Recently The Week published a provocative piece entitled “Who Killed the Contemporary Christian Music Industry?” In it, Tyler Huckabee notes that the CCM industry has shrunk dramatically. “In CCM’s heyday, approximately 50 million CCM albums were sold annually,” he writes. “In 2014, that number had plummeted to 17 million.” In other words, the CCM market today is a mere third of what it once was.
You can’t argue with the numbers. But I might, perhaps, argue a little with Huckabee’s interpretation of those numbers. He writes that “the descent of CCM is a reflection of America’s waning interest in Christianity as a whole.” While it’s true that fewer North Americans today self-identify as Christian than in generations past, it’s not as if Evangelicals—the primary audience of CCM music—have suddenly dropped to a third of their original numbers in recent years. The decline of CCM is more than just a reflection of a smaller purchasing audience.
In point of fact, American album sales in all genres have been in decline since the advent of the digital age. It’s not just CCM facing this challenge. Back in 2007, the United States saw 500.5 million albums sold annually in all genres. By 2014, the number had dropped drastically to about half that: 257 million album sales annually. Over roughly the same time period (2008-2014), Christian/Gospel sales dropped from 29.79 million albums to 17.36 million—or by about 58 percent. So the collapse in sales of CCM albums has closely mirrored the general collapse in album sales in the United States. Frankly, it would be more of a surprise if CCM hadn’t shrunk as much as it has, given the challenges facing the American music industry.
But perhaps there are other issues at work here too. As Huckabee and those he quotes rightly note, the CCM industry of today seems much less diverse than it was when it was at its peak. As market conditions grew less favorable, Huckabee writes, “the CCM industry began relying on sure bets, and the surest bet of all was what’s broadly known as ‘worship music’—songs people sing at church.” Worship music still sells. Christian pop and rock music? Not so much.
I’d like to suggest one reason why this is the case: much of the CCM industry’s music just wasn’t very good. Yes, there were some artists who wielded great artistic skill in their own right: dcTalk comes to mind. But many CCM artists simply could not compete against the skills of secular artists in the same genres. And yet that’s exactly how they were marketed. Walk into any Christian book/music store back in the late 1990s and early 2000s and you would see posters claiming, “If you like [this secular band] you’ll love [that Christian band].”
Perhaps the problem is that we didn’t love that Christian band. Perhaps they just weren’t as good as their secular counterpart. And perhaps Christians have gotten tired of settling for second best. (Worship music doesn’t really have a counterpart in the secular music industry, so it isn’t surprising that this is where most CCM sales come from these days. However good or bad contemporary worship music may be, there’s no secular challenger to steal the market.)
Christianity Today’s Alissa Wilkinson has described the Christian copy-cat culture well. We had “a whole market segment characterized by an ethos that said ‘Copy those guys over there but change a few things, and it doesn’t really matter if it’s very well made or innovative,’” she writes. Sadly, that knockoff approach was frequently accompanied by the sentiment that “if you don’t support this Christian product and its maker, then you’re harming Christians overall.”
It wasn’t just music of course. The Christian sub-culture produced (and still produces) books and movies too that were merely “sanitized versions of ‘secular products,’” in Wilkinson's words. And these sanitized versions are often not very good. A friend recently wrote on Facebook that she had only made it to the second page in a Christian novel she was reading before she had to “put it down due to nausea;” apparently the description of tendrils of hair lashing about one character’s face struck her as less than high art. “Oh Christian fiction,” she lamented, “why can’t you be good?”
It’s not surprising that the audience for such Christian art might eventually grow cold towards it. Christians want to enjoy good art as much as anyone; and if they can’t get it in the niche Christian market, there’s always the secular market to fill the gap. After all, why settle for a cheap imitation when the real thing is readily available?
There is a story (though it’s probably not true) that a shoemaker once asked Martin Luther how he should best live out his faith in his daily profession. “What does it mean to be a Christian cobbler?” he asked. Luther responded by telling the man what it did not mean: It did not mean that he should put little crosses on every shoe he made. Instead, a Christian shoemaker should simply focus on making good shoes, because by doing so he fulfills his vocational calling and serves his neighbor.
The same lesson holds true for Christian artists, whether their craft be literature, music, the visual arts, or drama. Christian artists are called to do more than just paste little crosses onto readily available secular products; they are called to think deeply about their craft so that they can, through their work, invite others, Christian and non-Christian alike, to also think deeply—about life and death and the One who holds life and death in his hands. That's the Christian artist's calling: to confront others with truth and beauty, to captivate imaginations, and to lead the audience deeper into contemplation of both creation and Creator.
God has blessed the Church with many talented artists; those of us who have not been so gifted should take pains to encourage those who have. That means making an active effort to seek out those who are making good Christian art (whether the art in question be overtly “Christian” or otherwise) and support them as they do so.
As for Christian copy-cat works? I’m sure they’ll hang around for some time longer. But I for one am tired of simply settling for what the cat drags in.
Mathew Block is editor of The Canadian Lutheran magazine and communications manager for Lutheran Church–Canada. He also serves as editor for the International Lutheran Council. He tweets @captainthin.