Bringing a cultural production perspective to the industry of Christian worship music

The Christian worship charts are dominated by relatively few artists. Why might this be the case?

“If a song is going up the charts, there’s pressure on the worship leader to play that song,” said John J. Thompson, who worked with Christian artists as creative director for Capitol CMG Publishing and now runs the website truetunes.com.

Because songs must be catchy, they focus on simplified melodic structures, fewer words, and limited emotional range, with the goal that the congregation can catch on to new songs by the second verse, said Thompson, now the associate dean of the Trevecca School of Music and Worship Arts and the author of Jesus, Bread, and Chocolate; Crafting a Hand Made Faith in a Mass Market World

Most of the songs on the list were written by Caucasians. Thematically, the songs tend to stay in the realm of praise and adoration without venturing too far into more complex themes like confession, doubt, and suffering.

Sandra Van Opstal, pastor, liturgist, and author of The Next Worship: Glorifying God in a Diverse World previously told CT, “…The worship industrial complex has become so influential that millions of people around the world are being discipled via iTunes. The narrative of God and faith is in the hands of a few worship movements who aren’t talking about how their social location, cultural values, and racial privilege shape their faith.”

In many culture industries, it can be difficult to predict what will become hits. There are hundreds, likely thousands, of worship tracks produced each year. There are ways that all industries try to hedge their bets. One route is to promote and support stars. In the list provided of popular songs, this means Chris Tomlin or Hillsong are better bets for hits compared to lesser-known artists. Another route is to try to cross-promote across platforms. Radio, even as a dying medium, can help drive traffic to streaming music and use of music in churches. Performing the songs in church can help drive congregants to the music and radio.

But, there are more factors at play. How does an artist become popular in the first place? At one point, Chris Tomlin was an unknown and the Hillsong movement had a limited reach. Stars can put out average or bad music. New artists can arise. The cross-promotion can fail to produce. Tastes and trends in music can change. Technology can change in both how music is made and delivered, boosting some and hurting others. How congregations view and utilize worship music could change. And so on.

More broadly, how culture and cultural objects come about is a complex process involving multiple social forces and institutions. In other words, this is not necessarily the way the Christian worship industry works at the moment or into the future. It is hard to know what kind of worship music will dominate ten or fifty years from now. Certain artists may be the music du jour today and be gone tomorrow.

Sociologists hosts campus radio show to help students review

I like sociology and I like radio but I never have thought of hosting a radio show that offers opportunities for students to review class material:

Social Sounds airs every Thursday from 7-8 p.m. on the campus radio station, KXUA 88.3 FM. Students are invited to send text messages with questions regarding class material to a Google Voice number and he calls out to students. This allows Adams to have a record of messages and to keep track of participation rates. He has also tracked student listeners through mentioning a secret word on air. During an exam, he had students write the secret word on the back of their scantron and found that 30 percent, or about 110 students, were listening to his show.

“I started the show at the end of the fall 2014 semester when students wanted a review session for the final exam,” Adams said. “Now that it’s on weekly, we cover one chapter per week and stay ahead of what other professors are teaching in their sociology classes. This way students in other general sociology classes can also follow along with the show.”

All of the content is student generated and gives students in Adams’ class the opportunity to earn extra credit for the course. Adams plans to continue Social Sounds as long as it’s successful. While he has encouraged other professors to be involved with the show, none have so far.

Students like having innovative ways to learn and review the material though it is a bit humorous that this innovative way involves a medium with nearly a century of mass use. (Listening for a secret word? Can’t that word be shared on social media with those who don’t listen?) I would want to know how much this improves learning – outside of the extra credit, does the radio review work as well as other review methods?

Radio will be saved – by the lack of NSA monitoring, zombie apocalypse

Slate has an interesting set of articles about podcasts but one article notes the persistence of terrestrial radio. Among the reasons given for its ongoing influence includes operating outside of NSA control and zombie apocalypses:

  • Most of us don’t feel the cost of the data we’re using when we stream online content. But this could be changing. “Half the public still has no idea what data metering is,” says Smulyan, “but we find it changes consumption completely when people see what they’re paying for the data they use.”
  • Due to some complex legislation, it can be less onerous to pay artist royalties when you play music over the airwaves than when you send it over the Internet. For this reason, last year Pandora bought an FM station in South Dakota, in an effort to qualify as a terrestrial broadcaster.
  • When the revolution comes, radio will be vital for the propagation of seditious content. It leaves no digital footprints. And the NSA is unlikely to hack into your transistor boom box and track what you listen to.
  • When the zombie apocalypse arrives, radio will save your hide. Anyone with a generator and an antenna can broadcast radio, and everyone listening hears the same key information in real time.

The first two reasons have to do with finances: radio can be relatively cheap for operators and listeners. These are important considerations today: can media conglomerates and music artists still make money?

The last two have some different rationales. Radio can’t be controlled as easily, even with the complex rules regarding licenses and broadcasting though perhaps listeners have even more freedom as they can tune in to what they want (as long as they aren’t recording what they listened to for ratings purposes). In times of disasters – and there is a lower likelihood of facing zombies compared to being in a natural disaster – radio provides an easy way to broadcast and hear information. Does the Internet work well in those situations? The argument here is that the infrastructure for the Internet is more complicated than that for radio, thus, radio will win in times of trouble.

I suspect the second pair of reasons will prove less influential in the long run than the first pair regarding money. But, if money wins out and broadcasting moves to the Internet, might that completely wipe out the presence of radio for the last two purposes?

 

The difficulties in creating viral audio clips

Why listen to audio on the Internet when you can read an article or watch a video? This is the problem in creating a viral audio clip:

In a provocative piece for Digg on viral sound, reporter  Stan Alcorn asked Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian: “Why does the Internet so rarely mobilize around audio? What would it take to put audio on the Reddit front page?”

Since audio is, of course, our business, we asked Stan Alcorn to make us an audio version (listen above). We want our work to be sharable – and so we’ve decided to be proactive…

As Stan reports, there are certainly exceptions to the rule. For instance, the audio I share usually falls into a few different categories: Isolated David Bowie vocals, super-awkward studio outtakes with Art Garfunkel, and angry phone messages to reporters about drones. (As a journalist, I think the last one is my favorite. “DON’T YOU SUPERVISE THE SUB EDITORS WHO WRITE THESE HEADLINES!?”)

There’s also plenty of stuff that Marketplace has done that I would hope could go viral.

The key here is that audio just seems to take more time to get to the point. With an article or video, you can leave it quickly and plenty of watchers do: they check out the first few seconds, see if it catches their attention, and then either engage further or move on. Audio is more of a mystery. What might happen next? This is something that people who love radio talk about all the time, all of the “theater of the mind” stuff. I’m trying to imagine what might have happened if the Internet had been invented during the golden age of radio, roughly the 1930s and 1940s, and if the Internet could have been an audio medium rather than a primarily visual medium.

It will be interesting to see if any of the Marketplace audio clips submitted at the end of this story could go viral…