Is the future of Christian music on TikTok?
Montell Fish is a Christian musician whose songs have taken off with tens of millions of streams. But unlike the artists who have risen through the ranks of the CCM, its main platform is not a stage of worship.
The 24-year-old artist went viral on TikTok from his bedroom, where he checked himself in, wearing a black t-shirt and bandana, playing guitar and singing in falsetto, “Why don’t don’t you talk to me like you used to?”
Their soothing “lo-fi” (low-fidelity) music stands in stark contrast to the high production value of today’s top cult bands. In a world that increasingly challenges labels and genres, Fish represents a slew of independent faith-based artists who are succeeding on platforms like TikTok and leapfrogging the contemporary Christian music format and industry that CCM has built upon. long built.
For these artists, independence from the traditional constraints of the music industry means greater freedom to explore — and redefine — what it means to be a successful “Christian” artist. However, with this freedom comes greater responsibility for artists in shaping their careers and makes other essentials like financial viability more unstable.
Previously known as one of the artists behind the music project Lord’s Child and a YouTuber who uploaded videos like “3 ways to stay focused on Christ“, Fish started uploading TikToks in October 2019.
On September 7, 2021, he uploaded a clip of himself sitting in his room, with a sound titled “falling in love with you” playing in the background. The song snippet is notable for its tranquility; he seems content to take his time, unlike the fast pace of TikTok. The video racked up over 3.3 million views, a year in a row Youtube video of Fish performing the song racked up more than double the views of the original, and listeners streamed the later version of Spotify 92 million times.
Still, Fish released those tracks on his own and didn’t put any paid promotion behind it, according to his manager, Patrick Bradley.
The music industry has evolved rapidly over the past few years, largely due to platforms like Spotify and TikTok. The advent of streaming has made it harder for artists to generate income – platforms like Spotify pay around $0.004 per stream, whereas in the days of pre-streaming, consumers had to buy entire albums. In a world that increasingly emphasizes the playlist rather than the album, record labels have consolidated.
With 60,000 new songs are uploaded to Spotify every day, it’s harder than ever for music artists to gain mainstream traction. More so, the disappearance of the traditional structure of the music industry has led to the disappearance of traditional genre categories. The days of “pop”, “rock”, “hip-hop”, “R&B” and “CCM” are over; musical genres have increasingly divided into various small microtrends.
Originally popularized in the 1960s and 1970s during the Jesus People movement, contemporary Christian music, defined by Andrew Mall in God Rock, Inc., as “less in its musical characteristics…than in its lyrical content, representing a Bible-based Christian worldview” – peaked in popularity in the 90s and has declined over the past decade due to the changing market and cultural climate.
“Traditional modes of engagement with the CCM have long been in decline,” said Portland Seminary professor Leah Payne, who writes a book on contemporary Christian music for Oxford University Press. Since CCM has existed, mostly white evangelical artists have dominated Christian radio charts.
“New platforms like TikTok that fall outside of this model allow different types of artists to thrive,” Payne said. “I think the question I ask myself is, how are these artists going to sustain themselves and how are they going to continue to connect with their audiences?”
Independent Christian Artist Anthony Bradford sees platforms like Spotify and TikTok as a means by which he has been able to build a full-time music career. After becoming a Christian, he began to write music to express how his faith shaped his life. “I saw there was a need for Christians to be vulnerable and to talk about mental health and just the struggles of what it means to be a Christian,” he said.
In 2017, he independently released “Safe”, a love song to his wife based on Ephesians 5; he has since racked up over 6 million Spotify streams. The success of the first song inspired him and allowed him to release EPs like “Dear Christian in difficulty” and “Even in the dark“, plus an album, “The light will find youin 2021. This has also allowed him to embark on tours with other independent Christian artists, such as Lovkn’s A great family tour.
Bradford is now a full-time musician; he appreciates the flexibility that not being signed to a label doesn’t give him, but that means he manages everything in his career, from fundraising to designing merchandise and album covers.
While Bradford supports herself by making music, other artists like John Jin Han and Sarah Juers don’t see making music full-time as essential to their long-term plans. For them, creative freedom in their spiritual expression is a higher priority than financial sustenance solely through their music.
Juers regards his music as a ministry. A freelance artist who works full-time in customer service, Juers prefers not to rely on her creative work as a means of economic survival, but instead sees it as a way for her to connect with people and glorify God.
“My biggest goal in life is to be authentically myself and to walk humbly with God,” she said. “If I try to be too much of a brand or kind of a figure, I think that just takes away from authenticity and people’s ability to really connect.”
Beyond that, she adds, “For me, my soul is the most important thing in the world. How many people listen to me and follow me doesn’t matter. My relationship with God is the most important thing.
Han, an independent Christian musician affiliated with the Southern California-based Isla Vista Worship, describes his music as being on a spectrum between secular and Christian. He submitted his thesis for his PsyD in Clinical Psychology this year with the goal of becoming a psychologist and pursuing music in tandem with that career.
“Creativity has always been a value for Isla Vista Worship, but more importantly, we wanted to welcome God’s presence and really write songs for our community,” he said. After leaving Isla Vista, however, he realized he wanted to continue making music: “It started with a few cult releases, indie cult, indie Christian. The more I wrote these songs, the more I realized that I also wanted to write other songs about my story.
Han’s background in writing worship music made him want to branch out and write faith-based music outside of the worship genre. He writes songs for young adults struggling with their faith and for “Asian Americans who feel out of place in white spaces.”
Faith informs the varying definitions of success for Christian artists, with platforms like TikTok and Spotify allowing them to pursue their creative vision independently. But the attention they have found naturally suggests that there is an audience that cares deeply about Christian art outside the constraints of the contemporary Christian music machine or even the burgeoning worship music industry. .
For artists like Fish, TikTok’s virality has opened the door to the mainstream market without ever having been entirely under the Christian music umbrella, perhaps pointing to a wider audience hungry for music woven with religious themes. .
“I’m still a very faith-centered person and I love Jesus,” he said in a recent maintenance with Billboard. “But I think a lot of my art has embraced a different way of telling those stories.”
Fish released his album JAMIE on July 22, the first installment of what he says is a “trilogy in three projects” on Instagram. Her manager announced on Instagram earlier this year that the two had started an independent record label and signed a deal with Virgin Music Label and Artist Services, a subsidiary of Virgin Records for independent record labels. Fish is touring this fall following his performance at Pharrell’s Something in the Water festival in June, and has appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon August 11.
He sang his song “Darling” while sitting on a bed on stage – a reminder of his origins on TikTok as well as a reminder of how far he’s come. “I finally let you go,” he sings. “Leave my control.”
Rachel Seo is Social Media Coordinator at Variety.
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