Do Away With The Christian Music Industry

Zach Nielsen adds to the voices of those lamenting the current state of Christian music. His concern is that there is too much of a sort of idolatrous cult of personalty around many Christian artists – even those whose stock-in-trade is worship music. One of the problems Nielsen points out is the pressure on Christian music’s so-called gatekeepers to be profitable while still have some theological scruples. Perhaps though we need to do away with the gatekeepers altogether though. Now I know that a lot of pastors and Christian parents might like the idea of their being a sort of “gatekeeper” for the music they approve of as being sufficiently Christian, but maybe this is a call that people should make on their own anyway. At any rate business model wherein we pay for recordings of music is in a death spiral it seems. Yes there will still be revenue from digital downloads, but gone are the heady days of huge CD profits in the 1990s.

Instead of trying to postpone the inevitable, maybe as Christians we should just blow this model up. Christian artists who have a lot of mainstream appeal (Sufjan Stevens and a handful of others) can make a decent living touring and so on as any other artists would. This would be little different from how, say, a devout, successful author could continue to enjoy publication through secular outlets. As for worship though, I suspect there will still be demand for albums and so on, but let’s stop pressing them on disc. Instead let’s go for digital downloads. While we’re at it let’s stop using band glamour photos as artwork in favour of crowdsourced artwork that conveys the feeling of the album (most digital music services still include artwork). The music and visuals can stand or fall on their own, without the force of cult of personality. And since the cost of recording really high-quality audio has fallen so radically in the past few years, let’s give worship music away as much as possible.

Maybe this is all idealistic, but the days of making money off of recordings are numbered as it is. Musicians can still make a living off of live performances, so it’s not as though we are at the end of music or something, just at the end of a particular model of distribution that has only been around for less than a century. Caedmon did not need a record industry, Luther did not need one, Handel did not need one, Bach did not need one. New models will emerge, and in the meantime, putting worship music in people’s hands through cheap, free, or donations-based downloads seems a much better solution. Having a Christian music industry with magazines and record labels and Christian bookstores to act as distributers is not a model that is going to last a long time anyway.