|Making waves in the mainstream|
|Written by Lindsay Williams|
|Thursday, 05 September 2013 04:03 PM America/New_York|
Christian artists seeing favor on the national stage offer retailers an opportunity
Thousands of fans will flood large arenas on the West Coast this January. When the lights go down and the smoke makes its way to the rafters, raucous applause and cheers will fill up domes where professional athletes scored victories only the night before. But it won’t be U2 or Coldplay taking the stage. The applause will be for Christian artists and the cheers will be directed to the One it’s all for as the Winter Jam Tour Spectacular heads out on its annual three-month trek.
For the past three years, the popular multi-artist tour has topped Pollstar’s Top 100 Tours chart, meaning it’s the largest first-quarter tour of any genre in the world. This year alone, Winter Jam saw a record-setting 42 sellouts, hitting 44 of the country’s largest arenas and playing to a combined total audience of nearly 554,000 people. Pepsi will serve as the tour’s leading sponsor in 2014.
In the past 13 months, two Christian releases have topped the Billboard all-genre charts: TobyMac’s Eye On It (ForeFront) and Chris Tomlin’s Burning Lights (sixstepsrecords). When Eye On It became the best-selling album in the country the week of Sept. 5, 2012, it was the first time a Christian album had hit No. 1 on the all-genre chart in 15 years and only the third time in history.
In the last year alone, Matthew West appeared on Katie; For King & Country made its late-night debut on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno: Skillet rocked on Conan; Mandisa performed three times on Good Morning America; and Jamie Grace, TobyMac and Amy Grant were all featured on The View.
The lines are blurring, and Christian music is no longer confined to the walls of the church. Rather, it is going head-to-head with mainstream music, shattering walls, defying naysayers and testing limits. A variety of factors come into play, but perhaps the most obvious is the fact that today’s Christian music is equally as good sonically as anything in secular music.
For a genre that’s always been defined by lyrical content versus sound, it’s also important to note that Christian artists are now singing about all aspects of life, making their songs more universal, all while writing from a Christian perspective. A song that tells a good story has the ability to make a connection regardless of the belief system of the listener. At the end of the day, a good story is a good story. Good art is good art. Christian artists are telling stories people want to hear and creating art that’s resonating with a broadening audience—and mainstream culture is taking notice.
It’s important for Christian retailers to pay attention to when and where Christian music is popping up in the mainstream. If something is labeled “Christian,” even non-believers are looking to the Christian subculture to provide product, both online and in store. High-profile public relations has become the new gateway to mainstream audiences. Retailers need to pay attention to where the music they sell in their stores is appearing, whether in a highly circulated magazine or newspaper, on a morning news program, in a popular television show or in the credits of an upcoming film. While there’s not always a direct correlation between publicity and sales, it definitely presents an opportunity for increased sell-through, and retailers should be ready.
“Morning TV still tends to be where sales increase following appearances,” said Velvet Kelm, owner of the boutique PR firm The Media Collective, which reps some of the biggest acts in Christian music, including MercyMe, Skillet, Steven Curtis Chapman, Chris Tomlin and TobyMac. “Sometimes you don’t see any movement at all, but I do believe it impacts the overall perception [and] image of an artist and drives further media interest even if the sales do not immediately follow.”
As publicists look for opportunities to “pitch” their Christian clients to the media, it’s important to align artists with outlets that are natural fits. Sometimes, it’s the artist’s story that grabs the attention of media gatekeepers, but other times, it’s an artist’s sales history.
Bozeman Media represents a roster of Christian artists ranging from Aaron Shust and Jason Gray to Building 429 and Montell Jordan. Owner and veteran publicist Janet Bozeman said her pitching approach looks different for every artist and every media outlet.
“If it’s one of the late-night music shows, the music would have to be a fit for the program with strong sales and Billboard chart numbers playing a big factor in a booking decision,” Bozeman said. “If you’re looking at more of a talk program or a mainstream magazine, then the story angle will play a bigger role, but the editors [and] bookers will still need to know the artist has had good success in the marketplace. The mainstream outlets are looking to drive up numbers just like we are on the music side.”
While it’s a mix of numbers and connecting points, an overarching narrative is always going to be a significant factor. That’s why it’s important for retailers to know the stories behind the albums they’re selling and the artists they’re representing.
For Matthew West, who was recently interviewed by Katie Couric, West’s song “Forgiveness” has resonated with listeners because it’s based on a true story about a woman whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver. Years later, while the driver was in prison for taking a life in the accident, the mother visited him, told him she forgave him and actually appealed his sentence, cutting it in half. The powerful real-life story behind the song struck a chord and became an attractive selling point for the bookers at Katie.
“From the beginning of our discussions, they loved the story behind ‘Forgiveness’ and wanted to find a way to make it work in the show,” Kelm said. “Ultimately, they also loved how Matthew has told so many people’s stories in song. They even had him write an in-depth blog on Katie’s site about this song and the process of making The Story of Your Life and Into the Light.”
For other artists, like Switchfoot and Needtobreathe, the fact that they are making waves in two markets is a compelling story in and of itself. Skillet also has seen success in dual markets. When handling a crossover act, Zach Kelm, owner of Q Management, which represents rock acts Skillet, Decyfer Down and We As Human, contends the best way to reach consumers is to meet them where they are instead of asking them to come to you.
“You want to market where those audiences live (where they spend their time, buy their music, get news and info, communicate with their peers, etc.), and, therefore, you have to point your marketing where it will be effective,” he said.
Bozeman admits it’s a delicate balance attempting to juggle aspects of faith with the aims of mainstream media outlets. She asserts that an artist’s faith is what cements them in the Christian genre in the first place, but that there are many ways of telling the same story depending on the audience.
“For mainstream media, I never hide the fact that it’s a Christian artist, but you can’t use ‘Christianese’ terms in your pitch,” she said. “You have to relate to that booker/editor and speak at their level, while at the same time not compromising the integrity of an artist’s ministry.”
Zach Kelm adds that mainstream gatekeepers are always surprised by the loyalty and passion of Christian music fans, an important differentiating factor.
“Because our artists can have large fan bases without having all of the drivers that mainstream artists normally get to attain the same number of fans, it instills a level of loyalty and passion,” he explained. “In turn, that level of passion for an artist is an attractive selling point of our genre to the mainstream culture and its gatekeepers.”
While Christian artists are becoming more accepted by mainstream culture due to compelling stories and loyal fan bases, social media has also changed the landscape for artists.
“We are all connected like never before, which brings about unique opportunities,” Q Management’s Kelm said. “If an artist or song strikes a chord, it can get exposure and traction in a variety of ways versus in the past where it could only really succeed if it garnered crossover radio [success].”
In addition to high-profile PR, intentional social media efforts and traditional methods like touring, advertising and radio impressions, artists have more opportunities for film and television placement than ever before. Songs from The Afters, Britt Nicole, TobyMac and Francesca Battistelli have all recently been used in commercials, TV promos and shows, and movies.
John J. Thompson, director of creative and copyright development at Capitol Christian Music Group, said Christian music has become a positive option for music supervisors.
“The gates have significantly opened for Christian artists over the last decade because music supervisors have discovered that it’s not all Bible study material,” Thompson said. “In many ways, faith-based music is the best choice for supervisors because there are no profanity issues, the music tends to be uplifting, and there are rarely samples that need to be cleared.”
Thompson also observed that the abundant number of options for awareness and placement today can be a detriment. Consumers are overwhelmed by information, making it hard to grab their attention. However, in the end, marketing and publicity efforts converge to create an overall brand—which translates into sales.
“It’s best to think of sync placements as part of the process of generating awareness, and not a slam-dunk victory in and of themselves,” Thompson said. “The public’s attention is so fragmented there is almost no show or film that everyone sees. But especially in the case of developing new artists, the extra exposure can be very helpful.”
One media appearance is a win, but every foray into the mainstream is a building block. Case in point: Needtobreathe. In 2011, Taylor Swift, arguably the most popular artist in today’s contemporary music scene, personally asked Needtobreathe to open for her on her record-setting Speak Now tour—simply because she was a fan. That high-profile slot catapulted the under-the-radar band into the spotlight and onto late-night television. The rock band, which has been named the Gospel Music Association’s Group of the Year multiple times and garnered a string of hits at Christian radio, made the late-night rounds, performing on Leno, Letterman, Fallon and Conan.
“Multiple appearances have the impact to really reach people,” said Bozeman. “Before long, I think the music will start to resonate with people new to Christian music since the music is as good as anything in the mainstream world, while at the same time it offers comfort and support with the lyrics.”
The Open Door
As long as the content is faith-based, there will always be a barrier of some sort between mainstream and Christian music. The topics and perspectives of Christian music can be, at times, controversial to a non-believing audience, and generally speaking, secular gatekeepers have an obligation to ruffle as few feathers as possible when booking talent. It’s not a perfect science, but the tide is turning in favor of faith-based artists.
“I definitely feel it’s opening up more for Christian acts than when I first started working in the Christian music industry 13 years ago, but it’s still not happening as quickly as I would like to see it happen,” Bozeman said. “The most hopeful trend I have seen is when Christian artists have multiple mainstream interviews/appearances, as that’s when an artist has truly broken through on the mainstream side.”
Logos Bookstore Music Buyer Mike Hawver, of Kent, Ohio, maintains that lyrical content drives mainstream exposure. He poses the insightful question: “Do you think the mainstream is truly becoming more accepting of Christian music/artists or just those songs/artists that don’t necessarily talk about Christianity?”
While songs with universal topics or veiled references to faith might have a better chance at mainstream success, it’s not just the “crossover” acts garnering attention.
Chris Tomlin was lauded by TIME magazine as “most likely the most often sung artist anywhere.” Jamie Grace appeared on The View because hosts Sherri Shepherd and Elizabeth Hasselbeck were fans of her song “Hold Me.” President Obama took it upon himself to ask Natalie Grant to sing at the White House because of her advocacy work for human trafficking. The reasons for opportunities vary, but the reality is the same.
“The same opportunities have existed for Christian retail for years, and we’ve taken advantage of them,” Hawver said. “We’ll continue to love people as they come into our doors for the first time and to point them toward a CD or book that will help them in a relationship with God.”
The playing field is leveling. Culture is taking notice of Christian music, and the best thing Christian retailers can do is seize every moment. Although increasing sales is the end goal, it’s also important to realize retailers have the chance to be a cheerleader for this genre of music. The opportunity for Christian retailers remains—to be a beacon of light in their community.
How Christian retailers can turn mainstream attention into sales
With more Christian artists popping up in the mainstream, it presents key opportunities for retailers. Here are a few tips to keep in mind in regard to your music section:
Pay attention. Make sure your store’s music buyer is receiving press releases from music labels. Be aware of when and where Christian artists are featured in mainstream media. Do your homework. Read articles online. Watch television appearances. Seek out the magazines and newspapers where Christian artists are interviewed. Learn as much as you can.
Champion Christian music. With every media appearance, you have a chance to support Christian music in your community. Is a Christian artist featured in your local paper? Cut out the article, and hang it on a bulletin board near the music section so your customers can see it. Has an artist been featured on a high-profile news show? Feature the interview and/or performance on a loop beside a display of their CDs. Get creative.
Become an expert. More than just selling music and knowing the release dates of popular albums, have a few key people on your staff who are passionate about music and who can do more than just sell an album. Choose some key support staff who can provide background on the various artists represented in your store. Be the place consumers come to learn about Christian music, not just purchase it.
Be prepared when opportunity knocks. To maximize opportunities surrounding high-profile publicity, be sure you have ordered the right amount of stock and consider placing the featured artist in a high-traffic location. Make customers aware of the reason you’re featuring the artist. Create a sign that says, “As Featured on The Tonight Show on Wednesday Night” Have a stack of magazine and newspaper clippings on a table near the display that lauds the featured band.
Act as an “entry point” for non-Christians. If a non-Christian is intrigued by the music, there’s a possibility that if they find out it’s a Christian artist, they will come to your store looking for the product. This is a great way to invite new traffic into your store, and to introduce people to Christ. While it’s true that many non-believers would likely first go to a mass retail chain, quantity may not be as readily available in that chain’s Christian/gospel section. That’s where you come in. Never underestimate the ways customers find your store, and be ready to offer them quality, friendly assistance when they come. You never know when you might be someone’s first example of Christ.