Tapping a hunger for positive messages in difficult times, Christian artists are appealing to a growing number of people outside of their traditional audience.
The trend is reflected in an important barometer, mainstream radio, which closely follows the tastes of its listeners.
“The events of the last couple of years have made people more open to spiritual things and trying to find answers,” says Stacie Orrico, a Christian artist who has made inroads on the pop charts.
“After, people were just flocking to churches, which was amazing to watch,” she says.
Orrico, MercyMe, Natalie Grant, Relient K and even the long-established Steven Curtis Chapman are leading the Christian charge onto adult contemporary, modern rock and top 40 airwaves.
Such inroads give the Christian music community reason to rejoice, yet pop acceptance remains an uphill climb for religious acts.
“I’m always excited that there’s an opportunity to get my music out beyond the normal fences that get put around Christian and gospel music,” Chapman says.
Amy Grant was the first to breach the barriers to crossover success in the 1980s, followed by the likes of Michael W. Smith, Kathy Troccoli, Jars of Clay and Sixpence None the Richer. Today, 17-year-old Orrico often appears on MTV’s “Total Request Live” and MercyMe lights up phone lines at adult contemporary stations.
MercyMe’s INO Records release “I Can Only Imagine” currently is spending its second week atop the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Sales chart. It debuted at No. 76 on the Billboard Hot 100 three weeks ago, and it is bulleted at No. 10 in its 23rd week on the Adult Contemporary chart.
Orrico’s single, “Stuck,” exploded at mainstream radio this year, reaching No. 52 on the Hot 100 and No. 10 on the Mainstream Top 40 chart. She is signed to ForeFront Records, a division of EMI Christian Music Group, while Virgin handles pop promotion and distribution.
Her latest hit, “(There’s Gotta Be) More to Life,” is bulleted at No. 54 in its sixth week on the Hot 100 and at No. 12 on Mainstream Top 40. It’s also been in the top three on the Dance Singles Sales chart for six weeks.
The MercyMe track was already a major hit in the Christian market, netting the prize for song of the year at the 2002 Gospel Music Assn. Dove Awards. Lead vocalist Bart Millard also won the songwriter of the year award.
Still, some observers are surprised by mainstream acceptance of the song, which has overt Christian content and reverently mentions Jesus in the lyrics.
“It’s almost like Jesus is a swear word to general-market radio. It’s cool that people aren’t freaking out about it,” says Matt Thiessen, lead singer for Gotee Records’ Relient K, which is getting airplay on modern rock stations with the single “ChapStick, Chapped Lips and Things Like Chemistry.”
Millard says his song, which he wrote about his father’s death, taps a universal experience.
“Everybody has lost somebody,” he says. “Everybody hopes for the best and wonders what’s next, and we’ve got to believe somebody is in control of all this mess. For me, I just so happen to believe that somebody is Christ.”
Last year, EMI CMG began actively targeting mainstream radio by hiring former Arista associate director of national promotions Cheryl Broz to work its acts.
Broz, now director of national promotion and artist development, is currently working the Chapman, Relient K and Orrico singles.
Similarly, Curb Records’ pop promotion division is working MercyMe’s “I Can Only Imagine” to mainstream radio, although the act remains on the INO label.
In previous years, even great music has faced a tough battle at mainstream radio if it came from a Christian act. Just ask Rendy Lovelady, former manager of Jars of Clay.
“Once they found out Jars of Clay was a Christian band, stations would comment that if they’d known that, they would never have played it,” Lovelady says.
“That was seven years ago; they were reluctant because of the hip factor, but music has changed since then. I find that between U2, Creed and P.O.D., rock radio is so much more open,” he says.
Even so, Serletic admits that when it came to revealing that Orrico got her start in the Christian business, “We certainly didn’t shout it from the rooftops.”
Mainstream radio has accepted more Christian acts for a variety of reasons, according to those in the industry.
“I don’t want to be critical of Christian music,” Grant says, “but in the last few years we’ve seen a real turnaround in the production quality of Christian records.
“Several years ago,” she adds, “Christian companies weren’t spending that much on a record. It just couldn’t stand up next to a pop record. The quality is better now.”
Grant also thinks Christian music is becoming more accepted because people are attracted to the message. “People are looking for positive messages in very, very scary times,” says Grant, who records for Curb Records’ Christian division.
Serletic also thinks the current world climate is playing a part in radio’s acceptance of Christian artists.
“We’ve all been through a lot, from 9-11 on through the recent Iraqi war. searching for a bit more meaning and that could take many, but one of it is certainly in faith-oriented music,” he says.
Still, for some at mainstream radio, it simply comes down to the music.
“If it’s a good song, it’s a good song,” says Russ Schenck, PD at modern rock WBUZ Nashville, which is playing the Relient K single.
Tracy Austin, PD at top 40 KRBE Houston, says, “You can have a Christian artist and still have a great pop song. Songs mean different things to different people. It may be a song about God, but somebody might relate to it as a love song.”