Praise and Worship Music and the Music Industry
By Chris Loeffler |
Early music in Western culture has a long history of being tied to the sacred and the sole domain of the church (if you want to read some real histrionics, check out how controversial and rigid the dictates of European church were toward song composition in the Middle Age). As music changed to a form of entertainment unto itself (again) and technology such as the printing press and, later, audio recording made it more available, a newly formed version of secular music settled into the public at large.
The last century of popular Western music has created genres and sub-genres that split off into thousands of styles, most of which coalesce around shared themes and aesthetics. As blues splintered into R&B and then rock and country, metal, and so-on, music has been viewed more and more as a secular art, an expression of ourselves. While current popular genres such as modern country still squeeze in messages of faith between songs about girls in blue jeans and shooting abusive boyfriends, radio and mainstream music channels have largely been absent of overt religious messages. As such, the history and legacy of most gear found on the walls of Guitar Center or online at Sweetwater is more tied to the art and party lifestyle than it is viewed as a vehicle for worship.
What’s interesting about this is that while instrument manufacturers and retailers have bemoaned the death of instrument and declining sales due to the lack of new heroes. The common sentiment expressed in trade magazine for the last decade is “traditional combo music is dying, and electronic music and video games are robbing us of our future customers.” While a look at music and music instrument sales doesn’t necessarily reflect this sentiment, there is a bright, shining contradiction to this sentiment- the rise of Praise and Worship bands.
Fact: There are more houses of worship that include live music than there are active mid-sized performance venues in the US, and every Sunday hundreds of thousands of musicians have a gig in front of millions of people who hang on their every note in a way most bar bands can only dream of.
Churches, big and small, have incorporated modern music as a part of their services, a way to bring their attendees to a different place before they begin their sermon. Statistically, churches are more likely to invest in higher-end audio and visual gear than the bar or club that struggles with getting enough of a crowd and pushing enough pints to cover their overhead. Much of this music has its roots in Christian takes on modern genres, with a specific pivot in the late 90’s to the music of the Hilltop church, where a blend of praise combined with an adult contemporary rock styling. Think U2 style, with textured guitar parts, melodic bass hooks, and reverb-drenched drums.
Most churches have more musicians than can be addressed by a single house band, meaning there is a regular rotation and an openness to bringing in new players that is absent in most other genres. This means not only are there more opportunities to play to a supportive crowd, but there’s also a greater, more collaborative network of gear and theory gurus available to lift each other up and encourage newer players to stick with it.
This hasn’t escaped the notice of the music instrument industry, and stores that once hawked their wears with images of leather-clad men with carefully teased hair and testosterone-fueled marketing messages now have entire sections of their websites and stores dedicated to Praise and Worship institutions. Many music instrument retailers can point directly to churches for a large portion of their annual sales, and there are entire companies based around building gear that appeals to the P&W crowd. Regardless of what instruments you play, I bet you can guess at least some of what you will see at a typical church.
It is rare to see a P&W band without at least one Strymon or JHS pedal at the feet of the guitar, and if you’ve been curious where most of the premium electronic drum kits were going, you probably haven’t been to church in a while. Like any music scene, there is some tribalist mentality of what is (and isn’t) an appropriate sonic contribution to the song. The focus on clarity, clean live production, and direct-to-board processing that is such a part of the P&W sound requires a level of gear and quality that goes far beyond the aesthetic (and budget) of the garage band who pride themselves in lo-fi sounds and quirky old gear.
Because the world of faith-based P&W music is rather binary (you’re either a part of that audience or not), it is also pretty isolated from those who aren’t a part of the scene; doesn’t show up in traditional musical instrument advertising in a way that exposes its impact to the industry. The stereotypical socially liberal nature of musicians can seem at odds with the relatively conservative structure of the P&W, which is likely how they exist as invisible neighbors to each other, but P&W has become a market force to recon with in the last two decades and shows a stronger growth trajectory than any other popular music genre when it comes to instrument sales.
What does all this mean, and why bring it up? It is an example of how general industry (and consumer) sentiment isn’t nearly as comprehensive as it seems, and example of how an “outsider” consumer group can quickly become a significant participant in a market without making waves or requiring holistic pivots to marketing message or product line. Just because the popular music presented by corporate taste-makers veers away from the classic guitar, keyboards, bass, and drums concept of instrumentation doesn’t mean the audience or passion doesn’t carry forward. -HC-
Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer.