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Thank heaven for praise and worship music

Genre has growing audience not just in church but at record stores
/ Source: Billboard

Christian music today encompasses a variety of styles — country, rap, modern rock, hip-hop, pop. Aficionados of any musical style can find a counterpart in Christian music.

Only one type of Christian music is unique to the Christian marketplace: praise and worship, which describes tunes sung directly to God. Some people in the business accordingly call it “vertical music.”

“What we are doing are 21st century hymns,” says Australian worship leader Darlene Zschech. “It’s prayers put to music.”

Songs are the coins of the realm in the praise and worship genre. When a potent song surfaces — like “Above All,” “Open the Eyes of My Heart,” “Here I Am to Worship” — it is routinely covered by numerous artists/worship leaders. These songs then become ingrained in the minds of the church-going public through repetition.

An estimated 40 million to 60 million people sing praise and worship songs every Sunday in church, says Danny McGuffey, chief marketing officer for Integrity Media, one of a handful of labels, along with Vineyard and Maranatha, that has long been the backbone of the praise and worship community.

During the past several years, the genre has expanded beyond church pews to dominate Christian radio, has sold briskly at retail and has launched several popular series, including “Songs 4 Worship,” “Worship Together” and “WOW Worship.”

In recent years, major Christian companies, including EMI Christian Music Group and Provident Music Group, have made successful forays into the market, employing direct-to-consumer sales and utilizing the Internet to spread the word.

As the Christian music community gathers for the 31st annual Dove Awards April 28 in Nashville, praise and worship artists will be prominent among the nominees.

“The genre has grown more than 60 percent in the last six years, despite negative industry trends like illegal downloading, price devaluation and competing formats,” adds McGuffey. “Praise and worship is the language of the church and always will be.

“We have seen fast growth in new praise and worship brands like 'iWorship,’ which has now sold more than 1 million units since its introduction less than two years ago,” McGuffey says.

Direct-response TV marketing “has also been instrumental in the growth of the genre,” he adds. “Plus, we’ve seen some extremely successful campaigns by Time-Life and Sony Music that have really driven growth at retail.”

For many years, the majority of praise and worship albums were live recordings of church services led by a worship leader. Consumers bought these projects based on the featured songs and largely on the reputation of labels that specialized in worship music.

Integrity, Maranatha and Vineyard have long been the trusted names for praise and worship music. The approach of executives at these labels was not just to record a live album but to “harvest” the experience at the service.

Prominent worship leaders include Don Moen, Paul Baloche and Zschech. In recent years, however, numerous contemporary Christian acts, such as Third Day, Michael W. Smith, the Newsboys, CeCe Winans, John Tesh and Phillips, Craig and Dean have recorded praise and worship albums. In February, Rebecca St. James released “Live Worship: Blessed Be Your Name.”

“Praise and worship has always been a collection of songs,” says Dean Diehl, senior VP of marketing for the Provident Music Group, of artist-driven worship albums. Previously, he says, “there haven’t been personalities to attach to it. You can argue that that’s good or bad, but we attached names to it. Now it’s not only the great songs that you know, but it’s also the artists that you love. That’s the case with Michael W. Smith.”

These days, most people see artist-driven releases as expanding the genre and the opportunities for worship leaders.

“When high-profile artists like Smith begin recording popular or emerging worship songs, it only gives greater awareness to the genre,” McGuffey says.

Others in the industry agree. “The worship leaders that I have had an opportunity to work with are thrilled when their songs are recorded,” says Denise George, director of artist development for EMI Christian Music Group. “They know Michael W. Smith and the Newsboys have a platform that maybe they don’t.”

Because of all this overlapping, praise and worship music seems to know no boundaries. Audiences also span multiple generations, and younger consumers are becoming fans. And retail is acknowledging that broad-based appeal.

“On some collections, we’re seeing more than 60% of the sales coming from mainstream retail,” McGuffey says. “I think that’s because the Wal-Marts, Best Buys and Targets of the world now realize that their customers are a ’match made in heaven’ -- no pun intended -- with our demographics: the 32- to 52-year-old soccer moms who do most of their shopping in these outlets.”

Another key factor driving sales is the diversity of releases. There are youth-oriented modern worship albums, more traditional concept-driven projects and Native American worship music.