CHRISTIAN MUSIC INDUSTRY
The Christian music industry is a small part of
the larger music industry, that focuses on
traditional Gospel music, Southern gospel,
contemporary Christian music, and alternative
Christian music. It is sometimes called the
gospel music industry , although this designation
is not a limitation on the musical styles
Christian artists generally use secular styles,
pairing them with lyrics that display faith and
spirituality to varying degrees. Generally
speaking, the industry is influenced by
mainstream culture. Musical trends, for instance,
follow those of the secular scene, though usually
a few years behind.  The Christian music
industry carries the distinction of being the only
music subculture whose content is labeled by its
lyrical dimension rather than its
music. [citation needed ] Still, music within the
industry is sold by its musical style rather than
Christian music’s critics point to the divergent
interests of commercialization and ministry,
which have, according to some, polar opposite
goals. Aspects of Christian music have long
struggled to gain general acceptance, even
within the Christian community. What some see
as secularization and a lacking of direct
theology, others see as artistic ministry. This
opens up questions of the definition of “Christian
music” that have lingered over the industry since
The Christian music industry experienced
tremendous growth in the 1990s. Christian
music sales grew to exceed those for classical,
jazz, and new age music.  Even so, the
Christian music industry has experienced the
same issues as the general market in recent
The contemporary Christian music industry has
roots in the late 1960s and early 1970s Jesus
Movement and its Jesus Music artists. The
Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music
points out three reasons that the Christian music
industry developed as a parallel structure to the
general music industry.  First, the Jesus
movement produced a large number of bands in
a very short period, which the general market
was unable and/or unwilling to absorb.  This
was in part due to a lack of appreciation for the
ideology expressed by such artists.  Finally,
Jesus music artists tended toward mistrust of
secular corporations.  According to another
critic, the industry in this period was defined by
four characteristics: lack of audience
acceptance for styles, inferior production,
inefficient distribution, and lack of wide radio
exposure.  Petra , for instance, struggled to
find an audience for their hard rock sound,
partially due to limited distribution to Christian
Even so, the 1970s saw established corporations
become involved in the Christian music market.
Word Records , founded in 1951, was bought in
1976 by ABC. Other music industry giants also
got involved, CBS started a short-lived Christian
label, Priority Records, and MCA also fielded a
label, Songbird Records, for a time.
While the Jesus movement had ended by the
1980s, the Christian music industry was
maturing and transforming into a multimillion-
dollar enterprise. The early 1980s saw an
increase Christian booksellers taking product,
and an increase in sales followed, despite the
recession.  As a percentage of gross sales,
Christian music rose from 9% in 1976 to 23% in
1985.  By her 1982 release Amy Grant had
saturated the Christian marketplace and made
significant inroads into the general market. 
Sandi Patti and Michael W. Smith also gained
influence within Christian music, each playing
significant roles in the development of the
Harder forms of Christian music, such as heavy
metal , also began to gain acceptance. This is
largely credited to Stryper , who had begun
making inroads into the general market by
1985.  Still, rock and alternative acts faced a
longer battle for acceptance than contemporary
acts, as the form was opposed by prominent
religious leaders such as Jimmy Swaggart and
others on the Christian right . While in
1981 total gospel music industry revenues were
approximately $180 million, only ten years later
they would total $680 million, according to CCM
RIAA sales, 1995–2000
Year % $ Source
1995 3.1 381 
1996 4.3 538 
1997 4.5 549 
1998 6.3 836 
1999 5.1 744 
2000 4.8 688 
Percentage figures out of
total music market.
Dollar figures in millions.
RIAA figures often differ
from those reported
by Nielsen SoundScan .
These figures represent
only revenue from album sales,
and exclude other sources.
According to RIAA data, market share for sales
of Christian music albums more than doubled
between 1993 and 1997.  In the 1990s the
Christian music industry became the fastest
growing segment of the music industry.  This
was due to several factors, including
consolidation of record labels, and independent
Christian bookstores into chains. 
The Christian music industry began adopting
SoundScan in 1995, although implementation
was spotty even into the millennium. Even so,
the adoption caused the visibility of Christian
artists to increase significantly, and brought
credibility to the industry as Christian albums
became integrated into all Billboard charts. 
In 1985, 90% of Christian music sales originated
at Christian bookstores. By 1995, that number
had dropped to 64%, with general retailers taking
21%, and the remainder accountable through
other methods, such as direct mail.  At that
same time, the industry was estimated to gross
$750 million, with $381 million in album
sales.  In the late 1990s, general market
retailers, especially big box stores such as Best
Buy, Wal-Mart , Target , and Blockbuster began
carrying a wider selection of Christian music
products.  By 2000 those stores had
surpassed Christian retail in terms of the number
of Christian albums sold, according to
Soundscan numbers.  This phenomenon
was partially responsible for crossover
successes. P.O.D. , for example, sold 1.4 million
albums in 2001, although sales at Christian retail
outlets accounted for only 10%. 
The new millennium has brought challenges for
the record industry as a whole, and these have
affected the Christian music industry as well. 
Contemporary worship music , a long time staple
of the industry, began to gain significant market
share in about the year 2000.  By
focusing on marketing worship music to youth
culture, this genre became a growth driver
despite the downturn in the general music
Growth continued until about 2003, but has
generally followed the trends of the larger music
industry since that point. In 2009 a The New
York Times op-ed placed the entire music
industry on a “deathwatch,”  pointing out that
new forms of media, piracy, and new pricing
options are driving gross sales down. In another
example of parallelism, the Christian music
industry has experienced largely the same
phenomenon. In the Christian marketplace,
music consumption has risen by as much as
30% since 2005, but overall album sales have
dropped to about half of their 1999 levels.
However, some critics point out that the current
downturn may have long term positive effects
for the industry. John J. Thompson told
Christianity Today that “The lack of monetary
benefit has filtered out some of the people who
should not have been doing this in the first
place. If the people who are in it for the money
are gone, it leaves more turf for those who had
something a little bit loftier in mind.” 
Christian music is sometimes cited as a
“ghetto,”  meaning that the majority of
artists in the industry are pigeonholed to operate
solely in it. These artists are isolated from the
mainstream public, to Christian media, including
radio, magazines, and book stores. For many
this is a conscious choice, however others, not
content to stay in an isolated industry segment,
attempt to “cross over” and gain acceptance in
the general market. For many artists, being
called Christian becomes a stigma. 
Name recognition in Christian music
Amy Grant 70
BeBe and CeCe
Sandi Patty 42
Michael W. Smith 30
dc Talk 26
A 1997 survey looked at familiarity with “well-
known” Christian artists. Self-identified Christi
music listeners in are shown in green, and the
general public in red. 
A 1997 study revealed that a self-identified
audience of “Christian music listeners” had what
was considered a lacking recognition of
Christian artists.  The survey was
commissioned by the Christian Music Trade
Association and Z Music Television . The study
looked at several artists including Amy Grant ,
BeBe and CeCe Winans , Carman, Steven Curtis
Chapman , dc Talk , Sandi Patty, and Michael W.
Smith. At the time of the survey, each of these
artists was active in Christian music and had
been so for at least nine years, was a multiple
Dove Award and/or Grammy Award winner, and
had albums certified Gold or higher.
Even so, the survey found that the Christian
music audience was no more familiar with
artists in the field than they were with Hootie &
The Blowfish , a popular act at that time. The
study concluded that the word “Christian” was
the problem, causing a stigma. “It’s the label, not
the music, that dissuades,” one Christian music
executive was quoted as saying, agreeing with
the survey. 
Another aspect of the “ghetto” is that some
artists have trouble gaining audience with
Christians due to their non-conservative
image.  Stryper is a well-known example.
Stryper received large amounts of criticism from
groups on the Christian right, who argue (among
other things) that their image as rock stars
contradict their espoused faith. One critic wrote
that the marriage of secular and religious
elements in “Christian music” “violates all that
God has commanded in the Bible about
separation .” 
The “ghetto” has several effects, critics point
out that the audience of such artists are often
already Christians, thus limiting the impact of
any supposed “evangelism.”  Another is that
artists sometimes have trouble appealing to and
maintaining both secular and religious
audiences. For example:
One Jesus music artist, Randy Matthews, ran
into trouble at an early Christian music
festival after announcing an upcoming tour
with Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top. The
crowd, also reacting to his electric musical
style, chased him off the stage, pronouncing
him to be demon or drug possessed. 
Matthews was later dropped from the tour.
After Bob Dylan announced his conversion to
Christianity in 1979, he released three albums
widely cited as being based on his newfound
faith. Dylan spent several years touring
and preaching from stage, though he never
became a part of the “Christian music
subculture.”  The result, as one critic
bluntly puts it, was that “It didn’t work.
Christian music fans were characteristically
suspicious of Dylan’s failure to leave the
world behind and become a part of their little
ghetto, and the world at large tired quickly of
paying money to hear him sing about
religion.”  By 1981, Dylan had dropped the
explicit religious references; both critics and
audiences returned his music to acclaim.
While commonly cited as the father of
Christian rock, Larry Norman struggled to
gain acceptance from the Christian music
industry, and was largely estranged from it
for his career.  His 1969 solo debut
has been described by secular observers as
“perhaps the first truly accomplished and
relevant Christian rock testimony ever
recorded,”  and 1972’s Only Visiting This
Planet became one of the most revered
albums of all time in Christian music. Even so,
Norman became, according to CCM “so far
outside the mainstream that most of today’s
Christian music fans have no idea who Larry
Norman is.” 
The problem, as summed by one critic, was that
the music was too religious for secular
audience, while simultaneously too aggressive
for religious audiences. One critic
describes the situation, stating that for a band
“to be taken seriously outside the Christian
scene, a band must stay far, far away from that
Mutemath, for instance sued their record label
with the goal of removing their product from the
Christian market. Their first release sold almost
30,000 copies, with “bulk of sales coming from
the Christian market,” according to Billboard. 
The band had been placed in the Christian
market by their record label largely because
their lead singer, Paul Meany, was previously
with the band Earthsuit, whose only major label
release was released on a Christian label .
This caused the band to not get taken seriously
by music critics, and by the release of their full-
length album the band began expressing
discontent with their situation.  Meany told
Tucson Weekly “…we began to see ourselves
getting pigeonholed into this particular world that
we weren’t necessarily proud to be associated
with… We’re not trying to preach through our
music; we don’t have some kind of evangelistic
agenda with what we’re doing… You know, you
don’t want to be ashamed of your faith and your
beliefs, but you don’t want to be marketed by
that, either.” 
On the other hand, some artists operate solely
within the “ghetto” of Christian music, and find
great success in doing so.
Downplayed religious content
An early Christian record label, Lamb & Lion
Records (founded by Pat Boone ) reported in
1978 that it was their goal to produce crossover
artists, but they were limited by lack of
distribution to the secular marketplace.  Both
problems affected Christian labels into the
1990s.  “Since people don’t understand [the
term] ‘ the Blood of Jesus, ‘” stated a manager
for Lamb & Lion, “…music that communicates
must approach it another way. We’ve got to
present a subtle but sensitive Christian
message.”  Lyrics with subdued religious
content have become commonplace in the
industry; One critic points out that the secular hit
” Spirit in the Sky” “has more explicit religious
references than do many recent Christian radio
Some critics have alleged that CCM often uses
“minimal direct theology,” and promotes a
“Jesus is my boyfriend” image of God. Using
downplayed religious content in lyrics has
allowed some artists to “cross over” and make
significant impact into the general market. Some
Christian bands are able to do this while
maintaining their identity in the Christian market.
For example, MercyMe, whose double platinum
album Almost There produced the Christian and
secular chart hit ” I Can Only Imagine .” However,
the lyrics of the single, while Christian in nature,
contain what one critic calls “rather vacuous
Sometimes “crossing over” creates ambiguity
over whether an artist is Christian (a “Christian
band”),  or the artist is composed of
Christians and produces music that appeals to
Christian music fans but doesn’t cater to the
Christian market (“Christians in a band”). 
Such artists are:
Chevelle, whose debut album was released to
Christian music markets, received three Dove
awards . However, the band is not
generally considered to be a “Christian band”
today. On that topic the band states “We
originally signed with a record company that
was backed by Word (a Christian label
housing John Tesh and Amy Grant ), so the
record was in Christian bookstores. It was
really an accidental thing.”
Project 86 has sometimes been labeled a
“Christian band”, although the band itself
eschewed the label. The band considers its
art to be the best conveyance of their
message.  Frontman Andrew Schwab has
offered several statements on the topic.
“We’re not going to go in there and say ‘Hey
we’re the Christian band. We’re going to carry
ourselves like a normal band. Hopefully
people will like our music and investigate into
the band […] and they will learn our
beliefs.”  “If we’re playing at Ozzfest or on
Family Values…,” the band told 7ball after the
release of their second album, “there is a
greater level of tact necessary in order to
reach that sort of audience.”  In a 2007
interview, Schwab further opined “We always
tell people that the goal has been to just write
music that we love, and write music hopefully
that is challenging and inspiring to people and
doesn’t sound like everything else out
Switchfoot is often referred to as a “Christian
band”, mostly due to their involvement with
the Christian rock scene in their early days.
But the band has always shunned this label:
“For us, it’s a faith, not a genre,…” says Jon
Foreman. “…these songs are for everyone.
Calling us ‘Christian rock’ tends to be a box
that closes some people out and excludes
them. And that’s not what we’re trying to do.
Music has always opened my mind—and
that’s what we want”.  Duly, Foreman’s
lyrics steer clear of preachiness, exclusive
declarations of faith, or even any mention of
Jesus Christ, instead questioning the status
quo , probing existential issues through
“Socratic dialogue”  in which he answers
questions with more questions, exploring
frustrations, or simply being inspirational.
Even so, this position has not alienated their
Christian fans. As in their indie days, they are
still distributed to Christian retail outlets
through Sparrow Records, featured on
Christian radio and charts, and presented
Dove Awards, even after having been signed
to the mainstream Columbia Records. Spin
writer Andrew Beaujon takes the view that
“their lyrics often have two different
meanings, one meaning for a Christian
audience and one meaning for the rest of us.
They try to relate to two different groups of
people at once”. 
The trend continues when examining religious
videos. Many Christian bands produce videos
with rotation on MTV in mind, however, the
images can lead to an ambiguous impression of
In 1982 MTV featured two videos, “Constantly
Changing” and “It’s Mad” (which was the first
one to be featured), made by the Swedish
Christian rock band Jerusalem to promote their
1981 release Warrior .  DeGarmo and Key
was the first Christian band in the US whose
video appeared on MTV, made a video for their
single “Six, Six, Six” off their 1984 release
Communication. While the video was shown on
MTV for a short time, it was subsequently pulled
for a scene which depicted the Antichrist
engulfed in flames, which MTV described as
“senseless violence.”  Eventually the video
was re-edited for MTV—however, the unedited
version continued to play in Christian bookstores
and on Christian television networks, like Trinity
Broadcasting . The video received a Dove
award in a category created specially for it,
“Gospel Music Visual Song” in 1985. 
Another artist, Brian Welch, whose solo debut
was released to Christian markets, found their
album pulled from some Christian bookstores
after the music video for “Flush” was
released.  The video is an interpretation of
the authors personal experience with
methamphetamine , before his religious
conversion. At the time the album was pulled,
Brian Welsh released a statement about the
visual content of the video, relating its
symbolism to his personal experiences of
addiction and redemption. He also issued the
following statement: “The video for ‘Flush’ is
about crystal meth addiction and the crazy
things anyone addicted to meth will do while
they’re high or to get their fix. Everything the
models were doing in the video is what I was
wrapped up in while I was addicted to meth… I
believe I would be dead right now if I continued
using meth, but instead, I chose to surrender my
life to Christ and die to myself so He could share
His resurrection with me… There is a huge
message of hope on my CD and I believe those
retailers that are pulling the CD from their
shelves are robbing someone spiritually by
taking it off of the shelves.” 
Classification of videos on Z
Music by content 
A study of visual elements of Christian music
videos on Z Music Television , a now defunct
MTV-like channel for Christian music, found that
almost one third of the channel’s videos could be
described as “Ambiguously Religious” at best
(red area, right).  The conclusion was that the
channel’s programming was designed to make
its Christian nature “apparent only to those
willing to listen for it.” 
Some critics describe the Christian music
industry as being committed “to the goals and
strategies of the commercial marketplace –
industrial growth, increased market share, and
greater profits.”  This became more apparent
in the 1980s and 1990s as the largest Christian
record labels became subsidiaries of the
“mainstream” labels (who are themselves owned
by huge media conglomerates like Viacom and
Time Warner ).  Others see the industry
as taking on the roles traditionally reserved for
the church. Concerts are the equivalent of
religious services, and commodities symbols of
faith.  Under these conditions “evangelism
becomes rhetoric—justifying the propaganda
value of the industry’s work – not spiritual
reality.”  One critic comments that “perhaps
the ‘ghettoization’ and parallel institutionalism of
CCM manifests itself nowhere more apparently
than at numerous Christian rock festivals .” 
List of Christian media organizations
Christian Copyright Licensing International
Gospel Music Association
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Christian Music Trade Association
Christian Songwriter’s Network
Steve Camp’s 107 Thesis
Is Christian Music Dying?
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Christian music industry
“The money is just drying up.
And it’s not being replaced.”
Last edited on 8 October 2017, at 1 .
CHRISTIAN MUSIC INDUSTRY