The Great Contradiction
By Seth Milliner - 10/11/2005 - 08:15 PM EDT
Some things in life are more complex than they need to be. Take the ticket numbering system at the department of motor vehicles for instance. Are seven different numbering schemes that are completely unrelated for 4 customer service counters really necessary? At the barber shop you simply take a number…you don’t have to take a different type of number depending on the kind of hairstyle you happen to sport. Luckily there’s a flip side to that. Some things in life are no-brainers. There’s a warning label on my blow dryer telling me not to use it in the shower. And yet as I read it an uncomfortable sensation comes over me that somebody somewhere tried it and sued a blow drier manufacturer for not having a warning label about operating the device underwater. Well, when it comes to music, I’m that guy that writes about no-brainers I’ve been caught up in (but I didn’t sue anybody over my school of hard knocks lessons).
Back in the Spring of 2002 I was doing a lot of praying about music. I was playing heavily at church. 2 or 3 services a week, the occasional evening youth service and every time a band was put together for a wedding, vacation Bible school, chili cook-off, bake sale, the annual fish feed, ice cream socials, AWANA, Valentine’s Day sockhop, or just a special Sunday evening of joyful noise. I was almost always on the roster for drums, bass or guitar. But something inside of me was stirring. I wanted to do more with music than worship music. I was praying heavily for an opportunity to do something, anything that would give me a sense of purpose, usefulness, and accomplishment. An outlet that would allow me to write original music and share it with both saved Christians desiring growth and the untapped masses that had never been exposed to the gospel in the unique way that God (I hoped) would use me to do. God opened a door for me that was precisely what I was wishing for. And you know what they say about being careful what you wish for.
To make a very long story short I agreed to play guitar as a member of a local band with very high goals and doing the work necessary to meet those aspirations. Essentially our number one goal was performing music occupationally. Ministry, outreach, and the inherent value of artistic expression through the music took a back seat to making the “business” of music work. We spent some long hours in meetings discussing money and how to spend it, how to best market ourselves, making the right contacts and how to navigate the shark-infested waters of the music industry (yes, even the Christian music industry has its share of carnivores). The closer and closer we got to arriving at our goals the more mediocre we played, arranged, and wrote, the more shameless self-promotion became necessary and the more importance we placed on hype (or the perception of hype). At some point the realization that what record label A&R reps (even 'Christian' labels) want to see pretty much boils down to two things:
Another way of stating those might be “fortune and fame”. Gone are the days of record label artist development. You pretty much have to prove that you can move product and that you already have a huge adorning fanbase of people who want to come to your shows and buy your stuff. In this day and age of economical hardship, those that profiteer on the discovery of talent and making it famous are not inclined to take risks. The more hype you build for yourself, the more that snowballs into more hype. Perceived hype then becomes actual hype because when it appears as though you’re popular, well, that makes you even more popular with those that haven’t heard of you yet. Nobody wants to miss out on something good. Nothing draws a bigger crowd than a crowd that’s already big. The machine feeds itself.
Where I found myself was stuck in this cycle of having to generate hype or create it myself constantly to impress the right people, so they would further open doors for us, that would eventually lead to radio promotion, publicists, booking agents, management, label contraction, merchandising, and so on. And I stopped for a moment one long weekend, to look ahead and see myself. I visualized a man longer in tooth now, perhaps doing what he loves much of the time: playing, producing, writing for those that would listen and with luck, they were many. And yes, I meant to say luck. But I saw myself also looking back, in retrospect, at the man I was today. Looking back at how I got to where I was. And I felt the conviction like a slap in the face from verses that state “he who is first shall be last” (Matthew 19:30) and “the lowly he sets on high” (Job 5:11). Even Jesus, in the performing of healings and many miracles, the only man with every right to glory humbled himself as a servant to all mankind. I was not approaching spreading the gospel as a servant, as Jesus did. I was approaching it from the perspective of needing to achieve rock stardom in an effort to get those masses to listen to me, only to have a watered-down message and ambiguity as safe allies. There was no humility in our message or our methods. Our motives had gone from mostly pure within the big picture, to mostly selfish achieving the means to an end. I started to remember the prayers I first had. In word I prayed for an opportunity to “do something more” but in spirit what I believe I was really asking for was an opportunity to accomplish something bigger than myself. I was in awe of the demigods on stage leading the Lord’s people in thought-provoking music and heartfelt worship night after night and I wanted to be used like that. What I did not realize is the sacrifices necessary to make that a reality. It was with the realization that I will never find myself at a plateau of achievement that would simply allow me to minister and create without the chains of marketing and money that I decided this industry was simply not for me. And I left my band.
If you’ve ever watched a reality television game show there are (in general) two different strategies people take. They will backstab, lie, cheat, and abuse trust however and whenever it profits them to do so from the spotlight of a national broadcast television station. Then there are others that take the moral high ground. That tell themselves long before they ever arrive on the island that they will not participate in the underhandedness when tempted. Those individuals almost never win reality television game shows. It is usually the individuals that can backstab, lie and abuse trust the best, but do it in a way that detected by teammates the least that squeeze out the win. On-air interviews with these individuals frequently reveal repeated statements that include phrases like “it’s only a game”. As if morality and ethics were somehow suspended within time and space and game was actually about the underhanded techniques and playing it in such a way that was morally and ethically above reproach wasn’t really an option….if you want to win.
And there you have it.
My advice, if you could call it that, is pretty much a no-brainer folks. It’s a very slippery slope. And there’s a heavy current there to suck you in, particularly if you are talented and good at what you do. Those of you pro-actively pursuing an occupation within the Christian music industry, my hat’s off to you. May the Lord bless you and keep you. Stick to your guns. Because once you start compromising, it’s really hard to stop. Seek Him in all you do. The second I looked away and start pursuing anything else I regretted it. But perhaps most poignantly (and appropriately for this forum) I would request, nay, beg of you that this applies to – please at the very least be true to your writing. Write from your heart. Poetic considerations are great. But if you keep marketing, sales, hype, radio-readiness and demographic considerations to a minimum within your writing, you will at least, have a tool useful for ministry and a product you can be proud of years later as you look in retrospect at how you climbed the stairs of success.
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