Cassettes and compact disks by Grant, Smith, and the Winans have long sold in secular music stores and appeared on nationwide best-selling album charts, including the weekly Top 200 chart in Billboard, the music entertainment industry bible. Meanwhile, music by established Christian artists such as D.C. Talk, Steven Curtis Chapman, the Newsboys, Sandi Patty, Carman, and Twila Paris never have appeared on secular charts, even though they have sold hundreds of thousands of copies and outsold many secular products that do make the charts. That is because the vast majority of their tapes and CDs sell in Christian retail stores, and up until now, those sales did not "count."

That all began to change in April, when SoundScan, the company that provides retail sales data to Billboard, began reporting sales figures from participating Christian stores. Industry sources say that when the system is fully implemented, a dozen or more Christian albums will regularly hold down slots on the Top 200 chart.

Loren Hall, SoundScan project director for the Christian Music Trade Association, says better numbers will help Christian music climb out of its long-term obscurity. "The way it is now, labels say, 'I know these things are selling, but we just can't prove it.' This will add a certain amount of legitimacy to our industry."

IMPORTANT FIRST STEP: For the artists, writers, producers, and executives in the growing $1 billion a year Christian music industry, access to the charts is just the first step in an effort to introduce contemporary Christian music to a vast pop music audience that is unaware of its existence.

"We've been waiting for the window to open, and we feel it's finally happening," says Melinda Scruggs, market development vice president ...

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