The influence of Christianity in the United States, based on recent surveys, appears to be on the decline. That fallout has also spread to the contemporary Christian music industry.
According to Tyler Huckabee of The Week, contemporary Christian music, or CCM for short, sold approximately 50 million albums annually in its heyday. However, that number has dropped to 17 million in 2014 in the United States.
"The descent of CCM is a reflection of America's waning interest in Christianity as a whole," Huckabee wrote. "The precipitous dropoff in CCM sales has left Christian labels and artists staring into the void alongside their pastors, scratching their heads, wondering where they went wrong."
Huckabee acknowledged that although the birth of CCM can be traced back to the Jesus Movement of the 1960s and "God-fearing hippies like Larry Norman," it started to take off thanks to pioneers such as Andrae Crouch and Amy Grant.
"Grant was especially revelatory, a comely teen whose lyrical vagaries left it a very open question as to whether she was singing about God or boys," Huckabee wrote. "It was a potent strategy, and it led to several Billboard-topping singles and the first Christian album to ever go platinum."
Huckabee noted that thanks to Grant's influence, her keyboardist, Michael W. Smith, would also rise to fame within the CCM industry. The success of CCM singers becoming superstars in the secular world became big business.
"This laid the foundation for the next wave of faithful crooners, including Phil Keaggy, the Newsboys, Steven Curtis Chapman, and Jaci Valesquez," Huckabee wrote. "Jars of Clay's inescapable 1995 hit 'Flood' made huge waves on college radio. Petra packed out global arenas and sold nearly 10 million albums."
Kevin Max, a member of dcTalk, explained how CCM found mainstream appeal from both Christian and secular listeners of music.
"Back in the '90s, you could believe that Jesus Christ was God and create art that was still interesting, and the general market would respond," Max said.
According to Huckabee, dcTalk formed in 1989 as a hip-hop trio, which later evolved into a grunge act on the coattails of Nirvana's success with "Nevermind." This made dcTalk "a Christian band that also appealed to the culture at large."
"The group had an ear for alt-rock aggression that never quite lost its pop sensibilities, and channeled it all into a genuinely thrilling live show," Huckabee wrote of dcTalk. "If you ignore the ecclesiastically minded lyrics (a sampling of song titles: 'Jesus Freak,' 'Into Jesus,' 'So Help Me God'), you might guess you were listening to some pretty good Stone Temple Pilots B-sides."
Max admitted to Huckabee that dcTalk didn't know the rules behind making CCM, which enabled them to break them all. One of the group's songs, "What if I Stumble?" helped push their music to the edge "in a religion known for giving answers."
"We were reaching out," Max said. "We were trying to communicate to the non-believer as much as we were communicating to the believer."
However, Max lamented that today's Christian music, along with the churches and festivals, lacked "interactivity" with those outside the faith.
"Where I'm at right now, it's almost like the doors have shut on the experimenting with lyrics and images and ideas to get people interactive," Max said.
Veteran CCM producer Matt Bronleewe, who was behind iconic CCM band Jars of Clay, also echoed that sentiment.
"There was a time where you might hear a song about God, but there was an understanding that it might also bring something else to the table," Bronleewe said.
Brownleewe added that like everyone else in the music industry, CCM also dealt with disruptions of the digital market. He lamented that there was "not much room to fail anymore" as a result of that change.
"Failure's such a creative gift," Brownleewe explained. "When the ability to fail is taken away, it fuels a lot of fear. It narrows the pool of producers and writers to such a degree that there's a sameness that starts to occur."
To adapt to the changing music market, Huckabee reported that the CCM industry turned to "sure bets" known as "worship music," or what people sing at church. He noted that worship music, particularly from musicians such as Chris Tomlin, Sonic Flood and Hillsong United, has now become the industry's primary export.
"Whatever CCM might have gained in throwing its fortunes in with worship music, it largely lost in its ability to sneak into the Top 40 or the occasional Now That's What I Call Music! Compilation," Huckabee wrote. "One big exception is chart-topping emcee Lecrae, and CCM is clinging to him like a life raft."
According to Huckabee, this development within the CCM industry has left many artists within the genre with two options: play it safe or go out on their own. Christian musician John Mark McMillian decided to go for the latter option, even though he acknowledged that decision wouldn't make him wildly successful.
"In CCM, if you want to sing about certain, more uncomfortable things, you won't have an opportunity," McMillian said. "But on the same end, if I want to sing about Jesus on Top 40, that's not going to happen either. The gatekeepers in that world are just as weird."
Huckabee contended that CCM has been "unable to recapture the ideas that made it such a prominent force in decades past" because its focus turned into "making church music for churches." Derek Webb of Caedmon's Call, once the darling of the CCM industry, attempted to explain the quandary facing CCM.
"The way I could describe it for our band is this: You're doing something," Webb said. "It's meaningful and it's real and it's observable and it's organic. That becomes your bio. But then two years in, that bio is the most real, organic, meaningful thing about you. And all you're trying to do is maintain the elements of that bio, in hope that you might one day achieve it again. You find yourself making a lot of compromises."
Webb then asked a question that the CCM industry is doing its best to answer.
"You just keep asking yourself the same question: 'How do we get back to that?'" Webb asked.