The Rise Of Christian Music In Australia
What would you think if you were told your favorite band was Christian?
Would you like them more, or less? Would this association change your interpretation of their lyrics? Even their name?
Do these issues raise a need for a separation of Church and Band?
The reality is, that in most cases, once this label is put upon a band, people’s interpretation of them does change.
Being slotted into the Christian Music genre tends to be viewed as a negative thing to many, however for some artists it has proven to be quite lucrative.
Just this past week, TobyMac’s album Eye On It became the first overtly Christian music album to reach #1 on the Billboard charts in 15 years. His lead song from the album ‘Lose My Soul’ has received over 1.5 million views on YouTube and has sold over 60,000 copies in the US.
The song features everything from Mac’s family friendly rapping, to the even cleaner rap-rambling of Kirk Franklin, building to a soulfully sung verse by the sassy ‘Mandisa’.
The song is ‘lite’, poppy and harmless with the chorus proclaiming, “I don’t wanna gain the whole world/and lose my soul”, in a sound similar to early naughites Black Eyed Peas (think ‘Where Is The Love?’).
While the last overtly Christian artist to reach number one was LeAnn Rimes in 1997, with “You Light Up My Life”, according to Billboard Editor, Keith Caulfield, “Christian music has been very successful on the Billboard 200 chart for a long while now, but TobyMac’s Eye On It just happened to be the first album since 1997 to hit number one.”
The fact is that although artists of the genre rarely grab the top spot on the charts, Christian artists have a very strong and loyal following that ensures the long-term success of their career.
Closer to home, in 1983, two New Zealanders, married couple Brian and Bobbie Houston formed a brand new church at the Baulkham Hills Public School hall.
Named the Hill’s Christian Life Centre, the couple began with an initial congregation of 45 and soon expanded, merging with the Sydney Christian Life Centre at Waterloo. The church moved from its base in a warehouse, to the Hills Centre.
Today this church is known as Hillsong, and hosts a congregation of 20,000 each week.
Their mission is: “To reach and influence the world by building a large, Christ-centered, Bible-based church, changing mindsets and empowering people to lead and impact in every sphere of life.” However Hillsong does much more for its congregation than this simple mission statement.
Since the early 1990s, the church has been writing and releasing music. One of their first releases, ‘People Just Like Us’ was the first ever Christian album to go Gold in Australia. This marked the beginning of a longterm trend, with all of Hillsong’s subsequent albums achieving Gold status on our charts.
Their influence isn’t just limited to Australia either. ‘Shout to the Lord’ was Hillsong’s first widely recognised song, gaining international prominence as a worship anthem.
Yet despite their success, the organisation doesn’t want to be seen as much more than your everyday church. In a post for website ‘Hillsong Collected’ last April, co-founder Brian Houston claimed, “we don’t see ourselves as a ‘megachurch’ but rather, a little church, with a lot of people.”
However, your average Church doesn’t have a multi-million dollar record label that distributes globally.
Hillsong Music and Hillsong Music Australia respectively, are the music and distribution companies that the church collective have built to manufacture and release their music. Each year a new worship album and Christmas album is released, and consistently go Gold on Australian charts.
The Hillsong Music label also supports a number of solo artists, albeit in a quieter sense. Nowhere on its website or information is it referred to as a music company. Looking online for resources and information on the artists Hillsong supports, the results are often limited. Yet there is no denying that Hillsong is indeed a company that makes most of its money through music creation and distribution. In fact, you may have bought an album released through them without even knowing.
The church has sold over 12 million records around the world, and with Hillsong churches now established in France, the United Kingdom, United States and even South Africa, signing a deal with the Hillsong Music label has become just as good as signing to a major label. But Hillsong is not the only church to follow this model.
Guy Sebastian, the famed winner of the first Australian Idol, began his career in music by attending the Paradise Community Church in South Australia, the second-largest church in the country, going on to become one their main worship singers. He played weekly at sermons and church events, singing at conferences and recording the albums Adore (2004) and Set Me Free (2005).
During the original 2003 season of the TV talent contest, Guy Sebastian was a hot favorite to win the competition. He was young with a great voice, had an afro – and though it was kept quiet during the competition – was a popular figure in the Christian music community. Although not a member of the Hillsong church, it is well documented that Sebastian received a major boost in voting support by the church group, based solely on his religion.
In 2007, contestants Matt Corby, Ben Mackenzie and Daniel Mifsud also received major support from the Hillsong community to the point that the church was accused of vote stacking.
In Hillsong’s defence nowhere in the rules of voting for Australian Idol is organised voting illegal. But with all three contestants in the finals and a back catalogue of Christian contestants from seasons gone by reaching the top ten, the sheer force of Hillsong was clearly felt.
Now, Hillsong is planning to expand further, having recently announced plans for an expansion into Melbourne. In the absence of a dedicated venue, the church will be moving into some of the state’s most beloved venues including The Forum, booking the building’s 540-seat upstairs theatre on October 19 for a church service – the first of an ongoing set of masses before they find “a more permanent base”