Mark Joseph is president of MJM Entertainment Group and worked in the entertainment business as a journalist and executive. Joseph says younger Christian artists are having unprecedented success as mainstream musicians. In turn, their songs are having an impact on popular culture in ways that contemporary Christian music never could. Joseph is the author of The Rock & Roll Rebellion and most recently, Faith, God and Rock 'n Roll: How People of Faith Are Transforming American Popular Music. He lives in the Los Angeles area with his wife and children.

You say that the exciting news in Christian music is that Christians are performing as mainstream acts. However, the Christian music industry gets most of the attention because of its sales figures. You say those figures aren't so accurate as they seem.

Every year press releases are issued from Nashville saying that Christian music is growing by x percent. It's fascinating because, on the one hand, those numbers are greatly exaggerated and on the other hand, sales are even more than that.

The numbers that show growth in Christian music unfortunately are obtained by counting records that really wouldn't be considered Christian music. Things like the O Brother, Where Art Thou? record, a POD record, and Mannheim Steamroller. These records, which are used to tabulate sales of Christian music, by any standard, are not [Christian music].

Christian music, as a genre, is probably actually in decline, if you use real numbers. What's exploding is the idea of Christians playing rock music in mainstream America.

Only four of the top ten CCM bestsellers are really CCM?

It's silly to play these numbers games and say Christian music has grown by x percent when it really hasn't. The big story is that Christianity, Christian ideas, Christian thoughts in rock music, are exploding beyond any possible measuring standard.

Let's talk about a couple of examples of that as evidence. One would be the POD story. How do these guys illustrate your point that the real story is Christian artists in the mainstream?

It's so ironic that the trade association that is responsible for Christian music would tabulate POD's records as growth in sales of Christian music because this is a classic story of this younger generation. These are a couple of kids from San Diego who are devout young Christians. They had two paths to take: One path led to Nashville and would have led to Christian music stardom. The other path was to Atlantic Records, where they ended up. They deliberately chose the path that took them to the mainstream. In fact, they were offered a record contract early on by one of the Christian music labels and they turned it down at a time when they didn't know if they would be offered a mainstream contract.

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Why are these artists saying they don't want to be in the CCM niche?

For the mainstream culture, the term Christian rock has become a term of derision. The only people who haven't figured that out yet are some of the people involved in the Christian music industry. It's become a term that once you are labeled with, it's hard to recover.

The people who were running the Christian music industry four or five years ago couldn't figure out why all these young artists didn't want to be called Christian rock and they didn't realize the label immediately made them irrelevant. These young artists have said, "If we sign to a Christian music company, that will put us off the map of American pop culture."

I have to say that today a lot of the leaders in the Christian music industry are a new generation. The heads of Word and Provident are terrific people who understand this phenomena and are trying to figure out a way to help.

What happened to POD after they turned down the CCM label?

The manager who told me this story said one of the guys was living out of his car. It wasn't like they had a lot of options, but they felt so strongly that if they were to sign with that label they would not be where they wanted to be, which was on The Howard Stern Show, on mainstream rock stations, and on MTV. Shortly after that Atlantic Records offered them a deal, and they've become the cultural phenomena we know them to be.

I think, even as we speak, things are changing. I see a greater willingness on the part of the Christian music labels to begin to function as mainstream labels. That means sending their artists out to mainstream radio and making a serious effort to be part of the music business. The new head of the Gospel Music Association, John Styll, is working to change things. But until that happens and they're fully integrated, these artists are going to continue to go to mainstream labels.

There are some people encouraging this movement and some power brokers that have a strategic faith commitment. The late Bob Briner is one. And another one is Carson Daly at Total Request Live on MTV. A lot of people may not be aware of his faith journey.

Bob wrote Roaring Lambs back in 1993. But I would say five or six years later his book began to sell quite well and a lot of the artists began to read it. What made it remarkable was he was a grownup. Some of us who have been critical of this stuff were younger and could be dismissed. But to have a grownup, an experienced media professional saying this is not being done right, that carried some weight, and I think it really had an impact.

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Many Christians would probably take issue with some of the things Carson Daly's done. It helps to look at the person's critics and see what they're saying. When Howard Stern gets on the air and calls Carson Daly a "Jesus freak" for getting Christians on MTV, that's your first clue that there's more to that person than meets the eye. I think Carson, at his position when he was at MTV, paved the way for artists like POD to be on there. And he's been very strategic in what he's trying to do.

As a youngster, he contemplated going into the priesthood, but he said he could do more at MTV in terms of affecting people. That's pretty significant to have a person like that as a cultural gatekeeper at MTV for a while.

How does the younger generation view these issues differently from older generations?

The previous generation would look at the idea of a Christian section in a store and say, "Isn't that wonderful, we have our own section." This next generation would say, "Why do I want to be in the kooky section in the corner? My ideas are mainstream ideas, my products should be in the mainstream of Walmart." In the same way, the previous generation thought, "We have our own religious channel, isn't that great, 24 hours of Christian TV." This generation says, "Why do we want to be on the kooky channel. We want to be part of the cultural mainstream and have our ideas considered there." One generation was content with having their ideas available, albeit on the sideline. This generation is saying, we want our ideas up front and center part of the consideration that all ideas have.

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Faith God and Rock 'n Roll is available from and other book retailers.

Mark Joseph is also the author of Is There Really a Christian Music Boom? | The Gospel Music Association says so, but their numbers hide the mass exodus of talented bands from the Christian Music industry. (Feb. 5, 2002)

Dick Staub is president of the Center for Faith and Culture, which examines intersections between popular culture and religious belief. Complete transcripts and audio versions of Dick Staub Interviews can be found at Recent Dick Staub Interviews for Christianity Today include:

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The Dick Staub Interview
Dick Staub was host of a eponymous daily radio show on Seattle's KGNW and is the author of Too Christian, Too Pagan and The Culturally Savvy Christian. He currently runs The Kindlings, an effort to rekindle the creative, intellectual, and spiritual legacy of Christians in culture. His interviews appeared weekly on our site from 2002 to 2004.
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