An Industry Of Troubadours

“So what is it you do these days exactly?” I asked.

Four hours later, the answer – interrupt by fascinating tangents and dinner and dessert and coffee and children – was finished. And I’d spent the evening with a legend in music.

He started out as an intern at a booking agency. Then worked at one. Then started one with a country recording artist I grew up listening to. Then, at the peak of country music in the eighties, he stepped away from millions in annual revenue because he felt God wanted him to be involved with this new thing called “Christian music.”

He booked. He consulted. He booked. He managed. He managed and booked. He was behind so many of Christian music’s earliest success stories.

Then he stepped away again. Feeling that something had been lost.

“We didn’t plan on becoming an industry,” he said. “It just kept growing. And we lost something.”

So he quite in middle-age to figure out what he should be when he grew up, and remembered what the industry was.

“When I started in Christian music,” he said, “I would sit down with an artist and ask them why Christian music. The answer always came back to a calling of some sort – whether they labeled it that or not. They had a reason.”

“And that answer changed over the years?” I asked.

“Near the end,” he said, “an artist told me his plan was to make it in Christian music and then cross-over to mainstream music.”

More and more artists, he said, were looking to Christian music for fame, money and a stepping stone to greater fame and money.

“I remember,” he said, “standing back at the soundboard one night in those early years and hearing an artist talk about Compassion International and seeing the response. And I thought ‘I’m part of this. This is happening because I booked this concert – I played my part.’ There was a reason for having a concert that was bigger than the booking agency or the record label or the artist. We all did our job and that moment happened. And some nights that moment was an alter call and some nights it was World Vision, but there was a greater purpose.”

Artists were troubadours who made music whether it paid well or not – and it usually didn’t.

The Christian music industry is a shadow of what it was just ten years ago. Labels don’t have marketing budgets. The A-list is itty bitty, made up of the very few artist who get played on the radio and resung at churches on Sunday mornings. There are no more Christian music magazines and our best Christian music websites don’t get more traffic than a successful artist’s blog. Bookstores are closing their music sections. There’s no Gospel Music Week in Nashville anymore. Good sales for a new artist today are figures that would have gotten a new artist dropped from a label ten years ago. Labels are only signing artists who’ve had some degree of success independently already. And, more and more, independent artists with some degree of success already are realizing they’ll be no better off with a record deal.

The industry will never die but it is chronically ill in comparison to its former self.

But here’s the good news. Because there is less fame and money and airplay to be had today than a decade ago, those looking to Christian music for those rewards will be disappointed and quit. And when they’re gone maybe we’ll be an industry of a few stars and many troubadours once again.

Why do you do what you do? Is there a reason bigger than yourself?