Christianity,  Entertainment

Tooth & Nail: Do you know this record label?

Back in the 1990’s, contemporary Christian music (CCM) was at its zenith in terms of sales. Some of it was good, but a good bit of it was kind of not. It just wasn’t the kind of music that connected to younger listeners, especially college students.

Enter an off-the-beaten path independent record label called Tooth & Nail. With a shoe-string budget, Brandon Ebel founded the company in 1993 and began signing Christian bands with a more modern sound. It was the kind of sound that the kids were listening to in those days. It was certainly the music that I was listening to back then—bands like MXPX (formerly known as Magnified Plaid), Sometime Sunday, Starflyer 59, just to name a few.

That is why I really appreciate Joel Heng Hartse’s review of a recent documentary about Tooth & Nail. Appearing in Christianity Today, Hartse not only evaluates the documentary (warning: the trailer below has some salty language), but also the reason why Tooth & Nail was a significant force in the evangelical subculture. He writes:

In a nutshell, Tooth & Nail created a safe, subversive space for Christian teenagers who felt torn between youth-group subculture and secular countercultures. The label’s bands have been sonically diverse, exploring various corners of the indie rock, emo, punk, and hardcore genres. But what they have in common, as Ebel and many others have said, is feeling “too Christian for non-Christians, and not Christian enough for Christians.”

It’s hard to believe that it’s been over 20 years since the heady days of Tooth & Nail’s founding, but it has been. A lot has changed since then. Hartse reports that “Tooth & Nail recently sold its entire back catalog to EMI (one of the ‘big four’ corporate record labels).” I’m guessing that there may be some readers out there who are as interested in this news as I was.

You can see the trailer below. Read the rest of Hartse’s article here.


  • Ian Shaw

    How was ska not one of their categories? Somebody forget the O.C. Supertones? (yeah they went to BEC eventually)

    Those were the days of great Christian Rock. Not to bag on current bands, but it was awesome back then.

    MXPX, Squad 5-0, O.C. Supertones, Five Iron Frenzy, The Insyders, Project 86.

    Though a lot of good bands got dumped on because they didn’t meet some of the record labels JPM’s.

  • jazzypaul

    Starflyer 59 was about the only CCM band that I ever gave any credence to. Wait, I take that back…Vigilantes of Love were pretty cool, too. And Kings’ X. But we all saw how that one turned out.

    Anyway, thanks for the reminder. Guess I know what I’m digging out of the CD crate tonight…

  • Ian Shaw

    I really enjoyed Five Iron Frenzy, but they’ve described (Reese Roper) their label at the time tour-ed them to ridiculous proportions and they basically made the equivalent of $14k per year during all those years (that’d be split between 8 people). Many interesting thoughts he has about present contemporary Christian music.

    • jazzypaul

      To be fair, that’d be $14K take home, after all of your housing, feeding and expenses (that you still would have had living at home) were paid for. Faith +1 jokes not withstanding, if you’re Five Iron Frenzy, you’re playing niche music within a niche of music in a setting where a good chunk of your potential audience is told that all rock music is evil, and if every song in a band’s catalog isn’t expressly a worship song, then they’re just wolves in sheep’s clothing. You’re not going to make much money in that scenario unless you’re at the very top of the genre. To be blunt, as a jazz musician, I technically have access to more market share than most CCM artists. How much more than $14K could they have really expected to make?

      • Ian Shaw

        Yes take home. But Reese mention that they were toured to death and pushed beyond what was normal by their label when they were young and well stupid to say no.Which was exactly Denny’s point in the article that Tooth and Nail held a lot of bands that either weren’t Christian enough for Christians and too Christians for non-Christians. There are a lot of Christian bands that have great music but if you don’t have enough “jesus per minutes” you’ll never make a big label or be on the radio. JPM’s are a real thing.

        FIF lead singer Reese Roper’s comment regarding current Christian music, in an interview in the past 2 years, went something like, “with small exceptions, Christian music today appeals to the lowest common denominator”. There is a lot of truth in that statement I believe. I have been a trombone player since I was 10, I play in church with praise & worship and I follow bands that actually make good music and have sound theology in songwriting (most of them are Christian). Doesn’t mean you see them going platinum in record sales, on Christian radio or on the Winter Jam lineup.

      • Ian Shaw

        How much more could they have made? Well, that’s based on what consumers find as “good music”. Third Day, Chris Tomlin and Newsboys sell like crazy. Doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good music or they’re better composers than FIF or any other band in the Christian genre. (Newsboys pre-Tait was much better IMHO)

  • Ian Shaw

    Just for reference from a former big “niche” band to now a still big niche band on their own label

    2011-Reese Roper: “…..I told him I didn’t think that was such a good idea because I secretly HATE worship music, thinking it weak and predictable, with lyrics designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator- not the greatest art ever created by mankind, as I think true worship should attempt to be (or at least the best that any individual can create). Very talented people make some very bad songs so that people with a fourth grade reading level can sing along. Sure, corporate worship is good- but for me, I get very bored in Church trying to worship.

    Question-Last time you implied that Christian music is inferior to secular music(I tend to agree). Why is Christian music sub par and what does it need?

    Christian musicians today, minus about ten bands, have never had to fight to be accepted or heard like general market bands have to make a living. It’s just overlooked that the Christian market is safer and more lucrative, but requires musicianship that applies to the lowest common denominator. Early on in Five Iron we played a few shows with Less Than Jake. They were by far one of the best sounding bands of Third Wave Ska. What amazed us about them, was that they cared more about their fans- keeping tickets and merch prices low, giving out toys, mailing lists, etc.- than 99% of the Christian bands we had played with. It was humbling. If Jesus Christ truly loves us, and His love has TRULY changed us, then why aren’t we losing more blood showing that to the world? Why does this have to be some padded, sad, soft version of music lite, so that grandmas in Family Christian Bookstore will be buying our albums for their grand kids at Christmas? I am SO glad that we all have jobs now. I believe that when Jesus walked the earth He did two things: 1. He came to save and heal the lost, and 2. He infuriated the religious people. Yeah, that’s where I’m at right now. I hate the Church and what it has become. We are pulling no punches for this one.

    Though I very much disagree with his statement on what Jesus did while he was here on earth.

    • jazzypaul

      Clearly Jesus did MORE than those two things, but He certainly did do those two things. And if we’re thinking of the term “religious people” as in the people that do the pomp and circumstance of “being (insert religion here)” as opposed to just doing it (like say, corporate prayer at football games), then yeah, He did that, on purpose, and with good reason.

      Back to the quote from the article — he’s completely right about the CCM thing. The biggest problem I had with dudes that would want to start “Christian” bands with me, or in times on worship teams was that it was never about the music. It was everything at a comfortable tempo with Don’t Stop Believin’ chord changes. If I had ever found people that really wanted to push the musical envelope while writing songs about faith, I might have led a very different musical life.

      • Ian Shaw

        Yeah, he’s way off on what Jesus only did….but I’d agree with your main statement. I often have people ask my how I can listen to Living Sacrifice or Demon Hunter. My response is always “you have to appreciate more than just the lyrics, which for me those 2 bands are great at both songwriting and the instrumental aspects as well.

        I was told at my large church that if we did praise songs by the Insyderz, it would have to be during an outdoor worship service. Bummed, but then I asked, “how do we make that happen?” Already planning it. Pains of attending an SBC church I suppose, though I love it.

  • Ian Shaw

    Hey Denny,

    Just announced, MXPX with Five Iron Frenzy in Denver, CO on March 13 and in Seattle, WA on March 14. That’d be a pretty sweet show

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