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Thursday, October 30, 2014

#11 - When's Your Favorite Band Coming to Your Town?

Whenever we petition fans to ask their favorite bands a question for an interview or our NRT LIVE show, we can pretty much expect the number one question to be: "When are you coming to [fill in the blank]?" 

That's a pretty telling question, because it illustrates that people are more interested in finding out when they might experience a band in person than learning more about the band themselves. It's funny because, really, they could just go on bands' websites or Facebook pages and immediately take a look at all public tour dates. 

But I think to some extent, people are thinking that, maybe by asking about their hometown, it'll increase their chances that the artist or band will consider booking a show there. 

If only it worked like that.

Being in the Pacific Northwest, I know a thing or two about shows not coming our way. The truth is, many bands' tours start and end east of the Mississippi (with Texas likely thrown in for good measure). And there's a good reason for that: That's the heart of the Bible belt. My friends northeast of Pennsylvania can understand, too. Blue states don't get a lot of love when it comes to Christian concerts. The Bible belt is where shows tend to sell out, and travel between cities is pretty seamless.

Out in the West, there are many well-populated California towns to visit, but beyond that there's Portland and Seattle--and MAYBE Spokane and Boise. And the distance between those cities is substantial enough that bands will surely lose money to play there. And in an industry where touring is what pays the bills (music sales sure don't), it's a pretty easy decision to make not to go. 


But of course, there's a spiritual issue to consider. The places where bands are least likely to be supported are the places that most need to hear them. Preaching to the choir certainly has a place, but there are still millions of people out there who need to hear the Truth of the Gospel in culturally relevant ways. 

So what's the answer? The answer could be to follow the Luis Palau model of free festivals underwritten by a conglomeration of local churches, passionate about the outreach (but, really, how often can you tap that well?). 

I think the whole stripped-down, Living Room Tour idea is a pretty good one. It guarantees money each night for artists while bringing them to cities that may otherwise never see a concert by a recording artist. It presents a sort of New Testament, traveling apostle vibe, where bands stay in host homes and have the time to personally tell their stories and get to know the communities in which they perform. 


The problem is that this model leaves the bells and whistles at home. No fog machine, pyro or even a full band, really. But it's better than nothing.

Bands should really consider this model for a season every year, or every other year, in order to engage the forgotten parts of the country. We're whining out here in the Northwest, but there's an entire cluster of "flyover states" in the U.S.'s nougaty center that rarely experiences live music from Christian bands. 

It would change things up a bit. In some ways, touring would be easier and in some ways more difficult. But the money would be guaranteed and it would fight against the whole "celebrity" mindset that can creep into the large show tours. It would be a season of staying grounded.

Of course, there's a whole world out there, too, that doesn't enjoy the Christian music subculture we have here. And a whole world that needs Jesus. Hillsong UNITED, Michael W. Smith, Skillet and Shonlock are a few examples of some artists whose heart for the nations translates into intentional tours to those nations. 


Smitty spoke to this very issue in an interview I did with him earlier this year:

"I don't know why it is, but there are very few artists from our genre that do that. I don't know why. It's unfortunate. It's a sacrifice a little bit, and this is not a guilt thing on anybody, but I would just encourage everyone to just challenge themselves--[asking] are you supposed to sing someplace besides America? We're just a small little field in terms of if you think how big this world is. Everybody says how small it is. I think it's big and you see all the places that there's great possibilities for the music to--that you can go and sew something into a country, just like Bahrain. I was in Bahrain last year. It's a miracle that I even got into the country. I had to be invited by the king. Just crazy. Again, it's just favor, nothing but God's favor.

While it's true that artists have to pay the bills in order to keep making music, I think there are creative ways out there to go to the seemingly forgotten places in our country and world to point more people to Jesus--which is the ultimate goal, right?


Thursday, October 23, 2014

#10 - Can Christian Music Learn from The Avengers?
Music | 447 views

I love the Marvel movies. Let me be more specific: I love the Marvel STUDIOS movies. Nothing against the Sony Spider-Man franchise or the FOX X-Men franchise, but they just aren't as well-written, realistic-ish and don't play as well with the other superheroes as the movies within the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

I mean, that first Iron Man was enough to get any superhero movie fan excited. But then, as Thor and Captain America and finally The Avengers emerged, we quickly saw that there was a master plan here. We saw that the characters were all part of incredible stories in their own right, but better than that, they were part of a bigger, overarching story that involved multiple universes, characters, plot lines and powers. 

Not to mention, different directors, producers and actors. Essentially, Marvel Studios has air traffic controllers at work, managing a lot of moving parts to create this overall incredible picture. We all stay to the end of the credits in Marvel films because we know some other character is going to show up, which hints at another piece of the puzzle. It's ingenious, and it's probably the reason why Marvel can't make a flop at the box office. They've thought this through.

OK, here's a crazy thought: What if record labels started acting like the Marvel Cinematic Universe? 

Think about it. In an age where a lot of people don't understand the role of record labels in this crowdfunding, DIY music landscape, record labels can be to artists what movie studios are to characters and actors. 

Of course, collaborations are nothing new, and don't require a record label affiliation for them to occur, but I'm talking about more than just cameos. (For example, that last Captain America movie didn't just have a Black Widow cameo; she was an integral part of the movie. You might have even called that movie Captain America & Black Widow. I digress.)

There are a number of ways to do this. One is that you get artists on the same label to co-write together. That's kind of an obvious one, and happens a lot already. But then, the artists record the song together and feature the same song on both of their respective records. 


Or, in a world that seems friendlier than ever to releasing EPs every six to nine months, perhaps Established Artist Joe takes Brand New Bob under his wing and they come up with something together, a complete collaborative EP, and even do a little two week tour around the Southeast together. 

What the Marvel films do well is that they take strong individual films and make them work together as a team, using the stronger standouts as a bridge to new, untested characters and concepts. What a great record label should do is take strong individual artists and use them as a bridge to new, untested artists and concepts. 

The only labels I've seen even come close to this are Lecrae's Reach Records and tobyMac's Gotee Records. Through 116 Clique, we saw established rappers like Lecrae introduce us to strong new acts like Andy Mineo and KB. Gotee Records devoted an entire album (its anniversary record) to
having its past and present artists do each other's songs--a pretty revolutionary concept that focuses more on the team than individual accomplishments. Passion (sixstepsrecords) also does that pretty well, using the Passion conferences as a launching point for their artists' individual efforts.

Imagine, for a moment, a world where we get to know Lauren Daigle through a four-song EP with Aaron Shust. Think about what a Skillet-We As Human double album project could sound like. Picture a Jeremy Camp and Adam Cappa duo EP? 

It's time to realize that side projects--as they'd be surely labeled--don't distract from the artists' body of work, it helps support and bolster them. These collaborative projects or EPs could serve as appetizers while fans are waiting for full-length albums, and could help break new talent and even reinvigorate the creative passions of some artists needing a reinvention.


Instead of a bunch of super heroes clocking in at the same office, it'd be pretty cool if Christian music could produce some Avengers. 

How do you think this could be done?


Thursday, October 16, 2014

#9 - Illumi-NOT-i
Misc Thoughts | 999 views

OK, it's time to get real, y'all, and talk about an elephant in the room.

Illuminati mania has reached an all-time high. 

A lot of you know what I'm talking about. Basically, for the handful of you in the world who aren't familiar, the belief out there is that there are a lot of people in power who are satanically motivated, seeking to express their allegiance to the secret luciferian cabal through their lyrics and various symbols used in their performances, music packaging, and photo shoots. 

Now, rather than get into a verbal battle about conspiracy theories and the like--Isaiah 8:12 says, "Do not call conspiracy everything this people calls a conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it."--I will say that the Bible calls satan the ruler of this world. Of course, that's a temporary role, given Jesus' ultimate return and fulfillment of the victory He already has achieved.

There's certainly a lot to consider when delving into the spiritual climate of pop culture. For example, there are a LOT of one-eyed references, which many attribute to the "all seeing" Egyptian "god," Horus. There are lots of baphomet likenesses (another Egyptian deity). There are lots of pyramid-type symbols, and things like checkered floors, owls and even teddy bears that raise eyebrows with people on the alert. You can look up the significance of these things--or not. 

It would be naive to assume that the evil prince of this world doesn't have a devoted following. Humans love power too much. But in the end, it really doesn't matter, in some senses, what the enemy is or isn't doing. We have the winning hand. We who are in Christ win, regardless of the circumstances. Let's keep the focus on Christ. There's a big difference between playing a game to win, and playing NOT to lose. Think about that for a second.

So all that said... Christian bands/artists, you gotta knock it off with the symbols. 

Artists at least need to be aware of what those symbols are. There are lots of examples, but here are just two higher-profile examples. TobyMac's Eye on It cover generated a lot of controversy because it was a one-eyed image--and that was after he had that weird cover song he did, "Ill-M-I." Toby caught a lot of unnecessary flack for it, and even had to address it head-on in the FAQ on his website. In the end, was the image worth it? I'd posit not. 

Other artists are putting triangles or pyramids on their album covers (even worship bands), doing the one-eye gesture that made Lady Gaga famous (why, Manny, why?), and the like.

Charmaine caught flack for having a heart over one eye on her Love Reality album. People took issue with the myriad of symbols (including lightning bolts, skulls, spiders, and--surprise!--a single eye) used in Andy Mineo's Never Land EP. And speaking of Andy, fans also remarked at his "Saturday Morning Car Tunez" logo change, which now features a one-eyed skull. Skillet's Awake album was a one-eyed wonder, as was Trip Lee's The Good Life. There are plenty more examples of this by signed and unsigned artists, chart-toppers and unknwons.

And here's the deal... all of these artists mentioned above are solid, Jesus-loving people with fruitful lives and powerful ministries that are leading people to Jesus! 

Look, I love you artists, and I'm quite certain you're not doing this on purpose. The last thing I want is for people to start questioning your Christianity over a stupid gesture or album cover instead of celebrating the "fruit" in your lyrics and lifestyles. 

So, please... stop it. Just... stop. 

I'm going to assume that these artists and bands are just following what appears to be artistic/cultural trends, but I think they need to err on the side of caution here. To many, having cuss words in Christian music would distract from what the artist is trying to accomplish (even if they feel that a certain word may drive a point home a little stronger). In the same way, these symbols serve as a distraction to the people trying to otherwise enjoy their tunes.

We can do better than to copy prevailing pop culture trends. There was a time in our history when the Church was setting the tone culturally and artistically. But, from just a really practical standpoint, it's not worth it to throw a large segment of your listeners into witchhunt mode. 

My sense is that this particular trend has cooled down a bit. (Hey, it looks like CIRCLES are the new TRIANGLES!) And that's GREAT news. Let's keep it that way.

Look, I get it. People are a little too hyped up on this kind of stuff. But unnecessary conflict, warfare and criticism just doesn't make a ton of sense in a critical time where people just need to focus on Jesus.


Thursday, October 09, 2014

#8 - Sing Unto the Lord an OLD Song or Two (If You Feel Like It)
Music | 437 views

I pretty much get the same thing at Starbucks every day. Iced coffee. I put a little half and half in it and one packet of raw sugar in as a nice little treat at the bottom. It's delicious, and it's going to be iced, even if it's below freezing outside. That's how I roll, and I like it that way.

We humans enjoy our comfort. We're creatures of habit, and like our morning Starbucks, we like what we like, and there's very little room for deviation. The problem is seeking sameness and stagnancy in a Kingdom of Change. 

The truth is, Church, we have a somewhat unhealthy addiction to the familiar. Now, obviously, as people of faith, there are some things that we cling to--universal Truth that never changes, such as the nature and the person of Jesus Christ. But sometimes we can take our faithfulness a bit too far. Really, when it comes to music, we buckle up and ride a song way past the 100,000-mile warranty. You'll see it in churches sometimes. The introduction of guitars into churches was met with quite a bit of skepticism, just as the introduction of printed words (and later overhead projectors and video screens) were in the technology world.

New feels weird to us. And maybe somewhere we think that if our familiarity goes away, so too will our faith. Of course, it might not be that profound. It might just be that the generation in charge suffers from a collective case of Musical Plateau Disorder (which I outlined in a previous blog) and can't stand what them youngins are listening to these days. (TURN DOWN THAT HIPPITY HOP, PUNK!)

The truth is, the Bible encourages us to "Sing a new song unto the Lord" (Psalm 96:1). There's something the Psalmist knew there that was important to communicate to us. I don't know about you, but when I've sang a worship song enough in church, it loses some of its punch to me. A song that may have had me crying the first or second time I sang it now is just sort of old-hat to me. Does it mean the words are less impactful? Does it mean the music is somehow not as good as I thought? Of course not! 

But there's something built into our humanity that is leaky. Hebrews 2:1 says, "So we must listen very carefully to the truth we have heard, or we may drift away from it." In the original language, the term describing drifting away actually is more like "or it may leak out of us." We're also encouraged in Ephesians 5:18 to keep being filled with the Holy Spirit. 

So if that's true, we have to continually seek new expressions of truth and worship so that it continually remains new to us. For example, there was a song by Chris Quilala of Jesus Culture, "Your Love Never Fails" (which Newsboys covered), which was really impactful, only to be followed a few years later by Bethel's "One Thing Remains (Your Love Never Fails)." In some cases, the same words are used, but each one came at its correct time to impact the Church with the same message. 

If that weren't true, if there was no value in presenting the same truth a different way, we really wouldn't have written anything past the hymns of the 17th and 18th centuries. 

So that's why we value new music. That's why it's OK to enjoy a song for a season and then seek out a fresh expression moving forward. God is always speaking, and we have to believe that the new songs that are being written are purposed by God to minister to His church now. 

All this to say, we're hanging on to songs a bit too long, Church.

If you take a look at the Billboard Charts, all but one of the current Top 10 singles has been released less than 20 weeks (or 5 months, roughly). Let's compare that to Christian music. Out of the Top 10 on Billboard's Hot Christian Singles chart, six out of 10 of the singles were older than 20 weeks, with the No. 2 song having been released a whopping 55 weeks! That's more than a year that Hillsong UNITED's "Oceans"--a great song, by the way--has been on the charts. It's a great song, but there are certainly others out there that deserve a listen, too!

Other songs on the chart have been released 18 weeks, 23 weeks, 28 weeks, 13 weeks, 26 weeks, 16 weeks, 35 weeks and 25 weeks. While those certainly seem old, it doesn't even really tell the full story, as the albums those songs came from, in many cases, are even older--some MUCH older. 

So instead of discovering new songs from new albums, we're listening to old songs from even older albums. In an environment where Christian music is in a new golden age, in terms of quality of music, songwriting and production, it's really too bad.

Look, I get that in the "mainstream" world, the songs written are usually about partying, booties or broken hearts. That's disposable stuff that has a short shelf life and really won't stand the test of time--so it makes sense to flush it every few weeks or so. I get that. But in our world, we have a tremendous message and great music that's coming at us with the force of a firehose, and we're still holding on to a handful of the same songs. 

What if we rallied behind one single per week from a new artist and saw the landscape start to change. We wouldn't be discarding the truly great songs, but we'd have some freshness join them in the regular rotation. Imagine what that would do in terms of exposing people to various facets of Christian music! It actually could change lives.

What do you think? How could this be accomplished?

Thursday, October 02, 2014

#7 - Rock Isn't Dead, but the Album is on Life Support
Music | 236 views

Gene Simmons made headlines recently when he said, “rock is finally dead.”
Of course, that bears some more explanation, as the KISS frontman didn’t really mean the musical genre as much as he meant that the current state of the music industry doesn’t allow for rock and roll (and plenty of other genres) to be made the way it was back in his day.

It’s true; the move among consumers from owning music to merely having access to it—which began near the turn of the millennium with Napster and other such platforms—has created a world where the thought of paying money for music is fairly preposterous to many. And services such as Spotify, Pandora and even Noisetrade show that the industry has either agreed with or given in to that mindset.

So what does that mean? Well, in reality, it’s that the record labels are taking in a fraction of the income they used to, and that trickles down to artists, their teams and marketing (on sites like ours, believe it or not)!

Here’s something a lot of Christian music fans don’t know: Chances are better than not that your favorite artist or band isn’t living in a fancy house in Franklin or Brentwood. They’re not driving Lexuses or eating steak every night for dinner. 

I know many bands that, despite being signed to a record label, work additional jobs to make ends meet. You’d be surprised how many artists do this. The truth of the matter is, this is more of a labor of love than it really ever could be about a lavish lifestyle. 

So that said, the new reality in the music world proves challenging to keep true artists around, making music, when they’re also trying to support families and put kids through college someday. 

There are, of course, some encouraging signs. Streaming services like Spotify (and, coming soon, The Overflow for Christian music only) have the ability to generate a decent amount of revenue over time with a critical mass of fans who, over and over, access their favorite band’s music. Streaming isn’t the future; it’s the present, and it’s cool to see some of the record labels getting on board and pushing it hard. 

But what of the album? What of the 12- to 14-track collection of material released from an artist every 18 months to two years? That may be (and should be?) a casualty of this new reality.

You’re seeing the shift already. Bands like All Sons & Daughters and Unspoken introduced themselves to the world with two EPs that created quite a buzz, and the world wanted more. Rather than pour all their heart and soul into a dozen tracks, they hyper-focused their attention on 3 to 6 tracks.

In our reviews on the site, many times we’ll find that a new band presents a lot of different musical properties during a debut album, and we’ll remark on what we felt worked well, and what didn’t, and that ultimately, the band needs to find their identity moving forward. It happens all the time.

With an album, that’s an expensive experiment, regardless of if it’s funded by a record label, a crowd-funding campaign, or the artists themselves. As a leaner project, an EP provides an amount of nimbleness in this distracted age. Bands can almost instantly see what worked and what didn’t and get to work on their next EP.

And the regular flow of music keeps the band in front of prospective and existing fans. Popping up every two years or so—without a dedicated fan base and heavy touring schedule—just isn’t going to make much of a ripple anymore.

When we talk with new artists, we always suggest that they put out EPs every six to nine months. One band that’s been tremendous at this is Phil Danyew’s band, HITPOINTS. The problem is, you probably haven’t heard of HITPOINTS. But you should!

And that’s why sites like ours still exist, still are needed, and still get advertising. Breaking through is the hard part in music, and that’s accomplished via word of mouth, sure, but mores through radio airplay and awareness campaigns on sites like ours.

In this age where we are, once again, radio single-driven (anyone else remember paying too much at Sam Goody for a one-song CD?), the idea of the album just doesn’t make a lot of sense. Now, after two EPs, many artists have slapped them together as a full album—with an extra song or two—and boom! They have a full-length record to take on tour. 

But the rest of the time, while the world is just looking for what they like on Spotify/RDIO/Beats Music/iTunes, there doesn’t seem to be much of a reason to put in the time, effort and money (that one body has) to produce a dozen tracks.

One exception this year? For KING & COUNTRY. I could’ve used about 20 more tracks on that album (Run Wild. Live Free. Love Strong.). Perfection.

Is rock dead? Nope. Pretty incredible stuff released this year from Anberlin, Flyleaf, Disciple and Demon Hunter, to name a few. But there are new realities in the music world we have to consider, both as creators and consumers, that will allow Christian music to thrive and reach more people than ever.

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