You can sound like a demon and still love God," claims Tooth & Nail Records publicist James Morelos, referring to Zao, a hardcore band on


A slob like one of us

Is Christian rock music the new alternative or just another marketing ploy?

You can sound like a demon and still love God," claims Tooth & Nail Records publicist James Morelos, referring to Zao, a hardcore band on the indie label whose scary death-metal sound could keep Lucifer himself at bay. "We're not your traditional Christian music label," he continues. "We're not interested in marketing God."

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They're not headquartered in Nashville, either—unlike Word, Sparrow, and many other Christian labels fervidly gobbled up by major record conglomerates. The Seattle-based Tooth & Nail, founded by 27-year-old Brandon Ebel four years ago, has released more than 100 CDs by more than 50 acts with names like Crux, Bloodshed, the Blamed, Unashamed, Training for Utopia, Sometimes Sunday, Wish for Eden, and Living Sacrifice. The label runs the stylistic gamut from industrial and ska to lo-fi and shoe-gazer pop, selling from 300 to 300,000 CDs to faithful fans, accounting for $7.5 million in sales. One of its biggest punk bands, MxPx, recently moved over to A&M.

Tooth & Nail founder Ebel is a Christian, "a dream fulfiller," who wanted to create an opportunity for bands that otherwise might not get signed because of their beliefs. "There's no criteria—they can sing about their faith or their girlfriend," explains Morelos. The label gets flak from the alternative scene, which presumes it's preaching, as well as from conventional Christians who accuse it of being "of the devil, because we don't say God enough." Tooth & Nail records have been banned from some Christian bookstores, and Morelos says that he occasionally encounters questions like "Why do your bands have non-Christian members?"

But the label is welcome at the annual Creation Festival, which is billed as "A Tribute to Our Creator." The 18-year-old event travels to the West Coast for the first time this summer, setting up camp July 23-25 at the Gorge. It's three days of music and speakers—Woodstock meets an Oral Roberts revival meeting—and three Tooth & Nail bands will be there, performing on the festival's "Fringe Stage." Shouts of "Hallelujah" from the mosh pit may blow out the misconception of clean-cut kids dancing for salvation.

Christian music is the fastest growing genre in the music industry, and although it still makes up a small share of the market, it's been increasing an average of 22 percent annually over the last several years, with total sales of $44 million in '97—up from $33 million the year before. The number of Christian radio stations has also grown impressively, from 200 to 1,200 since 1990, making it the fourth-largest format in the country, and Z Music Television, a Christian music cable network, has appeared as an alternative video source.

Although the genre's sales are primarily relegated to some 8,000 Christian bookstores nationwide, those figures began to count for more in 1995, when SoundScan, a computerized retail-tracking system, included the niche's figures in the Billboard charts. Amy Grant, the queen of inspiration, had already crossed over with the "lay pop" hit "Baby Baby." But suddenly Christian artists such as Michael W. Smith, who surfaced with the single "I'll Lead You Home," became instantly known in the secular world.

Feeding this success, over the last few years many Christian labels entered into partnerships with major entertainment corporations and gained the benefits of expanded distribution, aggressive marketing, mainstream publicity—and an infusion of money. In addition, chain retailers—Music-land, Blockbuster, Target, and Wal-Mart—began selling more Christian music titles. The media took notice, with coverage on MTV, CBS's 60 Minutes, and in publications from People to Spin.

Despite a history of rockers finding religion (most notably U2 and Van Morrison; and even Bob Dylan was born again briefly), believers who find music are viewed skeptically by the infidels. St. Paul the Apostle urged his followers to speak the language of the people who need to hear the message of faith. So the so-called "contemporary Christian music" scene developed a ministry to reach fans of every kind of music—classic gospel, country, folk, R&B, rap, alternative, and pop. There's even an evangelical Tom Jones­styled vocalist called Carman, and New Age piano tinkler John Tesh, who's now signed to Word.

Promise Keepers rally crooner Bob Carlisle and his "Butterfly Kisses" smash may have taken everyone by surprise, but the lofty idea of a return on investment created the need for such crossover hits. Although Christian music is—unlike every other genre—determined by lyrical content, reaching the youth of America with the Word rather than just preaching to the choir requires diversification. Acts like rappers D.C. (decent Christian) Talk, the Newsboys from Down Under, Southern rockers Third Day, and alternative angst-merchants Jars of Clay have achieved crossover status with sales, radio play, and press coverage.

Does the broader success of music originally created for church audiences signal a trend toward more spiritual themes and a backlash against the devil's music—a.k.a. rock 'n' roll? According to Bruce Koblish of the Gospel Music Association, the people were ready: "In today's often confusing and uncertain world, they want to hear a message of hope and faith in God," he says.

As for the question of whether modern Christian rock is taken seriously, LeAnn Mengen at EMI Christian Music Group, the largest Christian music company, opines, "If we tried to put out 'Praise and Worship' material, we'd get laughed at." She says that the marketing of the music depends largely on the artist, but obviously songs like "We Need Jesus" and "Let Us Pray" are unlikely to break through to the mainstream.

Often criticized for watered-down cloning, contemporary Christian music makes an easy target. But just because you're a churchgoer doesn't mean you're attempting to convert everyone. Tooth & Nail doesn't like to be pigeonholed, though it appreciates the extra angle: "We're younger, we're faster, and moms like us too," stated a '94 zine ad. "We want to sell to 'normal' kids too," says publicist Morelos, and the label promotes its music to college radio and receives plenty of airplay for its hard-edged acts.

"We don't believe in the concept of 'Christian music,' and catering to an isolated world—our music is for everybody," he continues. "There's no spiritual agenda—the majority of [our] bands just rock out," states Morelos. For example, the Supertones, a ska band on Tooth & Nail's B.E.C. imprint, sells in Tower Records, where the label insists on not being binned in the Christian section.

The artistically experimental end of the Christian music spectrum melds darker, introspective lyrics, obscure nondenominational references, and uplifting ideas. Margaret Becker, Sparrow Records' female singer/songwriter in the Sarah McLachlan/Shawn Colvin mold, says, "I really want people to hear a spiritual perspective from a fallible person, not just one holding up this one-dimensional face of faith." A place in the bigger musical picture is well within Becker's reach since her rich material could easily be interpreted as secular love songs. After all, you can't hear a capitalized "You."

The entry of Christian music into the temporal arena of big business may mean that ascension into the mainstream (or "general market," as it's referred to among the faithful) has a greater importance than just spreading the gospel to the masses. Contrasted with the biblical references in the recent EMI compilation WOW: The Year's 30 Top Christian Artists and Songs, the CD booklet for Tooth & Nail's fourth anniversary box set looks forward to "a future where people are accepted and heard no matter what their beliefs and without censorship or stereotype, [where] music is judged on artistic quality and free speech is not just given lip service."

It seems the latest "alternative music" springs from an unlikely place. Speaking in Christianity Today, Stan Moser, former head of Word Records, sees Christian music's phenomenal cash cow as a "wave of spirit" but also expresses his fear that commercialism may dilute the scriptural message. Then he adds, "I thank God there is music performed by people who profess Christ, that there is an alternative."

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