocketing around under-the-radar; but still stuck inside the bubble, where the rest of the world can’t find them. Look no further than Mat Kearney (whose upcoming major label debut has both a bit of CCM, and mainstream indie buzz), Shane & ShaneMatthew WestShawn McDonald, and a plethora of popular hardcore bands for examples of good Christian acts. What most CCM bands haven’t realized yet is that you must make the method of delivery worthy of carrying the message.

It’s going to take good bands, with a Christian worldview, released in the mainstream market before anything is really going to happen. Old acts such as Jars of Clay and DC Talk have hinted at this success; and current acts like Switchfoot and Relient K are currently riding on a wave of it- but it’s going to take a lot more than those few examples to do any striving good. What the CCM market fails to realize, time and time again, is that if the music isn’t good; no one is going to want to listen to it.It all has to start with the music.

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Hatchie – Keepsake

Keepsake, the debut album by Brisbane dream pop artist Hatchie is musical luminescence that can only be described as music written for the stars

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Hatchie Keepsake

Brisbane indie-pop artist Hatchie (known to her friends and family as Harriette Pilbeam) is in the envious position of being a pop artist unspoiled by the many trappings of what it is to be a modern pop artist. Unlike some of her contemporaries who craft music by committee or with Sheeran-like self-importance, Hatchie is as of now, unsullied by the pressures of the cookie-cutter pop machine. Hatchie’s debut full length is a showcase for a talent who is supremely confident and composed in her abilities, and Keepsake is musical luminescence that can only be described as music written for the stars. The album is also a wonderful throwback to pop’s dreamy 60s influences that shuffle in and out of this delirium while working alongside distinctly more current musical touches.

There is the lush dream pop sounds of “Without a Blush”, taking cues from the best of what Stars and Goldfrapp conjure but heaping a tonne of Pilbeam’s charisma on it. Like her vocals, “Without a Blush” has this elegance that has the ability to elevate songs from being beautiful to grand. It is the kind of vocal elegance that really shines through on songs like the skittering, beat-driven “Obsessed” and the alternative, guitar-fuelled (yay!) “When I Get Out”. Indie/electronic closer “Keep” is a wonderful end to proceedings.

However, the great strength of Keepsake is not just its composure in how all the songs have been put together. It is also this genuine, natural-sounding quality that permeates the album- nothing overly written, overly produced or put together by research groups or music analysts. It just sounds like talent. We can argue that much of pop music is constructed to appease the moment- designed to grab as much attention as possible in an A.D.D. world. And sure, that can be said about almost any kind of music, but the resulting aural tone of Keepsake is anything but transient or transparent.

The best way to combat tepid chart-topping music is to write better pop songs. Songs like “Her Own Heart” and the disco-toned “Stay” are examples of pop music that come across as timeless. We are moved by the songs found on Keepsake when we listen to them today. And I suspect that in 10 years time, or in 20, we will most likely feel the same. It is rare to find the sort of ageless beauty you find on Keepsake.

(Heavenly Recordings)

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