A Crash Course in Christian Music: GMA Week 2005

For five days in downtown Nashville, I immersed myself in Christian music at “GMA Week,” sponsored by the Gospel Music Association. As a fan of mostly secular songs, I was a bit skeptical about who and what I’d encounter at Christian music’s biggest networking convention of the year. I was pleasantly surprised at what I discovered.
You see, I have my own website, ChristianMusicMonthly.com, and after almost a decade of avoiding GMA Week, a publicist from Rochester, New York, called me up out of the blue and said, “You need to go to GMA Week.” Following her advice, I paid several hundred dollars of my own money to fly from Buffalo to Nashville, stay in a hotel and spend almost a whole week of my time interviewing Christian recording artists. Not knowing what to expect, I thankfully found that this family-like industry is populated with several friendly, professional people, with deep thinkers and even some off-the-wall characters among them. It was an unforgettable experience.
The beehive of activity for GMA Week occurs is the luxurious Renaissance Nashville Hotel, a humongous 25-story tower, along with the adjoining Nashville Convention Center. Me and 3,000 other people walk the halls exchanging business cards all day long. There are radio programmers, retail managers, journalists, industry executives, musicians, famous people and up-and-comers everywhere at GMA Week. Everyone is extremely nice and polite, and I’m able to meet more people in the span of five days than I ever could manage to meet any other way.
During my time at GMA Week, I learned some important things about Christian music. Several Christian singers and groups are making in-roads at secular stations, including MercyMe and Switchfoot. Lately, rock and hip-hop seem to be the focus of Christian music, whereas it used to be adult contemporary ruled the airwaves. Old hymns are being made new again by artists like Amy Grant, Ashley Cleveland and Jars of Clay. Nowadays, more and more consumers are buying their Christian CDs in mainstream outlets like Wal-Mart and Target. Christian music even has its own new “Napster” for digital downloads, called SongTouch.org, which formally launched at GMA Week.
Thankfully, Christian music is not all about selling (though that is a priority). One of the highlights of my time at GMA Week was a press conference concerning the International Justice Mission. They are an organization that helps rescue people from human trafficking—in other words, they help little girls escape lives as sex slaves. Singer Natalie Grant, whom I often call the Celine Dion of Christian music since she has such a big voice, is among a handful of Christian artists donating their time and energy to International Justice Mission’s cause, and it’s good to know that artists singing about love, compassion and mercy are finally paying attention to social justice.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about GMA Week, and Christian music in general, is the accessibility of its artists. I met more than 50 of them, and as a music fan, you can bet I was in awe. Like its cousin, country music, Christian music has artists who are willing to meet face-to-face with their fans and have conversations about anything and everything. Just walking around the Renaissance Hotel, I encountered Brian Littrell of the Backstreet Boys, George Huff of American Idol, and gospel legend Donnie McClurkin, to name a few.
While days are filled with seminars, interviews and general industry hob-knobbing, nighttime at GMA Week means showcases, where artists play their music in a variety of venues. I was able to see John Davis, who used to be in the secular rock group Superdrag, play his Brian Wilson-esque heart out at Nashville’s Downtown Presbyterian Church, followed by seasoned artist Ashley Cleveland, a blues rocker who plays a mean guitar, and Jars of Clay, an introspective, globally-minded rock band best known for their 1995 hit, “Flood.” On another night, people of all colors came together for a night to celebrate diversity in Christian music. Phil Keaggy, a guitarist Eric Clapton looks up to, amazed the crowd, along with performances by tobyMac (a white hip-hop rocker) and jazz saxophonist Kirk Whalum in the Renaissance Hotel’s big, beautiful ballroom. A Sunday night Worship Service, lead by Michael W. Smith at the historic Ryman Auditorium, featured what looked to be a backing choir of about 75 Christian recording artists in a “We Are The World” kind of setting. Attendees absolutely loved having so many choices and opportunities to hear Christian music at GMA Week.
The Dove Awards, also known as the GMA 36th Music Awards, were the culmination of GMA Week. Held at the Grand Ole Opry House, about 20 minutes from downtown Nashville, it featured six hosts, several performances by artists like Tonex (Christian music’s version of Prince) and Skillet, a clean-cut, hard rock group, and, of course, awards celebrating the best in Christian music. Mark Hall, a down-to-earth youth pastor, and his band Casting Crowns, won a lot of awards. They were unpretentious and as approachable as any normal person would be.
Though I was initially a little leery of what to expect during my time in Nashville at GMA Week 2005, I ended up not wanting to leave. I found Christian music to be an industry that straddles the line between faith and commerce, consistently trying to make sure that Jesus is at the heart of all they do. I came away excited at the thought there are so many talented musicians in Christian music, the kind the secular world would embrace if only they knew about them. It’s my hope that Christian music continues to break out of its self-imposed bubble, reaching new audiences with innovative new music as time goes on. If you ever get a chance, attend a GMA Week for yourself. It’s a great crash course in Christian music.

Mark Weber is the publicist for Kingdom Bound Christian music festival and the author of “Contemporary Christian Music Makers,” his new book available at www.lulu.com/christianmusic.
2005 Dove’s Night Photo Gallery
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