|Related article: A Classic Christian Music—A list of radio stations, websites, books, and documentaries|
I was there seeing two little known aging rock artists. I say little known because the crowd was mostly in their 40's or above, with a few sprinklings of people in their 20's and 30's, as well as a few kids. I also say little known because only around 200-300 people were there, and though the venue was mostly full the two artists who performed have both had sustainable music careers for over 40 years. So...you'd think more than 200-300 people would be there...
And I should also say both of these artists are rock legends who continue to put out music showing they are still at the top of their craft. Well, what was the problem? Why weren't there more people there? The answer is easy: they both are "Christian" artists who put out "Christian" music within the realm of the Christian music industry. The concert I went to featured a doubling billing of Glenn Kaiser playing solo blues and Phil Keaggy playing a rare show with a full band. Most anyone who knows anything about these artists would easily call them "rock legends", most especially Keaggy but I think Kaiser deserves to be up there too. It was the best concert experience I have had in years and it made me a little bit sad.
"Christian"music, you see, has a legacy problem and it manifests itself in two main ways:
1.) there is basically no infrastructure for artists to go on tour.
2.) there is basically no infrastructure for artists' music to stay in print or reach a new audience.
Let's break it down a little further. I am deeply concerned about the future legacy of what was once known as "Christian Music" or CCM because: The Christian music industry does not know how to take care of their artists in the latter half of their careers, nor do they have a system in place to ensure their music lives on into future generations. The other side of this coin is there really is not much of a demand for our legacy artists. There were not as many fans to begin with (due to the "ghetto" nature of CCM), and fans of CCM artists do not tend to remain as ardently faithful as fans of "secular" music. Basically, it is up to diehard fans to keep their memory alive in the public consciousness. So, while Kaiser and Keaggy's "Christian" label and the Christian oriented music they make is not a problem for me, in many ways I do not think it has done their careers any favors towards getting them mass appeal.
Please do not hear me wrong: I know they are both artists living for the glory of God and are not seeking the praises of men or to bring glory to themselves. I am not concerned that their music makes them insanely rich either. Instead, my only goal is to get their music heard by as many people as possible and to get them remembered. Why? Because it is world class music. Because it is just that good and could bring joy to people for years to come. Like I said, both these artists are at the top of their field. They make music within the confines and structures of certain genres (rock/blues/gospel/folk and sometimes jazz), but they are both as skilled as anybody out there. Think of the most renowned rock and blues guitarists of the last 50 years. If you know anything about Keaggy and Kaiser's music, tell me why they should not be included among the great artists of our era. And if you do not know their music but you know something about the above genres, go acquaint yourself with their music and come up with an opinion on where they stand in the echelon of world class musicians.
Before I go any further I want to personally thank Faith United Methodist Church of Champaign. I do not know how you arranged it, but thank you, thank you, thank you for putting this event together. It was special. It was transcendent. It was a wonder and a joy.
However, allow me to tackle the first problem mentioned above, that of the touring an concert infrastructure for CCM, by making a comparison: next week my in-laws are going to see the Moody Blues in concert in Rockford at the beautiful Coronado Performing Arts Center, which seats 2,400 people. With all due respect to the Moody Blues, Phil Keaggy and Glenn Kaiser have continually put out more and better music than them. Of course our experience of art is subjective, so let me simply say Keaggy and Kaiser equally deserve to be packing out the Coronado and other similar venues around the country just like the Moody Blues.
Nonetheless, because it makes economical sense, Keaggy and Kaiser mostly travel around as solo acts these days, playing in front of moderate crowds of 50 to a couple of hundred people. There is an assumption that fans are nostalgic and love to re-live the glories of their music pasts, but there really is not all that much of a demand for the legends of "Christian Music." The demand is moderately ho-hum at best.
I am so grateful churches can offer something of an infrastructure as built-in concert halls and that most churches contain middle aged pastors who always find ways to bring in the favorite artists of their youth. I do not know what kind of extra fee they had to pay or how much convincing they had to do, but it was wonderful they got Keaggy to put together a full band for the concert (featuring Mike Pachelli). Every member was top notch and they did something rare by playing nearly all of Keaggy's latest album All at Once during the concert. Kaiser offers a similarly unique concert experience, drawing on classic blues played on eclectic homemade guitars, like the one in the picture to the right. Both artists are whizzes at their instruments, both have a deep knowledge of music history, and both are still able to hit the high notes. In other words, a mid-size midwestern church curated a unique musical event that only a few hundred people showed up to. As ecstatic as I am about the whole thing, it bums me out thinking about how rare the event was. Again, Keaggy and Kaiser do not need the glory, but I certainly want as many people to hear and revere their music as possible.
In between one of his songs Keaggy mentioned his current band came together two weeks ago, played a show in New Jersey, played one song at GMA week in Nashville, and then one final show, our concert in Champaign. That's it. That's the tour. That's a cryin' shame, as they say. As someone who cares deeply about the arts and the legacy of artists, I wonder what the story is behind Keaggy's words, especially what he spoke later in the concert when he mentioned Randy Stonehill, how he is still out there touring hard, but also how he lamented that unfortunately older artists like him are still having to get out on the road and tour. Was it the tours themselves that he bemoaned or the kinds of tours he finds himself on? Does he find the lack of support and the lack of economic viability on the road disheartening? In some ways it is probably the only way he still makes a decent income.
Speaking of income, let's now go to the second problem for the legacy of CCM artists, that of its music going out of print and thus failing to finding its way into the ears of new listeners. Again, I will use a parallel example from the "secular" music world: This year (2016) in honor of the 50th anniversary of the release of The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds album, Capitol Records has released a remastered version (both mono and stereo) on vinyl. And it is not this album alone. Capitol is in the process of remastering and re-releasing all of The Beach Boys' albums on vinyl. I know, I know, this is THE BEACH BOYS. I get it. But in checking the latest issue of my Music Direct catalogue I find vinyl aficionado versions (on 180 gram vinyl and sometimes higher) of Duane Allman, Big Audio Dynamite, Joe Jackson, and Sting albums. (Sting!). Those are mostly artists I know nothing about (apart from Mr. Sumner). For those of us steeped in CCM history it breaks our hearts to know there have been no vinyl re-issues of Larry Norman, Keith Green, Phil Keaggy, Randy Stonehill, 2nd Chapter of Acts, Resurrection Band, Petra, Amy Grant, Charlie Peacock, or any of a slew of great CCM artists. Queen, Rush, Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young, and many other well-deserving artists have gotten the royal re-issue treatment. Myself and people like me have the audacity to think the CCM artists I mentioned above (and many others) are equally deserving. I do not mean to overlook how a number of artists are finding ways to re-issue their work on vinyl and other formats, but these are usually highly specialized events (like The Prayer Chains' Kickstarter) with limited pressing numbers, and are geared to the highly committed and highly aware fan.
A couple of years ago, I posted the article "When Will the Christian Music Industry Get Its Act Together?" to PostConsumer Reports, wherein I suggested that whatever is left of the CCM record labels, they should figure out a way to re-expose and re-saturate the "classic" CCM artists and albums by creating high quality Youtube channels featuring classic artist videos, promoting the digital sales and streaming of classic artists, and then re-issuing or doing a first issue of albums on vinyl. This was around the time SMXL Vinyl announced they were going to put DC Talk's Jesus Freak and Supernatural on vinyl for the first time (You can listen to my interview with the general manager of SMXL here). I am not exactly sure how successful that was, but after I posted my article I got some immediate pushback: Hey man, I appreciate you caring, but the fact of the matter is there's just not that big of a market for Christian music to be put out on vinyl. Most of the time any record company who re-releases an old album will probably end up losing money. The risk isn't worth it.
In other words, my dreams were bigger than reality.
Here is something interesting I discovered at the Keaggy and Kaiser concert: their merch table included a decent amount of older Keaggy albums on CD and Kaiser was selling a nicely done greatest hits package of the Resurrection Band. None of these albums were put out by the original record label. Keaggy's Strobie Records and Kaiser's GRRR Records were the labels. This means that somewhere along the line both these artists had to buy their back catalogue from either a record company that was going out of business or a record company that no longer had any interest in promoting or even holding onto their music. These artists had to take control of their legacy and attempt to figure out a way to get their music into the hands of fans again. But what about when these artists pass on? Who will curate their works then? If you think about it hard enough, I think you'll find the answer is...no one.
In the early 2000's I heard Charlie Peacock give an address about the state of CCM, wherein he declared Christian music had a looming crisis on its hands, because there were multitudes of records and artists that would soon fall out of print and that we would lose a whole generation of work. At the time I had no idea what he meant. It didn't seem possible and I didn't fully understand how the industry worked. I now know he was seeing the writing on the wall.
I have no rose-colored glasses when it comes to the preservation of art. I tend to think most everything will be forgotten, along with entirety of our own lives. We will all soon be a distant memory in the minds of our offspring, no matter how many pictures or videos we take of ourselves. It may not seem like it, but 70 years is not all that long in the scope of creation and eternity.
I have a beautiful collection of British Literature anthologies sitting on my shelf, within which every single author has been carefully selected as someone who's work is worth remembering. And yet, a vast majority of those artists will never be read by more than a few people. We don't read Christopher Marlowe because we have Shakespeare. We don't read George W.M. Reynolds because we have Charles Dickens. Or to give an American Lit. example, everybody knows about Moby Dick but hardly anyone has actually read it. So, I know full well artists like Keaggy and Kaiser stand hardly any chance of being remembered at all, let alone as great artists, when it is much easier to remember Hendrix, Page, Clapton, or Stevie Ray Vaughn (As an aside, here's something that will make Keaggy fans weep: type World's best guitarists into Google and then scroll through the pictures at the top of the page. Keaggy is nowhere on the list). But I would hope that we can at least give them a fighting chance, an opportunity to take their place in the pantheon of the greats by:
—Getting them better gigs.
—Getting them invited to the big festivals.
—Taking a risk and get their albums remastered on vinyl or do marketing campaigns to push digital sales and the streaming of their music.
Otherwise, 50 years from now, all of the music we held so dear might as well not even have existed at all.
Next article: A Classic Christian Music—A list of radio stations, websites, books, and documentaries
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For an ongoing look into the legacy of Rich Mullins as well as how to keep his music alive, check out the Between the Songs Podcast.