Hard bands Skillet, Pillar, Day Of Fire and Disciple; pop rockers The Afters; innovative rock/electronica act MuteMath, and their current tourmate Mat Kearney, a singer/songwriter/rapper; all have scored mainstream deals. They're not alone.
Screamo band Underoath has racked up 200,000 sales on word-of-mouth and
touring. DJ Andy Hunter hasn't been ringing the record store register -- but
his aggressive electronica tracks have appeared in dozens of movies, TV
shows and commercials. If you saw an action movie trailer last year, you've
likely heard his inescapable song "Go." His newest release hit iTunes' top
10 electronica albums.
Improved musical chops, impressive fan bases cultivated by constant touring, and artists who don't trash hotel rooms are all part of the draw, according to label execs like Capitol Records' Jaime Feldman. He snatched up Relient K's new record, "Mmhmm," after their previous disc sold 400,000 on a small Christian label. "Mmhmm" has equaled that already -- and now both records have gone gold.
"They recognize that when a band plays several hundred shows a year and has a base of 100(,000)-200,000 units, they have a number of things already working for them," says Zach Kelm, Skillet's manager. "If they sign a brand new band, they don't have any of that, and you have to get a huge hit (to succeed)."
While pop artists Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith and r 'n' b siblings BeBe 'n' CeCe Winans led the crossover charge in the late '80s, much of the success Christian rock acts are tasting today is because of a couple of groundbreaking bands.
"Switchfoot dramatically changed the landscape," notes Brad O'Donnell, a vice president for EMI Christian Label Group, the band's Christian label home for seven years. "They weren't the only one: Jars (of Clay) knocked on the door. P.O.D. knocked it part way open. Switchfoot knocked it down. They changed what we think is possible for a Christian rock band."
Their success -- a double platinum record (2 million copies) and two monster radio hits -- is notable in part because of their record's lyrical approach. Rather than preaching, or dodging faith issues, songwriter Jon Foreman lobs questions at the listener: "This is your life/Are you who you want to be?"
For Christian artists, the answer increasingly means having a foot in both secular and sacred worlds -- typically without changing their message.
Both O'Donnell and Kelm say eight of 10 acts they talk to now want to be signed in both markets. "It's not that they don't want to be in the Christian market," says Kelm. "They just want to look beyond that." In addition to Skillet, he's working with two new bands that will each debut in both.
Steve Ford of S/R/E Recordings, home to the group Disciple, says, "More and more artists want to follow that Switchfoot model. There's an amazing band in Dallas (called) Radiant. I call up their management and ask 'How can I be involved?' He says 'Get us a general market deal.'"
Because of the current climate, Ford says he can call up someone at 'upstream' record label Epic, and they'll listen, in this case sending a rep to hear a gig at Austin's South-by-Southwest music festival. "More bands are going 'OK, the Christian market, that's great -- but tell me about general market.' That excites me."
Pop-oriented Christian labels have had to rethink relegating rock music to a niche. According to radio analyst Rick Welke, the target audience for the two largest Christian radio formats -- "Adult Contempory" and "Christian Hit Radio" -- grew up on rock. "Now they're 20, 30 and even 40-plus years old, and it is part of who they are."
"If the music were stronger, it could go more places."
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"With Credential, we're trying to respond to what's happening in the marketplace. There's a new generation of rock acts that needs a different kind of marketing." He says they're defined by their touring schedule: "There used to be more of a distinction between a band that plays clubs, or plays youth groups; now, they may play a club Friday night, a youth group Saturday night, and a worship service Sunday. Now the lines are a lot more blurry. We need a new label that can accommodate that." Credential's first two acts, hard band Dizmas and the more reflective Edison Glass, will release this summer. O'Donnell's working with another new act, needtobreathe, jointly with Lava/Atlantic. All three are working with mainstream producers.
"They're interested in taking our stuff into their marketplace," says Ford. "Avalon and Point Of Grace have such a distinctly Christian sound -- that big vocal sound -- if you take that to (a mainstream label), they go `What is this?' You can't even find a band like that out there. It takes wisdom. Just because it sells over here doesn't mean it's viable in the general market."
Too-direct lyrics aren't necessarily the issue, says O'Donnell. "I'll be honest, sometimes we over-think the lyrical question. Sometimes if the music were stronger, it could go more places. Sometimes what we perceive as a bias against Christian music is just that the music's not as good."
It's possible to succeed without jettisoning faith-oriented lyrics: Skillet scored an active rock hit with the not-so-subtly titled "Savior," and pop band MercyMe has marched up the AC chart three times with blatantly faith-based songs.
Signing in both markets is not without pitfalls, though, as both Skillet and Pillar learned.
Pillar played round-of-the-label shuffle, a game the artist often loses. According to lead singer Rob Beckley, when Universal chief Jimmy Iovine shuttered the declining MCA label, he shifted five acts over to sister Geffen Records: Mary J. Blige, Blink 182, The Roots, Newfound Glory -- and Pillar. "No one at Geffen knew who we were ... there was no interest, they did nothing." They soon freed themselves from their contract, returned home to Flicker Records, put out a new record that's sold faster than their last -- and are again being courted by the mainstream.
Skillet got their shot through a long-standing connection with producer Paul Ebersold (Three Doors Down, Sister Hazel), who helmed demos they shopped to the mainstream. Kelm recalls, "He said, 'I've got a 14 year-old kid, and I'm sick of working on things that mean nothing, so I'll invest my time with this."