August 7, 2005

For rockers, ‘Christian’ blessing can be fickle

By John Letzing

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Rocker Sufjan Stevens frequently
channels faith through his music, but falls short of the
standards of the Christian Music Trade Association -- a key
U.S. gatekeeper in deciding what music is "Christian."

The association's seal of approval can mean lucrative
exposure in a hot segment of an otherwise stagnant music
market, and provide a stepping stone to broader success.

Stevens' ode to Jesus Christ, "To Be Alone With You," was
heard during an episode of the popular and racy Fox TV teen
drama "The OC."

An appearance on such a show would not necessarily hurt an
artist's standing with the group, said president John Styll of
the CMTA, which represents music labels specializing in
Christian music.

"I would love to see more Christian music in venues that
need it, so to speak," he said. "We love to let the light shine
where it is darkest."

However, Styll said, Stevens lacks adequate distribution
through Christian channels and has not shown a desire for the
association's imprimatur. "He just doesn't want to play the
Christian music-market game, and that's OK," Styll said.

According to CMTA's Christian SoundScan arm, U.S. album
sales of Christian rock grew around 125 percent from 2003 to
2004, expanding to 8.25 million from 3.66 million. During the
same period, total U.S. album sales grew only 1.6 percent,
rising to 666.7 million from 656.2 million.

Christian SoundScan data, collected with Nielsen Media
Research, is publicized through Christian charts in Billboard
magazine. Nielsen and Billboard are the property of Dutch media
group VNU NV .

Hot groups on the Christian-music charts include Jars of
Clay and Relient K. Jars of Clay sold 6 million albums last
year, including many outside the CMTA's tracking.

To qualify, CMTA's Styll says albums must receive some
national play on Christian radio, 25 percent of sales in the
first week must be in Christian shops, and lyrics must have
"Christian content."

Lyrics must be "in line with the principles taught in
scripture," Styll said, a definition he acknowledges can be "a
little loose."

Other factors might also play a role, he said, such as the
venues an artist plays, or one's willingness to appear at
Christian events like the twice-yearly Creation Festival. "You
just kind of generally know" if someone fits in, he said.

Sufjan Stevens' growing appeal is not reflected in the
Christian charts, despite songs like 'To Be Alone With You' and
often strongly spiritual lyrics ("Oh Lamb of God!/Tell us your
perfect design").

A favorite of the secular indie-rock scene, Stevens plays
at edgier, smoke- and beer-choked venues, and his lyrics
occasionally veer to off-color.

Lowell Brams, a manager at Stevens' label, Asthmatic Kitty,
said most of the label's artists are Christian, but care little
for the association's certification.

Other artists do care. The benefit of certification can be
their first widespread publicity on Billboard, catching the eye
of bigger retailers and labels.

"It's worked fine for us," said Jeff Risden, an agent
representing Relient K.

The group got its first national exposure on the Christian
charts in 2000, and eventually signed a recording contract with
major label Capitol Records.