One of the most significant new forces in Britain's growing CCM scene is Spirit Music. Quickly establishing themselves in mail order, the company are now expanding to also become a wholesaler and record label. Mike Rimmer talked co-founder ROB HILLMAN.
Bournemouth-based Spirit Music is a new name in British Christian music but as you will see from the reviews of albums in this issue they are seeking to distribute material that has a powerful message coupled with excellent music. Albums that are unashamedly Christian. The life of the main man behind the company, Rob Hillman is inextricably linked to the development of the company. So when I met him, I began by asking him to recount his story.
"It's a painful story in some respects," Rob begins, "but a wonderful story too. It emerged out of me spending years in industry and commerce, having a highly successful career and I thought I had everything. But I realised along the way that I was far from happy. That all came to a head during Easter in 1994 when my marriage broke up. That occurred on Good Friday and it was a devastating blow but it brought me face to face with the cross for the whole of Easter."
Rob spent two days praying and during that time he had a vision of Jesus on the cross and felt that he was part of the crowd which crucified him. The vision was so powerful that Rob felt an overwhelming sense of the love of Jesus for him and prayed that God would forgive him. "I was unable to remove myself from the vision of the cross which I had and the fact that there was Christ in the middle of all his pain and grief, prepared to step down from the cross and save me. I made my firm commitment to him at that particular time."
A "chance" encounter led to the idea of doing something in Christian music. As Rob recalls, "Spirit Music emerged from the fact that I sold my secular business and feeling sad and fed up I ended up at a Methodist hotel in the Forest of Dean and there I met my now business partner. Over a period of that week and afterwards we talked about Christian music and there emerged a germ of an idea which was to create an entirely Christ-centred business stepping into the Christian scene. At that time we had no idea at all that we were moving into distribution of our own label but we were fortunate that we had some funds available with which to do that. I am delighted that we have been pushed by God to continue to press forward."
I wondered what they had in mind when the company was launched. What motivated them? "It was started because my business partner and I felt concerned at the way that Christian music was developing. We felt there was room for somebody to step into it with an entirely Christ-centred approach but with enough business experience and funding to take it away from the crossover material to return it back to its spiritual base. At the same time to do that in such a way so that we could expand the market place. Our concern was that the market was a narrow one and there were big players within that market place but that many Christians were not hearing the music. Worse still, we felt people out in the world who we felt could come to Christ were not hearing it and we felt that it was music that was the common language that would unify Christians and bring people outside the Christian fraternity into the body of Christ by hearing just one track off one album."
Rob's use of the phrase "Christ-centred" may be surprising to some readers. Surely all Christian record labels are Christ-centred? "Well, I thought that until I became more involved in it. My own concern grew as I realised that some of the lyrics I was hearing were not as overtly Christian as I would have liked. We have very carefully moved away from saying Jesus or God in generating more crossover material aimed at pleasing a wider audience without in my view bringing them to Christ. The message is lost somewhere. I was concerned that more and more of the people involved in Christian music had to face the problem of secular ownership and therefore the awful word "profit" came up more often than ministry and it was very much with ministry in mind that Spirit Music started."
I wondered what was different about Spirit Music? "We're small, we're aggressive I hope in the right kind of way," answers Rob. "We are more open to listening perhaps to those people who are unable to get to the bigger people. That's artists and buying public alike. We are interested in tackling fringe areas in that we're not afraid to be involved in rock or heavy metal or any other musical style. We feel that whatever the style, if that brings somebody to Christ then it's valid so long as we can justify it's biblical content in terms of the heart of the artist. I don't mind whether it's dance, heavy metal, rock, rave, whatever, so long as all the parts of the puzzle come together."
With the launch of Spirit Music, the company launched with a direct-to-the-public mail order service and published a comprehensive catalogue offering the albums from the catalogues of the existing UK record companies Nelson Word, Alliance Music, Kingsway and ICC. Their stock also took on more unexpected items, small UK independents and an ever increasing stock of US imports. Suddenly the UK consumer, even those living miles from a Christian bookshop, were being offered a massive Choice of Christian music. Comments Rob, "We decided that it was time that someone came along and gave a chance for artists who had not been heard here before. That applies to overseas artists as well as UK artists."
How does he decide what to stock? "We listen to a very varied and wide range of material," says Rob. "A lot of things we receive are too ordinary, the message isn't powerful enough. But occasionally something strikes home immediately and those are the albums we can give support to. This is usually where all the parts of the puzzle come together - a very powerful ministry by the artist, the lyrics are entirely Christ-centred, the music is of a high standard and the arrangements are good. With every album, there has to be something special, a tingle factor is something we refer to and some music is very pleasant but lacks that extra something. For us with our limited resources unless it has that extra something, we're not going to go with it. Once it's got that, we feel that other people will share in that and enjoy it."
Having worked in a number of businesses throughout his career, Rob is excited about the opportunities God has given him since his conversion. He reflects, "All this is particularly rewarding because having emerged from such damaging circumstances and from a world where I thought I had everything I wanted, I am now so happy to see that the work which I do for God is beginning to bear fruit. We often feel within our own office that we feel Christ's presence guiding us day by day and it's a joy to be involved in that despite the pressures which happen in all walks of life."
Having sought to be Christ-centred how is that reflected in the daily work of the business? "I wake up every morning with the certain knowledge that Christ is there in my life and my first question is, 'Okay, what do you want me to do for you today?'. I think too many people work it the other way round and ask God to bless what they are doing and help them. We try to make sure that anyone who works with us lives and breathes the same feeling to ensure that we live in the truth."
Spirit Music has been part of Rob Hillman's healing process but even with the excitement of God doing something new, I wondered how his own healing from the hurt of a broken marriage was taking place. "The healing comes in a variety of ways," Rob ponders. "The first problem I had was to get rid of the old me. I went through a very testing time, one which I found extremely painful but nevertheless necessary. Piece by piece the healing took place, piece by piece a new kind of love emerged. I still have a great sense of loss over the loss of my wife and I still feel the gap very deeply. By and large my life is now dominated by the presence of God and I can't understand why everybody doesn't want it. I wouldn't want to step back to my old existence in any way because it was a very shallow existence even though I thought I had so much."
Whether it is the radical circumstances of his salvation or his business background, Rob is gaining a reputation for speaking out the truth as he sees it about the Christian music business. "I have always viewed Christ as a revolutionary and a radical and if he always spoke out then I feel I have as much responsibility to do so and it would be wrong of me not to do so. There is far too much apathy, ignorance and disinterest about and the more of us that do stand up and say something, the better we're all going to be. We may not always be right or as one when we do that but at least we're doing something."
Earlier Rob had used the word "aggressive" to describe some of Spirit Music's activities and I wondered how he would define that aggressive approach. "One of my great concerns," explains Rob, "is that when I became a Christian and stepped into the market place, I found an appalling level of apathy and worse still, a lot of people were prepared to accept second best. That's never been my style in the past in business and I felt somewhat aggrieved. Having made this step towards being a Christian I felt I had to stand up and be counted, I had to be aggressive about it and stand up and be a visible disciple for Christ and not just a casual observer. I think too much of that goes on; there are too many casual Christians around. I think if we are to save the world then we really do have to stand up for Christ and attack the Devil's influence wherever it appears."
Having quickly established a comprehensive mail order service Spirit Music has now begun to move into wholesaling, taking some of its key "exclusive" albums from around the world and offering them to UK Christian bookshops. Rather than trying to create a narrow monopoly with exclusive albums Spirit Music are keen to get as many points of sale as possible for the new albums - like the Terry Garmon R&B gospel gem or the Philipino dance man, Sinclair Rodgers. One innovative approach to Spirit Music's wholesaling activity will be introducing listening posts in shops. Where so many Christians are reluctant to buy Christian music because they don't have the opportunity to hear it, Rob plans to change all of that. He explains, "It's been something that's been happening in the mainstream market for some time and I've been amazed that it hasn't happened in the Christian bookshops but that's part of the problem, they are essentially bookshops that sell music as an extra. That's got to change and they have to see music as an entirely valid way of preaching the Gospel and one which in the modern day is more effective in some ways in bringing people initially down the pathway to the local church. The listening post is an excellent way of saying to people, 'Pop the earphones on and have a listen.' I am sure it will bring people in provided that the display is attractive and is not seen to be behind dark dingy windows."
Another area that Spirit Music are soon to move into is the launch of its own UK record label. Already its first artist, UK techno-pop rockers As If... have been signed and other signings will follow.
As well as releasing albums, Spirit Music hopes to move into organising concerts. Even here Rob has some strong feelings. "I would very much like to see much more live performance for Christian artists. It's not easy because there is a lot of apathy and disinterest and a lot of events are not terribly well supported but that's set to change. If those people who are interested get together then we can start to make an impact. The biggest issue I always find is that people don't want to pay. They think that because it's of God, it should be free. I've never wanted to discount God and I am amazed that people will pay £25 to go to a secular concert and be reluctant to pay a fiver to go to a Christian concert. That can't be right."
Finally, I wanted to know whether Rob thought of himself as a pioneer? "Yes, a somewhat reluctant one in a way but I am so conscious of the need for change. What we should be doing is standing together in an effort to bring more people to Christ. I am very confident that there are albums being produced now that stand up against anything in the secular market and will increasingly do so and the good news about that is there are also signs among secular shops that they are beginning to take notice of the quality of Christian music and I can foresee a time when Christian music stands alongside other music in a secular shop and doesn't have to apologise for itself because it is so good."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.