The Christian Music Business

its all about jesus

I am sure someone will object to the title of this post and say, Christian music is not a business, it is a ministry, it’s ALL ABOUT J-E-S-U-S!  It’s a ministry when the musician is willing to go anywhere for a love offering. It is a business when they have contracts, riders,  and demand a certain amount of money. For the most part, the Christian music business stopped being about Jesus a long time ago.(if it ever really was about him)

Years ago, I contacted the booking agent for the contemporary Christian group FFH about holding a concert at our church. I had checked their calendar and noticed that they had a few off days and would be near our church in West Unity, so I thought I would see if they were willing to come and sing at our church.

Not a chance. The booking agent told me that they had a $5,000.00 minimum. I was astounded by this. I thought, if I promoted the concert right we would likely take in about $2,000.00. Surely this would be enough money for FFH, especially since it was on a weekday. The booking agent proceeded to lecture me on the Christian music business, about how groups like FFH only have a limited window of opportunity to make their money. He then asked me how would I like to preach for just a love offering. I then got to school him about how I had spent my entire life preaching with no monetary expectation in return.

All told, I preached for 33 years. Not one time did I say to a church or to someone who wanted me to hold a meeting, I must have X amount of dollars. I never said no, and I preached more than one meeting over the years where it cost me more to drive back and forth to the meeting than I received in the love offering. This was never a problem for me. (and according to some of my friends and family, I SHOULD have made money more of an issue)

I asked the booking agent for FFH to take my request to the group. He told me that he would not do this. Why? Because, he said, they would likely say Yes! If I let them, they would sing for free.

Over the years, I booked many musicians to come sing  at the church I was pastoring at the time. As a result, I learned a lot about the “business” side of Christian music. I also met a lot of wonderful people who were willing to come and sing for little more than a promise. As a small church pastor, I did my best to promote the concerts and the church usually supplemented the love offering to make sure the musician (s) were given a decent offering.

In the late 1990’s, I decided to use concerts as a way to promote the church. I thought if outside people attended a concert that they might be interested in our church and start attending. While the concerts did draw large crowds, not one person ever became a part of our church as a result of attending a concert.

I put on a concert at Hilltop High School in West Unity, Ohio, featuring the group Sierra. I decided to sell tickets for the event, advertised it heavily, and sold 400 tickets. (at 8.00 a piece) Sierra charged us $4,000.00 plus expenses to come sing for us. All told, the church lost $2,000.00 on the concert.

Another time, I put on a Southern Gospel concert at Hilltop Middle School, featuring The Sojourners Quartet (from Kentucky)  and a local group called The Overcomer’s. This concert was well attended by what I call the blue-hair crowd. They loved the concert so much that their love worked out to about $2.00 a head when the $400.00 love offering was counted. Again, the church lost a substantial amount of money. I quickly learned that elderly people were of the, not a bad show for a buck, giving mindset.

I pastored Grace Baptist Church, renamed to Our Father’s House, in West Unity for seven years. In addition to the above concerts, the following Christian groups came to our church to sing:

David Meece

Annie Herring (formerly of Second Chapter of Acts)

The Mast Brothers

The Toney Brothers

along with a handful of local groups.

The Mast Brothers, a southern gospel group, were the easiest to work with and Annie Herring was, by far, the hardest. When Herring came to our little church, it was quite evident that she was put out at having to sing at so small a venue, even though there were more than a hundred people there. David Meece? Eclectic, strange, and he borrowed a Bible of mine and permanently highlighted and underlined verses in it. He didn’t ask me if he could do this, and had he asked me I would have said no. As a result, I had to buy a new Bible. (remember OCPD)

I pastored the Somerset Baptist Church in SE Ohio for 11 years. During this time, a number of southern gospel groups came to the church and sang. One group, The Songsmen Quartet, a local group from the Lancaster area, was a church favorite, holding at least one concert a year for many years. The group broke up (and may have later started up with different people) after two of the group members got friendly with each other and committed adultery.

My favorite concert while at Somerset Baptist Church took place in the mid-1980’s when Robbie Hiner came to sing for us. At the time, Hiner worked for Jerry Falwell at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. Hiner was a regular on Falwell’s nationwide TV program, The Old Time Gospel Hour.

Several hundred people from all over SE Ohio, came to hear Hiner sing. The building was packed. Hiner made no demands or requests, sat down at our old, beat up church piano, and just started singing. In between songs, he shared funny stories, and from start to finish, this was the best Christian concert I ever attended. After the concert, Hiner hopped into his car, I believe it was an old, high mile Mercedes, and drove on down the road. We recorded the concert, Hiner had no objections, unlike most Christian artists today, and we literally played that tape until it would play no more.

There is a certain group of Christians I call diesel sniffers. These kind of people don’t support a local church, and they travel from church to church listening to their favorite  Christian singing groups. They throw a few dollars in the plate and walk out the door of the church “blessed!’ They subscribe to the Singing News so they can find out when their favorite groups with be near where they live. These kind of people wouldn’t walk across the street to share their faith, but they would drive two hours to hear their favorite quartet sing.

There is a lot of fakery in the Christian music business. I suppose this inevitable due to the fact that they travel from church to church, venue to venue. They develop a routine, a shtick. Where they get into trouble is when their routine or shtick extends to their spirituality or their emotional responses. Years ago, I went with a church member to heat The McKamey’s sing.  There was one song where one of the female singers kicked off her shoes and had an emotional, supposedly spiritual, outburst. I thought, God just touched her heart. A week later, the church member I went to the concert with heard The McKamey’s again at a huge gospel sing. Same song, and at the exact same point in the song, the female singer kicked off her shoes and had an emotional, supposedly spiritual, outburst. The woman wasn’t being “blessed.” Her display was rehearsed and meant to elicit an emotional response from the audience.  Reason? Stirred emotions lead to open wallets.  I saw this kind of rehearsed, fake, insincere, emotional manipulation countless times at southern gospel, contemporary Christian, and Christian rock concerts. They used the same tactics and manipulations that I did as a pastor. Sincere? Perhaps, but it is still emotional manipulation and it often results in people doing things they wouldn’t normally do. (like giving large sums of money, running the aisles. going to the altar, etc)

Over the years, I talked to several people who were Christian music industry insiders. One man traveled for a time with The Kingsmen Quartet. He told me that I would be shocked if I knew what really went on behind the scenes at southern gospel concerts; from musicians getting liquored up before taking the stage, to Christian groupies willing to bed their favorite gospel singer. These concerts are so man-centered, hey look at me, I am singing for Jesus, that it should come as no surprise that people got caught up in all kinds of illicit behavior. In other words, they were human.

Late into my time as a pastor and as a Christian, I realized that Christian concerts were entertainment. As much as the musicians tried to sell me on their music being a ministry, I realized it was just religious oriented entertainment, no different from the Darius Rucker concert Polly and I recently attended. Once I came to this conclusion, I was free to just sit back and enjoy!

Someone is surely going to ask who my favorite Christian groups were/are. Here is my Top Eleven List:

and Steve Camp, before he turned into a first-rate, blowhard, asshole Calvinist.

This list, BTW, is a great way to view my path through Christianity, from Fundamentalism to the questions and doubts of musicians like Derrick Webb.

Here are a few videos of some of my favorite Christian musicians.

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Video Link-Caedmon’s Call

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Video Link-Derrick Webb

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Video Link-Petra

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Video link-The Bishops

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Video Link-The Kingsmen

BTW, I still listen to Christian music from time to time. I don’t believe a word of it, but I do enjoy it, as a relic from my past. Polly? Won’t touch the stuff…hates it! I usually wait til she is gone to play it.

Comments (18)

  1. Aram McLean

    How could you forget White Heart?
    Fly Eagle Fly, baby!

    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Yeah I use to listen to them too. Also listened to The LeFevre Quartet. I am sure they were unhappy when Mylon went all hippie on them with White Heart.

      1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

        Got the groups mixed up. It was Mylon LeFevre and Broken Heart, not White Heart.

    2. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Stryper? :)

      1. Aram McLean

        I seem to remember Stryper being a little too ‘heavy’ for our group. Petra was about as hardcore as we got. Life is a Minefield!
        But as Tim mentioned below, they really were mostly knock-offs of the real thing, often coming onto the scene a good decade after the initial secular style had moved on. For example I was probably Bon Jovi’s biggest fan in the late 90′s, mainly because the Christian music I listened too (White Heart etc), was still stuck in that late 80′s sound. So to hear Bon Jovi for the first time was like having the roof blown off the house. Oh how my Nirvana, Pearl Jam fan friends loved to mock me.

        On the flip note, I do feel like my musical brain was stifled through all of this (especially through eight years of ACE schooling where Amy Grant and Michael W Smith were your best options, along with maybe DC Talk). It’s a shame, but coincidentally my wife’s a former lead singer/songwriter for a Hamburg punk band, so hoping to learn a few chords on guitar this summer. Before you know it I’ll be rocking Fly Eagle Fly :)

  2. Tim

    I remember my parents buying me a Petra cassette back in the day. For a Baptist preacher, Dad was willing to compromise on the music front, I had the opportunity to listen to the radio stations I wanted to in my room. I never got into much Christian music. Most of it seemed to be largely B-grade, intentionally mimicking the style of popular secular artists. There were some good ones I still appreciate: Jars of Clay (good enough to make it on a secular label), Burlap to Cashmere (if they were copying someone else’s style, I never heard them), and Saviour Machine (who got kicked out of at least one Christian concert for not being Christian enough). Saviour Machine was/is a gothic metal Christian band, big on the book of Revelations, but they were early and influential in that sub-genre.

    I often suspected there were bands that were not quite good enough to make the grade in secular music who were steered towards a Christian label as an alternative. I have no reason or proof to back that up, it was just an impression I had from the general quality of CCM.

    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      We had a chart in the Christian bookstore I managed that was a comparison chart. If you like _________Secular group you will like __________Christian group.
      As I mentioned in this post, I used to really like Steve Camp’s music. Years later, as I listen to 80′s rock, I “hear” how much of a rip off artist Camp was.

      I did not buy any other music but Southern gospel until I was about 40. We then bought hundreds of CCM cd’s. When we deconverted, we boxed up these cd’s and donated them to a local thrift store.

      1. Michael Alioto

        …where they probably are still sitting today!

    2. Kat

      Well, you have to love a metal band that names themselves after a David Bowie song. ;-)

  3. kittybrat

    Oh, yes, business for sure! Ministry my lily white arse! It’s a money-making operation just like any other!

    When I was in my late teens and early 20s, I decided that, in addition to my groovy southern gospel music (Calvary Boys, etc.), it was OK to enjoy some Jesus People music again. Malcom and Alwyn were some of my favs at the time.

    Malcom and Alwyn
    Calvary Boys

  4. Erin

    I won’t touch the stuff anymore, either. It is a significant trigger for me for panic attacks. I haven’t been diagnosed with PTSD, but could likely fit the criteria (have you ever heard of religious trauma syndrome?). Most CCM from the 90s and through 2005 triggers me.

    I always was a music LOVER through high school and young adulthood. Once I became immersed in the evangelical church, I quit whole-hog. When it comes to popular music, I lost almost all of the 1990s-2005. Granted, with small children in the car, it was usually easier to put Christian music on so I didn’t have to explain what some pop lyrics meant. But for me, it was a religious law.

    It’s a huge regret of mine. I’m still reeducating myself on the missing decades of music. For some people this wouldn’t matter, but for me, it’s a big deal.

  5. Ian

    Musicians themselves make fun if it. Anyone remember the sing Sunging For The Bus?

  6. Reverend Greg

    The best concert I saw was Wayne Watson with Cindy Morgan and Point of Grace. POG did a set then came back out and sang backup for Watson, who headlined the show. I never did care for their music after their debut album, it sounded formulatic to me. I als osaw Phil Keaggy doing his show by himself on acoustic. Anyone would be astonished at his talent. He’s also an Akron boy!

  7. Paula

    A chart? That’s rich. Reminds me of the same kind of thing to sell cheap, fake perfume in discount houses. Not that I think all Christian musicians are making fake music, not at all.

    My real beef with some of these artists is when they live lives like a bad country song, yet sell to their target audience on the strength of being Christian. The Amy Grant/Gary Chapman/Vince Gill mess still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
    This is dishonest in a way that secular artists who live the same way are not. They are just selling music. Christian artists are selling partly on the strength of their reputation.

    I was raised on southern gospel. Our hymnal (Heavenly Highway Hymns, with shape notes) had quite a lot of the genre included. I was grown before I realized not all churches use that music. When my MIL was alive, it shocked her that my musical taste was so broad that I thought Sam Levine’s dixieland rendition of hymns, or Bob Snyder’s jazz rendition of “Amazing Grace” were just as legitimate as Bach’s “A Mighty Fortress.”

  8. mikespeir

    Kinda bothers me the thing about Annie Herring. Even though I’m not a believer anymore I’ve always admired her. Who knows? Maybe she was just having a bad day. Then again, maybe I’m cutting her slack she doesn’t deserve. It’s a tendency that fans and religious apologists share: weighing the evidence the way we want it.

    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      I don’t know about Herring. Could have been a bad day. Christian musicians, like Christian preachers, are a mixed lot. Some of them see themselves as entitled, above those they minister to. Others are kind, sacrificing, servant-oriented people. Sadly, the former tend to stick in our memory. :(

  9. Dave

    I remember seeing 2nd Chapter of Acts in my holy roller days. They had the whole crowd up with their hands raised to God. Oh how the spirit moved. Next year they returned but Annie Herring was sick and didn’t perform. They attempted to get the crowd up and the hands raised but it went nowhere. I assumed the holy spirit was an Annie Herring fan

  10. Michael Alioto

    The secular music I was raised on was big bands of the 40s (Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Woody Herman, Benny Goodman…etc), Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, a bunch of other stuff from our speed 78 collection. I wasn’t allowed to listen to the radio until I was in 6th grade so I was pretty sheltered. Makes me wonder sometimes how I became a musician…but I was gifted in that area and was able to play things I heard right off the bat when I was 5.

    My mom made us listen to Dave Boyer (sax player and singer), The Gaither Trio, “the yawners” as I like to call them. Then we were turned on to the Imperials. The Imperial were cool at that time (Late 70s) and even came to our church (a small 200-250 seat room) and it was PACKED. That’s when I started getting introduced to contemporary Christian music.

    I started listening to Amy Grant when her first album came out (My Father’s Eyes). I was into 2nd Chapter of Acts, (makes me wonder Bruce how you dealt with the whole speaking in tongues thing…I also LOVED Mathew Ward’s voice…the brother of Anne and Nelly. I think it was Bruce Herring that wore the pants in that group…Anne’s husband who didn’t play…just managed), Barry Mcguire, Love Song, Chuck Girrard, PHIL KEAGGY (awesome guitarist…especially when he toured with 2nd Chapter), Andrea Crouch and the Disciples (I love black gospel music and black choirs…give me a B3 organ and I will GO TO TOWN), Petra (God Gave Rock and Roll to You), John Michael Talbott, Randy Stonehill, Keith Green (he shoulda never had that many people in a helicopter), Michael W. Smith, Gary Chapman (loved his alternate chord progressions), Degarmo and Key

    …THEN I DISCOVERED “HARD ROCK CHRISTIAN MUSIC” (Resurrection Band, Servant) and my mom had a horse…calling it satanic…the beats stir up the devil…yea…all that. I asked her how a drum beat can summon satan. I told her music is neutral…the words are what is important.
    Figure I majored in Jazz piano from ASU and play 15 instruments…and I’m a live and studio engineer. I ran sound for Steven Curtis Chapman and Amy Grant for some private events here in Chicago in the mid 80s (by that time, I had checked out of religion…but it was fun nonetheless).

    Reading this brought back some memories…whether they be good or bad…they are memories!


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