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Christian Rock Gets With the Beat

It's the fastest-growing segment of the industry, thanks to groups like the Newsboys, Reality Check, Third Day

By Jonathan CurielSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 28, 1997


Jenny Michaud and her younger sister Dana no longer hide their love of Christian rock music. Their favorite group, the Newsboys, is popular with their friends and acquaintances, unlike bands they previously championed.

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"It's music that you can take someplace else, and not everybody will think, 'Oh, that's Christian music. I don't want to listen to it,' " says Jenny Michaud.

The Michaud sisters were among thousands of fans attending the alternative rock venue of Joyfest '97, an annual Christian music event at Paramount's Great America theme park in Santa Clara, Calif. The one-day festival is a showcase of some of Christian music's top groups, as well as bands that are climbing the charts.

Boundaries between Christian and mainstream rock have blurred almost beyond recognition. Twenty years ago, "Jesus Music" was pioneered by groups like Petra, which played heavy, rock-oriented songs in church basements, then preached to those who stayed after the concert.

These days, Christian alternative bands like Jars of Clay open for Sting in big arenas and have their hit songs played on MTV and VH1.

"Christian music has diversified," says Warren Pettit, music professor at Greenville College, a school near St. Louis that offers courses in contemporary Christian music. "There are an increasing number of bands now that have mainstream visibility."

Jars of Clay got its start at Greenville College, but it's places like Nashville and New York that have come to symbolize the dramatic changes in Christian music - Nashville because that's where Christian rock's prominent labels are based, and New York, because that's where the parent companies of those labels are headquartered.

Previously independent labels like ForeFront and Sparrow are now in the hands of major, secular companies; EMI, BMG, and Sony all own Christian labels now. Professor Pettit says the marketing muscle of those corporations helps explain why so many Christian bands are now crossing over into the mainstream.

"It allows those bands to get widespread distribution," he says. "It took them out of the Christian bookstores and started putting [their CDs] in Tower Records and Wal-Mart."

"There are other factors [that explain the emergence of so many Christian rock bands], but that is far and away the most important reason," he says. "People can simply wander into Target and find Third Day or Plumb or Jars of Clay and buy it, whereas before, they had to wander into Christian bookstores, and most people weren't inclined to do that."

Yet Christian bookstores - with a big assist from Billboard magazine and SoundScan - have played a role in the success of Christian rock acts. Billboard uses SoundScan to determine its bestseller lists. Two years ago, SoundScan began including Christian bookstores in its count (the Christian Booksellers Association has approximately 10,000 retailers), which is when such Christian groups as dc Talk and Jars of Clay began appearing on Billboard's Top 200 album chart.

Improved quality

Another factor is that Christian music has gotten better. Increased production values - along with better songwriting and playing - has created music that ranks with the best of secular music.

The result: It's no longer surprising when Bob Carlisle's "Butterfly Kisses" reaches No. 1 on Billboard's album chart as it did earlier this year, or when Kirk Franklin's gospel/hip-hop "God's Property" gets as high as No. 3, or when Jars of Clay's second album debuts at No. 8.

Christian music is reportedly the fastest-growing segment of the industry. About 1,200 Christian radio stations feature Christian music (which ranges from adult contemporary to gospel), but just a handful of rock stations play Christian rock music close to 24 hours a day.