- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 4, 2002

ATLANTA — Tai Anderson recalled the dark ages of Christian music when bands had to resort to humiliating stunts to draw big crowds.

"If you were doing a concert, you'd say, 'Free concert. Please come. Free hot dogs. Free trampoline,'" the bassist for the Christian rock band Third Day said. "It was like you were apologizing for the event."
Contemporary Christian music doesn't need to offer hot dogs anymore. After years of being dismissed as bland and clumsy, Christian music is booming. While the mainstream music industry's sales dropped by 3 percent last year, Christian album sales increased by 13.5 percent.
That popularity was evident last month at the 16th annual Atlanta Fest, the largest Christian concert in the South. The four-day event included headliners Third Day, Michael W. Smith, Jars of Clay and Audio Adrenaline.
Creator Chuck Tilley says today's Christian youths are more passionate about their music than those at the first Atlanta Fest in 1987.
"They're more radical, more expressive," Mr. Tilley says. "When they're standing there and praising the Lord it may be raising their hands or dancing they're excited about knowing Christ, and they don't care who knows it."
Atlanta has become a hub of Christian music because bands tour here and live here.
Atlanta is home to at least six nationally known acts, including rock bands Third Day, Smalltown Poets, the Waiting and NewSong, and gospel singers Babbie Mason and Dottie Peoples.
The city's Christian music scene was bolstered two years ago with the introduction of radio station Fish 104.7 FM, a co-sponsor of Atlanta Fest. The station, which has about 300,000 listeners, has won the Dove Award, the Christian Grammy, for major-market radio station of the year.
At least 40 new Christian radio stations have spread across the nation in the past two years, says Frank Breeden, president of the Christian Music Trade Association.
"The net result is that more fans are able to hear new singles from new records, and that's resulting in increased record sales," he says.
Also triggering the jump was September 11. In each of the three weeks after the terrorist attacks, Christian record sales averaged a 22 percent spike, Mr. Breeden said.
"The events of 9/11 didn't cause this resurgence," he said, "but they certainly fueled it."
Of the other factors explaining Christian music's popularity, the biggest is the corporate buyout of independent Christian labels during the last decade.
The industry started as counterculture folk-rock during the Jesus movement of the 1970s. Christian artists were seen as ministers first, musicians second. Slick press releases and marketing plans were rare. The music tended to feature syrupy lyrics and clunky musicianship.
"It was driven by a lot of zeal and passion, but the quality wasn't quite there," Mr. Breeden said.
The crossover success of Christian acts like the well-crafted pop of Amy Grant and the hip-hop rhythms of Kirk Franklin changed that. The musicianship became sharper. Christian artists began to explore their doubts in song. Major labels added marketing muscle and a more efficient system for tracking sales. Third Day's record label, Christian powerhouse Essential, is part of the Provident Music Group, a division of the Zomba Group that also includes Jive, home of 'N Sync and Britney Spears.
Christian music also diversified its appeal, evolving into a set of Christian sub-genres: rock, rhythm and blues, hip-hop, even boy bands. For each secular music craze, Christian record companies developed their own versions. Female vocalists included the quartet Point of Grace and soloists Twila Paris, Michelle Tumes, Rebecca St. James and Margaret Becker. Male vocalists included Steven Curtis Chapman, Steve Green and trios Satellite Soul and DC Talk.
By the 1990s, Christian music was cool. Groups like introspective rock band Jars of Clay, folk-pop Sixpence None the Richer and, more recently, P.O.D. (Payable on Death) became MTV staples.
P.O.D. embodies a look that is popular among many young people. Its members sport tattoos, body piercings, dreadlocks and shades. In their publicity photos, they express the same gangsta-cool frowns of their colleagues in the secular field.
"Although they're tattooed and pierced, they're reaching people in that walk of life," says Kevin Keene, a 32-year-old Christian music fan who works at a Christian bookstore.
Frank Fortunato, a recent home-school program graduate, says he likes Christian music because it can inspire just about anyone.
"A lot of Christian music is easy to relate to non-Christians," says Mr. Fortunato, 19, of metro Atlanta, who hopes to break into the business himself. "It deals with pain, brokenness. But the Christian lyrics try to point to something that eases the pain, while secular music just wallows in it."
As Christian music's popularity grows, so does the industry's inherent tension in balancing celebrity with Christianity.
The Christian star-making machinery image consultants, airbrushed photos, personal makeup stylists is no different from that in the pop industry. Even sex, some Christian music veterans say, is used to sell young artists.
Mark Hollingsworth, who worked in the field for 29 years, said he quit the Christian music industry in part because it had lost its way. Having managed award-winning groups like Sixpence None the Richer and Smalltown Poets, he says he has seen how the formula for Christian music success has changed.
"A lot of it comes down to: If they have a nice face, do they have a good bust line?" he says. "And do they have a nice butt?"
David Crowder, an up-and-coming Christian artist at Atlanta Fest, says celebrity can interfere with ministry.
"Part of being a Christian is to glory God, rather than ourselves," he says. "But the whole record industry is set up to make stars out of people."
Fans are ambivalent about Christian music's growing popularity. Some say Christian groups who don't preach to the unconverted have helped make the music more accessible. Others complain that the more popular a Christian group becomes, the more veiled are its references to Jesus.
"There's a segment in the Christian community that says if it doesn't say Jesus 10 times in a song, it ain't a Christian song," says Mr. Tilley, the Atlanta Fest founder.
At least the days of trampolines and hot dogs are over, says Mr. Anderson, of Third Day. Some young people are discovering that Christian music is the ultimate rebel music.
"Christianity was never supposed to be about the religious status quo," Mr. Anderson says. "Jesus was a radical rebel and that's what led to his death. If a young person is really looking to be different, identify with Christian music."


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