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Inside the Sprawling World of Christian Music Festivals

Skillet in concert; photo by Christian Rodriguez

To the nonbeliever, Christian music festivals can conjure up lasers piercing clouds of weed-free smoke, Jumbrotrons flashing relentlessly positive refrains and seas of blissful arm-waving. How to get beyond the stereotypes if you're in New York, far from even the touring Christian festivals of early 2015?

As part of our "Do You Believe" issue, we wanted an insider's look at these massive gatherings. We also wanted to talk to some Christian rock artists who, in one way or another, had dipped their toes in the secular pop world. We called up four people: Colton Dixon, a 23-year-old Tennessee native who sang both sacred and profane songs during his fan-adored stint on American Idol; David Crowder, who injects a quiet sense of humor into his churning "Appalachians and Ibiza" sound and whose big beard, specs and trucker hat suggest Brooklyn as much as his native Waco, Texas; John Cooper, singer of the Memphis-based Skillet, which exists on a level of crossover success shared only by Switchfoot, P.O.D. and a few others; and Josh Caterer, a solo artist and worship director based outside of Chicago, whose band Smoking Popes was an early-nineties institution (see: "Need You Around" from the Clueless soundtrack) and whose subsequent band, Duvall, marked Caterer's rebirth as a Christian.

Three of them were doing major gigs when we talked: Crowder was about to play the student-centric Passion Fest, in Atlanta, Skillet was headlining the Winter Jam tour and Dixon was preparing to board a Caribbean cruise hosted by the Christian radio service K-LOVE. All four conversations started out focusing on festivals but quickly veered off into the terra incognita of worship music and what it means to embrace believers and atheists alike. We're excerpting them here, grouped by topic and with a minimum of interruption. 

Colton Dixon; photo by David Molnar

On differences between Christian and secular music festivals

David Crowder: [At Passion] there's this interactive video thing that's like taking a survey of who's in the room. The lights are down, the video is playing, just words on the screen. "Where are you from?""Who's from Alabama?" And people would raise their phones up, and then sure enough you have questions like, "Who's been injured?""Who's been hurt?""Who's had a hard time getting over a relationship?""Who wonders about whether this Jesus thing is real or not?" You're talking maybe 10 minutes into the thing and there's some big questions that go right to the stuff that's at the bottom of us humans. And it's just nuts to see the people that were there. It was very much a diverse crowd. 

John Cooper: Christian music fans are awesome because they are extremely loyal. It's not like pop music; if they believe in you, they're going to be with you for a very long time. But because of the religious aspect, they can tend to feel that they own a little bit of you. So if you sign an autograph for them, that's not going to be enough; they're also going to want a picture. And if you don't take a picture, they'll accuse you maybe of not being a good Christian. So if you take a photo, then they want a second photo, with a different camera with a funny face. They're not trying to be rude; they honestly feel like, "This is my hero, and he says he's a Christian. How can he possibly not give me the time of day?" When you do a secular event, fans do not expect to meet you, and if you say hi they're just thrilled, and if you take the time to sign something for them, they get on their Twitter and say, "John Cooper from Skillet is the nicest rock star I've ever met!"

Josh Caterer: The thing I remember about Sonshine [a Wisconsin festival that Duvall played in the mid-aughts] was that there were a lot of youth groups in attendance. There were huge busloads of junior high students that would all be wearing the same T-shirt, like a fluorescent tie-dye T-shirt with the name of their youth group on the front, and there'd be like 50 of them all in a cluster. So it was very sanitized -- sort of a cross between a music festival and Disney World. I found that to be a strange environment to play in. I've always understood music from a POV of being an appreciator of the arts and certain artistic qualities you're looking for in music, like the craft and the sense of creative inspiration. But when you go to a music festival where it's mostly youth groups... I just didn't know what they were looking for. There was an entirely different set of criteria that was making them respond to the music, and I couldn't grasp what it was. I feel that way about popular contemporary Christian music to a large extent. I hear what's being played on Christian radio and it seems so processed and so formulaic that it lacks any of the basic spark that would appeal, I would think, to any real appreciator of music.

On drugs

Colton Dixon: I actually live 15 minutes away from Bonnaroo. I've never actually been, but you see the people come through. And this is kind of funny, but the biggest difference I guess I could point out is that, at a Christian Music Festival, it doesn't smell like weed everywhere.

Cooper: Most all the rock bands we've done with festivals with, they tend to be like post-AA. And yes, there have been times when there's been strippers and maybe some drug or alcohol abuse going on, but typically they keep that stuff to themselves, and we keep Jesus to ourselves. 

Skillet; photo by Tim Tronckoe

On the prevalence, at Christian festivals, of worship music -- a form with no equivalent in the secular world and, according to one interviewee, some questionable sources.

Dixon: A worship song is a song that you're singing more about or to God, if that makes sense. That's what I call a "vertical" song. It's basically like a very modernized hymn. 

Cooper: Worship is its own genre within Christian music, with its own rules. With worship music, the idea is that you're not really there to watch Colton perform a worship song; you're there to worship with Colton. We have done worship songs, but it would be almost like Springsteen doing a Beatles cover. We are not a worship band. This is all going around the major difference between Christian music and secular music: Christian music is meant for Christian people, and it is meant to draw people closer to God. And therefore, at Christian festivals there's a lot people that might not even like the music; they're coming to support this idea of Jesus awareness.

Caterer: I'm probably going to come across incredibly cynical about Christian music, and I guess that's OK. [laughs] But my theory would be that Christian music is driven by a much more tightly controlled industry than secular music is. And it pertains to very specific revenue streams that don't exist in secular music because of CCLI -- Christian Copyright Licensing International, which is basically the Christian version of ASCAP or BMI. CCLI keeps track of all the songs that are performed in churches -- every church is supposed to pay an annual fee to CCLI. Then CCLI will pay royalties to the songwriters and publishers of that music. So what you have is a situation where, in secular music, it's becoming more difficult to make music because people aren't buying CDs the way they used to, and the music industry is freaking out, but in Christian music, there's this performance revenue stream that comes from churches performing worship songs every week and that is completely unaffected by album sales. I happen to know from talking to people in the industry that generally they don't care as much about trying to sell albums. Making an album is only a way to get people to perform these songs in their churches, because if a song takes on a life of its own in church world as being a popular worship song, that can become a huge revenue stream, even if they never sell any records. They could give the music away; they just want people to perform it in churches.

On secular music - specifically, on Colton Dixon's decision to play "Bad Romance" as well as a Christian song on American Idol.

Dixon: Yeah, "Bad Romance" was not a good choice as far as the Christian music industry was concerned. Honestly, I was at the point on the show where I was like, "Man, I don't have a lot of options on the sheet of paper for this week, and I know I can do something really rad with this song musically." I didn't really think about how the industry that I wanted to be a part of would think about it, whether right or wrong. So just on that alone, I probably should've gone with something else. But honestly, I think it's a really catchy song. As far as choosing from the other side... when I did "Everything" by Lifehouse, there were people who were like, "He's just banking on the Christian thing." I mean, they can say that all they want to, but that song's not necessarily a Christian song, you know? Lifehouse doesn't proclaim themselves to be a Christian band. On both ends, I was like, "Man, you don't have a lot of ground to say what you're saying," but it is what it is.

On crossing over

Crowder: What I'm doing is so overtly intended for people who are trying to say something in regards to their relationship with God. I think if I were intending to be a crossover artist, I would write different types of songs. But I feel like I'm really here to serve people who come from a similar life's experience that I do and make music that lets them join something deep.

Cooper: Last night there were these four guys in the front row going absolutely mental at our concert. I came down to give them a high five, and they reeked of pot. This is a very, very Christian concert. Those guys, the only reason they were there was to see Skillet. And I think that's a really good thing. Bringing all kinds of people in.

Caterer: Duvall was basically a club band. That's something that set us apart and probably worked against us as far as having any success in Christian music. I became a Christian in my late 20s and just sort of switched from the Popes to Duvall but went back to the clubs that the Popes had played in, because the club scene was something I understood. I had no familiarity with the Christian scene. So when we tried to make our way into the world of Christian music festivals or churches, we didn't know how to navigate it. Our experience at Sonshine left us somewhat perplexed.

Dixon: I don't want to be limited to the Christian bubble by any means. I'm not trying to get all biblical, but God called us to love one another and go out into the world. And if you look at the life of Jesus, he wasn't spending his time in churches and synagogues; he was out hanging out with the prostitutes and the gamblers. And man, I think church has it so backwards nowadays, and it's a shame. But yeah, that's exactly what I'm trying to do: to go out and play music for whoever is willing to listen. Doesn't matter if you're a believer or not. You're always welcome.

Read more from our Do You Believe Issue here

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