Jonathan Bellamy goes shopping to investigate Christian music retailing in Britain.

Good News Christian Music Centre
Good News Christian Music Centre

Christian bookshops, despite their title, have the unenviable position of holding the pivotal position in the promotion and selling of Christian music in Britain. Whilst the secular stores cannot as yet foresee a market for CCM, Christian bookstores with their often uninformed, uninterested and over-aged managers (or so the stereotypes go) are at the butt of many a frustrated musos declarations on the woeful inadequacy of Christian music availability.

In British Christian music the big record company is Nelson Word. Bill Williams, Nelson Word's Director of Operations to over 650 bookstores throughout the UK, discussed their position. "I think Christian bookshops are going through an interesting phase," Williams said. "On average, the percentage of a UK Christian bookstore's total turnover that accounts for music sales is between eight and 10 per cent. However, some of the bookstores who have used our expertise and sales reps to help them market product efficiently to the people coming into the shops are today averaging 20 per cent. We are trying to work efficiently with the others. The problem is that these bookstores have staff who are not professionally trained and do not have a real interest in the music scene. In coming out of recession I would like to think the stores are heading towards an American approach where they have to make more money on the gift and music side. For it's THAT rather than books which is the growing industry."

An example of this is the growth in the UK of video sales. Last year saw a 74% increase and it appears the relationship between Nelson Word and the bookstores is getting stronger. Bill agrees. "Yes, we are very service orientated," said Bill, "and have improved our turnaround on orders from two weeks to 24 hours. We listen to bookshops as much as possible and help where we can. We help finance re-racking and TV video monitors. Furthermore, we are involved in music and video evenings and sometimes help stores with artist appearances. For instance Michael Card was recently in Belfast so we tried a signing session. And of course we spend a considerable amount of money on our Premier magazine, sending out 16,000 free copies bimonthly to the stores."

Of course, that's all well and good but often, on entering a Christian bookshop, there is scant evidence of a pulsating, burgeoning CCM scene. Having finally located the 'Christian Music Department', deep in the dim recesses of a cobwebbed closet you are faced with a single, squeaky and rocking swivel rack and a choice somewhere between selected praise and worship since 19dot; Amazing Grace by the Royal Dragoon Guards; praise and worship in varying degrees of throat warbling, subtropical dialects; early 70s hit masters the Fisherfolk; and thoughtful praise and worship Psalms from the Vow Of Silence Monastery.

Okay, so that's an exaggeration, but the truth is that Peter the Panpipe and Worship with Muzak are by far the majority share holders on our music racks and over the bookshop music systems. (Perhaps plinking harps are the divine subliminal tactic for increased sales). But Bill Williams sees the bookshop bias towards praise and worship changing. "At the moment there's a 60/40 split in favour of praise and worship, but contemporary is moving up very fast, particularly in London and the South East where there are far more varied cultural backgrounds. To some degree the stores have a paradigm that they can't get out of that they are very ministry orientated, and so they tend towards praise and worship. However, the buzz is that praise and worship is waiting for the next phase to come along. I think folk are starting to think it's all beginning to sound the same. So they are turning more towards contemporary music. The other thing is that on the contemporary side there are a lot of artists doing contemporary praise and worship like Charlie Peacock's 'Coram Deo', whilst we are about to release an album by the well known praise and worship leader Graham Kendrick which is his first contemporary album for seven years, called The Spark To A Flame'. Yes, there's a real mixing in of the contemporary."

Ann Landricombe, proprietor of the Christian Literature Centre in Plymouth has witnessed the growth in Christian music in her own shop since the mid 70s. Her attitude towards it, if typical of today's Christian bookshops, is very encouraging. Ann recognises that some bookstore owners have found the change from traditional choirs and soloists to more modern music very difficult, and baulk at even the sight of a heavy metal cover. Commented Ann, "Some shops have made a policy that they will not stock certain contemporary music. We ourselves have not had that policy. We have to use some criteria for deciding whether to stock something, like how well known the artist is or what promotion they are getting but we try not to be judgmental on an artist just because we don't like the front cover."

The biggest reason for their caution however is finance, particularly through the recession. Ann explained, "We are very privileged to have a city centre shop, but that means large overheads and so the constraints on our financial situation means we almost have to stock what sells best. We try not to because we want to be a ministry and stock a wider range but certainly over the last few years we have had to tighten up on what we are stocking. One of the biggest problems is the amount of material coming out from new bands and artists. To keep on top of that and have a really wide selection is difficult. Sometimes an album can be on the shelf for 18 months before anyone will even ask to listen to it. That is a problem."

Ann's dilemma is understandable. How to be diverse and still survive. Perhaps her next comment holds the key. "We will never refuse to order something for somebody if we can possibly get it. That service is always there. Furthermore, if we find people are coming in to us asking for particular artists then we will respond to that by stocking more of that product."

It's a case of supply and demand. Instead of lamenting the lack of choice, we should be asking for things so the shops know what we want, and it will be in their interests to respond.

If Ann's shop is typical of current thinking towards Christian music then we should also expect bookshops to provide listening facilities. In addition to the standard music system her shop also provides headphones for anyone who wishes.

Maybe I'm just a positive kind of guy but to me Ann's attitude, if taken on around the country, is potentially very healthy for the growth of CCM in the UK. As Ann said, "To be fair, Christian bookshops really do need to have a go. It's no good just saying 'No, I'm not going to touch that.' Unfortunately, we have been hit quite considerably by record clubs. To the bookshops they are a little bit galling particularly when people come in and ask 'Can I hear this cassette?' and then go and order it from the record club! But despite that, I think it is only right to give all types of Christian music a go. You see, everybody's different and different things relate to different people. Personally, music is not the prime source for my spiritual encouragement and upbuilding. I gain more from books. However, others gain great encouragement from music. You have to admit we're not living in a particularly literate age and many young people spend large parts of their lives listening to music. Something I might listen to and not be able to hear the words a young person might listen to and something will strike home to them. It may be the catalyst they need in their search to finding Christ."

At the moment, Christian bookshops are the most important generator of music sales. As Nelson Word's Bill Williams impressed upon me, "Christian bookshops have supported this company faithfully for many, many years, and I want to state that very, very strongly. Our bread and butter sales come from the Christian bookstores."

Yet the times may be a-changing. In 1993 Nelson Word actually sell into a lot of the major Virgin and HMV stores. In fact, London's Tower Records carry an incredible 40 per cent of the Nelson Word catalogue and that's right across the board (including praise and worship). At present the main interest is generated by R&B-gospel but Bill is receiving increased openings for country music and similar styles. As Bill said though, it's only the major cities at the moment who will stock them - places like London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds - because their cultural communities are sufficiently diverse. So, don't expect to walk into HMV Grimsby and ask for a Dynamic Twins just yet. Similarly, don't despair. Bill Williams himself looks to the secular side for growth in the future. "My own heart wants to see the general market place grow," said Bill. "Not at the expense of Christian bookstores but, you know, although we are a very commercial company we do have a heart to put Christian music into non-Christian hands. I see it more as a mission thing to get product into HMV and Virgin. Personally, I visit the London mega stores on a monthly basis to sell new products and it is steadily selling through them. My vision for the coming year is to see that increase countrywide."

But of course, if you are looking for a shop that sells Christian music the most obvious place to go would be a Christian music shop! The problem is, how many of us fancy a day long journey just to get the latest Carman CD? Yes, Christian music shops are few and far between. By far the most successful and the pioneer in the field is London's Soho-based Dual Edge. Established over four years ago by Andrew Antoniades and his wife, Mary, it runs on the policy "to stock anything that sounds good, and we can sell." And as a result, Dual Edge has gradually built up a loyal following, punters who keep going back, including a 25% non-Christian support. Keen to explore all avenues, Dual Edge houses a small praise and worship section, a large heavy metal section and a R&B gospel one. They also have a 20% turnover on foreign imports. But, as Andrew explained, "Most stuff is located in the UK. We buy from a lot of different sources and sometimes we might just go right to the bands. We find out about it through magazines; but the best advertising guys are the people who come into the shop and tell you what new stuff there is."