It is quite a curiosity how frequently some cultural phenomena are pronounced dead. Rock music, in particular, dies at least once a decade. And now it seems the question is echoing in the Christian music industry almost as loudly, as those who remember the great days of dcTalk and the Newsboys wonder: Is Christian rock dead?
Further fueling the speculation is CCM magazine’s announcement that it will discontinue its print edition in April, on the 30th anniversary of its first issue in 1978. The press statement announced that CCM readers “want information faster than a print magazine can deliver,” and explains the folding of the print magazine as an intentional move to allow CCM to put its energy into online content. It is difficult to imagine that the Christian music industry would have been the same without the magazine. For most of my life, it set the trends and made the brand among Christian youth. But over the past few years, CCM has fought a losing battle for its audience as it continues covering a product its target demographic, young evangelicals, consumes at a gradually decreasing rate.
On its face, such a transformation from print to web is hardly remarkable; print magazines of all stripes are, after all, struggling to survive in the new media environment. But in addition to triggering the media evolution, technology has contributed to the disappearance of CCM’s prime readership. Thousands of artists now able to self-market their music to the world, including Christian musicians uncomfortable with the industry’s insistence on marketable formula. Believers seem to have realized there’s quite a bit of great music out there, and Christians aren’t the only ones making it. With such a selection available, including many popular choices that lack traditionally offensive content, there remains no justification for Christians to subject themselves to the generally substandard fare offered in Christian bookstores.
CCM belatedly caught on to these trends, announcing last May that the magazine would change its name from “Contemporary Christian Music” to “Christ. Community. Music.” and would broaden its focus to include “Christian worldview music,” music made by Christians but necessarily intended for an exclusively evangelical audience. The magazine had previously covered only music with explicit religious content, a perennial annoyance to Christian artists who believed music should incorporate all aspects of life and creation without forced utterances of Jesus’ name or cliched religious imagery.
The magazine’s new incarnation was a step in the right direction, but was too little too late,even “Christian worldview music” is a scope too narrow to make their content roundly relevant to the young evangelical music consumer.
The broader coverage allowed CCM to benefit from the success of artists like Sufjan Stevens, but it also instantly associated him with the “faith brand,” a characterization that Christian musicians like Stevens and The Fray persistently resist. Individually, they contend, they are followers of Christ. Professionally, they are serious musicians who strive to be appreciated because they make great music for all kinds of people. At CCM, even in its newer, more “relevant” incarnation, artists were still generally more appreciated for being popular, successful Christians than they were for being excellent musicians. Thus even the new CCM didn’t necessarily appeal to the best Christian artists, many of whom are trying to avoid exactly the sort of distinction that labels like “Christian worldview music” make, most of all, association with the disposable, imitative art of the evangelical subculture.
There is no doubt that these changes in theology and technology had a negative impact on Christian music publications. If you visit the places where people should be reading CCM, Christian colleges campuses and church youth groups, you’re more likely to find copies of Paste or overhear references to Pitchfork Media, the same places their secular counterparts go for music information. And with the obvious fact that the middle-aged listeners of the few still-popular Christian bands like Casting Crowns aren’t the biggest readers of hip music rags, CCM faced a double-whammy: Christian artists don’t want any part of a separate “Christian music” industry, and young Christian fans aren’t primarily interested in the music that used to be called Christian rock. With both content and readers disappearing simultaneously, it was only a matter of time until the magazine would be forced to either transform completely or fold.
CCM’s Christian music coverage will still be around, but it remains to be seen if the magazine can compete in the competitive, crowded world of internet music journalism. And while some of us can’t help feeling at least a small wave of nostalgia for the publication that accompanied us through adolescence, we should be encouraged by the fact that a positive change, a growing commitment by Christians to break out of their artistic bubble, has brought its relevance to a conclusion.
David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. He covers religion for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and is a graduate student in the Draper Program for Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. He can be reached at hdavidsessions at gmail dot com.
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