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Where are all the new alternative Christian rock bands?


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#1 winter shaker

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Posted 18 April 2012 - 07:14 PM

The term "alternative Christian rock" is a troublesome term. Perhaps "underground Christian rock" is more fitting. The bands and artists I'm referring to are the ones that don't fit into the mainstream CCM industry the same way Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, Rich Mullins, Jars of Clay, Toby Mac, etc...fit in. I think that there have been two cycles of alternative/underground Christian rock.

The first began in the early 1970s when CCM was first emerging as a musical genre. Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill, Mark Heard and others pioneered CCM but these were straightforward rock (Only Visiting This Planet) or "folkier" (Eye of the Storm). Daniel Amos was one of the earliest alternative Christian rock bands (although my experience with DA is limited as I don't particularly care for their music, particularly their early material than isn't really "alternative"...more country rock) to emerge but I'd put The Choir, The 77's, LSU, Undercover, Altar Boys and Adam Again in this group. All of these bands began in the 1970s up until around the mid-1980s. Many of these bands are still active, particularly DA, The Choir and The 77's.

The 1990s, to me, seem to mark a dramatic increase in the amount of CCM acts. I'd say the 1990s are really where CCM took off, with dc Talk and others selling impressive numbers of albums. I think that the second cycle of alternative/underground Christian rock began in the late 1980s and continued to maybe around 2000 (although some of these bands are still active or were active into the 2000s). Here I would list bands like The Violet Burning, The Prayer Chain, Luxury, Common Children, Starflyer 59, Love Coma, Pedro The Lion, Fold Zandura, The Lassie Foundation, among others. Some of these bands aren't as "Christian" as others (e.g. The Prayer Chain compared to The Lassie Foundation) but many of the same musicians frequently pop up in each other's music (Andy Prickett in The Prayer Chain and The Violet Burning, Wayne Everett was in The Prayer Chain, fronted The Lassie Foundation and played in Starflyer 59, as did Eric Campuzano, Frank Lenz has been involved in a myriad of different bands). I think that this was the high point of alternative/underground Christian rock, with tremendous albums like The Violet Burning, Mercury, and Delicate Fade.

But since the 2000s, how many stable, notable alternative/underground Christian rock bands emerged? It seems as if many new alternative Christian rock bands come out with one or two albums and then disappear or disband. I don't see many new bands having the longevity of bands like The Choir or The Violet Burning. Bright spots in the alternative Christian rock industry have been erratic, such as Cush. I recall reading an excellent article by Charlie Peacock about how many new bands typically confined to CCM are moving into the mainstream (such as Eisley, Switchfoot and Lifehouse) but is there really no future for alternative Christian rock? I suppose some could cite bands like mewithoutYou as 2000-onward bands who might fit the label, but something else that is interesting is how close-knit the two previous cycles were. This was best demonstrated by The Lost Dogs, but even between the two groups there is interaction, such as Steve Hindalong and Gene Eugene producing many of the 1990s albums. With labels like Northern Records and Blue Velvet Music, I keep hoping to find some new bands who will fit into the same mould as The Choir or Luxury, but to no avail.

#2 Joel

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Posted 18 April 2012 - 08:00 PM

Great question! I've thought about this a lot and addressed it in my book to some extent, but my take on this has usually been that the idea of an alternative Christian scene has more or less been chucked out by those who would've been involved with it in the 1990s. It's not so much that we're still afraid of losing our street cred -- there's less of bands hemming and hawing about whether they're 'really' Christian or not -- but that a lot of us who came of age in the 90s saw our favorite bands limited by preconceived notions. Anyone remember that truly heinous TinyMixTapes review of a Starflyer record that was nothing but anti-conservative-Evangelical rant, never mind the music? Or the famous Pitchfork review of Pedro the Lion's Winners Never Quit? I don't know if others would agree, but for myself and many of my peers, I feel like we saw how being in the orbit of evangelical businesses, churches, publishing, etc. got you a small readymade audience, which was great, but also lost you a ton of cultural capital, which was not great. Then we saw Sufjan Stevens, and we were like "OK, we don't have to do that any more."

One good place to look is, what's happening to indie rock bands coming out of Christian colleges now as opposed to 15 years ago? Are they looking for deals with labels like (well, or their 2012 equivalents, if the labels no longer exist) Tooth and Nail, Gotee, or whatever? Mostly I think they're not -- they're putting out their own records or looking for indie labels without any religious litmus test.

The other important thing to remember is that record labels in general are a lot less important than they used to be when it comes to getting people to hear your music, building a following, etc.

There is a lot more to explore about this -- and i'm always up for it -- but I gotta go make dinner before the Canucks game!

PS - I'd say for this century the best place to look for that tight-knit Christian indie scene, if there is one, is Daniel Smith and Sounds Familyre. (Which to some extent spins out into Asthmatic Kitty, Sounds Are Active, and a few other labels -- but again, less of a "exclusively Christian" bent, where you've got Chrindie movers and shakers working comfortably alongside non-evangelicals.)

Edited by Joel, 19 April 2012 - 12:47 AM.


#3 mrmando

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Posted 18 April 2012 - 08:52 PM

Whatever big-label support still exists is going toward worship-oriented bands these days.

I grew up with the 1980s wave of alternative bands, but somewhere along the way, rock music ceased having anything to say to me. Vigilantes of Love and Over the Rhine are the only two of the '90s bands whose music I actually cared for. I bought some Violet Burning, Poor Old Lu, Prayer Chain, Aunt Bettys, SF59, and Pedro, but I gotta be honest, I never really liked any of it. (Well, there WAS the Scaterd-Few record ... that was pretty cool.)

but I'd put The Choir, The 77's, LSU, Undercover, Altar Boys and Adam Again in this group. All of these bands began in the 1970s up until around the mid-1980s.

Well, apart from the 77's, who were active under the name The Scratch Band as early as 1978, this group of bands was not around in the '70s. They all came out of California between 1981 and 1986.

I don't think the term "alternative rock" was in use in the '70s, but there were groups back then that existed on the fringe of "Jesus Music" for one reason or another. The alternative CCM bands of the '70s were acts you've probably never heard of: All Saved Freak Band, Concrete Rubber Band, Agape, Azitis, Wilson McKinley, Ark Angel, Parchment, and Fraction. Yeah, Fraction:
http://www.youtube.c...bed/umSZq7mssAs

Better-known '70s bands like Servant, Resurrection Band and Alpha Band might also qualify as "alternative" in some sense.

I wouldn't know for sure, but I suspect Joel is right: Christian kids interested in playing alternative rock these days are just doing it outside of evangelical subculture. Being part of the worship-band movement, as far as I can tell, means being subject to all sorts of restrictions and expectations about what kind of lyrics you are going to write -- even more restrictions than our hero Mark Heard experienced as part of the CCM scene in the '70s and '80s. It's fine if that's your calling, but if it's not I don't know why you would bother.

Edited by mrmando, 19 April 2012 - 07:22 PM.


#4 Darryl A. Armstrong

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Posted 18 April 2012 - 09:02 PM

Yes, great question! I used to be much more involved in the alternative CCM scene back in the 90s and early 00s when I used to write reviews. I'm a little out-of-touch these days, but I have noticed most of CCM seems now to be holdovers from the more popular "top-40"-ish groups from that period, new "top-40"-ish groups or worship oriented stuff (I see as I'm writing this mrmando has already pointed that out - cool new board feature!).

But what with what you hinted at and Joel pointed out - with the rise of bands like Eisley, Switchfoot (dare I throw in Sixpence?), and the meteoric Sufjan Stevens, I think Christian musicians don't need to be shackled in the CCM ghetto. And really, isn't that what many of us have been hoping for with Christianity and the arts? Christians being able to actively engage the culture without being limited either by Christian culture convention or labels from society as a whole.

#5 winter shaker

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Posted 18 April 2012 - 09:16 PM

There is a lot more to explore about this -- and i'm always up for it -- but I gotta go make diner before the Canucks game!

PS - I'd say for this century the best place to look for that tight-knit Christian indie scene, if there is one, is Daniel Smith and Sounds Familyre. (Which to some extent spins out into Asthmatic Kitty, Sounds Are Active, and a few other labels -- but again, less of a "exclusively Christian" bent, where you've got Chrindie movers and shakers working comfortably alongside non-evangelicals.)


Here's hoping the Canucks don't get swept...

Yes, I'm familyre with Daniel Smith...I never really got into Danielson that much (although he sounds just like Aaron Weiss and I know he produced the last mewithoutYou album). I suppose there is a little bit of a connection between Daniel Smith and Aaron Weiss, and Daniel Smith and Sufjan Stevens and David Eugene Edwards (A Sufjan and DEE project would be exciting!) but it's dissimilar to the other groups in that Sufjan is more folkish, while DEE is...well...he's difficult to classify, but not really alternative rock in the sense of The Prayer Chain.

Whatever big-label support still exists is going toward worship-oriented bands these days.

I grew up with the 1980s wave of alternative bands, but somewhere along the way, rock music ceased having anything to say to me. Vigilantes of Love and Over the Rhine are the only two of the '90s bands whose music ever did anything for me.


I agree and that's a good point. A lot of the big acts in CCM seem to be moving towards worship. Even someone who I think is a little off-the-beaten-track of Christian worship like John Mark Mcmillan is still regarded as a worship artist. I love Bill Mallonee's work especially, but both VoL and OtR are excellent artists.

But what with what you hinted at and Joel pointed out - with the rise of bands like Eisley, Switchfoot (dare I throw in Sixpence?), and the meteoric Sufjan Stevens, I think Christian musicians don't need to be shackled in the CCM ghetto. And really, isn't that what many of us have been hoping for with Christianity and the arts? Christians being able to actively engage the culture without being limited either by Christian culture convention or labels from society as a whole.


Yeah, I think with many bands and singers self-releasing their music, there might be a new wave of Christian songwriters emerging who are not confined to the same restrictions as bands thoroughly immersed in CCM. I think people like Josh Garrels might be the beginning of this new wave.

#6 Joel

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Posted 19 April 2012 - 12:35 AM

I think people like Josh Garrels might be the beginning of this new wave.


You're on to something here. Garrels has been self-releasing music for something like 10 years (I was first handed a burned CD of his in 2003 I think), but people are taking notice. This is how it's done now: give away your music for free, and cash in -- in terms of both notability and, to some extent, money -- in other ways. Make limited edition vinyl (Starflyer 59, who are wrapping up a Kickstarter campaign that's raised over $20,000 to make a record without Tooth and Nail, are releasing an album on mp3 and vinyl -- no CDs), do special events (Bazan can gross $1000 a night for a house show -- I'm not saying he pockets that much; I'm sure he doesn't), sell a documentary (like Garrels -- or like Louis CK, who made over $1,000,000 selling a comedy special online for $5 a pop).

Here's something Derek Webb wrote about this, called "Giving it Away." Pretty interesting.

#7 winter shaker

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Posted 19 April 2012 - 01:30 AM


I think people like Josh Garrels might be the beginning of this new wave.


You're on to something here. Garrels has been self-releasing music for something like 10 years (I was first handed a burned CD of his in 2003 I think), but people are taking notice. This is how it's done now: give away your music for free, and cash in -- in terms of both notability and, to some extent, money -- in other ways. Make limited edition vinyl (Starflyer 59, who are wrapping up a Kickstarter campaign that's raised over $20,000 to make a record without Tooth and Nail, are releasing an album on mp3 and vinyl -- no CDs), do special events (Bazan can gross $1000 a night for a house show -- I'm not saying he pockets that much; I'm sure he doesn't), sell a documentary (like Garrels -- or like Louis CK, who made over $1,000,000 selling a comedy special online for $5 a pop).

Here's something Derek Webb wrote about this, called "Giving it Away." Pretty interesting.


Thanks for the link. I'll give it a read tomorrow!

But I'm disappointed that SF59 isn't releasing the new album as a CD. I'm not hip enough to use vinyl and I like having the actual music. A side note from the topic, but I like the fact that bands now give you instant downloads of the music that you buy in physical form from their website.

#8 Greg P

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Posted 19 April 2012 - 06:07 AM

I lived in Nashville in the 90's when alternative christian rock reared up momentarily in a semi-delusional fit of grandeur and then promptly sighed and completely deflated. By 2000, the emphasis was worship music and the experiential component of hearing that in a live setting. Why this happened would require a lengthy analysis, but here are a few quick thoughts:

1) An evangelical emphasis on renewal and spiritual awakening, that ran throughout a good part of the 90's in charismatic and third wave circles, but hit mainstream in the late 90's. I think this shifted the already-limited focus of CCM almost entirely in the direction of "having a closer relationship with God" and the importance of rock worship music.

2) Secular alternative music experienced an unprecedented expansion into the mainstream in the early 90's with Nirvana and Pearl Jam and grunge-- it only follows that CCM would have a brief, corresponding upward swing in interest and sales as well. Secular Indie rock became much more complicated and diffuse in the late 90's and early 00's -- too complicated for CCM to follow.

3) CCM always just wanted to sound as good as their pagan counterparts. Once they did (DC Talk's, Jesus Freak setting the bar IMO, followed by many well-produced alternative efforts) the mountain was conquered and there was nowhere else to go.

4) The slow death of radio. This translated into the slightly more rapid death of christian radio and their saturday night alternative CCM shows.

Then there's always Soul Junk.

I love Glenn and there's actually a brand new album. But those mid-90's albums 1951,1952, 1953/54 were revelations to me at the time about what music sung by a christian could sound like. I will always praise this guy-- 1953/54 was a turning point in my view of religion and the arts. I'm so glad he's still out there doing his slightly batshit-crazy thing.

Edited by Greg P, 19 April 2012 - 06:16 AM.


#9 Nick Alexander

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Posted 19 April 2012 - 08:37 AM

A good question. A simple answer. They're annually listed on the Cornerstone Festival roster. (My go-to resource, along w the addition of iTunes sound samples, to discover great music, without leaving my perch).

#10 opus

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Posted 19 April 2012 - 10:27 AM

This is a fascinating topic, thanks for bringing it up. I was one of those kids who dove headfirst into the waters of Christian indie/alternative (aka "Chrindie") music in the '90s, starting with artists like Mortal, Circle of Dust, The Prayer Chain and The Violet Burning, and moving on to Tooth & Nail and its related labels through the end of the decade. At the time, it felt like a very closeknit little scene, especially for someone from Lincoln, Nebraska, and I loved the fact that it occupied the middle ground between the secular and Christian worlds. And honestly, part of me misses that, if only because it made it easier to discover artists.

If I had to make a guess about the present situation, I think I'd chalk it up to the same factor that Joel mentioned: in general, record labels just aren't that important anymore, especially when you have things like Kickstarter, Bandcamp/Soundcloud, and Facebook/Twitter around. Savvy musicians, like Josh Garrels, can certainly make this system work for them. Christian musicians -- who aren't worship musicians, that is -- are simply moving out of two ghettos: the "Christian music" ghetto and the "record label" ghetto.

I've mentioned him before, but one of my favorite Christian musicians in recent history is Jay Tholen, who releases most of his stuff online for free or for very little, and usually on his own.

#11 Andy Whitman

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Posted 19 April 2012 - 11:37 AM

All of the above. These are all great points.

What fascinates me these days is the way overtly Christian music is marketed. I recall seeing some videos at Cornerstone a few years back that touted several hot new worship bands. And that was the terminology used. We saw close-ups of smoldering, glowering godly men, presumably ready to worship. The basic approach is nothing new, of course, at least in the broader music world, but it was the first time I had heard the words "worship" and "hot" tied together, and it was clear from the imagery used that these bands were burning with ... love of the Lord, I guess.

Anybody with any sense or artistic integrity has abandoned the CCM world, and the people left are those who either couldn't make it anyplace else ('80s keyboards and drum machines are still in vogue in the CCM pop world) or those whose music is so closely tied to worship that they have no other musical niche. And even those folks have to put up with Duran Duran mimicry in the videos used to promote them.

So one possible explanation is that a lot of Christian rock 'n rollers got wise and simply started making the music they wanted. There are hundreds of Christians who make alternative music. They just operate outside the confines of CCM.

#12 Greg P

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Posted 19 April 2012 - 12:36 PM

I would also add, that there was this distinct, largely-unspoken belief in the early to mid-90's that alternative Christian rock was actually going to take over the world. Major news media outlets did features about the phenomena. I was there at its epicenter, with CCM musicians and fans alike, and I remember it well.

Among christian musicians, there was this realization that they could finally play their music, have "careers" and possibly make a healthy living doing small to medium venues outside the standard church congregation. This was big. The whole thing really did open up, enabled entirely by that glorious marketing trinity: CCM radio, bookstores and magazines. It was a very enticing and exciting era for the indie/christian college rock guitarists and for guys who had aborted secular music careers in the name of Lord. But the harsh reality was that beyond the hype, only a handful of guys ever got to hitch a ride on the real Gravy Train. Even for them, that ride was brief. And let's face the fact-- DC Talk's Jesus Freak was a Platinum monster in the CCM universe, but by secular counterpart standards, still pretty modest.

Eventually musicians and fans realized this music was always going to be second-fiddle no matter how well-produced, and was always going to represent a comparatively niche market on the charts. As Andy said, those with any sense went back to their day jobs and started playing music their own way, again. Others retreating back into reality, made a logical evolutionary leap into a more glistening, teen-friendly form of worship music

#13 Holy Moly!

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Posted 19 April 2012 - 03:19 PM

A few things:
1) Partially I think discerning listeners just stopped caring, while a scaled back infrastructure does exist for those who still want something more segregated. Tooth And Nail still seems to be doing quite well. It continues on, like Juggalo Culture, as a thing that exists whether or not the rest of us are paying attention. (That it rarely merits our attention these days is unsurprising).

2) The model of music that involves just giving it all away absolutely doesn't work at all, if you want anyone to make a living (except tech company execs who are doing fine). Touring and fan-support is important, but sales of recorded music still accounts for a huge portion of artists' income. The Future of Music Coalition has released some solid research studies on this.

3) Labels absolutely matter still, especially for artists in the first decade of their careers. There is NO factor more important than the backing of a well-respected label for landing the right tours, booking well-paying shows and festival gigs, getting the right publications to review your album, etc. But Chrindies don't matter as much, because there isn't a press infrastructure left for Chrindies. Indeed, most of them got bought up by majors, and the majors are moving the direction of more integrated markets and fewer niche markets, especially for youth-oriented genres.

4) Louis CK's standup special model only works if you're already extremely famous with a corporate funded TV series, previous comedy-central funded specials, several national tours, etc. That model is useless for independent artists who aren't at an already-totally-famous level. This is true to a lesser extent with Kickstarter. Kickstarter is a rad tool, but it requires that a broad enough level of fame already exists.

5) Worth noting as well, that alternative rock is not exactly topping the charts these days. Aside from that awful Gotye song.

Edited by Holy Moly!, 19 April 2012 - 06:57 PM.


#14 Joel

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Posted 20 April 2012 - 01:24 AM

Kevin's right