Have you ever bumped up against a gatekeeper? You know, the person in charge of a thing who bars entrance to their domain? They’ll let you through only if you dutifully bow to their power, repeat their creed, or maybe pay the right price. It helps if you have a nice face.
Once upon a time in Christian music, there were gatekeepers who stood along the boundary walls, deciding whose music was fit for Christendom. Their job was to keep offbeat outsiders from entering the rarified realms of Contemporary Christian Music, aka CCM.
A short list of the guardians included:
- the record labels who signed–or passed on–new artists.
- the radio stations who played–or wouldn’t play– the songs.
- the retailers who sold–or refused to sell– the cassettes and CD’s in their stores and catalogs.
Unified in their goal of keeping the name of Christian music pure, they often worked against each other, pretending not to be in it for the money or defending the fact they were also in it for the money.
I should qualify that this was my experience as a CCM artist.
In the 1990s, my husband Scott and I, aka Out of the Grey, joined the Contemporary Christian Music scene. Our songs rode the waves of CCM radio and we played for CCM audiences all across the country. Privileged to have been a part of that world, I’ll share some stories from behind the scenes.
Strangers at the Gate
The record label that signed us had initially passed on Out of the Grey (then known only as Christine and Scott Dente). They didn’t dig our first demo tape which was a mix of other people’s songs and styles. We had compromised a bit to try to fit the CCM mold. Chastened by rejection, we returned to the studio of a friend who encouraged us to be authentic and showcase the sounds we wanted to make.
We did just that. The four songs we wrote and recorded were truly us. This time, the record label signed off on our musical style. We gratefully signed the dotted line for their risk-taking investment in our first official Out of the Grey album,first official Out of the Grey album, which would include the songs from our demo. We had taken our first steps through the outer walls into the world of CCM.
But back in 1991, that record would still be a stranger at other gates of the CCM industry, aka the mindustry. The people in charge understandably wanted to keep the status quo. They were wary of new music that diverged from what was current. So, though we had crossed a gauntlet, Scott and I soon came upon more hoops to jump through.
The Power of Labels
Our Christian record label had taken a chance in signing us but they also did their part in guarding the CCM fortress. They were careful to sign acts that fit the definition of Christian artistry:
- sing songs about Jesus.
- behave like Christians.
- clean up nicely with hair and makeup for a photo shoot.
Back then, Scott and I fit those descriptions. One exec even checked in with us: “You know, I only know how to sell music to Christians. You good with that?”
We were good with that. We were Christians making music!
However, we were not interested in making musical mush to be spoon-fed through the conduits of acceptable art. We wanted our artistry to reach a deeper level of beauty and mystery, combined with Christian truth. This proved to be an elusive target.
Religious Litmus Test
For example, for the first Out of the Grey record, we wrote a song called, “Time Will Tell.”
In the lyric, I lamented the tyranny of perfectionism and worry about the future. In the chorus, I sang about giving up the struggle and trusting in the help that comes in time. Through cliche and personification, I hoped to convey a universal human theme. I can’t say what the future holds but, Time, indeed, always tells.
However, before we had recorded the song, our record label insisted we modify my original lyric to fit the Christian bill. “To get Christian radio to play it, it needs to be a Christian song.”
“What?” I was miffed, already suspicious of the word Christian being used as an adjective. Now it was a litmus test for artistic expression within a simple song?
Why did I have to put a God-shaped bow on it? Especially since every other song on our record would pass the religious litmus test. Well, okay, maybe not “The Dance” or ”The Only Moment.” But those had no hope of being radio singles anyway.
Scott and I really wanted the song to stand as a portrait of human struggle without forcing a God-leaning lyric. Instead, we gave in to the pressure and I made a minor change in the second and third line in the chorus.
Time Will Tell
The original lyric was:
And I give up on myself again,
help will come, I can’t say when,
but time will tell
And I hold on for a better day,
how long I’ll wait I cannot say,
but time will tell, I know time will tell
I changed the first half to say:
And I give up on myself again,
By adding “but only when it’s in Your time,” I transformed the song to fit the shape of the record label gate.
Playing with Radio Heads
Yes, we and those guardians of the CCM galaxy had played our part in keeping radio programmers happy.
We prayed that that capital Y was our ticket to the ears of tuned-in Christians. The squeakiest listeners couldn’t complain that our music wasn’t safe for the whole family.
However, just after the release of “Time Will Tell,” Scott and I were spending a day at the label promoting the single to radio programmers. From a padded cubicle, we were phoning radio stations, asking the programmers and DJ’s to add our song to their playlists.
Many were happy to add Out of the Grey to their rotations and thanked us for making the music. But Scott and I remember well the wall we hit during a call to a particular Contemporary Christian radio station in Alabama. We knew beforehand that they had refused to put our song on the air.
“Why?” we asked the head programmer. He said, “not Christian enough.” Nope, not an overt Christian theme, even with the modified “in Your time.” Just an artistic look at a mundane conundrum.
Anyway, that DJ’s refusal bruised our brains. I think Scott asked him, “Did you play Stephen Curtis Chapman’s huge hit ‘I will Be Here?’ That doesn’t say anything about Jesus.”
The guy hung up on us. Probably never rotated any Out of the Grey music after that.
Mom and Pop, God Love ‘Em
Still other would-be power players were the small (and large) Christian bookstores meting out their limited shelf space. With careful, sometimes persnickety, criteria, Mom and Pop (God love ’em) balked at the slightest whiff of worldliness or weirdness. They didn’t want their customers getting skittish. It was their business after all to decide which cassettes would sell as well as their Christian knick-knacks.
I remember the story of a best-selling artist (God love her) who revealed her face without make-up on the cover of her latest CD. Rumor had it, the photo made Christian retailers uncomfortable. They refused to display it in their stores. Too raw? Too real? Who knows? The CDs were recalled, their covers made-over to fit the look of a true Christian singer.
Who can blame the owners of those businesses? They had a living to make. Plus, the holiness of God was tied up in all they sold. As uncomfortable as many of us were, mixing business with ministry, we did have families to feed and a faith to uphold.
Now for Some Real Christian Music
One more story about gatekeepers. Out of the Grey bumped into a few shining Christian stars whose parameters for real Christian music were also quite narrow.
Once, after we performed a 4-song set at a CCM festival, the artist next in line took the stage and shouted into his microphone: “Hey y’all, I hope you don’t mind if I sing some songs about Jesus?”
I am complaining a little but mostly I am grateful. Out of the Grey got to make lots of music and work with top notch industry people along the way. And make a living! It’s just fun to look back and realize how silly were some of the games we played.
I’m not sure how it works nowadays. Back then, when Christians scanned the airways for orthodox art, they often got regurgitations of what worked before. Too much of it was predictable and boring.
I get it: powerful music can get past the brain’s gatekeepers and travel straight to the heart. When we’re driving in the car with our kids, we don’t want provocative ideas slipping in without warning. Yet, adults and kids alike tend to tune out an old cliche unless it’s expressed in a fresh way.
Time and Time Again
There’s always a rub when someone new comes to town. The elders have their doubts while the youngsters gather around the spectacle. Artists innovate to find their voice and gain an audience. Art asks the big questions, leaving room for listener interpretation and new ideas.
Who can say if we needed all of those gates. Christendom itself is a big word for a wide space.
Yes, Religion has its creeds and boundaries to keep the bad guys in disguise from breaching our truth structures. But squeaky clean can make for sterile living and weak immune systems. And change is always at the gates.
Can we find the balance, trusting God to guard our open minds and hearts?
I can’t say if, in time, the story of art finds the perfect fairy tale ending.
This time, I’ll let Time speak for itself.