I want to tell you why I am doing a Kickstarter, how the Christian book and music industries are changing, and why Christ followers should care. Recently my record label and publishing house of eight years dropped me from their roster. This was not because of a moral failure on my part, a lack of new music, or a change in my ministry. This was because I did not sell enough albums. Without a record label, I will no longer be able to make music unless I find another way to fund future recordings.
I sold 5,000 copies of my solo album, The Road to Becoming. That is paltry. I have sold more boxes of Girl Scout cookies than that. Don’t try me. I can sell a mean number of thin mints.
Regarding my book, The Road to Becoming, I’ve met with a handful of literary agents and Christian publishing houses. One executive told me I sent in the best book proposal he has seen in a long time. Another said my writing style was laugh-out-loud, contagiously authentic. One agent said “there is room for this story at the table” another said the book is “spiritually profound” and and another said “this book will be a close spiritual companion to many.” But at the end of the day each publishing house or literary agent has ultimately said-
We love this book but you’re not popular enough right now for us to take a risk on you.
One Christian publishing house even went as far as telling my manager that I don’t have enough “heat.” When asked for a clarification the executive said, “Look, if she is a mega-church pastor, we will give her a deal. If you come back tomorrow and tell us she got picked up by a major women's conference and has a major platform, we will give her a deal.”
It kind of feels like junior high all over again. Popular. Platform. Heat.
These are the words used by the executives making decisions regarding what music and books make it to Christian radio and bookshelves. And that should be alarming to anyone who values the myriad of faith-based artists who work tirelessly to create Christ inspired art for the universal church. When popular, platform and heat precede theology, artistic excellence and vision the church runs the risk of losing a beautiful and diverse kaleidoscope of voices to an industry, who by its very nature, must ultimately balance Jesus and money.
Does the Christian industry also care about theology, artistic excellence and vision? In my experience, they absolutely do. But unlike a decade or two ago, that is no longer the determining factor which delineates between who gets a publishing or record deal and who does not.
Currently what delineates is this: Are you “big enough” to make back the money that we invest and risk on you?
If you aren’t, it doesn’t matter how long you have worked together or if they find your work inspiring or important even; their company does not have the wiggle room to take the risk or make the investment. No music or book company in any market currently has that capacity.
So I am one of many voices reminding the universal church that at the end of the day a Christian record label, publishing house or conference system is still a business. And within the $4.5 billion dollar Christian industrial complex* the musician, author, poet, painter, or spoken word artist is ultimately still a commodity.
What most people don’t understand about record labels and publishing houses is this: they function first and foremost as financial investors. They have money to invest. They take calculated risks or play safe hands. They loan the money up front to an artist and re-coup all that money, plus extra, off the sales of the artist’s or author’s music and books. They invest money into marketing that product along the way because it is in their best interest to sell the artist and author to the masses.
Do they believe in the work? I can only speak from my experience, but yes, my team absolutely believed in my work. Did they care about the spiritual integrity of the work? Yes, they absolutely cared about the spiritual integrity of the work. Did they care about me as an artist? Absolutely. The men and women who run the record label and publishing house that I have partnered with these past eight years are incredibly wise, passionate and spiritually minded people. I could not have dreamed of a better team. Still, they are a business selling a commodity. And that’s what the Christian industry is now.
What started out in the early 1970’s as a desire to make spiritually relevant and accessible music for average Christians to enjoy outside the walls of the church has turned into a multi-million dollar industry driven by marketing machines that rival any major mainstream ad agency. Those at the helm of the Christian industry now have the peculiar responsibility of navigating major multi-million dollar business decisions alongside ministry; I do not envy them.
So when my album bombed, selling only 5,000 copies and the major radio network that can make or break a girl’s career would not pick up the new music, there was not much more the record label could do for me without hurting their bottom line. And their job is to steward their bottom line well. That doesn’t make them the villain or bad guy.
Please hear me say: I do not believe there is an enemy or hero, a good guy or bad guy scenario at work here. That type of villainizing or hero-worshipping is far too small and minimizes a vastly complicated issue. The Christian music and book publishing industries are complex. Within the Christian industry there are many good people with many good intentions, some not so good people with some not so good intentions and a multitude of results that both further and detract from the work of the Gospel. Amazing music, books and life-changing conferences have emerged from our industry. And I know first hand the power of a song on the radio to change a person’s life. I’ve heard thousands of stories from people all over the world who have been changed by the products coming from our industry. I believe music, books and conferences deeply enhance God’s kingdom and I will always champion the industry that gave those very gifts to me and changed my life.
My story is similar to many other artists and authors, in a wide variety of genres. But when it happens within the Christian industries, it should raise a small warning light. A reminder that at the end of the day the Christian industry is still a business. It’s still a group of men and women who are trying to find a way to be authentic and gospel-centered while contending with a $4.5 billion industry. And the truth is, as hard as you try, gospel-centered and $4.5 billion dollars just don’t contend very well together.
I want you to know that there are a sea of voices that will never make it to the radio or the shelf of a Christian retail store because they are not popular enough to be picked up and promoted by the current Christian industry. And some of those voices carry the most powerful stories that need to be shared with the Church. So I believe it is up to the local church, Christ-followers and community to invest in art being made outside of the walls of the Christian industrial complex.* I believe it can be done and I believe it is being done well by the likes of Gungor, John Mark McMillan, Audrey Assad, Kerrie Roberts, Josh Garrels and Ellie Holcombe. And how is it done? Through the funding and support of local churches, Kickstarter campaigns, college partnerships and individual donors who are choosing to invest in art created for the church outside the confines of the Christian industry.
I have no story to share but my own.
And my story is simple. I am a singer, song-writer, blog-writer, book-writer, worship-leader, speaker, lover of Jesus and lover of the church that has always felt called to share the compelling story of Christ through my words. I will do this until the day I die. It is my vocation. I’ve made ends meet by working at Starbucks, selling all the china we received when we got married 13 years ago, taking day gigs off of Craigslist, living in small apartments since day one and taking every show or speaking engagement that is offered to me. I’ve been on church staff as a worship leader and I have been a nanny. I’ve made music with the amazing financial support of a record label and I’ve made music by using my college student loans (I apologize to the government and my parents for this.) And I will keep finding ways to do all of this because it has clearly made me rich and famous! No.
I will keep finding ways to do this because it is who I am and what I’ve been made to do.
And I am not the only one. There are many types of artists who feel the exact same calling and have similar gifts and talents. We will continue to do what we do because it is the way we were created and the calling we have been given. It is our way of re-telling the story of Christ and the beauty of humanity.
So I ask you, is there an artist in your life that you believe in? Does that artist contribute words, songs, paintings or stories that are important and life-giving for the Universal church? Do they illuminate God and beauty and redemption in a way that has impacted your life? If so, join them.
Don’t wait for someone else to make it possible for that artist to create. They may never make it in this Christian industry. But you can be a part of funding their talents and vision, you can be a part of offering the church a kaleidoscope of voices that tell the story of Christ in a unique and valuable way. Invest in the independent artists who may not have heat, but certainly have heart. I believe it’s an investment worth making.
* the term Christian Industrial Complex and the $4.5 billion dollar statistic are from Warren Smith’s book, A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church. Chapter 4.