Last week, I made a few mid-year predictions—maybe more prescriptions than predictions—for the 54th Grammy Awards.  Award-predictions are a way of recapping the year and noticing trends in popular music. 

This week, I want to accomplish something similar in the Contemporary Christian Music industry.  But prognosticating the 43rd Dove Awards doesn’t have the appeal of Grammy-predictions.

Instead, I analyzed the Billboard Top Christian Albums chart from three different points over the past year.  Noting a few trends from this analysis provides some insight into the state of Contemporary Christian music.

The three data points of this experiment are these Billboard Top Christian Albums lists: 

Trends of Note

The Persistence of Albums.  For the week of June 26, 2011, Skillet’s Awake was the top Christian album according to Billboard.  In two months, the album turns two years old.  Three other albums from the Billboard chart from a year ago (June 25, 2010)—Mercy Me, The Generous Mr. Lovewell; tobyMac, Tonight; Casting Crowns, Until the Whole World Hears—still retained Billboard status a year later.  If one year is a long shelf-life for an album on a Billboard list, then two years is a non-perishable good.

In popular music, albums rarely have that kind of staying power.  Really popular albums stay afloat in the Billboard 200, but normally do not compete for top tier status.  A seemingly endless succession of pop stars abdicates their top-album throne for the new releases of other pop stars.  When this trend does not hold, we know we have a special pop album (e.g., Adele, 21).

This phenomenon in Contemporary Christian Music can be due to the smaller marketplace.  Fewer “big ticket” acts make explicitly Christian music. Yet, some of the responsibility belongs to the popular Christian music radio stations, which rarely deviate from their standard air-lists.  Maybe, we, the consumers, have tolerated the mundane for too long. 

The Success of the Compilation Album.  The WOW brand is the most successful commercial force in Christian music.  The WOW compilation albums—including the annual Hits release and the Worship releases—regularly reside in the top ten of Christian albums and occasionally peak at number one (as happened on January 1, 2011). 

WOW is a joint venture of the record labels EMI and Sony.  The labels launched the series in the mid 90s, and they obviously emulated the Now That’s What I Call Music model (which dates back to the 80s).  Now also involved major record companies (EMI, Sony, Universal, Virgin).  Accordingly, the WOW album covers resemble their forerunners.

We can never forget that Contemporary Christian Music is a business.  WOW and NOW are record labels’ second passes at profit from some of their notable products.  The awkward relationship among art, commerce, and faith makes it difficult to decipher between ministry and marketing.      

Prepositional Phrases Are the Artistic Expression Du Jour.  Whether it’s Chris Tomlin (And If Our God Is For Us; HT-The Apostle Paul), Blindside (With Shivering Hearts We Wait), or the continuance-to-a-specified-time tendencies of Casting Crowns (Until the Whole World Hears) and Red (Until We Have Faces), the prepositional phrase is challenging the terse one-word album title as the dominate naming convention in Christian music.  Congratulations to Mandisa for her successful variation on this theme (What If We Were Real?).    

The Labels

A cliché of hipster, musical connoisseurs everywhere is to rail on the influence of record labels on modern music.  At the onset of this analysis, I expected to find fodder for the antiestablishment crowd of CCM listeners.  And, yes, much of popular Christian music has some connection to the record labels of EMI, Sony, and Warner.

However, a distinctive feature of the CCM market is the ability of artists to generate interest and impact apart from the resources of these large labels.  The label INO—and its parent company Integrity Media—has facilitated significant commercial success for acts such as MercyMe, Blindside, and Sara Groves.  Newsboys releases its albums through the INPOP label.  Christian rappers favor the LeCrae-sustained label Reach (although this label has a distribution agreement with a larger label).

This information gave me a different level of appreciation for MercyMe’s “I Can Only Imagine.”  I’ll disclaim that I’m not a huge fan of the song.  But its success—which included some radio play on secular stations—seems all the more noteworthy, considering MercyMe’s label.  The band did not have the vast resources of EMI, Sony, or Warner, which could manufacture some secular radio attention for a band on one of its Christian music subsidiary labels.  “I Can Only Imagine”—much like Jars of Clay’s “Flood” before Essential was a Sony label—obtained a popularity beyond its means.  I think I’m starting to like that song more.

The Producers

I once envisioned the Christian music industry as the product of a handful of labels and producers.  This vision was a convenient explanation for the shared production elements and sounds of the CCM industry.  In reality, there are many hands in the pie.              

Yet, a handful of names are prevalent in the production notes of Christian albums.  Brown Bannister, Ed Cash, Nathan Nockels, Paul Moak, and Dan Muckala had significant influence over the past year on Billboard’s top Christian albums.

The name receiving the most production credit in Contemporary Christian music is Terry Hemmings. He is the president and CEO of Provident Label Group and receives “Executive Producer” credit on a swath of albums.  The movies Facing the Giants and Fireproof also feature his executive production.  Suffice it to say, if you’re a consumer of Christian sub-culture products, then you’ve felt the influence of Hemmings.

Synopsis of the State of the Art

Contemporary Christian music shows an unhealthy indebtedness to a handful of popular albums and the WOW compilation series.  These unit-shifters may keep the market afloat, but they also seem to suffocate opportunities for lesser known artists.

Record labels and producers have some sway on the art of Christian musicians.  But the relative competitiveness of smaller labels and the diversity of producers in the marketplace have staved off the clichéd idea of the musical machine.

I’ve failed to note several trends over the past year, including the legitimization of Christian rap and hard rock.  These genres are no longer in the hard to find places of the Christian bookstore.  I have the suspicion that next year’s state of the art address will devote much more attention to the institutionalization of these genres in CCM marketplace.

And when next year’s state of the are address rolls around, I hope we won’t be singing “Happy Birthday” to Skillet’s Awake and Casting Crowns’ Until the Whole World Hears, as they blow out three candles on their respective birthday cakes.