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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, September 14, 2001

Christian pop gaining ground

By Derek Paiva
Advertiser Staff Writer

Audience members raise their hands in worship to God during a concert by the Christian rock band Delirious? in July at the Waikiki Shell.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

In a May episode of television pop culture chronicler "The Simpsons," eternally religious Simpson neighbor Ned Flanders finally met his long-standing crush, "Christian Madonna" Rachel Jordan.

Flanders nervously asked the suddenly solo Christian singer about the whereabouts of her former band.

"They switched from Christian music to regular pop," replied Jordan, matter-of-factly. "All you do is change 'Jesus' to 'baby.'"

Funny? Laugh-out-loud funny, actually. But that easy? In all truth, quite possibly.

Contemporary Christian music has become one of the fastest-growing genres in the music industry, accounting for 7 percent of total unit sales. Christian music sales have gone from $83 million in 1985 to $863 million in 1998, reports the Christian Music Trade Association, increasing in three of the last four years. While overall music industry CD sales are down nearly 3 percent for the first half of 2001, sales of contemporary Christian music are up 12 percent.

Not surprisingly, the Christian music industry isn't getting these kinds of numbers by sticking with the traditional hymns, worship songs and low production values that secular audiences still associate it with and which, quite truthfully, the industry was guilty of lackadaisically peddling for years. Since the mid-1990s, the industry has instead slowly borrowed from popular mainstream music trends, with an eye toward attracting younger audiences.

The year's top-selling Christian act Plus One are as boy-band poppy as 'N Sync. Audio Adrenaline and P.O.D. offer feedback-heavy Limp Bizkit-style guitar rap rock that could fit well on stage at this summer's Ozz Fest — and in P.O.D.'s case, actually did. Singer Jaci Velasquez almost matches the vocal chops of Christina Aquilera, possessing as much Latin crossover potential.

Christian acts are also leaving their mark on the mainstream album charts. New CDs by Christian pop groups Avalon and Point of Grace (the former of which is in town for two concerts this weekend at the Hawai'i Theatre) debuted at numbers 37 and 20, respectively, on the Billboard Top 200 album chart in May. In 1997, Bob Carlisle's "Shades of Grace," featuring the hit "Butterfly Kisses," became the first Christian music album to hit No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200. Established acts like Steven Curtis Chapman and Michael W. Smith are pop-album chart regulars, and pseudo-Christian bands like Creed have sold millions of CDs to mainstream buyers virtually unaware of their non-secular roots.

Nationally and locally, it's becoming harder to ignore the fact that more radio stations are playing Christian music, more retail outlets are selling it, and more concert tours and festivals are accommodating the ever-increasing number of bands and music genres falling under the Christian music umbrella.

In concert

Promoter David Coy has lured some of contemporary Christian music's biggest names — Steven Curtis Chapman, Michael W. Smith, Point of Grace and Jars of Clay among them — to Honolulu by simply knowing what his audience wants, what it will pay, and how much of it will show up.

"There's really a market for just about everything here, you just have to pick the appropriate venue," said Coy, of the formula for his mostly near-sellout series of Christian music concerts at the Hawai'i Theatre over the last several years. This weekend's Avalon concerts are his latest productions, and he expects near sell-out audiences.

"I don't believe there's a single artist in the Christian market that can fill the Waikiki Shell, though," said Coy, pointing to recent less-than-stellar turnstile counts for semi-popular Christian rockers Delirious? and top-selling gospel hip-hop artist Kirk Franklin as examples of promoters who he believed misjudged the local marketplace.

"You also have to give the audience what it wants at a price it can afford," said Coy, whose concerts typically offer tiered ticket prices that range from $10 to $30, and group rates even for two ticket purchases. "Believe me, the Christian market does not want to spend any more than that."

In clubs

You won't find much, if any, contemporary Christian pop played by the 20 or so Christian bands in the Honolulu club scene, said Shaun O'Brien, ReadyGO drummer.

"If your mom likes your music, something's wrong," said O'Brien, explaining his band's Effe preference for "rock-based punk hip-hop, reggae and ska." Echoing O'Brien's sentiments, Olivia! guitarist Justin Abilla describes his North Shore band's music as "pop punk," counting among its influences Sum 41and blink-182.

Except for each group's Christian-leaning lyrics, Abilla and O'Brien believe their bands have much in common with just about every secular Honolulu band searching for gigs.

"Everybody gets on stage and preaches something," said Abilla, "Whether it's to drink more beer or to hook up with as many chicks as you can. Our message is that Jesus loves you and died on the cross for you, and to just give him a chance."

"We sing songs about breaking up with your girlfriend — because Christians get their heart broken as much as anyone else — surfing, skateboarding, getting a job," said O'Brien. "But we also talk about God and what he means to us."

Both bands have played at local nightspots like Anna Bannanas, World Cafe and Pier Bar with their less God-fearing peers, as well as at a number of church-sponsored youth camps and multi-act Christian concerts at places like The X-Factory in Kalihi.

"We talk about what God has done in our lives," said Abilla. "There's so many people out there corrupting kids' minds. We want to be out there with kids telling them the other side of the story."

On the radio

Honolulu has two locally-staffed Christian radio stations: KAIM FM 95.5 and AM 870 — which play a mix of Christian Top 40 and adult contemporary music—and KLHT AM 1040, which broadcasts mostly Bible study programs and old-school praise and worship music. A couple of Mainland simulcasts, The Effect 91.1 FM and Air1 90.7 FM, play increasingly popular, but still niche, Christian alternative, hip-hop and hard rock.

Even the highest rated station, KAIM FM, warrants a mere 2.3 share of the listening audience, ranking it 16 in Honolulu's crowded radio market. And that's up from the 1 share it possessed three years ago when the station began narrowing its vast playlist to the youth-skewing pop now broadcast 24/7.

Think of a Christian KRTR or KSSK, and you've got a good idea of what an afternoon in the car with KAIM FM sounds like.

"A lot of people who tune in to our station for the first time say, 'I didn't know that's what Christian music sounds like,'" said program director Michael Shishido happily, of KAIM's pop life. "Christian music had a rep of being four or five years behind the times. Now the gap is closing. And that's helpful, because listeners — especially young ones — want to feel like they're part of what's current."

While the station has never performed well ratings-wise, Shishido said, "that's stereotypical of almost every Christian radio station (nationwide) — talk or music."

In record stores

Tower Records area general manager Matthew Koenig said that at less than 1 percent of total sales, Christian music CD sales for Tower's three O'ahu stores have actually remained flat in recent years, mirroring performance levels at Tower Record stores nationwide.

"We keep a Christian and gospel music section in the store because we have to," said Koenig. "Because we do have customers who want it."

Bucking mainstream record-buying trends that have shifted the bulk of CD sales in the last two decades from mom-and-pop retailers to larger chains like Tower, Christian music consumers still seem to prefer buying from smaller Christian book and music sellers like Logos Bookstores and The Giving Tree, viewed as more attuned to what they want.

"Customers do expect a lot out of us — to know what's new, what's coming out, and to have it right away," said Carl Ashizawa, manager of Logos Bookstore in Ward Warehouse. "Music buying is 20 percent of our sales. That's a big percentage, so we need to do a good job."

Ashizawa stocks whatever customers ask for, from the popular contemporary Christian pop of Avalon and Plus One to the more niche hip-hop of Kindred and alternative leanings of P.O.D. Ashizawa said that local demand hews closely to national Christian record charts, and radio airplay, for better or worse, has a big effect on sales. "We actually wish that (stations here) would kind of branch out and play a little bit more of the alternative and even some of the harder stuff," he said.