This Article Originally Published August 2000

by Michael Anderson

Rex Benson wrote an article in this newsletter recently that covered country classifications as well as I've ever read about them. I learned a lot from it. If you haven't read it and you want to pitch to country I recommend you go back and read it. It is country primer 101.

I screen mainly country, singer/songwriter, and Christian listings. Of the three, Christian listings seem to be the most problematic. Quality seems all over the map and the terminology for the listings often is misunderstood.

Christian music, overall, is doing good business—as a style it's sales were up 12% last year according to the Gospel Music Association, while other styles of music (notably country) were down. Part of its new appeal is the fact that it has changed quite a bit over the last few years.

It used to be that many artists in this category were "Christian versions" of big selling secular acts. The reason for this is that the people who bought this music were generally the parents of kids who liked secular artists and the parents were trying to find a "safer/cleaner" alternative pop music.

Some artists, (like Steven Curtis Chapman) had no obvious pop equivalent. Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, and possibly Jars of Clay, became their own pop equivalent. Very broadly, if you could make the connection between the Christian artist and the secular artist they more or less emulated, you'd have a clue as to the style of song they would be looking for. (Pat Boone = Elvis lite, Stryper = Poison w/out the poison, DC Talk = rap for suburban kids, Jars of Clay = U2 circa "Achtung Baby" lite, etc.)

The newer trend seems to be the Steve Taylor / Charlie Peacock inspired Squint Records / re: Think / Sixpence None The Richer or Forefront Records kind of modern to alternative (although they don't like the word) music that is every bit as cutting edge stylistically as general market music.

As an example, interviewed for background fact checking for this article was Michael Puryear of Forefront / BMG in Nashville. One of his writers, Ginny Owens, was named "New Artist of the Year" at the Dove Awards in April. He describes her as a cross between Lisa Loeb, Alanis Morrisette, and Sarah McLachlan meets Ginny Owen. That ain't Amy.

Speaking of which, the Amy Grant / Steven Curtis Chapman / Michael W. Smith Adult Contemporary style in CCM is perennial, but not as pervasive as it once was. Maybe because they have "crossed over."

If you pitch to Christian listings, here are a few very broad guidelines, the more common categories and rough definitions:

Inspirational: Most associated with uplifting, older style church music with choral crossover potential. Artists like Steve Green, Sandi Patty, Larnelle Harris, and Twila Paris. Not usually a lot of demand for this style. (At least that I've found through TAXI). Unless a listing specifically asks for it (usually inspirational or "inspo" in Nashville Christian publisher speak), there isn't much demand for classic, church, old style Christian music. Again, there are listings that ask for it specifically, but usually a Christian listing is asking for CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) in one of the other forms.

Praise and Worship: Church style contemporary songs; vertical, all tempos, but focused on praising and spirit lifting, in a modern sense usually with guitars and even "rock" style instrumentation and adaptable to lengthy worship time—Sunday morning style. Can be solo performer or band. Often used for sing-a-long youth group type functions that are church oriented. This is a "church level" type of music that varies to a degree regionally and denominationally. Most like sing-a-long folk with uplifting and repeating lyric with easy to remember chorus with a message. Not often "radio" type songs, but a category that seems to be growing.

Southern Gospel: This is a very stylized quartet-based type of music that is still very popular in the—south-retro / traditional would be the Jordanaires, Fairfield Four, Bill Gaither, Imperials. Tent revival, old time gospel music. TAXI gets listings for this, and the modern / updated version, which is more like the Bishops, the Cumberland Boys, the Martins—kinda MOR southern. Some of the more modern is using the older form with acoustic guitars and even loops. George Beverly Shea with a sampler? You never know.

CCM (Contemporary Christian Music): This is the broadest category, the hardest to define, and also the most popular in terms of number of listings. Styles and tempos vary widely, but in general follow the trends of general market. This is pop music with a message.

There is also, of course, black Gospel, (very traditional to Kirk Franklin) and its variations, but that is not my area. There is some crossover in terms of influences between black and white Christian music, (especially in the south), but usually limited to the classic sense of white musicians "borrowing" liberally.

Another side note that doesn't seem to make much sense on the surface is that very few people ever cut a wedding song as a single. (These usually get pitched on Christian listings, that's why I mention it). If a listing is after radio play a wedding song is not a good bet. Most wedding songs are album cuts that become standards (In spite of the Carpenters and "When I Said I Do"—there is always the exception to the rule)—but for the most part it is a specialty category.

Also, from personal experience, I know that "angel" songs are problematic in CCM music. There is a large faction of Christians who believe "angel" songs are not Christian. A song with or about angels is very hard to pitch in Nashville.

On the other hand, there does seem to always be a demand for great Christmas songs, (as nonreligious as possible for general market pitching as well as Christian oriented for CCM). Watch for specific listings.

Anyway, to wrap it up—help yourself, and help us, by reading the listings carefully, and really paying attention to the styles and requirements. At the very least it gives everyone one less thing to criticize, and you just might have the one they are looking for.

And one final tip: A major Christian label head once told me that the single most important element to being successful in the music business was sincerity. He said as soon as you can learn to fake that, you'll have it made. He was kidding, of course. Sort of.