Readers of this blog know that Derek Webb and I are not on the same page politically and sometimes theologically (previous posts). Nevertheless, in an interview with Relevant magazine Webb has some salient reflections on the so-called “Christian” music industry. Here are the money lines:
The whole secular/Christian thing is a total fiction.
Don’t let your local Christian bookstore do your thinking for you and believe that everything they have there for sale is good and spiritually beneficial to you.
If anything, we have proven that the Church unfortunately is identified with really poor art. The Church certainly does not have the market cornered on beauty. A lot of what we do is not very beautiful. The art we make is not very good. A lot of the songs I have heard on Christian radio are just outright misrepresentations of the character of God.
I think you have to learn to discern and look elsewhere and say, “I need to learn how to engage with a God everywhere I can find truth and beauty, regardless of the intention of the maker of that art. I really believe that is a more biblical worldview. It also keeps us from being people who live in fear. There is no room for living in fear. There is no reason to be afraid. There is no reason to be fearful of secular music. We should learn how to chew on the meat, spit out the bones, to discern the truth and beauty, to commend that rather than to be just completely fearful and put all our security in these categories that don’t mean anything. It’s a dangerous way to live.
The Christian industry, ridiculous as its existence I believe is, is an industry that literally markets records based on the worldview of the artists, which no other industry does. The one thing they do really well is get resources to Christians. I thought this is something I want in the hands of fellow believers. I think that is the audience that this content would be relevant to and so that is the avenue that I took. Providentially, I landed with a label that I had no idea was really given the freedom to go beyond that. That is what I’m trying to do now. I’m not making records specifically and exclusively for the Church anymore (source).
Derek’s observations about the “Christian” music industry are largely on target. I wonder if he wishes that he had gone another route as a solo artist. I know that on his first album (“She Must and Shall Go Free”), Derek was addressing his songs to Christians and the Church, so signing with a “Christian” record label made sense. Now that it is clear that he is not exclusively aiming his music at Christians anymore, perhaps he would be open to signing with a secular label.
This question does not apply exclusively to Derek Webb. Christianity Today runs an article that addresses this topic with respect to Christian artists in general who are trying to cross-over into the mainstream “secular” market. In Rob Moll’s article “Rock Un-Solid: When Christian bands bite the hands that praised them,” he points to the Christian band Mute Math and their lawsuit against their “Christian” record label as a case in point.
The concept of Christian music is “in the middle of a quiet collapse” as a younger generation realizes that to be taken seriously outside the Christian scene, a band must stay far, far away from that scene …
I’m skeptical of bands that get a start in the Christian scene, but want their labels to help them cross over. Mute Math and others are stuck in a Christian music world that expects concerts to be revved-up worship services . . .
I find it hard to respect Christian acts that suddenly decide they want mainstream credibility, spurning the industry that gave them their start. If the Christian scene doesn’t fit, then find another label, other fans. There are secular artists signed as secular acts to secular labels, such as Sufjan Stevens and Over the Rhine who are open about their Christian faith.
The Christian music industry may promote a false dichotomy between sacred and secular art. But good artists don’t overcome that with marketing savvy or lawsuits. Mute Math should do what musicians do: Let its music do the talking (source).
Whatever you think about Derek Webb’s and Rob Moll’s reflections, one thing is for sure. All that calls itself “Christian” is not necessarily Christian. That goes for the music on sale in the Christian bookstore and for the companies that are marketing them. If we are going to be mature Christians, we will have to learn how to discern what is worth listening to and what isn’t. That’s a responsibility that we dare not shuffle off to the for-profit record companies.