#163: So You Want to Be a Christian Musician

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #163, on the subject of So You Want to Be a Christian Musician.

I have been a Christian musician–performer, composer, arranger, founder and/or director of bands–for near half a century now.

It might be argued whether that alone puts me in a position to give advice on the subject.  After all, although I have recorded an album, it would be debated whether I was ever a “successful” Christian musician.  I am not in much demand on the circuit and never have been.  However, from the time I was in high school, later in college, and then during five years as first a disk jockey and ultimately program director of a major Contemporary Christian Music radio station I talked to dozens, possibly scores, of successful Christian artists, and nearly always asked them that question:  what advice do you, as a successful Christian musician, give to anyone who wants to do what you do.  I asked such people as Noel Paul Stookey, Dan Peek, Phil Keaggy, Scott Wesley Brown, Glad, Brown Bannister, Chris Christian–well, I don’t even remember everyone I asked, let alone what they all said.  However, four of them I do remember, and I will give you something of the gist of what they said for your consideration.  I will also comment on that advice, because I think it worth contemplating.  I also think, in retrospect, that it is probably good advice for anyone who knows what he wants to be or do, and particularly for those who want to pursue artistic endeavors.

Larry Norman, perhaps the original nationally known self-identified Christian rock musician
Larry Norman, perhaps the original nationally known self-identified Christian rock musician

I will mention Barry McGuire first–probably the first truly prominent secular musician to become a leading contemporary Christian artist, who had been with The New Christie Minstrels, starred in the Broadway production Hair, and soloed with the hit Eve of Destruction, but whose signature song following his salvation was Happy Road–mostly because I do not think I can articulate what he told me.  What I remember is that the concert somewhere near Boston had ended and he was out among the audience, mobbed by people, but he heard my question and focused his entire attention on addressing it, addressing me and the rest of the audience, as if the question genuinely mattered.  What he said, and perhaps what he did, caused me upon returning home to write a song entitled Mountain, Mountain, about being what God made you to be instead of trying to be something you perceive to be great.  That actually is a good starting point for this, but we will return to it.

I was one of several reporters interviewing B. J. Thomas at Creation ’83.  At that time he was probably the most successful secular artist to turn to Christian music as an entertainer, his song Home Where I Belong introducing the singer of Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head and I Can’t Stop This Feeling to a Christian audience, and he had a hard time in the Christian music field precisely because he was an entertainer, not a minister.  What he said, though, was don’t think you missed your break, or that you are still waiting for your break to come.  If you are diligent, many breaks will come to you, and if you are good you can make one of them work for you, and if you miss it, another will come.

Ted Sandquist was probably the original contemporary Christian worship leader, with songs like Eternally Grateful, All That I Can Do, and Lion of Judah.  I’m afraid that when I caught up with him after a concert, his answer could have been a wonderful book, delivered orally in under a minute.    He spoke about things he called scope and ministry, and to a large degree was the first person ever to get me thinking of some of the things I discussed recently in the music ministry series–along with whether your calling is to be nationally known or simply serve in a local congregation.  In short, his advice was to think in terms of ministry, whether you are called to it, and what is the nature and extent of your calling.  If you follow this web log, you have already seen the extensive materials I have written on that.

Finally, I caught up with Larry Norman after one of his concerts at Gordon College.  Larry is probably the original nationally-known Christian rock musician, best known for I Wish We’d All Been Ready, Sweet, Sweet Song of Salvation, and the album title Only Visiting This Planet.  The intensity of his response was overwhelming, and the focus of it was in the question, why do you want this?

Before I address that further, I should mention two things about Larry that I learned separately from that.  One is that he was known for a gift of discernment, that he could see things about people that they often did not recognize about themselves.  It may well be that he would have given different advice to someone else, but that this was what he thought I needed to hear.  The other is that he had a very hard life as a Christian rock musician.  Often he would play a concert and after the fact be informed that “apparently the Lord did not provide” enough money to pay him.  He was then criticized for subsequently insisting on signed contracts for concerts that could be enforced against those who did not pay what they agreed, and quite specific terms concerning what his hosts would provide such as accommodations.  He rubbed shoulders with people like Paul McCartney, but he did not find the life at all glamorous or enriching.  That might have impacted his view as well.

However, I think that there is a level to that advice that we all need to hear:  Do not want that; it is not something to want.

It came to me recently, as I had again heard a story of some Christian band that had been formed to provide music for one event who then found themselves propelled to the top of the Christian music charts and sent on national and international tours.  The famous story is that of Amy Grant, who at sixteen spent a bit of money on some studio time to record a song for her mother’s birthday, and the recording was heard by Christian record producers Brown Bannister and Chris Christian, who quickly signed her to a major Christian label recording contract and propelled her to stardom–perhaps the first contemporary Christian recording artist to crossover into secular success.  God clearly sometimes chooses some people to be “successful” Christian artists who had made no effort to be that; it makes sense that He has a hand in choosing those whose success appears to be built on years of hard work.  There are equally many stories we do not hear, of people who worked hard to achieve what never came, and of people who hoped maybe that one day lightning would strike, as it were, and they would be propelled to success, to whatever level of fame is found in Dove Awards and Christian music chart-toppers.  If God wants you to be there, He will get you there; it may be that He wants you to work hard at your music and stay where you are, and it should be sufficient motivation for the work that God is pleased with it.

It is also the case that this is not something to want.  The work of a “successful” Christian musician is hard work–constant travel, brief stays in strange places, one performance after another.  I have seen how tired such people often are, but this is what they do, and they will do it again tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.  It wreaks havoc with family life, as either you take your family with you to hotels or more commonly in a camper, or you leave them behind while you travel for weeks or sometimes months without them, sleeping in the “bus”, a modified camper shared with the rest of the band.  Those who make it work either managed to reach a high enough level of success before marriage that they were able to do very short tours and fly to most events, or have other jobs frequently as pastors such that they finish concerts Saturday night and are in church Sunday morning.  And the money is not all that good–better, perhaps, than it was for Christian artists a few decades back, but the entire music industry is changing, in a sense collapsing, so that even the major stars do not make what they once did.

Of course, it is not so much the money as the recognition, that you are on stage, people are listening to your songs on the radio and the Internet, you are traveling the world singing.  That is also called fame.  But then, fame in the entire music industry is not what it was–if you heard a list of the twenty most successful musicians in the world today, it is likely that you would not recognize several of the names simply because styles have fragmented, and no one is truly informed about rock, rap, country, Christian, and the wealth of other genres that command substantial but discrete audiences.  Take it from me.  I might not be a “successful” musician, but I am world famous–as a role playing game author and theorist, defender of hobby games, time travel theory writer, and general writer–and it has almost no cash value and very little impact on my daily life apart from that I have to do the work.  Or hear Paul Simon.  He tells a story of a night when he and Art Garfunkle were sitting in a car in a park under one of New York City’s many bridges, and a song came on the radio–their song, Sounds of Silence, which the disk jockey announced was now the number one song in the country, by Simon and Garfunkle.  At that moment, Art Garfunkle said to him, “Gee, wherever those two guys are right now, it must be a real great party.”  Being at the top of the chart doesn’t mean nothing, but it doesn’t mean much.

Of course, get enough fame, and you have to reorganize your life to insulate yourself against the crowds.  You are not going to get that kind of fame doing this, and the admiration you do get will perhaps bring a smile to your face from time to time, but it’s going to prove to be much less than you imagined.

More on point, though, and connecting what Barry McGuire said to what Larry Norman said:  this is not something you should want.  What you should want is to know God, to become what He made you to be, and to seek to do what He wants you to do in life.  If that includes being a famous or successful musician, He will bring you there; He won’t lead you where you want to go, though, only where He knows you will become the best you He made you to be.  One thing I needed to learn over the years was that had I been a successful Christian musician early in my life I never would have been any of these other things–I never would have written the role playing game or become involved with the hobby gamers whose lives I have in some small way touched, never would have undertaken to write about time travel, never would have studied law or written about politics, never would have become chaplain of an international online organization, never would have done most of the things for which I am recognized.  There was so much of who I am that I never would have discovered, that no one would have known, had God moved me in a straight line to what I always thought was the only thing I could do well–music.  He wanted me to become the teacher, the writer, the influence that I am.  I might have been a great musician, but I would never have been anything else.

Peter Hopper was the drummer in a band called Rock Garden, who played their penultimate concert at Carnegie Hall.  I never talked with him despite having a more than passing acquaintance with the band’s rhythm guitarist Dennis Mullins, but a few weeks after that concert, after they had played their farewell concert, I heard him speak about it.  It was what he had wanted all his life, and as he sat on stage playing for the crowd he looked around and said, is this really what I wanted?  Why did I want this?  He told us that God promises that if we seek Him He will give us the desires of our heart, and said that in his experience God had done that, given him what he had always wanted, so he would be able to see how empty it really was, and how the only thing worth desiring was God.

So don’t want this.  Don’t want to be a musician, or anything else for that matter.  Want to know God, and to find His path for you.  That’s the only desire in life that is guaranteed to be fulfilled and to satisfy.  It is also the only path that will bring you anywhere worth being.

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