We look at the role that magazines have played in promoting Christian music. Tony Cummings turns the pages of history.
A record producer phoned me up the other day. Knowing my long association with black music publications, he offered to "write me out a cheque" if I would write a favourable article about his fledgling, as yet unsigned, soul- cum-dance act He reasoned that a buzz created by Blues & Soul or Echoes would help land a record deal. Such is 'the power of the press that still remains part and parcel of the secular record business. It's long been a well-known fact that a high-profile story in NME is often sufficient ID get a band signed to a major record company; while Smash Hits exposure is absolutely essential for those purveying music to a pubescent, singles-buying, female audience. Today music publications come in all shapes and sizes. From the fanzines run off on duplicators in vinyl-junkies' bedrooms, through to mass circulation colour glossies turning over advertising revenue millions, music magazines are thriving. One American record executive recently observed that no music market in the world is influenced as much as Britain's by the printed word. From the thinking man's rock critique's of 'Q' Sometimes unkindly referred to as the 'yuppie rock fan's journal') through to a myriad of 'specialist' titles like Country Music People, Metal Hammer and Folk Roots, there is seemingly no area of popular music not comprehensively covered by music publications.
But how does the Christian subculture compare with its big turnover counterpart? In view of what has happened in Britain's mainstream music industry it is probably not surprising that magazines have had a foundational role, too, in the growth of Britain's Christian music scene. Back in the 1950s, Britain's first evangelical monthly, Crusade, experimented with a 'chart', gleaned from Christian bookshops, indicating which particular album of Sacred Favourites or Hymns For All was the current best-seller. But, as the Beatles heralded the 60's 'beat boom', Christian teenagers began to buy guitars and experiment with Christian rock. A network of Christian coffee bars sprang up where Christian beat groups would perform 'Christian beat music'. One such group, the Salvation Army-based Joystrings, even made the British pop charts. In October 1965 the first issue of the magazine of the Musical Gospel Outreach - a loose-knit organisation aimed at organising concerts and promoting beat gospel - was published. The magazine was called Buzz. Printed on a duplicator, it consisted of two folded A4 pages; of the 200 copies printed, not all were sold. But Buzz quickly proved to be a catalyst for Christian musicians. Writing with breathless enthusiasm about the pioneering work of groups like the Channels, the Glorylanders, the Envoys and the Unfettered (the latter two boasting members who were MGO founding fathers Geoff" Sheam and Peter Meadows), Buzz steadily put on circulation. By 1971, Buzz had ceased to be a news and gossip publication aimed primarily at gospel beat guitar strummers, but had absorbed British Youth For Christ's 'Vista' magazine to become a general Christian magazine. It was, though, still clearly pitched at a teenage audience and still giving a quarter or more of its editorial coverage to Christian music.
Twelve years after its most humble launch Buzz was well on the way to becoming the best-selling Christian monthly in Britain. The September '78 issue demonstrated its new confidence; a full-colour, glossy front cover toted an expose of the Mormons; there were articles on John Pantry, persecuted Soviet Christians and Jessy Dixon, while inside editor Peter Meadows felt confident enough to print the Buzz 'ABC circulation figure -- an impressive 16,027. Most significantly of all, its back page advertised an event 'Presented by Buzz Magazine and British Youth For Christ called Spring Harvest Someone who worked in Britain's burgeoning Christian music industry throughout the 70s commented: "You cannot overestimate how important Buzz was during the 70s and early 80s to the Christian music industry. They wrote about two, maybe three gospel artists every issue, they reviewed albums and ran live concert news. In fact, with almost a complete lack of radio exposure for Christian music in, Buzz was just abut the only way we could tell our grassroots supporters, young evangelical Christians, about the music. The gospel scene advertised pretty prolifically in Buzz. It had to; Buzz was the single most significant thing in raising the awareness of Christian music and paving the way for Graham Kendrick, Greenbelt, The Rock Gospel Show. Without the magazine telling its readers each month that Garth Hewitt had a new album out or The 2nd Chapter Of Acts were going to tour, Christian music would have been stillborn in Britain".
Not that by the 70s Buzz was alone in its editorial support of Christian music. In 1974 a country music devotee and fan of Christian music, Paul Davis, had launched a quarterly magazine called 'New Music'. As Britain's first and, for many years only, publication devoted exclusively to Christian music, it struggled to find a viable circulation. "I did all kinds of deals," remembers Paul. "I sold the front cover story to any band who'd pay me and no one who contributed got paid including me". In 1978 it became New Christian Music and in 1984 New Christian Media. Despite a professional print job New Christian Music's parochial editorial style and editorial obsessions (Paul's was a passionate love for country-gospel even though there was a tiny market in the UK for the same) resembled a fan-run magazine rather than a professional publication. But it had a part to play in spreading the gospel about gospel. Says Paul Davis: Tm quite certain that 'New Christian Music' was a catalyst for Christian music. It provided an identity to the music. Probably the single most important thing we did was giving copies away to all the major people in he secular music world. It raised everybody's consciousness of the music and paved the way for getting some exposure of it on radio." Paul's belief is borne out by experience. Today he presents a weekly radio programme on Radio Bedford.
By the early 1980s Buzz was in decline. Its circulation had peaked at just under 40,000 and then had begun a steady circulation spiral downwards. Magazine-publishing is full of theories as to why magazine sales go up and down but one possible reason for its decline was articulated by one theologian and observer: "Buzz was always perceived very much as an organ of evangelical youth. By the late 70s Christian youth had lost much of its sense of corporate identity. O nee, a feeling of being some kind of Jesus People Army had held Christian youth together, particularly in the early 70s. But social and theological movements within the church: the pietistic, the social gospel camp, the Signs And Wonders style churches, those emphasising art, needed no justification. This ensured that being a Bible believing teenager no longer necessarily put you in the same peer group as other young Christians. Polarisation set in. By the early 80s the mindset expressed in, say, Spring Harvest and Greenbelt seemed poles apart Understandably, Buzz sales went down"
In 1981, The Greenbelt Festival had launched its own paper, Strait, which by 1986 had developed into a magazine format and (for a while) strived to maintain bi-monthly publication. Its efforts to become a magazine distributed beyond the confines of the Greenbelt Festival began to peter out by the late 80s and it has today settled for being a quarterly publication with a smallish circulation. Very much an arts magazine as opposed to a solely music magazine Strait has continually given more than half its editorial space to cinema, the visual arts, literature, and other arts, as well as incisive interviews with some of Christendom's most challenging thinkers. But its contribution to Christian magazine coverage of music has been significant. Firstly, it greatly raised standards of journalism when writing about music performed by Christians (and sometimes non-Christians). Writers of the calibre of Steve Turner and Martyn Wroe have been able to write lucidly and eloquently about their particular musical passions in Strait Secondly, by eschewing what it saw as the limitations of the subculture, Strait has gone out of its way to champion the cause of the Christian 'secular' musician. The musical heroes and heroines of Straifs editorial team seem clearly to be Bruce Cockbum and Maria McKee rather than Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant This has proven to be a somewhat contentious aspect of Strait music's editorial policy towards music. For some it appeared to cover only artists with 'secular' record company deals, who played down their Christian faith in the lyrics they sang, if they mentioned it at all. This seeming obsession with the street cred trendy and rejection of the ministry-orientated musician has long been a criticism levelled at the Greenbelt Festival itself. It's one heartily denied by Martyn Wroe, editor of 'Straif from 1987 to 1989. "Every magazine has to make a decision to write about things in a particular area. I believe Strait has encouraged thoughtful young men and women to think, and sometimes write about culture from some kind of Christian perspective. Strait has helped people realise that there doesn't need to be a split between that which some would call ministry and that which you could call art If s helped people consider more if its good or band aesthetically.
Who made it woefully difficult for magazines like Buzz, New Christian Media and Strait was the lack of advertising support from the Christian music industry. In the 70s and early 80s Word, Kingsway and Chapel Lane Records were regularly booking colour ads in Buzz, while a succession of tours were again given high profile advertising support By the mid 80s this revenue, vital to support small or falling circulations, had reduced from a flood to a trickle. "What happened" explained Kevin Edwards, once of Big Feet Media and now an independent record producer, "was that the bottom had fallen out of the Christian group tour scene and the record companies found that though costs were spiralling, album sales were fairly stagnant Everybody began to pull their belts in and suddenly magazines like Buzz weren't getting all those lucrative colour ads they once were."
What was possibly the end of the line for the music advertising gravy train was the launch of Premier. Since the 70s, Word (U K) had been building a highly successful record club, selling albums direct to the consumer. In 1986 Word re-launched the Word Record Club monthly catalogue by putting in colour pages and turning it into Premier, a fully-fledged 'advertorial', still mainly consisting of distinctly uncritical album reviews, but also with a smattering of interviews and news. It was distributed to members of the club and given away free in Christian bookstores. Says David Bruce, head of A&R at Word (UK): "We simply found that to get the maximum exposure for the ever-increasing catalogue of albums we were releasing, not to mention our expanding book range, we had to rationalise our promotional activities. It made more sense spending money in an advertorial which got to upwards of 40,000 readers than to spend it in advertising in a magazine like Buzz which, by the mid 80's, was cutting down on its music coverage and whose circulation was continually dipping."
Buzz did make occasional radical moves in its music coverage. In 1985 they put a then fairly unknown Steve Taylor on the cover (and in the same issue a provocative critique of the Rock Gospel Show entitled 'I didn't know Alvin Stardust was a Christian'). The following year they published a much-talked-about examination of the spiritual beliefs of U2. But it was true that the halcyon days of youth group-promoted sales were now a thing of the past for Buzz. In 1985, Paul Davis had sold New Christian Media to a new company owned by Colin Saunders and Brian Phillips (also directors of Elm House Christian Communications, the publishers of Buzz, Today and Family magazines). New Christian Media was re launched as a bi-monthly. For six issues it seemed to be establishing itself with some incisive musical articles plus a sizeable slice of non-music material.
But the rug was duly pulled out from under New Christian Media and it was absorbed into Buzz (who perversely showed not the slightest interest in extending their musical coverage). Says Dave Roberts, briefly the editor of New Christian Media and today the editor of Alpha Magazine. "We broadened the appeal of New Christian Media from being a purely music Magazine to take in mission and media as well. We made a lot of progress. We got a big sympathy vote from people who were disaffected from Buzz." When asked to give his appraisal of what the brief appearance of the revised New Christian Media has contributed to Christian Music, Roberts wasn't sure, "rd like to feel we took Christians from the level of mere, thoughtless consumerism and got them to think more about the music they listened to."
Ironically, the magazine that absorbed New Christian Media wasn't to last much longer. In September 1987, the last issue of Buzz appeared. It was succeeded, the following month, by a new magazine: 21st Century Christian. Not only was die unwieldy title clearly conceived by committee, its inaugural issue contained a stunningly unfunny column' Christian Yuppies' which proved to be something of a prophetic millstone around its neck. From that day on critics called 21st Century Christian The Christian Yuppie. Whatever its faults Buzz, particularly under the zealous editorship of Steve Goddard (1982-1986), had achieved a biting, hard hitting editorial edge. 21st Century Christian eschewed the controversy and satire setting instead for a safer, cosier Christian overview, in the process cutting back still further its music coverage. Sales continued to slide downwards and by the time of its closure, in 1990, had reached only a little over 14,000 sales. Says musician Jonathan Day, for many years a Buzz reader "Looking back, its hand to say how much Buzz's rise and fall was tied up with the Christian music scene. Certainly, Buzz gained its first readership by covering the Christian beat groups and in the 70s it was the music coverage which often pulled in new, young readers. But by the 80s it began to lose its way. Young people began to feel it was a magazine written by people who weren't young telling them what to think."
In 1987, with Buzz and New Christian Media gone, evangelical entrepreneurs perceived a possible 'hole in the market" for a Christian music magazine. One succeeded, at least in terms of survival, while one failed. Christian Music was launched by Herald House as another tide to put alongside its successful Christian Herald weekly newspaper, Christian Woman and its rather less successful J\M (an early-teens teaching magazine often featuring Christian musos with teenybop appeal. It finally floundered in 1970). Christian Music was staunchly conservative, covering music squarely at the level of the musician ensconced in the mainline church. Articles like 'Your Voice: How To Get The Best Out Of If and 'Praise Him On The Accordion' clearly have a place, as does its printing of worship sheet music; though its stilted writing style and disregard of the listener as opposed to the musician, coupled with its stifling churchiness made Christian Music a magazine easy to lampoon. But Christian Music survived. Another, more radical, magazine also launched in 1987, Repercussion, only made it to issue one. Repercussion was an avowedly contemporary Christian music magazine. With editorial emphasis on black gospel (Gloria Gaynor, The Wade Brothers, Lavine Hudson), yet with some good rock gospel coverage (Steve Taylor) and excellent print and design it seemed a magazine destined to succeed. But it didn't find a viable return on investment and quickly disappeared off the newsagents' stands where it had been placed. "What the demise of Repercussion demonstrated was that there is no easy killing to be made in contemporary Christian music magazine publishing in Britain" comments Cross Rhythms' publishing director Chris Cole. "By the late 80s the Christian music scene was still small and under-financed, despite Greenbelt, despite The Rock Gospel Show, despite The Word Record Club, despite any signs to the contrary. There weren't huge numbers of album buyers to become magazine buyers. And the album market was dominated by a company with a well established advertorial -- so there was little obvious advertising revenue. It just didn't make any sense, commercially speaking, to start a contemporary Christian music magazine in Britain."
Yet in 1990 just such a magazine was launched. Mark Golding, who ran a small, Birmingham-based print company, explained how Cross Rhythms was born. "The magazine came about through the vision of Tony Cummings. He came to see me and, after prayer, we approached a bank who were prepared to give us a tiny bank overdraft to start. Recently the Media Guardian commented how the new technology -- desktop publishing etc -- meant that magazines could be launched on the 'tiny' launch capital of £50,000. Tony and I started the magazine with a £3,000 overdraft!"
This seeming financial suicide pact was bailed out by what Mark Golding calls "a series of miraculous interventions." Unable to print issue 2, an investor put in 3,500 to meet the print bill. Issue 3 and 4 saw an investment totalling 18,500 from two Preston businessmen who volunteered help without being asked. When after issue 4, an appeal to see new investment had failed; Chris Cole's Cornerstone House marketing company purchased the magazine. Comments Chris: "Tony Cummings and Mark Golding gave sacrificially to establish Cross Rhythms. What they did was, in a business sense, impossible. They had no money and no contacts to make it work. They simply saw that there was a need for a Christian magazine -- the fans needed a credible vehicle to critique the music and encourage excellence; the musicians needed a magazine that could be their mouthpiece; the Christian music industry needed a magazine that could help them build a viable business infrastructure; the non-Christian media needed a magazine that would encourage them to explore music with a spiritual dynamic; and the church needed a magazine that would alert it to the most widely accepted and effective means of communication in the world today - music. Mark and Tony just saw the need and heard God's call on their lives and talents and responded to it"
Today, Cross Rhythms is still in a precarious financial position. With only two paid staff, who only work part time, the editorial is an epic tale of making very limited financial and manpower resources go a long, long way. But as Phil Bacon of Kingsway Music observed: Magazines have, in the past, been crucial to the growth of Christian music in Britain. Kingsway (which grew out of the MGO/Buzz nucleus) in part owes its very existence to a magazine. Without magazines like Cross Rhythms and Alpha (which, under the editorship of Dave Roberts, has rediscovered some of the old Buzz's pioneering music savvy witness its recent superb feature on pop culture spirituality 'Let's Get Spiritual' or its early championing of rock evangelists violet burning) creativity within the arts, and particularly music, is in danger of ossifying. "Good music journalism is more important than ever as the Church moves into the 90s."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.