Life after CCM, the remix

The first time Jay Swartzendruber held a compact disc, he wondered if music fans would miss the artwork, readable lyrics and other goodies that came inside old-fashioned album covers.

Years later, industry insiders started talking about selling music online and it was deja vu all over again. The voice in his head said, "Fans will forgo CD art and packaging altogether? You seriously believe that?"

Swartzendruber also likes reading magazines he can hold in his hands, especially when it's the one that he runs. But that's changing, too. After 30 years of defining a subculture it helped create, CCM Magazine is facing its last press run. After April, it will appear online -- period.

"On one level, this is just part of what is happening everywhere," said the 40-year-old editor. "Lots of magazines are moving online. But there's more to it this time and everybody knows it. This is part of even bigger changes in the whole Christian music business."

For decades, CCM stood for "contemporary Christian music," while executives debated precisely what that meant. It helps to know that Nashville is a place where judgments about the state of an artist's career can be based on theology as well as sales.

In the beginning, CCM meant pop tunes that youth choirs could sing in church. But over time, some artists ventured into heavy metal and alternative rock, while others dug back into country and rhythm and blues.

During one identity crisis a decade ago, the Gospel Music Association -- focusing on lyrics -- struggled to establish criteria for its Dove Awards.

"Gospel music," it proclaimed, "is music in any style whose lyric is: substantially based upon historically orthodox Christian truth contained in or derived from the Holy Bible; and/or an expression of worship of God or praise for His works; and/or testimony of relationship with God through Christ; and/or obviously prompted and informed by a Christian world view."

Industry leaders predicted a bright future. They cited huge Soundscan sales numbers in 2001, but that included mainstream records -- such as the "O Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack -- that sold in Christian as well as mainstream stories.

Those numbers looked great, but a revolution was taking place backstage. Bands like P.O.D., Sixpence None the Richer, MercyMe, Chevelle, Switchfoot, The Fray, MXPX, Mute Math and others were jumping into the mainstream. Some artists ignored the CCM scene altogether or fought for their legal right to escape.

Realists could see several trends by 2003. The first was that sales were falling for the "adult contemporary" artists -- such as Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant and Steven Curtis Chapman -- whose success had defined the CCM industry. Meanwhile, sales were rising for Christians who reached the mainstream. And finally, Christian stores were selling truckloads of "modern worship" CDs containing the explicitly religious "praise music" that bands play Sunday after Sunday in megachurches across America.

When CCM asked its subscribers what they wanted to read, they requested more coverage of "artists in the mainstream" and "modern worship artists." So Swartzendruber and his team redesigned their magazine last year, focusing on a wider spectrum of music and artists.

In a letter to readers, the editor stressed: "We're going to start mixing indie and general market Christians in with those who have Christian label affiliation on a more regular basis. In other words, we're going to stop perpetuating the myth that what is and what is not 'Christian music' is based on where the music is sold. (If you think that last sentence sounded confessional, you're right.)"

The bottom line was that the old CCM label had become "out of date and marginalized." So the editors changed the name to "Christ. Community. Music."

But it was too late to save the magazine, in its old form. The work of redefining the familiar CCM label will continue online, said Swartzendruber, at an expanded website that will include daily coverage, blogs, podcasts, digital music and other signs of the times.

"What we learned is that contemporary Christian music was perceived -- by people in our subculture and people in the mainstream -- as music made by Christians, for Christians," he said. But what readers are saying now is, "We want to hear more about the artists of faith who are having an impact on our culture, not just artists who are preaching to the choir."