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.

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And I DID think it strange that the Southern-rooted gospel music business industry avoided having anything to do with these young "Jesus people" - did not see their sweetness, innocence and their three-hour Sunday services as a sign of their authenticity; did not even investigate the possibility that the Spirit of God might be moving in a new way, as God has continually done throughout Church history. They saw only the longish hair, the missing tie, the skirt length of the teenage girls. The Southern gospel music industry refused to endorse or distribute this modern gospel music.

So it was apparently up to the rocks to cry out. Evangelistic-minded pastors began to record their homegrown singers in their small church buildings through the four channel mixing boards of the in-house PA systems. After raising the necessary 52 per unit for a poly-wrapped, store-ready, vinyl pressing through offerings and donations, they would then send off the full deposit with the tapes to a "pressing plant" where the art director/receptionist/janitor would randomly pick a photo from the stock book of graphics. Shortly thereafter, a shipment of 500 vinyl records would arrive at the church with a Duotone front cover photo and a black and white "liner" (back cover). The front cover often portrayed a bucolic country church, quiet desert vista or stretch of beach with moderate waves and a two-colour sunset. (A four colour photo was much too expensive.)

Young Christian singers now began doing what gospel quartets had been doing for twenty years before: selling albums "out of the trunk" by standing out in the parking lot, selling and autographing their vinyl albums or in more liberal churches, setting up folding tables in the back.

Then the inklings of this new wrinkle began dawning on the big gospel labels. Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa had released its first Maranatha! album to great success. This triggered curiosity and market research from other labels. Billy Graham himself had at first been reticent to recognise the Jesus people as being true believers, but after investigating for himself he joined together with Bill Bright in setting up Explo '72 in the Dallas Cotton Bowl in Texas. The nightly gatherings featured Billy's preaching and one or two new groups like Love Song or Andrae Crouch and The Disciples.

On the final day, the music moved to an outdoor venue; a speedway. The appearance of Johnny Cash with a young Kris Kristofferson brought in Texans who had most likely had no interest in this Jesus movement. I went onstage before Kris, wondering what country music had to do with Christian rock. But having Billy Graham's imprimatur seemed to seal the graduation of the Jesus movement from coffee houses into the mainstream - where it was quickly co-opted into the bosom of the Church and escorted, usually to the barber shop first and then into assimilation. These un-musical singers and groups began to lose everything which made them interesting in the first place: innocence, idealism and heart-felt excitement over the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Soon it seemed that the whole modern gospel music scene would turn to calculation, imitation and saturation.

Romans 12:2 says "Don't be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what is the good, well-pleasing, and perfect will of God." God could inspire originality into music written for Him but conformity and imitation was what the church wanted in the same way that Israel wanted kings when it had God.

Larry Norman:  The Growth Of The Christian Music Industry

Modern Christian music was on its way toward the masses and to mediocrity. 'Upon This Rock' had been recorded in 1969 and by 1972 had become the biggest gospel album ever to sell in Britain. Or so I was told, though I never saw any royalties to prove it had even sold one copy. Then in Holland, Germany, Scandinavia, etc. Then South Africa, Australia, New Zealand. The two year contract signed in America strictly prohibited sub-distribution into any other countries, although that was the very first contract violation. 13 years later the album was still being marketed, though I had only given them a contract for two years. If commercial endorsement seems like part of the "good news" of the history of modern Christian music, so is thievery, prevarication and embezzlement by the highwaymen who perched on their corporate thrones and rode savagely across every country they could traverse. My album would possibly not have travelled so far had they not broken the law.

I felt mistreated at this time, and it had nothing to do with money, and everything to do with integrity. But I believed this was a harbinger of the unfolding future, a template, a parable. A prophetic, modular sample of perfidy. Muzzling the oxen and miscalculating royalties would become a trademark in the arena where secular publishers and producers alone had once operated. My publisher at Beechwood Music (Elizabeth Montei) called gospel record companies "God's Little Thieves" and had to have them audited every year, year after year, to collect the remaining 60% (average) of the undeclared sales on songs she published like "Put Your Hand in the Hand" (of the Man from Galilee).

During the next several decades, I believe the heavy hand of commerce and greed slowly choked many a bewildered young Christian singer. Too many would finally give up in defeat and dismay. Greed and deception were reliably common - and poisonous. We are taught that the world is treacherous and dishonest, but the shock of betrayal is stunning when a young Christian finds it within his own religion.

Sometimes during the middle of a concert, a promoter would disappear without paying the band. Sometimes they did pay, but the cheque bounced or they stopped payment on their cheques. A promoter down in Australia decided to withhold $20,000.00 in total from two of my tours. But thieves seldom prosper in the long run. He declared bankruptcy a few years later after he couldn't pay $750,000 in bills he owed to hotels, pressing plants, etc. He then moved to America where there is more elbow room for the dishonest to operate.

"Desperate men make desperate decisions," I would tell myself. In the early '70s I had anticipated stability and honesty from Christian record labels, Christian concert promoters and the "non-profit corporations" under which the churches were registered. This naive expectation delivered a very disheartening blow.

I've tried to avoid naming any specific gospel companies or enterprises. And I do not want to bring any shadow upon the reputation of Christianity itself, nor mar the goodness and kindness of those few men in the gospel music scene who have always been honest and forthright. I'm sure that most "small promoters" are patently honest. But it's the ones who become "professional" who start bending the law more and more and numbing their consciences.

I understand that there are some who will feel that ANY critical comment toward the gospel music business is a direct attack upon the Church itself. Yet I am quite certain any gardener or physician will tell you that both landscaping and surgery require the identification of a problem and then its removal. So if what is written here is true, then how can it be an offence to our God - who is the Architect of Moral Structure and the Repository of Truth? For if God is ever-mindful of verity and probity, then shouldn't SOMEONE be talking about all of this?

"Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful." (Proverbs 27:6)

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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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