I didn't grow up on Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith. Quite the opposite. Early one Saturday morning during high school, my father decided to wake me with Jethro Tull's Thick as a Brick blasting on my stereo. I now know every word to that 45-minute song.
So I was perplexed when friends at my Christian college, knowing my musical tastes, would introduce me to "cool" Christian bands struggling to make it in the mainstream music industry or to break out of the Christian biz. These groups would say, "We're Christians, but we're not a Christian band."
It's an established trend. Entertainment executive and author Mark Joseph says that 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. This conceptual collapse is breeding not only confusion, but also litigation.
A perfect example is the lawsuit recently filed by the band Mute Math against its Christian label, Word, and the label's owner, Warner Brothers Records. Some Mute Math members were formerly in Earthsuit, an "unabashedly Christian act," according to Billboard. Mute Math has sold most of its albums in the Christian market and played Christian festivals. Band members maintain they are all Christians. Yet they say they expected Warner to release the album, not Word.
So they sued, complaining that the Word release damaged their brand. Keyboardist and cofounder Paul Meany tells Billboard, "I had no desire to be the Christian version of a real band." Meany complains, "They [Word] were going to market it the exact way we didn't want."
In other words, Word was going to market this band made up of Christians to Christians. The suit, for breach of contract and negligent misrepresentation, seeks punitive damages. Mute Math's attorney says, "We wanted total mainstream credibility, and then to have it sold back into the Christian market if it were successful in the mainstream."
It's the formula that made P.O.D. successful. P.O.D. toured with Ozzfest, knocking the wind out of anyone who might call them a Christian band. Mute Math is playing the Warped Tour and is savvy enough to put up a stink and sue the Man. Maybe it will work for them.
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.
"Mute Math," its lawyer says, "is not a worship artist. They don't preach from [the] stage. They don't preach in their interviews. Those things are required of you when you work in the Christian market."
I sympathize. I listen to music for the music, not for life lessons. Though rock music has a strong tradition of moral outrage, it is often simply the background soundtrack to our lives.
Still, 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 artistssigned as secular acts to secular labels, such as Sufjan Stevens and Over the Rhinewho 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.
Rob Moll is associate online editor for CT.