Deflating the Bubble

Now that 2004 is drawing to a close, it seems like a good time to take a look at what happened in Christian music during a year that could be summed up with this headline: “2004 May Be the Year Christian Music Had a Greater Impact on Culture Than Ever Before.”

Many, including yours truly, have observed over the years that Christian music has seemed to exist inside its own “bubble,” a sub-culture isolated from the popular, mainstream culture it perennially hoped to have an impact on. Although the bubble has not exactly burst, last year it began to deflate, letting our music loose for more of the world to hear.

The pioneers of contemporary Christian music could only imagine the past couple years — from MercyMe’s miraculous mainstream pop hit to Smokie Norful’s urban radio invasion to Stacie Orrico being virtually “stuck” on MTV’s “TRL” to Switchfoot’s daring to move into contemporary hit radio (and platinum sales). At one point this past April, Christian market-supported artists claimed an unprecented six hits during the same week on the Billboard and Radio & Records airplay charts. Christian music was increasingly seen and heard on big and small screens this year. Whether it was Bebo Norman or Hawk Nelson on “Smallville,” tobyMac on “Veronica Mars” or Superchic[k] in JC Penney ads and “Joan of Arcadia,” we can see clearly now that Christian music is getting noticed.

This year was also notable for the heightened activism of Christian artists for the world’s poor and suffering. Many artists have meaningfully supported U2’s Bono and his organization DATA to bring awareness of the terrible AIDS pandemic in Africa. In fact, the support of Christian artists was so impressive to Bono that he appeared, via telecast, on the GMA Music Awards and offered grateful shout-outs to Michael W. Smith, tobyMac, Third Day, Margaret Becker, Charlie Peacock and Jars of Clay. Steven Curtis Chapman and his family rescued and adopted a third Chinese baby and raised awareness for adoption issues. Caedmon’s Call has been actively campaigning on behalf of the “untouchables” in India, and Natalie Grant and others are bringing awareness of the human trafficking that is taking place in the Sudan and other areas.

On a less joyful note, the Christian music industry has faced declining record sales due, in part, to the widespread theft through illegal downloading and CD burning as well as competition from other entertainment choices such as video games and DVDs. In the first few years of the new millennium, Christian music companies had seemingly been immune to music piracy, while the overall music industry was suffering great losses. But, our industry is now taking the hit, and one of the most difficult results has been lost jobs at Christian music labels. A study by the GMA and the Barna Group this past spring revealed that the average Christian teen is no different when it comes to stealing music. In fact, only one in 10 Christian teens believes illegal downloading is a moral issue! And of this moral minority, more than half had recently participated in at least one of several forms of music piracy in the months prior to the study. Following this study, the GMA launched a campaign called “Millions of Wrongs Don’t Make it Right,” designed to educate the Christian audience about the moral, ethical and legal implications of music piracy. And now the U.S. Department of Justice has gotten involved, calling intellectual property theft “a threat to the nation’s economy.” Fortunately, legitimate digital music-buying sources proliferated in 2004 — from a reborn Napster to your local Starbucks or Wal-Mart— and many of these outlets have discovered the “prophets” in Christian music. Even Christian retail stores like Lifeway are offering music downloads for sale.