10.07.2014

"Christian music is like beer": Insights from a reader

"Here, let my try some of that......Hmm....I don't know....something's not right....something's lacking...."

Last week I wrote two posts on "Christian" music:
Why I Cringe Every Time Someone Says "I hate Christian Music" and
Yes, There is Such a Thing as "Christian Music": A Response to Derek Webb

In the first post I tried to get us to see that "Christian" music as a term should not be limited to it's most popular and also most narrow sense: to refer only to the bland derivative pop music played on mainstream Christian radio. There is so much great music out there, both past and present and in so many varied styles, it does no service to lump every Christian musician/artist into one monolithic camp. Then, in my second post, I attempted to formulate another way to go about using "Christian" as a term designating a certain kind of art/music, that is, a way other than a manipulative marketing scheme. 

This week I will have two more articles on the same subject in response to two comments I received from readers. Some of the things people said really got me thinking and I wanted to explore more into understanding what "Christian" music is and why it has such a love/hate existence in Church culture.

Today I am responding to Eric Masters, a guy I've gotten to know a little the past few years. 
He always has interesting comments when he reads this blog but his comment this week really got me thinking. Eric's comes from a "normal guy" perspective (whereas the next article this week comes from a comment of a working Christian musician), which is important to include as it puts on display people's general disgust towards listening to lowest common denominator Christian music and people's general bewilderment in trying to discover good music they actually like.

Here is his comment:
I don't "hate" christian music, but I also don't listen to christian radio. (To be fair, I do very little research/exploration of music compared to what I used to do) 

However, I don't think it's fair to put all the weight on the shoulders of those who profess to hate christian music. You can't expect every person to follow 6 different music blogs, and research the members of each band and what theological camp each person falls into. 


Your cheese analogy is good, but the one that makes the most sense to me is beer. I love beer, but when somebody says they don't like beer- I get it. Walk into 95% of bars in this town or this country and say "one beer please" and prepare to be disappointed, because you aren't going to get anything worth drinking. You'll get the watered-down stuff that appeals to the most people and thus is the most economical and reproducible. I'm sure you see where I'm going with this. 


In the same way, the christian music industry is a real thing and it really affects what we have access to. (or at least easy access to) I don't expect people to spend 11 dollars on DFH or Founders beer if they think beer means "61 calories of fizzy alcoholic rice-water." 


Don't expect people to track down good 'christian' music made by Gungor, Rich Mullins, Dustin Kensrue, or even artists here in Peoria if all the industry/culture will promote is "61 calories of family-safe feel-good pop." 


I think you make some great points, but I'd love for your next series to be a primer on what is good out there. Don't tell us we're wrong about the state of the christian music industry— show us.


And here is my response:
Eric, I love your beer analogy so much I want to take it further.

Here's how I see it: Christian radio stations (as you say) are just like middle of the road local bars, where you get 5 selections of beer and some special every now and then (Ooohhh...Heinkeken's! How exotic.), but if you simply go in and ask for a beer it's most likely going to be drab bleck. However, (sticking with beer for the moment) it's never been easier find micro-brewed artisanal beers both local and international in origin. We have our own relatively prestigious local brewery and I hear another brewery is starting up soon. On top of that there are just a ton of places to go and find new and interesting beers (BTW—I'm more of a wine guy myself. I love a good South American Shiraz or Malbec, which you can usually find at Aldi for like 5 bucks! Crazy, huh!)

The best example I'd like to give (Friar Tuck's notwithstanding) is the Hy Vee Store, which has this huge separate room just for alcohol. Now to me Hy Vee represents ultimate accessibility—their beer and alcohol selection is not hidden by a potentially intimidating and pretentious setting like a micro-brewery. The musical equivalent would be some kind of Veteran's hall that only plays out-there local indie music, which is to say "normal" people would not feel comfortable just going into a micro-brewery and neither will they go to a weird indie-rock show. Once they get in to the show/brewery they actually might like both the beer and the music, but getting up enough guts to even go there is a big enough barrier to cross they probably won't do it in the first place and thus probably will never be exposed to that kind of music/beer. I mean, for some people even Friar Tuck's might seem too pretentious, although I'm pretty sure they sell just about anything.

So, instead we have Hy Vee, this huge store that sells all manner of food and also sells all manner of beer. They have made basically any beer you can imagine available to all. You don't need to be intimidated to go into their beer room, because it's just Hy Vee, right? And if they don't have EVERY beer imaginable, there's still not a big reason to complain because they have so many different beers already, which is already a huge improvement from what we used to have. That is to say, the selection of beers in a typical big-box grocery store has increased dramatically over the past 10 years or so. People have much wider and varied tastes and are interested in what smaller more hand-crafted breweries can do and places like Hy Vee are reflecting that interest.

I don't know if you've made the leap yet, but I am comparing the Hy Vee beer room to the internet, where every kind of music is available to you all the time. You could spend a night just searching around itunes or Amazon just listening to "Christian" music, trying to find something you like. It's all there, just a few clicks away. All you have to do is "walk" in. This is not to even mention the numerous blogs and music websites out there. There is no longer any barrier separating you from the music you (potentially will) love. You only have to discover it. (Go ahead. Go to bandcamp and type "Christian" in the search. Have yourself some fun on me.)

And yet, within this brave new beer world lies a problem. If all you've ever known and tasted of beer was the cheap stuff and you just waltzed right into a massive beer room, you're still going to be incredibly intimidated and overwhelmed. You won't even know where to start. Sure, there might be some staff recommendations, but how do you know what you really want to try? You don't want to waste your money on something you don't like. In other words, when it comes to music, Christian or otherwise, the internet is an overwhelming place.

But this is where someone like me comes in, right? This is where you challenged me, saying "Don't tell us we're wrong about the state of the christian music industry— show us." You need to bring a friend in with you to the beer room, is what you're saying, right? Well that's fine. I'd be happy to. Maybe I should start hiring out my services as a Christian music consultant. Or maybe we should just get coffee (er, uh, beer) sometime.

But before we do that your analogy deserves another look; there is more meaning here fomenting (or, uh, fermenting?) beneath the surface. Pointing out that a typical bar is going to hand a typical customer a low quality beer reveals there is injustice in the system. The greatest beers aren't rising to the top of the beer-chain to be consumed by the most amount of people. There is a system in place stopping this from happening. And the music industry, both Christian and secular, is exactly the same, where you have a band like Arcade Fire winning album of the year at the Grammy's and half the population goes "Who the #$%@ is Arcade Fire?" and the other half of the population going "How have you NOT heard of Arcade Fire?" as they are essentially the front runner for best rock band in the current generation. 

Actually, the phenomenon of Arcade Fire shows the great problem before us, both for beer and for music. Ever since everyone, including your cousin Larry, realized they can ferment a nice brew in their basement, and the internet hit and people can download all the music that's ever been made as well as record and upload their own music (hey, did I ever tell you I have my own music site? That's where I would start if i were you and was looking for good Christian music [wink, wink]), it's basically impossible to determine what's the "best" or culturally significant or to even sort through everything just to determine what you might like. We no longer have these universal cultural moments where we all just "know" The Beatles or Rolling Stones or Elvis or Queen or Fleetwood Mac or Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston or whoever are the band or artist for our time. Now we have just whatever we happen to like, a sprawling mosaic of individual tastes and numerous "best bands of all time" with no discernible front runners. 

Perhaps this is as it should be. The internet has afforded many artists who would never have gotten heard otherwise a way to make a living and affect the world with their art. But it also means the cream will not be allowed to rise to the top, as there is no longer a top. Instead we have some kind of twisted absolute democracy/dictatorship where anybody can get their music out there, but only a select few ("the 1%") are able to make a living at their craft and have any power in the general music industry. That whatever is left of the record companies is who gets to control what is heard on the radio, what artists can play what venues, and who influences the winners of the major awards. 

All in all, this means most of the world's great music will be forgotten by the next generation, since that music didn't get absorbed into the mainstream industry. The former gatekeepers of great music, the radio stations of both the secular and Christian varieties, where a #1 single actually used to mean something, are now considered veritable cesspools. They are not places actually devoted to the furtherance of great art, but of merely keeping their advertisers and listeners (if a station is listener supported) happily appeased. I am not saying there was some golden era of the music industry but there was a time when good music was actually presented to, heard, and agreed upon by the masses through radio.

In other words, I'm not exactly a fan of the state of the music industry at the moment, if only because a guy like you doesn't even know where to turn to find some decent music. While, I am a fan of how so many more artists now have a chance to be heard, I think the situation is unfortunate for the casual listener of music on both sides of the coin, whether you discover new music through the radio on the internet; it's either an exasperating task due there being too little music and of poor quality or a daunting task due to there being too much music of varying quality.

Christian musically speaking, I kind of feel like a guy who's been drinking great artisanal beers for decades now, where I'm left wondering "What are you guys hating on Christian music for!? It's not as if Busch, Budweiser, Miller, Michelob, and PBR are your only choices (or Tomlin, Casting Crowns, Mercy Me, Third Day, and Natalie Grant). There's a whole world of good beer out there!" And that's where you look at me and go "Are you crazy?! Those are the only beers I've ever known!" So, with all that said Eric. Where do you want to start with some new "Christian" music? I'll do my best to point you in the right direction. 

And here is Eric's final, brief response, which I think is insightful on a couple of levels:  
The only thing I would add is that while both HyVee and Friar Tuck's are doing an acceptable job- there is more at play. Alcohol distribution laws and systems are notoriously draconian. We can't get Great Divide or Yuengling here simply because of our geographical location, we couldn't get Dogfish Head or Ommegang till recently due to distributor's squabbles. Contrast this with record labels, though I'm not sure secular labels are much better, honestly.

My response: 
And here I see a great connection between music and beer. Not knowing any of those "independent" beer varieties, they all sounded like realistic names for indie-rock bands! 

It would seem there will always be distribution problems for what is high quality or unique or made on a smaller scale, whether we're talking about beer or music.
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For your convenience, here's the list of websites that might help you find some new music to your liking: 
89.7 Power FM KVRK.com
thegoodchristianmusicblog.com
downthelinezine.com
noisetrade.com
christianrock.net
radarradio.net
radiou.com
indivisionmusic.com
HM Magazine
Phantom Tollbooth


Next Article: To Be or Not To Be: The Dilemma of the Christian Artist




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