Interview: 'CCM' Editor Jay Swartzendruber on the Evolution of Christian Music

Over the decades, Christian music has gone through a variety of styles and genres. It has evolved into the large assortment of songs we see today. To define what the "Christian music" genre is can be a difficult task.

Jay Swartzendruber, editor of CCM Magazine, has had to attempt this feat, and he's doing it by questioning what his publication stands for. Now in about its 29th year, CCM publishes monthly issues to show fans what is happening with today's Christian music.

Amid his busy schedule over the magazine's inaugural redesign issue which will change the face of CCM, Swartzendruber was gracious enough to offer some time to speak with The Christian Post. The editor was able to share about the vision - past and present - for the magazine, and also about the Christian music scene in general.

CP: First of all, can you tell me a little about CCM Magazine and what its goal has been? What are you trying to accomplish through the magazine?

Swartzendruber: CCM was actually started in 1978 under the original name Contemporary Christian Music Magazine. It later changed its name to Contempory Christian Magazine. It started from a magazine just about Christian music and then tried to cover music, entertainment; it was going to be an entertainment and culture magazine for Christians.

Really as it spanned out as time went on, the need and wants really came from people who were music fans and wanted to know about the music and artists. The whole idea shifted to focus on music, and then it went to cover about 90 percent music. The name was then changed to CCM Magazine.

Initially, the name CCM stood for "contemporary Christian music," and we just assumed everyone just knew it. But by the late 90s, CCM was doing surveys, different things with readers and discovered that the name of the genre Contemporary Christian Music kind of had a smaller box than what the magazine wanted to cover.

Generally, the name represented to readers and music fans, kind of, an adult contemporary pop music – Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant, Steven Curtis Chapman. These great artists were a narrower target than what CCM was trying to cover. We had people like Stryper on the cover of the magazine and others like Petra. It was kind of more rock types and urban artists on the cover of the magazines. But they kind of started to quietly distance themselves from the term "contemporary Christian music," and the main concern was incorporating the term "modern Christian music" when talking about the Christian music scene of today.

By the time I came on the scene, I had been involved with record labels and public relations for 10 years. When I came to be the editor of CCM Magazine in 2003, when I came on board, there was already a genre established. I had kind of grown up the same way too that "contemporary Christian music" was a dated term, and today's Christian music has been really different, frankly.

Think about it, the fact that the most popular record label right now is Tooth and Nail Records, and they have been for the last two or three years, and they don't have any "contemporary Christian" artists on their label. I think what we're trying to do with the magazine – the evolution that is continuing from the situation I just described, will be the focus.

Historically, the magazine's goal has been to take the heart of the Christian artists and be a bridge between the artists and the fans. We're still very much about that. What's changed is the way we're going about doing that, and I can definitely discuss that when we talk about the upcoming redesign of the magazine.

CP: So you're going to be redesigning the magazine, and the issue is coming out on May 1st.

Swartzendruber: Exactly, it's going to be our inaugural redesign issue.

CP: You said that you are going to be modifying the name of CCM a little bit. Can you explain how you're changing it, and why?

Swartzendruber: We are actually going to keep the same name. It's still going to be CCM Magazine. As I was kind of foreshadowing earlier, the name from how we understand "contemporary Christian" is kind of dated. When that happened, the publishers started distancing themselves from that label. So CCM frankly became more of an ambiguous kind of name.

A lot of the long-time Christian music fans still read the magazine. But we have gotten so many letters repeatedly in the past years from readers asking, "What does CCM stand for?" since we hadn't been featuring "contemporary Christian music" in the magazine. We felt that there were really a couple things going on: the evolution of how the artists have approached music and the other thing is the technology and how media is introduced in technology. Those two things are what instigated our change in direction to a degree.

We really wanted to bring a clear definition to what CCM means, and we wanted it to hold long into the future. Keeping the same acronym, we changed what the letters stand for. The first letter stands for "Christ," the second for "community," and the third would stand for "music."

The way we came to that was that the two greatest commandments in the Bible are about relationships. The first relationship that Jesus talked about was "to love your God with all your heart and all your soul," and it was that, if we are going to put the cards on the table and talk about what this magazine is about, first and foremost, this magazine is about "Christ." That's who we are called to exalt; that's who were called to champion.

In the next verse, he says that second greatest commandment is "to love your neighbor as yourself." It's about relationships. It's about God relating to the son, and relationships with your neighbor, other people – "community." So it's a very philosophical name to replace myth … and the "music" of course.

Community is going to have a broad practical application in today's technological world. What we're doing there is – I said that this magazine is about connecting fans to their artists. We've launched a medium and social networking site called "MyCCM," and to my knowledge, it's the only Christian networking site that uses music as its cornerstone. We're doing that, and we've quickly gotten over 5,000 members, and we're going to be incorporating those members into the magazine, where dialogue is going to be taking place. We're going to be talking to the community, they're going to be giving us feedback on the articles throughout the magazine, and so it's going to be a really unusual thing. I've never seen it where there's been so much reader-generated content in a magazine, because it's going to be several pages, frankly.

CP: So I'll talk about just Christian music in general now. There are people that argue that styles such as rock, rap, or even "crunk" shouldn't be used to convey the Christian message, because those styles, they say they are somewhat unholy, and they claim that people listening to that music are only hearing the beat they like rather than the message underneath. What are your thoughts on that?

Swartzendruber: If that were true, speaking only for my own testament, the greatest gift for my faith has been music, and that's been rock music quite frankly. It is artists using rock music to present a Christian worldview. I think that we are on very dangerous territory when we credit the devil for creating something. The devil is a perverter and a distorter. He does not create. God is the creator of music. To say that a style of music is evil based only on the way it sounds or based on the instruments it uses or how those instruments are played, we are calling the devil a creator. I think that is really dicey ground to be walking on. I would caution anyone from doing that.

Certainly, look at history. What was considered evil in the 1950s? Well, it was what later that became God's Christian pop music. It's what later became Sandi Patty. It's what later became Larnelle Harris.

I don't see as much of an attitude towards rock music today, but what I do see is an attitude towards hip-hop music. And we're seeing the same types of things being said about hip-hop that were said about rock-and-roll 20 years ago. I think in the same way that God showed He could use rock-and-roll, we're going to see God use hip-hop. But they're going to have to be educated in the same way that our parents had to be educated, and that's what I see going on.

CP: There has been some discussion about companies pushing bands to be in the Christian music genre that do not really want to be associated with it. The most notable example is the rock band Evanescence when they were first introduced as a Christian group when they first started. Later one of the group members dropped the F-word to show his distaste in being clumped in that genre. Do you think there is any danger in the way some bands are being marketed?

Swartzendruber: I think that there is danger about how any bands are marketed – whether it be Christian bands in the Christian market or Christians in the mainstream. I remember when I was part of the team that went to the label with Steve Taylor, and the whole reason our label was started was because of Sixpence None the Richer. Sixpence had said, "We don't feel comfortable signing with a Christian record label, because they will try to tell us how to write our lyrics and try to give our lyrics a direction rather than giving us the freedom to think about all of life under the hands of God. We're also uncomfortable being released under the mainstream labels, because they won't respect our faith. What do we do?" And then we said, "You know what? You're right. There needs to be a label for Christians who want to create music that is beautiful without having a heavy-handed agenda." That's why the label was started. They then went on to have a hit record and what not.

I want to point out in a very similar vein, I would rather argue a more bold way. The label that launched Switchfoot and Sarah Grove a few years ago was relaunched by EMI Christian Music Group. Since they relaunched, it's been an exclusively mainstream label. It doesn't even have Christian market distribution. It's artists that are starting up a labor, but are making music for the world at large.

They have that same thing in mind. They want to be with a label that won't try to tell them what to put in their lyrics because they have to write some lyrical imagery that will get them on Christian radio. They just want to sing about music that they can be proud of. That's what the label is doing, giving the artists the freedom to do that.

OK, to end this interview, what in your opinion are the three most important qualities that a good Christian song needs?

Swartzendruber: You know, it's interesting. I wish I could say I came up with this, but I got it from Francis Schaeffer. He actually got it from scripture. You know, where it goes "whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable - if anything is excellent or praiseworthy - think about such things." So what I say is that Christian artists need to be good, true, and beautiful. Those are the three things that Christian music needs to be held up to. Is it good? Is it excellent? Is it true? Is it in line with Christian worldview, and is it beautiful? Does it resemble God's great hand of creation?

On the web: 'CCM Magazine'.

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