CCM: the Genesis of a Genre

December 13, 2011

Wednesday nights while he was a Baylor student opened Billy Ray Hearn's eyes to the power and appeal of new music in the church -- an insight that a decade later would change the face of Christian worship.

Hearn, then the university's first church music major, saw the success that Dick Baker, BA '50, had with group choruses and the Baylor Religious Hour Choir in the late 1940s and early 1950s. "It showed me contemporary music was what got people involved," he remembers.

After graduation, Hearn served eight years as music minister in churches in Texas and Georgia before coming to Word Music in 1968 to join Kurt Kaiser and Ralph Carmichael in the new frontier of youth musicals like "Tell It Like It Is."

The Baylor church music grad soon found himself lobbying Word president Jarrell McCracken, BA '50, MA '53, to create a label for this new sound, and Myrrh Records was born in 1972. It became the first label five years later for Amy Grant, who would go on to be contemporary Christian music's first superstar.

"When we started Myrrh, there were no models ... except I knew the music was right, and the music was reaching people the church wasn't reaching," Hearn says.

Increasingly convinced that this new field of "Jesus music" needed to sound even closer to secular pop and rock to catch the ears of young Christians and non-Christians alike, Hearn left Word in 1976 to move to the West Coast and create Sparrow Records. The contemporary Christian music genre (CCM) would get its name from Word execs six years later as they sought to market Amy Grant's "Age To Age" album, the first Christian album to sell more than a million copies.

Sparrow spurred a growing wave of interest in CCM in the 1980s, signing such future artists as Keith Green, Barry McGuire and Steven Curtis Chapman. Other labels sprang up as well adding opportunities for new artists, including Reunion Records (Michael W. Smith, Rebecca St. James), INO Records (Caedmon's Call, MercyMe), Essential (Jars of Clay, Matt Maher) and many more.

Just as Hearn saw the importance of contemporary music in the lives of believers in the 1970s, Baylor students a generation later would play a key role in what some believe has supplanted CCM in the life of the church.

If contemporary Christian music in the 1970s and 1980s could be described as the music that church youth were playing in the basement of the church, the 1990s saw that music move to the sanctuary, says Dr. Randall Bradley, director of Baylor's Center for Christian Music Studies.

As interest and energy began to wane in contemporary Christian music's cycle of concerts-albums-radio airplay, congregations began to adopt much of that music for their regular worship.

"What contemporary Christian music did was to create venues through which praise and worship permeated," Bradley says. "Praise and worship was huge because it went back to the churches ... It became integrated into the faith story. The old music didn't work that way."

From 1985-95, Louie Giglio and his wife, Shelley, BBA '86, headed a campus ministry for Baylor students while Louie was working on his graduate studies. The Giglios moved to Atlanta where his Waco experience became the seed for Passion Ministries, a spiritual awakening movement targeting college students.

Disturbed by a report that indicated fewer than half of Baylor students attended church, students Chris Seay and David Crowder created University Baptist Church in 1996, whose Crowder-led worship band eventually grew a national fan base.

While praise and worship music and the Passion Movement were changing the style of music of many evangelicals and their churches, the growing digitalization of music was radically reshaping the music industry in general.

Downloads and user-shaped playlists cut into CD sales, eroding the profits of the industry's largest companies. Cuts and consolidation became the byword of corporations like Word, Curb and Sparrow, whose owner EMI CMG found its parent company EMI recently purchased by Universal Music Group and Sony.

The head of Baylor's Center for Church Music Studies sees the convergence of digital music and the praise and worship movement as a game-changer, one in which congregations create and distribute their own music. "With self-publishing and YouTube, the future is not going to be in the big companies any more," Bradley says.

The music that started in the church basement and moved to the sanctuary is about to step outside the church doors into the world, he says.

Up-and-coming musicians in this new environment have discovered over the last decade that entrepreneurial skills, merchandising and marketing are becoming skills as essential as songwriting, playing and singing. Partly to address this need, Baylor created a Music and Entertainment Marketing program in 2005. Dr. Kirk Wakefield, MBA '81, chairman of the marketing department, and Dr. Stan Denman, MA '89, chairman of Baylor's Department of Theatre Arts, had envisioned the program as a way business students and theater students could get practical experience in arts and entertainment marketing.

The program received a substantial boost with the support of recording industry veteran Mike Curb. The founder and chairman of Curb Records and chairman of Word Entertainment is one of the best-known names in the American music industry, with extensive credits in producing, recording, songwriting and management. Curb's singing group, The Mike Curb Congregation, recorded on Word Records early in his career and, as partner and chairman of Word Entertainment, the executive wanted a way to commemorate the history of contemporary Christian music and Word's role in that.

Curb's interest in training young people for the music industry first led him to create the Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business at Belmont University in Nashville. Later, his $500,000 gift to Baylor funded the Mike Curb Music and Marketing Entertainment Learning Lab, a state-of-the-art multimedia classroom. Belmont's program leans to the technical and production side of the recording industry, while Baylor's emphasizes marketing, Wakefield points out.

The selective Baylor program admits only 20 students annually (each with at least a 3.5 GPA) and places interns with companies such as Word, Curb Records, EMI Christian Music Group, Disney Live!, Walden Media, Feld Entertainment and Provident-Integrity Records for real-world experience and perspective.

"We promise students they'll get a foot in the door. We've got the connection to do that. What they do with that is up to them," Wakefield says.

Baylor students who finish the Music and Entertainment Marketing program leave with digital media skills, experience in managing people and scheduling events as well as completing projects on deadline. Importantly, students create projects aimed at generating revenue, Wakefield says. "A student will have two years of managing people and budgets, and a qualitative record to show that. That kind of work gets you a job."

Four years ago, Baylor expanded the program by creating Uproar Records, in which Baylor business and marketing students get the gamut of recording experience: picking talent, managing artists, creating websites and promotional campaigns, all within the parameters of time and a budget. The student company sells its product, both through physical CDs and digital downloads.

Even though the music industry continues to change markedly, Wakefield believes skills and experience gained through real-life projects and internships plus personal contacts with professionals will equip graduates for a future of change and opportunity. "We tell our students, 'You are the guys to create the next model,'" he says, noting that Word Entertainment President Rod Riley feels the music business of tomorrow requires an entrepreneurial approach.

Riley is a believer in internships as a teaching tool and is impressed with what he sees from Baylor. "Baylor is doing a fantastic job being very deliberate in the music business program. The Baylor interns we've had have been some of the best interns we've had," he says.

Students bring important insights when they come to Word simply by who they are. "A lot of the demographic we're selling to is a Baylor student," Riley continues. Coming from a faith-based university with a demonstrated history in Christian music also helps. "I think you have to have a passion for what you do. It's not just entertainment. This is about Kingdom work, changing lives and giving hope."