The State Of British Music

Recently I've been working at a local store which sells, among other things, recorded music. Seeing and hearing the huge range of "hits" which are sold on compilation albums has caused me to give a lot of thought to the state of British music.

In the early 90's, the UK charts were dominated by house music and its kin. The mid-90's saw the rise of "brit-pop" with the success of Blur and Oasis. This was heralded by many as a renaissance in British music as kids started to form bands again and live music began to grow in popularity. As time has gone on, "brit-pop" seems to have begun to pass and a more eclectic range of groups are enjoying success. The past year has also seen a number of bands beginning to combine the sounds of rock and dance (such as Prodigy), but the cross-pollination of these two areas seems to be fairly low.

One commentator, Vince Millett of the band "Secret Archives Of The Vatican," had this to add: "There are many commentators now starting to refer in the music/lifestyle press to Britpop actually showing the complete lack of imagination in the music industry. Some of them are referring to other scenes such as Talvin Singh's Anokha Club and the whole British-Asian drum 'n' bass/hip hop scene as being the real source of musical creativity today. Various dance magazines have mentioned this in their round-ups of 1997, and so have publications like GQ. I think that a year or two's hindsight concerning 1997 will show more people realising what a dead-end Britpop was."

Another commentator, Jonathan Ross, said recently that British music is suffering because record companies have become great at marketing but have lost the talent of A&R (creating and/or discovering talent). Many people would agree, as the Spice Girls continue to earn their management millions of pounds. Their main competitors for the coveted Christmas number one in 1997 was a record by the "Teletubbies," a group of characters from a television program aimed at toddlers. Many would say, and I would agree, that the most successful music (excluding some acts like Radiohead) lacks the passion of the classic rock music and has moved away from the artistic roots of music to a post-modern, consumerist, raison d'etre.

"How do Christians fit into this music scene?" and "how should they fit in?" are two important questions that any Christian with more than a passing connection with music is likely to begin asking. The first of these is a difficult question to answer. The truth is that, apart from delirious? and Iona, musicians from within the Christian subculture have not made any impact within mainstream music for many years; but there are Christians within the industry working in other ways. One obvious example of this is the group Eternal who are all practicing Christians, but there are others working in the media, in the record companies, and within other areas of the industry.

Christian music in Britain shares some roots with its U.S. equivalent (although the history of "gospel" music is not present). Alongside the constant influence of Christians through the history of music, the 60's and 70's brought the charismatic revival and saw many young people touring the Christian coffeehouses, singing songs about their faith. Even back in the 70's some of these musicians were attempting to make a dent on the pop charts, and a group called Parchment had a moderate hit with "Light Up the Fire," a song which has now made its way from the charts into church and school hymn books.

As time went on, the coffeehouse scene faded, but new opportunities arose for Christian musicians to make themselves known. In 1973 the Greenbelt Festival was launched, and it was to have a significant impact on many Christians' involvement with the arts. Another product of the 70's was the rise of Spring Harvest, an evangelical teaching and worship conference, which was very influential in the development of worship music, especially people like Graham Kendrick.

The late 70's and early 80's saw several bands with Christian affiliations receiving mainstream attention including After The Fire, The Alarm, and perhaps the biggest rock group in the world--U2. It is an oft told tale that U2 was once a part of the Christian music subculture, but this is a myth. It is true that they did play at Greenbelt but this, as many people will be quick to point out, is no measure of the "Christianness" of a group.

One thing that prevented the explosion of Christian music was tight government restrictions on radio stations. It has always been difficult to get a permanent radio license in the U.K., and it was especially true for specifically Christian stations to operate. This meant that it was difficult for an infrastructure for the promotion of Christian music to develop separately from mainstream music (which could be seen as having positive and negative sides). For a number of reasons, very few Christian musicians managed to make much of an impact within mainstream music during the 80's, and this meant that Christian music has remained underdeveloped.

The 1990's saw some developments as the revival of folk-rock music within Christian circles (particularly bands like Eden Burning and The Electrics) led to a larger live music scene; and Eden Burning even tried to launch some singles to impact the charts. One strange feature of this folk-rock boom was that it was not mirrored to nearly the same extent within mainstream music, though it did follow bands like the Waterboys, The Wonder Stuff, and the Pogues. Probably the biggest factor in its lack of wider success was that the bands simply did not have the capital to invest in high quality recordings.

The next major developments came with the rise of "sanctified dance." Many Christians were interested in the dance music coming out of nightclubs and began to experiment with using it in worship settings. Leading these were the World Wide Message Tribe and 65dBA (now dba). This has continued to mushroom, and there are now a large number of DJs playing Christian tracks.

Around the same time, the Soul Survivor Festival began to grow and this brought with it a new wave of worship songs. This, combined with the growing "alternative worship" movement, was a large factor in the organization of an event called Cutting Edge, which featured a band cunningly called The Cutting Edge Band. Circumstances changed and The Cutting Edge Band became delirious? and began an assault on the charts which has so far seen their album reach number 13 and two singles reach number 20 in the mainstream charts.

Looking at the success of musicians like delirious?, Iona, World Wide Message Tribe, Matt Redman, and The Electrics, it would be easy to think that the scene is very healthy, but I think that that would be an over-simplification. For a start, there is a huge gulf between short-term and long-term success, and sales have still been relatively small in the overall scale of the music industry.

An important part of any music industry is the number of independent bands who are playing concerts and writing songs, both for fun and with the hope of gaining a record deal; and I think that this aspect of Christian music in Britain is not as healthy as it could be. There are bands, some of them very good, but they are few and far between. There is no touring infrastructure for these acts, and many scrape by with very few concerts. It is significant that these musicians are not given support merely because they are Christians as this often leads to sub-standard art and a continuing ghettoization amongst Christians. There needs to be some way for them to get their music to the people it is aimed at.

The Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 4:8: "Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." (NRSV). This verse is something that must be taken to heart by anyone involved in the arts and is especially relevant here. Perhaps dreams of record deals and chart success need to give way to a commitment to making interesting, honest, and innovative music--that which is worthy of praise.

By James Stewart