Larry Norman: The Growth Of The Christian Music Industry

Wednesday 11th October 2006

In the first part of a personal history, LARRY NORMAN, Christian music pioneer, charts the rise of Christian music from its roots and, based on his experiences, gives his own perspective on the collision between creativity and commerce.

Continued from page 2

In April of 1970 a Christian record company contacted my publisher, Beechwood Music, about licensing 'Upon This Rock' for a two year period. I gave my permission, did a special re-mix for the Southern record label in Nashville, diplomatically hoping to soften the cultural blow by lessening the distortion and percussion in favour of the lyrics and harmonies. After all, I had no desire to unnecessarily make enemies with the brethren or to cause them to stumble. Yet at the same time I had very little interest in cultivating endorsements from the Church. I was out to create a dialogue with people who believed they hated God. I wanted to be on the battlefield, fighting a spiritual battle, trying to convince and convert the undecided and get them to cross the battle line to stand together with other new believers. Though I may have been in error in standing aside from the brethren by not performing for them, the established Church was simply immaterial to me.

I had been witnessing since I was in primary school and now in Los Angeles, up and down Hollywood Boulevard. In 1968 I spent all of my concert income on establishing and maintaining a Christian half-way house, had played at The Troubador and The Hollywood Bowl, witnessing before and after the performances on the streets during the day and to the customers after the gigs. When I was working the boulevards I never mentioned that I played guitar, wrote songs, had made records. My encounters were one-on-one, quiet and personal. I did not hand out Bible tracts and try to preach on the sidewalk through a bullhorn. I waited until I felt God was saying, "Go talk to this person."

And then I quietly entered their invisible perimeter and waited for the Holy Spirit to perform His miracles. People would tell me their greatest hopes and darkest secrets. And soon they were ready. Ready to confess their sins. Ready to ask for forgiveness. Ready to be converted. I was there only as a sort of mid-wife. It was God who brought them to a rebirth. I only helped guide the dialogue. And then I would hold their hands and pray with them. Men didn't seem embarrassed to have me cup their hands in mine. Females didn't think this was a prelude to a come-on. And when we said Amen, and they were glowing and shining, I told them that life was very hard but that God would take care of their every need. I would give them my phone number in case they needed to talk. And then I went off, back down the street to look for others God might nudge me toward.

In Manhattan I played at The Bitter End for a week and spent most of my days on Broadway, canvassing it with a sharp eye and willing servitude. I seemed to have an affinity for leading Jewish people to the Lord. One such girl sat down with me on some steps on Broadway and 48th. I was surprised when I couldn't lead her to conversion, just because I had gotten used to a high "success" rate with anyone God pushed me toward. But she DID say she wanted to talk with me again. So I decided to tell her I was a singer and I invited her to a concert two days later. She showed up, listened and then quietly accepted Christ. I gave her my number and thereafter would stop by and mentor her whenever I was in Manhattan. Finally, she moved to California and started Jews For Jesus with Moishe Rosen. I still see Susan Perlman occasionally and we go out to lunch and talk, or I go to hear her give a lecture someplace. We've been friends for almost 36 years now.

Around this time I began to realize I should stop being a snob and religious elitist. It was fine that I was helping prostitutes and drug users and homosexuals become Christians - but I was still rather contemptuous toward believers and the shallow "Jesus Movement". I had played at a few Christian coffee shops to "check out the scene". Although I never considered myself part of the Jesus Movement because I wasn't a new Christian, I was continually misidentified as being such. In the early '70s when I arrived in England to do my first tour I was surprised to see reporters at the airport from what I would learn represented the legitimate press and the Sun and Mirror.

"You are, are you not, the leader of the Jesus Movement?" one of them asked me.

"No," I spat back. "Jesus is."

"But isn't it true," another one asked, "that the Jesus Movement started in your living room?"

"Well if it did, I wasn't home at the time."

Though I looked down on the baby Christians for the same reason I looked down upon the hippies a few years before - because they were so convinced that they were right and had so much to show the world - I started publishing my As I See It articles in something called The Hollywood Free Paper because (forgive me for saying this) I thought it was such a pathetic "trumpet" for God and needed something that took a deeper look at Christ beyond "Turn onto Jesus" and "Drop a little Matthew, Mark, Luke and John."

When I had finally played in Christian coffee houses it was somewhat of a vacation; a nice change from bashing my head against the cultural secular wall for a short time. I had gotten weary of trying to be "heard" by the Haight Ashbury crowd. I had opened for Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, The Byrds and found no one backstage who was interested in anything beyond their own fame and whatever free drugs were available. And the audiences out front seemed to be stoned even before they showed up at The Fillmore, The Matrix or The Avalon Ballroom, The San Francisco Pop Festival.

As the '70s began Christian coffee houses were suddenly plentiful and bereft of design. They were usually filled with cane backed chairs lined up around a wooden barrel or a giant telephone cable spool abandoned by the phone company.

I eventually considered taking my music into the churches across America. "There are non-believers inside the Church, too," I theorized. "In fact, they are probably distressed by legalism and are walking around as wounded as I was during my Christian upbringing."

So I did 200 concerts a year for two years and then stopped. I never appeared at the same church more than once which is bread and butter to most artisans on tour. As one promoter put it, "I burned every bridge I came to" even before crossing it. But I thought the American Christian churches were not fond enough of the "hard" theologies of Jesus and were completely neglectful of feeding the poor, visiting those in prison, going into the hospitals and sharing the good news on the highways and byways, or even to the neighbours living next to them. Most people I asked said they had never witnessed to anyone, because they didn't know how to. And now I found that I was bashing my head against a church wall. In America the church did not like me. And no wonder. I was telling my young audiences to invite prostitutes and drug addicts and homosexuals to come to their church. And my songs were slyly disrespectful of organized religion, a position the young people identified with and their parents and pastors couldn't quite put their finger on. Nothing I said or sang was unscriptural. And I didn't speak against the church. I wasn't a protester. I wasn't ANTI anything, but I was FOR Jesus.

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Reader Comments

Posted by Andrea Encinas in London @ 11:05 on Nov 1 2011

Thank you for this enlightening and insightful article; one that reminds me of the real purpose of Christian music.

Posted by meme in washington @ 03:50 on Feb 21 2009

Powerful, and well said!

Posted by Mike Westendorf in Milwaukee, WI @ 18:59 on Oct 13 2008

I'm very thankful that Larry had the experience and opportunity to share his insights. I know of many people who can feel a discord in wanting to pursue a music career and a ministry career. Seeing the hype that is the industry and being able to walk away and trust God to move is sorely needed in Christian music today. Indie with Excellence can be done today, let's pray that many more will take up that call.

Posted by Brad Reynolds in Nashville, TN @ 19:39 on Oct 12 2008

Amen Larry. That was very inspiring... It comes down to simply loving God enough to trust and obey his prompting in each and every moment. Not for the sake of personal gain, but for the sake of sharing the love of Christ with one person at a time. This article was fuel for my soul. Thanks.

Posted by Keith Mohr in Franklin, TN @ 16:36 on Oct 12 2008

An amazing article. Larry nails it.
He was a true pioneer and visionary.
Keith Mohr

Posted by Justice in Wheaton, IL @ 15:13 on May 13 2008

A friend sent me this link, a man I call "a Writer of Writers". As a writer and graphics professional who now teaches in the local jail and is a caregiver, because of my love for Jesus Christ, I could not put my feelings into words about my large church's Contemporary Worship.

It is fine - and the leader is a wonderful and gracious leader - but the sanctuary must be darkened to be able to see the lyrics on the screen. The stained glass windows must be covered up. Is this a subtle hint from God? He DOES love irony, I have noted.

I guess what I perceived innately that Larry expressed so well is how the church follows what is popular, and common. I am sadly not so much of an Artist as an Artisan, though I hope writing Chrisitan SF will enable a breakthrough in that area.

I know the thrill of witnessing first hand and of preaching the Good News. I also know the pain of having the un-creative, un-dynamic use the "tools of the trade". It is human nature to try and find the "pattern" that works.

What works is boldness, courage, and a great love for Jesus Christ. Larry took it all Jesus' teachings to heart. What amazes me is how well he speaks of what happened to him without acrimony and bitterness. I mean that very sincerely. I would be raging mad. He makes his points wisely and without rancor.

Thank God for Larry Norman. I look forward to meeting him.

My takeaway: be an Artist. Plenty of Artisans will follow.

Posted by David in Tokyo @ 04:17 on Jan 6 2007

Underlying the dumbing down, copycatting and incessant pitching are the technologies enabling the information explosion and market globalization. Its pervasive and relentless.
The church never stands completely outside culture. Inevitably, we are going to get the balance wrong. Thank God that he prevents us from the worst excesses.

Posted by James in Eastbourne, UK @ 01:03 on Nov 24 2006

Larry at his most articulate and insightful best.

Posted by Jon in Birmingham @ 12:51 on Nov 15 2006

Evangelicals have been struggling with the concept of art for decades. Great artists may share much gifting with prophets - and that means we frequently don't recognise them. We've now got 40 years of experience of popular culture and it's become clear that the greatest Christian talents of say the 70s were little recognised at the time and were frequently derided as "out of date" and "not relevant". Now vinyl by Water into Wine Band or Caedmon is trading for upwards of 1,000 dollars. And, yes, one factor was the CCM commercialism that swamped the British market.

Posted by Jon in Knightsbridge @ 00:45 on Nov 5 2006

Wow! Refreshing Larry. Is this encroaching into the Church? 'Bands' are forming, the 'leaders of the musicians' are turning into 'Lead Worshippers' & seem to have a monopoly on' worship'. The noise levels are rising to that of the world's. Children are frightened by this, widows are in distress & we are poluted (James). What's God's favourite instrument? The congregation. Remember that when you do a sound check!

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