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JFH Staff Blog | October 2014

Sunday, October 26, 2014

In Defense of the Chris Tomlin Formula

Conan O’Brien’s late show recently produced a clever spoof ad from Apple in response to their recent polarizing U2 album release. In the clip, an Apple exec describes the company’s new machine that not only erases Songs of Innocence from the user’s iTunes library, but also erases any knowledge or memory of the band from the user’s brain. One complaining hipster, groggy from the machine’s effects, is then introduced to the “latest album from Irish rock legends U2.” His reaction? “These guys are really good!”

Modern culture, bereft with snarky fake news and vitriolic comment threads following real news, has sadly gotten really good at thumbing its nose at products or people it deems unworthy, passé, or irrelevant. The vocal minority’s piling on against U2’s latest is a good example. Once targeted by a segment of the population, the album was never given a chance.

The “thumbing the nose” epidemic is no less active (it might even be more active) in Christian culture. Popular pastors and musicians are often targets, and while criticism is often justified, there are certainly times when that criticism is based only on a cultural tide or popular opinion. The actual target is never given a chance.

Is it too much to say that Chris Tomlin is the U2 of CCM Praise and Worship music, at least in the context defined here? Maybe not. Tomlin’s music remains vital and wildly popular, even as some critics brand it as formulaic, boring, or derivative. Here’s an important point to remember, though: if Tomlin’s music is formulaic, and it often is, it’s based on the formula he wrote.

In a recent interview, Tomlin said, “My focus has been writing to give the church a song to sing. This record is no different.” And he’s exactly right. One can look elsewhere for metaphor and surprising innovation, even in the Sixsteps family (read: Crowder). Tomlin writes songs that praise bands can play and that churches can sing (sometimes, admittedly, in a slightly lower key). That doesn’t, however, mean the songs are necessarily of low quality.

Here’s a good example. Tomlin’s new album, Love Ran Red, is pretty standard Chris Tomlin fare, with no unexpected departures from the norm, either lyrically or sonically. It’s praise and worship music in a world where praise and worship music is both pervasive and often pedestrian. However, this is good praise and worship music. The (parenthetical) title track features the line “At the cross, at the cross, I surrender my life, I’m in awe of You, I’m in awe of You.” By itself, that’s a good lyric, but worshipers have heard that concept a thousand times before. The line that follows elevates the song. “Where Your love ran red, and my sin washed white, I owe all to You, I owe all to You.” Imagining the song in a congregational setting, that last phrase is key. It moves the worshiper from a sentiment that’s more of a platitude these days (I’m in awe of You) to a response that is personal (I owe all to You), and does so effectively, with an internal rhyme that makes the pairing memorable.

I’d be first in line to hear Chris Tomlin break the mold in some way, and I’m not suggesting that Love Ran Red is without flaws. But it’s his own mold he’s choosing to fill, and he’s working to fill it as well as he can. Listen to the album; Tomlin’s not just mailing it in.

If a free album from the world’s foremost rock band can be met with “This is so below me”-flavored snark, then it’s no surprise that every new Chris Tomlin release might face the same a priori criticism. It’s one thing to deride a genre for not living up to its potential, or an industry for forcing artists into a flavor-of-the-day (or, in the case of Christian music, flavor-of-the-decade) sound. It’s another to dismiss the whole thing because you think it’s unworthy of your lofty tastes. Wouldn’t it be better to notice quality, even in a saturated genre, applaud it, and constructively point out how it might be improved?

-- Mark D. Geil

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Monday, October 13, 2014

Investing In The Lives Of Our Favorite Music-Makers

With the ever-evolving music industry, it's grown more difficult for many bands and performers to be able to continue to afford to make music.

I've heard about more than a couple instances where a band or artist has had to discontinue touring because ticket sales and/or album sales are lower than ever. In many cases, I realize it could be the shifting trends or our own personal economic statuses making it difficult to afford to buy tickets, but it could also just be the aging fanbase has lost interest in music altogether and does not continue to support these artists' endeavors.

I've gone to some shows in recent months where, upon posting a photo from the show online on some form of social media, I've received comments like "Oh, I didn't know they were still around!" or "Where do you get your concert information from?"

In this day in age, if you're a music enthusiast, there's no excuse to not keep tabs on your favorite artists. Between artist email lists (You should sign up for your favorite artist's email list if they have one!), phone apps and services like Bands In Town, and Facebook, there's just no reason not to know about shows coming to your neck of the woods. iTickets.com even sends out alerts if you sign up for them.

But there's another concern. I posed a question - just to start a discussion - on the JFH Facebook to see what others thought about the hypothetical idea of: "If you knew that buying your favorite artist's music would help them keep touring, or NOT buying it would mean they'd stop touring, would you buy it then?" The truth is, most artists' careers (not ALL, but MOST) involve or are centered around touring and performing live. The real money in sustaining a musician's career, is in touring and drawing crowds. The expenses for that are super high, but with the right venues, crowds and ticket/merch sales, it should help keep an artist's career alive. (Some still go out on tours and barely break even, sadly).

The truth is: album sales don't generate much income for artists. Over the years, most artists GO INTO DEBT with a record label to fund the recording of an album. And when an album sells, unless the artist funded it completely themselves, they see very little of the profits of the album sale. This isn't to discourage you from buying music -- by all means, it's super important to do that -- but you can't assume that just buying one $10 or $15 album from someone is going to keep them going for a long time.

If we, the fans don't support the artist financially, they can't afford to continue to exist. Period.

Some comments on the Facebook post were actually completely against seeing live shows, while others didn't care if buying an album ensured the band could keep touring or not.

The fact of the matter is, in many cases, the two go hand in hand. If a band can't continue to tour, they probably won't bother sticking together to make music together. There's no reason to. They'll need to get "real jobs" and that will take up most of their music-making time. Plus, most labels only want to sign artists who can tour. Touring keeps the artist in the spotlight, at the forefront of people's minds. It enables fans to get involved instead of just listening to their single on the radio (and not buying their album, especially). After all, some people are more likely to shell out $16 bucks for a 3D movie in the theaters than to go see a band they like perform in person. And, if you're a sincere music fan who thrives on the ministry and what great music can do for the soul, there's something backwards about that.

In any case, we'd love for you to join the discussion! It's just a friendly discussion, so join in!

Visit the Facebook post here: https://www.facebook.com/jesusfreakhideout/posts/10152812838274603