I came to a great realization around 2010. It happened when I picked up the latest Hillsong Live worship album ‘A Beautiful Exchange.’ I got the ‘deluxe’ version because it was the same price as the regular one for some reason. There was a song on this record that I absolutely loved (you may have heard of it) called ‘Forever Reign.’ The words are so great and powerful, and it has what I love most about worship albums… a bunch of people singing and making music together. I love Hillsong because it’s real and authentic. Same with Bethel and Jesus Culture.
But there was something on there that I wasn’t expecting. There was a track called ‘Forever Reign (Radio Edit).’ I was a little taken back by this track even before I heard it. Why did a worship song need a radio edit? Immediately I thought ‘it’s probably too long.’ But in reality, it was only a minute or so shorter.
Then I heard the track and realized what it was. It was the Becky edit. It was super clean, with loud and perfect vocals, and it was stripped of it’s cool artistry. It was as if someone had taken the moose tracks ice cream out of my bowl and handed me a bowl of vanilla. Now…vanilla isn’t bad. But it’s not moose tracks. Moose tracks was what authors usually intended to create. And the record label makes a vanilla version for the radio.
Becky Infiltrates Worship
It was around this time that CCR began to catch on to something. Christians may never agree on their favorite Christian bands, but they’ll all agree on their favorite worship songs. Have you looked at the top CCLI songs lately? It’s probably safe (for the whole family) to say that whatever church you’ve attended has worshipped with one of these songs in the past 90 days.
I love almost several of those songs. And churches sing these lyrics to our God every week. It’s an awesome thing. I also love how churches across all generational and denominational backgrounds are singing a lot of the same songs. Pretty cool. But what many people don’t realize is how much Becky has infiltrated the local churches worship music. I’d like to tell you a few personal stories.
There are those who’s job is to make sure Becky remains the target of new worship music. I can tell you this because I know them personally.
If you think that the new popular worship songs happened by accident, you’d be fooling yourself. The worship songs that make it to the masses are hand selected. Let me share how the process works for all three categories.
Major artists like Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, and other solo worship leaders are seasoned, and fine-tuned in writing for Becky. Go back ten years though and hear what they were creating then. Go back to the nineties even. You’ll notice some big difference, but here’s what you’ll notice the most: the melodies of the songs have gotten really, really easy. They’ve become as plain as possible, with little syncopation and narrow ranges.
Major churches like Hillsong and Bethel are a bit different. They write songs for their churches and as resources for their ministry. I think they are probably the most authentic in their music, and often times most artistic. Radio isn’t their drive, but as stated earlier ‘radio edits’ often happen.
Independant artists can go through SongDiscovery. Here a panel of regular worship leaders vote on the 20 or so chosen songs by one man (who picks these from several hundred or a thousand every month). Major artists are also in this mix, but everything is unlabeled so you can focus on the song. Because I’m on the panel, I get to hear these songs every month. Most of them are overly simple, unartistic, and sound like U2 meets Mumford and Sons.
Let’s Get Personal
I’ve sat down with publishers before. In fact, I’ve been in front of major publishers four times: 2008, 2011, 2012, and 2013.
In 2008, I was told my song was awesome, but that it needed one direction. I learned the difference between writing vertical and horizontal (to God / You God). Great learning experience.
In 2011, it was a panel of 2 publishers and a professional songwriter. I was taken back because one publisher said my verse was too difficult to understand. Here’s the lyric from the song ‘You Love Me’:
Standing on the mountain
Looking towards the valley
It’s so easy to feel so safe
But when I’m in the valley
Looking towards the mountain
It seems so far away
The metaphor was too much for the church, according to a publisher.
In 2012, I sat with two members of my band and had two of my songs critiqued by a very well known publisher in CCM. The song ‘Bring Glory to Your Name’ was the first one. I wrote that song to go somewhere. Verse 1 is a metaphor inspired by Matthew 10. If God cares for the smallest flower, he cares for us. Verse 2 brings that message home to mankind.
Her response to this was shocking. She said that the church doesn’t have the attention span for a song to ‘go somewhere’ metaphorically. She said that I should move verse 2 to verse 1 and write a new second verse that was in the same place. Read that again. That is what a major publisher believes about the church.
In June of 2013, I sat down with a publisher from a well known CCM company. I was pitching one of my Revelation songs ‘The Fourfold Hallelujah.’ She absolutely loved the song, which was cool. The song also works in lyrics from an old hymn, which she said I did very well considering that it was not always well done. The meeting was going great.
Then she suggested I change the flow of the chorus from: ‘We’re singing out hallelujah / We’re singing out to the lamb’ to ’We sing hallelujah / We sing to the lamb.’ and so on. If you ever hear the song (releases this October), you’ll see how taking out those few syllables makes the song very corny. I asked her why she would suggest that, and her response was exactly what I expected. ‘The church has a hard time singing fast lyrics.’
The Church Has Been Put into a Box
Friends, the music industry has placed the church into a box. They believe that the church is incapable of exuberayting any artistry. They believe the church is incapable of singing syncopation, big ranges, and anything faster than an quarter note at 85bpm.
How does this give God the best of a content creator? How does this give God the best as a worshipper? Did God not create artistry? Did God not want worship to be a sacrifice of praise?
Just as the radio industry force content creators to create for Becky, the worship industry believes Becky is the only attendee on Sunday. Maybe they’re right. Statistics are actually on their side, with male attendance on a steady decline. But I wonder how much of the churches situation is a catch-22. The presence of Becky is driving the content, and the content is keeping Becky as their main demographic.
The church must be set free as it once was. Look at the music of the Renaissance. Look at the music of the hymn writers. ‘Redeemed‘ is way more complex than most worship songs today. Even look at the music of Keith Green, Rich Mullins, and several other writers from the 70′s-90′s. They sure didn’t write in the box. Even Delirious!, Sonic Flood, and other worship artists of the 90′s wrote complex songs. Try that jump in ‘Did You Feel the Mountains Tremble?’ That song would never make it through the publishers today… too hard to sing, too much of a metaphor to understand.
It hasn’t always been like this, and it won’t always be like this. I believe the current business has peaked, and we’re on the down-slope. Remember, I believe a wave is coming.
[Don't believe me? I did some research regarding 'Forever Reign' mentioned in the first part of this post. Between last.fm, YouTube, and sites I could find tracking internet plays of the two versions of this song (live, artistic VS. radio edit), I found that the live version had 60x more plays. That is HUGE. That shows us that the church (ie, Christians) prefer the artistic live version over the Becky radio version!]
There was one who beat the system a few years ago when the industry was peaking. We’ll case-study that song and see how it beat the system in the next post. Any ideas who it was?