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Posted: 9/5/03

Christian contemporary music: business or ministry?

By John Hall

Texas Baptist Communications

Christian music is big business. The sales numbers show that. But Christian music insiders argue it's a ministry as well.

Although sales figures fell about 10 percent in the first six months of this year, the industry still moved 21 million units, according to the Gospel Music Association. In 2002, retailers sold about 49.66 million albums.

Members of the group Third Day join future homeowner Yvonda Nixon for a groundbreaking ceremony in the Rainwood Community of Nashville. The band's “Come Together Tour” featured a partnership with Habitat for Humanity International.

Artists like Jars of Clay, Michael W. Smith, dc talk and Steven Curtis Chapman each have sold between 5 million and 8 million albums during their respective careers. Kirk Franklin and Sandi Patty each sold 11 million. Amy Grant tops the list of Christian artists at 24 million units sold.

Today, contemporary Christian music is sold nationwide by mainstream retailers as well as in Christian book stores.

Both the companies that produce the music and the artists themselves get more than heavenly rewards for their efforts. The GMA estimates Christian music generates about $900 million in sales annually.

Christian artists typically get between 8 percent and 20 percent of the sales of albums, according to Dan Keen, assistant vice president of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

Michael W. Smith's “Worship” album, for example, has sold more than 1.2 million units. The suggested retail price is $17.98, although many retailers sell albums for less. Calculated conservatively, assuming an average sales price of $12 and a low-end royalty of 8 percent, that brings the artist's earnings to more than $1 million.

On top of that, artists earn about 4 cents per song that they write on each album sold, Keen said. If they co-write the song, they divide the royalties with the co-authors. However, if the label writes a control clause into the artist's contract, the royalty would be cut to about 3 cents per song.

Additionally, about 12.5 percent of sales of Christian music song books are divided among the writers of the material, Keen reported. That percentage could be as high as 20 percent.

Each of the royalty figures can be negotiated on an individual basis, Keen said.

But touring is where most artists get a significant amount of their income, Keen noted. They earn money from ticket sales, merchandise and the music bought at the shows.

A tour with Michael W. Smith and Third Day ranked as one of the top 100 tours of all musicians in 2002, according to Pollstar magazine. Celebrate Freedom, a Dallas-area Christian concert that featured 17 acts in 14 hours, drew more than 200,000 people.

Christian artist Steven Curtis Chapman's “Declaration” album includes a song he wrote about adoption called “When Love Takes You In.” Chapman and his wife, Mary Beth, have become advocates for international adoption. They adopted a girl from China.

“Most artists, if they're realistic, look at the record as a promotional piece to get better live gigs,” Keen said.

With the growing success of the industry has come questions about the nature of the business. Artists consistently maintain they are trying to make a difference in lives with their message, but economics constantly remind fans the genre is a business.

John Styll, president of the Gospel Music Association, argued it is both ministry and a business.

Kirk Franklin

The labels operate to make money by getting the music out to radio stations and retailers, he said. “I can't excuse the fact that these labels are businesses. But ministry can happen as a result.”

Christian music labels and businesses are like any other business run by Christians, Styll noted. “Lots of Christians make lots of money,” he pointed out. There is “nothing inherently wrong” with making money.

Sales figures are so high and in some cases profits so large because today's Christian music is “some of the best that's ever been made,” he added. Contemporary worship music is connecting with people, Styll said, and they want more.

Jenny Simmons of Addison Road, a Dallas-based band working to get signed to a label, compared Christian artists to church staff members: If ministers get paid, shouldn't Christian artists?

“Musicians, even Christian musicians who feel called to ministry, are entitled to make money, to develop a career and to support themselves off their ministry,” she said. “If that means their CD goes big time like Jars of Clay and they make millions of dollars, good for them.

“There are lots of pastors of huge megachurches who are coming home with six-digit paychecks each year, not to mention all the benefits and gifts they receive from members in their congregations. What makes someone in the music industry any different?”

Many times, God rewards generous givers, Styll said. For example, many of the top acts in Christian music fund ministries that help people.

Michael W. Smith is involved in Compassion International, the Billy Graham crusades and Samaritan's Purse. Steven Curtis Chapman is connected with ministering to orphans.

“What is unbiblical is to hoard your money, … to not give freely and abundantly to those in need, to lust after it,” Simmons said. “Whether you're making millions as a Christian in music or as a Christian who is a lawyer, banker … or stockbroker, it is our obligation to give freely back to God's church on Earth and to give to those in need.”

Top 15 albums sold Jan. 1 to June 29, 2003:

1. “Wonder What's Next,” Chevelle

2. “Worship Together: I Could Sing,” Various artists

3. “Offerings II: All I Have To Give,” Third Day

4. “WoW Gospel 2003,” Various artists

5. “All About Love,” Steven Curtis Chapman

6. “WoW Worship (Yellow),” Various artists

7. “Rise and Shine,” Randy Travis

8. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Various artists

9. “Worship Again,” Michael W. Smith

10. “Donnie McClurkin … Again,” Donnie McClurkin

11. “I Worship: A Total Worship Experience,” Various artists

12. “WoW Hits 2003,” Various artists

13. “Stacie Orrico,” Stacie Orrico

14. “Almost There,” Mercy Me

15. “Adoration: The Worship Album,” Newsboys

Source: Gospel Music Association

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