Switchfoot, MercyMe and Casting Crowns are three bands with very different stories, but together they represent the newest generation of artists and are one of the big stories of 2004 for gospel music sales. The three groups were among the top-selling artists in a year that saw gospel music sales total 43.4 million units, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
The rising popularity of Switchfoot, MercyMe and Casting Crowns, has signaled a growing trend for gospel music, according to John W. Styll, president of the Gospel Music Association (GMA). Their successes at retail, radio and at the 2004 GMA Music Awards, coincide with the more than double increase in the rock category of gospel music where artists like Jeremy Camp, Third Day, Relient K, Pillar, Kutless, BarlowGirl, tobyMac and others that appeal to the youth demographic also experienced strong sales in 2004.
“Gospel music will always be unique for its wide-ranging music styles and diverse audiences, and black gospel and praise & worship continue to be powerful categories of Christian music, but there has definitely been a measurable shift towards rock, alternative, hip-hop, urban and other styles of music particularly popular with younger consumers. This is a great sign that a new generation of music fans has discovered these and other artists and hopefully indicates a continued bright outlook for gospel music,” said Styll.
Styll points to other trends that confirm younger consumer’s impact on gospel music sales. The “American Idol” phenomenon significantly impacted gospel music in 2004. “Idol” contestants whose Christian beliefs were prominent in their appearances on the Fox-TV hit show made their way to the charts, with Clay Aiken, Ruben Studdard, George Huff and R.J. Helton among the “Idol” finalists with charting gospel records in 2004. Aiken’s Merry Christmas With Love and Studdard’s I Need An Angel (both sold at Christian retail through Provident Label Group) ended 2004 at the #2 and #12 spots respectively on Christian SoundScan’s Overall Albums chart for the year.
Black gospel remained the second best-selling category of gospel music and its younger artists made headlines and were among the strongest sellers in 2004, including Israel & New Breed, Smokie Norful and Kierra “Kiki” Sheard. Israel & New Breed’s critically acclaimed Integrity Gospel release Live From Another Level, debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Gospel Chart after its first week of sales, and number three on Billboard’s Heatseekers Chart. It ends the year at #5 on the gospel charts. Recent Grammy and Stellar nominated, Israel & New Breed performed for an estimated 40,000 at a December Madison Square Garden event. EMI Gospel’s Norful was named Billboard’s Top Gospel Artist in 2004, for the second straight year, as his debut CD I Need You Now and his September 2004 sophomore release Nothing Without You, kept Norful among the top-sellers all year. Fellow EMI Gospel label mate and 17-year-old daughter of black gospel legend Karen Clark-Sheard, “Kiki” Sheard did what no other new gospel artist has ever accomplished in the SoundScan era. Her I Owe You debuted at both #1 on the gospel chart and Billboard Heatseekers chart in August.
Among all the highlights, however, Switchfoot, MercyMe and Casting Crowns are the resounding sales success story for 2004, confirmed by Billboard’s crowning the bands as the top three Christian artists for 2004 in the trade magazine’s year-end issue.
Switchfoot’s The Beautiful Letdown was the #1-selling album on the Christian SoundScan Overall Albums chart for 2004, thanks in part to Sparrow Records and Switchfoot’s new relationship with Columbia Records, which brought greater mainstream exposure to the San Diego-based band. The album has been on the Billboard charts for 87 weeks, including 31 weeks at #1 on the Christian Albums chart. Switchfoot has been a critic and fan favorite in gospel music since they released their first record, The Legend of Chin in 1997, followed by two more critically acclaimed releases, New Way To Be Human and Learning To Breathe (these three records, which remain with Sparrow Records, were re-released this fall as the compilation: Switchfoot the Early Years – 1997-2000). But it was Columbia’s push of “Meant To Live,” a single that peaked at No. 5 on Billboard’s Adult Top 40, and “Dare You to Move,” which is No. 18 this week on Billboard’s Hot 100 that brought Switchfoot national attention and a surge in both their Christian and mainstream retail sales. Switchfoot also has had five #1 songs at Christian radio from The Beautiful Letdown with “More than Fine,” “Meant to Live,” “Gone,” “Dare You To Move” and “This Is Your Life.”
“Switchfoot is reflective of our newer generation of Christian artists – artists whose lives are greatly influenced by their Christian faith, who write and record music that is informed by those beliefs, but don’t use Christian rhetoric that might otherwise limit their audience. From the start of their music careers, Switchfoot has been making their groundbreaking style of music which speaks eternal truths in a way that relates to their generation, and have patiently persisted until finally, the world has taken notice. We applaud their success,” said Styll.
“Thank you so much for supporting us. We’ve always tried to make music for everyone; thank you for being a part of that,” Switchfoot frontman and songwriter Jonathan Foreman, acknowledged at the 35th Annual GMA Music Awards in 2004, where he took home six Dove Awards, the most for any artist that night.
n 2004, INO Records’ MercyMe sold more than 1.5 million units in album and DVD sales, including the #4 and #6 top-selling records on Christian SoundScan’s Overall Albums chart for the year — Almost There and Undone respectively. MercyMe’s success was fueled by the momentum from “I Can Only Imagine,” the smash single from Almost There, which first hit mainstream radio in 2003 and continued its impact in 2004. “I Can Only Imagine” delivered an unabashedly spiritual message about what heaven might be like. Millions of radio listeners who may not have ever considered themselves fans of Christian music suddenly found themselves singing along to the song’s irresistible chorus. The song saw heavy airplay on Pop, AC, and Hot AC mainstream radio stations nationwide, and “I Can Only Imagine” ended 2004 as the 20th most-played song on Radio & Records mainstream AC chart while “Here With Me,” the first single from Undone, was 24th and also a big hit at Christian radio. The band from Greenville, Texas, not only earned multiple Dove Awards including Artist and Group of the Year in 2004, but they also were honored with an American Music Award for Favorite Contemporary Inspirational Artist. MercyMe has evolved from being Christian music’s fastest-selling new act in 2001 when Almost There first released to become nationally known as a great rock group that tackles the essential themes of God and love.
“The marvel of MercyMe is that a song they first released in 2001 amazingly found its way to mainstream radio more than two years later propelling the band to the national stage and giving the album unprecedented longevity on the sales charts. Almost There has been in the Christian SoundScan year-end top ten for three straight years now, while the band’s follow-up CDs have proven the band is no one-hit wonder. MercyMe’s newest release, Undone, is also in this year’s Top 10 while the prior recording Spoken For was among the top sellers in 2003,” said Styll.
Casting Crowns represents yet another face of the new generation of Christian artists and its self-titled CD is the fastest selling debut Christian artist in recent years. At the center of Casting Crowns is Mark Hall, a youth pastor, who until a year ago was writing music primarily for the kids in his youth groups. Casting Crowns grew out of two of Hall’s stops along his youth ministry path, first while leading a youth group in Daytona Beach, Fla., then transplanting and growing when Hall moved to a new position in Atlanta. Discovered and signed just in early 2003 by Mark Miller of country music’s Sawyer Brown to be the debut artist for Beach Street Records, an imprint Miller founded and leads for Provident Label Group, Casting Crowns found themselves in the enviable position of making their first major label record with Christian music icon Steven Curtis Chapman as co-producer, Chapman’s first time producing another artists’ work. Hall’s presentation of straightforward and challenging Christ-centered lyrics found a home at Christian radio which embraced hard-hitting #1 charting songs like “If We Are the Body,” “Who Am I” and “Voice of Truth” and played a considerable role in the band’s success.
“I want to shake people up and help them see that Jesus is not a religion, and God is not a book,” Hall has said. Hall was honored with the Dove Award for Songwriter of the Year in 2004, a first for a new artist.
“Casting Crowns proves that fans of Christian and gospel music want more than a watered-down message. They appreciate, and in Casting Crowns’ case, rally to bold and spirit-provoking music that challenges Christians in their faith as much as it encourages,” Styll observed. “And when you tell the combined story of Switchfoot, MercyMe and Casting Crowns, one truth surfaces: music made by artists of faith knows no bounds and emerges uniquely and divinely from each artist’s life to impact a variety of listeners. The GMA doesn’t seek as much to define the music as to celebrate it.”
The Christian Music Trade Association (CMTA), a sister organization of the GMA which operates Christian SoundScan, sets criteria for what recordings are included in Christian SoundScan. For an album to be tracked, it must have national distribution and meet one or more additional criteria: 50 percent or more of the tracks on the album contain Christian-oriented content, as determined by the Dove Award Christian content criteria; songs on the album receive national Christian radio airplay, and 25 percent or more of album scans are reasonably anticipated at Christian retail the first week added to Christian SoundScan. The GMA’s year-end reporting only includes album sales. It does not include singles or digital downloads.
For a breakdown of gospel music sales in 2004, GMA has compiled the following data:
*According to Nielsen SoundScan, sales of Christian music CDs ended 2004 virtually flat over 2003 sales. Year-end sales for 2004 were 43,399,000 units, compared to 43,704,000* for 2003. (*The SoundScan totals for 2003 have been restated to reflect Wind-Up Records’ voluntary removal of Evanescence’s Fallen from the Christian marketplace.)
*The Christian/Gospel category of overall music sales is the sixth most popular genre according to Nielsen SoundScan’s 2004 Year-end report. Gospel music sales outpace sales of Latin, soundtracks, jazz, classical and new age genres.
*Christian Retail stores accounted for 37.6 percent of gospel music sales, while mainstream retail outlets sold 59 percent of all gospel music sales. Christian retailers’ sales grew from 2003 by nearly one percent and mainstream sales were unchanged. Non-traditional sales (representing direct, venue and website sales) were down 18 percent.
*The overall top-selling records on the Christian SoundScan Overall Albums chart for the year (reflects yearly sales for all titles in the Christian SoundScan system, regardless of genre or catalog status) were Beautiful Letdown – Switchfoot; Merry Christmas with Love – Clay Aiken; Casting Crowns – Casting Crowns; Almost There – MercyMe; Passion of the Christ Soundtrack; Undone – MercyMe; WoW Hits 2005; O Brother, Where Art Thou?; Wire – Third Day and WoW Gospel 2004.
*The top-selling records in Billboard’s Gospel Albums chart were WoW Gospel 2004, I Need An Angel – Ruben Studdard, Somethin’ ‘Bout Love – Fred Hammond, Throne Room – CeCe Winans, Live From Another Level – Israel & New Breed, My Christmas Prayer – BeBe Winans, Best Is Yet To Come – Martha Munizzi, Ultimate Gospel – Elvis Presley, Gotta Have Gospel, and I Need You Now – Smokie Norful.
*The top-selling records in Christian SoundScan’s Rock/Alternative/Rap Albums chart were The Beautiful Letdown – Switchfoot, Wire – Third Day, Carried Me: The Worship Project – Jeremy Camp; MMHMM – Relient K, Wonder What’s Next – Chevelle, Welcome To Diverse City – tobyMac, Offerings II: All I Have To Give – Third Day, Sea of Faces – Kutless, and Where Do We Go From Here – Pillar.
*The top-selling records in Christian SoundScan’s Praise & Worship Albums chart were WoW Worship (Red); Worship & Faith – Randy Travis, WoW Worship (Yellow), Adoration: The Worship Album – Newsboys, Arriving – Chris Tomlin, Hymns Ancient and Modern Live – Passion, Illuminate – David Crowder Band, iWORSHIP: A Total Worship Experience, Songs 4 Worship: Shout to the Lord, and Worship – Michael W. Smith. (Designation as a Praise & Worship album is made by music labels, therefore some recordings with a prevalence of praise & worship content may not be included on this chart.)
*Southern Gospel music grew by 15 percent in 2004 and Bill Gaither related projects carried seven of the top 10 slots on the year-end Southern Gospel chart. The top-selling records in Christian SoundScan’s Southern Gospel Albums chart were Gaither Homecoming Classics, Vol. 1 – Bill & Gloria Gaither and Their Homecoming Friends; Very Best of The Gaither Vocal Band – Gaither Vocal Band; Gaither Homecoming Classics, Vol. 2 – Bill & Gloria Gaither and Their Homecoming Friends; Vol. 1-Gospel Bluegrass Homecoming; Tribute to Howard & Vestal Goodman – Bill & Gloria Gaither and Their Homecoming Friends; Vol. 2-Gospel Bluegrass Homecoming; Tribute To Jake Hess – Bill & Gloria Gaither and Their Homecoming Friends; Passin’ The Faith Along – Bill & Gloria Gaither and Their Homecoming Friends; Driven – The Crabb Family; and Journey to the Sky – Bill & Gloria Gaither and Their Homecoming Friends.
*Christian labels report that digital downloads is a promising growth area, helping to expose music fans to the deep catalog of music which is now available through all major legal downloading services and Christian retailer LifeWay Christian Stores. Christian SoundScan is not currently set up to record sales of digital single downloads, so those sales are not available to report in 2004. However full albums digital downloads are included in the total year-end unit sales reported for 2004.
*Video sales were up five percent. VeggieTales’ “An Easter Carol” was the number one selling video at Christian retail in 2004.
*The top markets for gospel music in 2004 were Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas-Ft.Worth, Washington D.C., Houston, Philadelphia, Tampa, and Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Founded in 1964, the 4,500-member Gospel Music Association is dedicated to exposing, promoting and celebrating the gospel through music. The GMA represents all styles of gospel music including contemporary pop, rock, urban gospel, praise & worship, Southern gospel, country and children’s gospel music. The GMA produces the GMA Music Awards, which recognizes achievement in all genres of gospel music and are voted on by members of the GMA. The GMA will hand out this year’s Dove Awards on Wednesday, April 13 at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville. Nominations for the Doves will be announced on Monday, February 7. For more information, visit www.gospelmusic.org.