In the first of a new series we look at different aspects of the Christian music industry.
For twenty years or more evangelical youth culture magazines like Buzz have referred to Britain's 'Christian music scene'. It's one of those nebulous phrases which broadly speaking means the whole infrastructure: artists (both professional and amateur), record companies, concert promoters and radio shows - which enable the general public to hear music which speaks specifically of the Christian faith.
Almost ten years ago 'Buzz' ran an article announcing that the Christian music scene was in 'a state of near collapse' with Britain's tour circuit falling apart and record companies paring their investment to the bone. Ten years on, the situation is in some areas, just as gloomy, for example the opportunities to hear gospel music performed live are still woefully inadequate while new up-and- coming bands still have mountains to climb even to secure a miniscule-budget recording contract. But there is also some obvious areas of growth, the record companies are selling a greater volume of gospel music (even if largely American in origin) than ever before while increasingly the mass media (particularly television) will expose the likes of Stryper and the Winans to an audience of millions.
In a major new series The Biz', Cross Rhythms will be taking a long, hard and unflinching look at the business structures essential to ensure that gospel music actually finds an audience. It will tackle many thorny topics: the lyrical compromise of 'secular' music; Christian record companies owned by non-Christian corporations; the morality of a Praise And Worship Industry; and much more. In the issues ahead 'The Biz' will be looking at The Record Companies; The Music Publishers; The Live Concert Circuit; The Shops and The Festivals. But we kick off with Radio. Some might be surprised that we have chosen to start there. For it has to be said that few supporters of Greenbelt, members of the Word Record Club or readers of Cross Rhythms would view British radio as having any significant part to play in Britain's 'Christian music scene'. This, as Tony Cummings points out in his essay here, is a bizarre anomaly.
The overall intention of 'The Biz' is to help Britain's supporters of Christian music to become more informed about how the music industry works and to better understand the tensions existing between business, art and the desire to minister spiritual truth. Please write to Cross Rhythms with your thoughts and comments. - Tony Cummings
RADIO: AN OUTSIDERS VIEW by Tony Cummings
My brother used to smuggle his crystal set up to our bedroom and listen to Radio Luxembourg. A crystal set was the crude forerunner to the transistor but it worked and soon I was hooked too, listening in hour after hour to what was then the only out-and-out pop station broadcast in Europe, Radio Luxembourg.
I began keeping a note book, star-rating the records I heard: the Shadows' "Kon-Tiki" was only a two star item but the Isley Brothers' "Shout" was a five-star killer. It was a few years before I had the money to buy my own records and by that time I'd decided that the music I liked best was "blues", "rhythm and blues" and "soul". So I hunted my radio dials, found a disc jockey called Mike Raven who broadcast first from a pirate ship and later via the Beeb who gave my clamorous ears a feast of Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf records while "soul" came from DJ's like Emperor Roscoe and Johnnie Walker who, in between the tidal wave of Mersey Beat by that time sweeping the airwaves, played Otis Redding, Mary Wells and a hundred more soul artists. I discovered what millions of teenagers were also discovering - that my radio was an entrance into an exciting world where all my hopes, dreams and aspirations found focus in the strident blare of music. My tastes were different from most of my friends, I preferred the Isley's "Twist And Shout" to all the British beat group renditions, but as the music I liked gradually ceased to be perceived as some esoteric 'Negro' entity and was more and more the stuff that hits are made of, radio was the means that kept me in touch with the new releases and played some of my favourites which 'crossed over' to pop success.
If I had one particular fantasy concerning radio it was that one day there would be a soul music radio station in Britain. It was hard having to sit through hours of Tony Blackburn innanities and Engelbert Humperdinck hits to get to Radio One or Capitol's occasional Martha And The Vandellas or Earth Wind And Fire songs and like every country and western enthusiast or folk music buff I longed for greater exposure of 'my' particular kind of music. After becoming the editor of 'Black Music' magazine and going to work in Los Angeles where I scripted and researched a weekly US Soul Chart run down for LA's leading soul radio station I began to learn that 8'specialist' stations like their Top 40 counterparts, often don't give listener's greater variety but simply programme the same 30 plus records over-and-over again.
Back in the UK I began a long and extremely precarious period of my life struggling to make it as a songwriter and record producer. Once a record of mine almost hit. BBC Radio Oxford made it 'Record Of The Week' but with no concerted plugging effort from the small independent company that released it, it never made it to Radio One. As a songwriter chasing the ever elusive hit, mainstream pop radio became my window on the world - the yardstick against which I measured my efforts while as my musical tastes at last diversified I tuned in to an ever increasing variety of specialist programmes to hear jazz, roots reggae and classical music. In 1980 I was converted to Christianity and a few months later while at the house of two Christian girls who'd kinded this strange, ex-drug taking dropout who'd descended on their church, heard albums by Nutshell and Adrian Snell. I was bemused to discover here was a whole subculture of albums and concerts and magazines (I began reading Buzz) and festivals (I attended my first Greenbelt in 1981) which all my years as a music journalist and songwriter I'd never even guessed existed. I'd known about American black gospel music of course. Within weeks of my conversion I'd bought import albums by the Mighty Clouds Of Joy and Al Green. But that genre had seemed to me like a black music variant to be filed and catalogued somewhere in between the blues and soul music. For a supposedly well-informed enthusiast of popular music like myself to discover contemporary Christian music (or pop gospel as it was called then) with its hundreds of albums by artists I'd never heard or heard of was an odd cultural experience. I returned to my radio dial with new zeal searching vainly for some specialist programme that played these albums by Larry Norman, Chuck Girard et al. When I wasn't at church I listened in to 'religious' programmes but discovered that, if they played music at all, they made no use of this unexpected creative resource and played instead the same dreary mish mash of cathedral hymns and mawkish renditions of "Bless This House" which had made me steer clear of 'God slot' programming for so many years. It seemed bizarre "How did people get to hear the music before they bought it?" I asked. It became increasingly obvious that often they didn't. Within a year I, like my friends, were making regular jaunts to Christian bookshops where occasional I'd buy albums unheard. The chosen method was to lock into an artist whose previous album you'd heard and buy the new one. Without concert-going to guide me I simply looked for 'sec cred' and resultingly bought albums by Bonnie Bramlett and Maria Muldaur because I had previously liked some of their non-gospel output.
Noticing that Buzz hardly if ever reviewed any black gospel albums I wrote in with a couple of reviews. They subsequently commissioned me to write an article on 'Britain's black gospel scene' which was fun researching (a Paradise recording session and a no-holds-barred gospel service in South London were particular highlights) and when Buzz asked me along for an interview for the job of assistant editor they clearly expected me to be black. Starting fulltime with Buzz ensured that I no longer had to buy my albums, and a stream of new gospel albums (white and black) landed almost daily on my desk. Many I discovered were musically third rate, cheaply recorded pastiches of popular musical styles with lyrics which never strived to go beyond "died for me/at Calvary" banality. But enough of these albums were reasonable and one or two truly superb.
With the steady proliferation of IBA radio stations I had gradually become aware that if not in London, some geographic areas had religious programmes where contemporary Christian music was given a little airplay. There was Chris Cole on Plymouth sounds, Andy Radford on Severn Sound, and Nigel Sharp on GWR and a handful more all playing tracks from the albums Buzz were reviewing. In 1984 I'd introduced a Contemporary Christian Music (along with Praise And Worship and Black Gospel) Charts in Buzz. It was pretty crude stuff. I'd simply telephone a handful of Christian bookshops who made some reasonable effort to sell pop-gospel (there were only a handful!) get a list of their best sellers, and print the results. The idea soon produced an unexpected promotional bonus. GWR's Nigel Sharpe, one of the few IBA religious presenters who got paid for his programming (the standard IBA technique being to get an enthusiastic vicar or hospital radio broadcaster prepared ot take on the weekly God-slot for free) suggested a monthly show could be built around Buzz's CCM charts. 'The Buzz Chart Show' was a simple aping of the Kid Jensen Chart Show, with Adrian Snell and Steve Taylor tracks substituting for real hits. But it got Buzz some free radio plugs and according to Nigel added an upturn to the small audiences who normally listened to any kind of religious programming.
Soon a dozen or more other stations were making use of the Buzz chart. I was asked to appear as an interviewee on a few of them. Only one or two had the sharply focussed, youth culture of GWR's 'Buzz Chart Show'. Usually they were an uneasy alliance of genteel religiosity (news on the Methodist women's flower show) and hymns ancient and modern (usually ancient) with pop gospel thrown hopefully in as "something for the kids". I would sometimes wonder how many kids would be prepared to listen to such programmes on the hope of catching an occasional Garth Hewitt track. But this seemed to be the total sum of contemporary Christian music radio programming. The hopeful rise and painful demise of 'The Rock Gospel Show' on BBC television during the eighties did not, as some Christian music industry people had predicted, produce any overspill of CCM exposure on the radio.
Black gospel seemed to fare a little better. In towns like London and Birmingham where there was a sizeable black community, gospel shows presented by presenters like Al Matthews (Capitol) and Frank Stewart (BMW) kept a small yet vociferous audience happy with a musical diet of James Cleveland and Shirley Caesar. But by the time I left Buzz in 1987 I'd become increasingly frustrated that no-one in Britain's Christian music scene seemed to have any clear strategy to get those wonderful albums by Amy Grant, Rez and all the rest to the ears of any but those prepared to buy them unheard. If anything Word(UK), by '87 enjoying a near monopoly position in the CCM field, seemed to give up any realistic hope of getting significant radio play for their releases, putting much of their efforts instead into building one of the largest record club mailing lists in the UK therefore solidifying the peculiar habit of British evangelicals to purchase albums they hadn't previously heard.