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 4

When we are at war with worldliness, misfortune will seem to follow us. Innocent happenstance might really be intentional sabotage from Satan's domain. In my personal journey, my cholesterol levels were not elevated when I was rushed to the ER screaming and clutching my chest. What had caused the onset of this nine hour heart attack was simply a blood clot "most likely caused by stress" I was later told. It had gotten stuck at the "doorway" of my heart. But at the ER I was given no EKG test to see what was happening within me. I wasn't offered a "clot buster" or even the two aspirin which would have thinned my blood and quickly dissolved the clot.

Instead, possibly due to my long hair, I was "diagnosed" as having "esophagitis", (extreme indigestion) though I'm sure they suspected the pain was caused by cocaine or heroin. Disturbed by my continuous screaming, the ER staff had moved me further and further down the hall until they could no longer hear me. Finally, in a little room at the very end of the corridor, I was isolated until someone happened to look in and discover that I had become unconscious. The heart attack was complete and now I lingered between life and death. They rushed me upstairs and "lost me" twice on the table that night. I guess they may have pounded me back to life, or shocked me, because my chest was very sore when I finally awoke.

When I became conscious in the ICU recovery room I had no idea how many days I had been there. I was informed that I had lost two thirds of my heart, lost three of the four pulmonary veins and arteries and only had a short time left to live. They wanted to send me off to the general hospital across town which handled the unemployed and minority groups; the residue of the upwardly mobile success culture in Los Angeles. But a calculated comment I made to a nurse sent her out of the room. She came back and said I could stay as long as I needed to and they would give me my own room. (They had finally conferred and realised that the heart attack was their fault and hoped to deter a probable lawsuit.)

I had been very careful with my health while growing up. I did not eat anything which the Bible listed as unclean, did not drink coffee, did not smoke, did not take drugs.

And though I had hung out with committed sinners, done 12 shows in a notorious Mafia nightclub with Van Morrison and Them, and performed with The Animals, The Dave Clark Five and others - I remained "clean". The band I was in, People!, appeared on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, did 27 cities with The Who, performing our rock opera "The Epic" every night with Pete Townshend standing in the wings watching, (which led to Pete writing "Tommy" and releasing it eighteen months later, he divulged to the band in a later encounter). Except for talking to people about spiritual things, no matter how much they may have shown interest in me as a musician or a writer - I did not mingle, party or celebrate the hippie lifestyle with any one in any band.

Why am I telling you all of this? And how did I form my rather caustic opinion of the gospel music scene?

I had unknowingly started my public ministry in 1956 writing songs and singing them to my classmates, had appeared on TV a few years later in an American Idol-type show called Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour when I was 12. Then I was signed to Capitol Records when I was 18, appeared on Dick Clark's American Bandstand three times, hung out with Paul McCartney the day he announced the formation of Apple Records, averaged 200 concerts every year with People! and after leaving the band, walked up and down the streets in Hollywood, witnessing to people on the days when I wasn't going off somewhere for a concert.

Even after one of my recordings had charted, I continued to live a spartan existence, slept on the floor, got my teeth fixed without a shot of novocaine, chose to have no car and walked everywhere - trying to toughen myself for whatever vicissitudes the future might bring. I wasn't concerned with the ephemeral, wasn't really emotionally geared up for wide public acceptance; I was busy getting ready for the end of the world.

A few decades later, the end of the world arrived. At least for me. Or so I've been told by the doctors. Again and again.

My first heart attack was in 1992, and I continued to tour as I struggled for eight years with severe congestive heart failure and heart rates that were sometimes above 200 beats per minute, My most recent heart attack (occurring immediately after my 30th Anniversary Tour of the United Kingdom in 2001) has taken me completely out of the music scene and seems to be enthusiastically escorting me toward the grave, so it might as well be me who speaks up about the inequities and iniquities of the Modern Christian Music Scene. I have done three concerts in Oregon in the last five years. And last year felt great so I headlined with my seven piece band at The Seaside Festival and did a few pickup concerts, booked on short notice after the Festival. And I'm considering going on tour with the three principle musicians and singers from People! if they'll carry the bags, push me through the long lines at the airport in a wheel chair, let me sleep instead of doing sound check, etc. My son is now leaving the house to live on campus at the University so I don't need to be home to take care of him anymore. I'd like nothing more than to defy the odds and do a series of joyous concerts. But I have no real future plans, so I don't need to be concerned about being "popular".

So I plan to shout my head off, if God nudges me to, and tell the dirty, dark tales of the industry as a warning to innocent babes entering the gospel music scene. And after all I've been through with the Christian community and gospel industry, any possible future repercussions and negative reprisals from the industry will only seem redundant. I've never cared before. Why should I be concerned now? And besides, nothing trumps death, except the anticipation of eternity. So hear my heart in what I tell you now. Don't feel you need to defend the contemporary Christian music scene. Because I come to you in peace; with love and sorrow and encouragement. Maybe it's not too late for things to begin to change.

A performer with a recording contract might ask this: If the underpayment of royalties is merely an accounting error, why is it that the corporation never miscalculates in favour of the artist? And if absolute non-payment of any royalties is the result of brinkmanship, then why should God bless the company which practises it? "You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain." (Deuteronomy 25:4)

And if the rain falls on the just and the unjust, won't artists suffer from the propinquity of having fallen in with thugs and unknowingly associated with robber barons? Yes, and they HAVE been suffering these many years, both financially and creatively. They have been pressured by their labels to record certain songs concomitant with whatever is commercially in favour at the time. The trickle-down effect of intimidation also reaches managers, booking agents, reviewers and the public relations officers organising ad buys and strategic interviews.

But after all of these years, if larceny and deception and coercion and compromise are the elephants in the room, isn't it likely that a great many of us know they're here? And if so, why are they not invited to leave?

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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
Indieheaven





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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