Ginny Owens on the Christian Music Industry
In this interview, Ginny talks about her own route into the music industry, and some of the changes and challenges that have developed for that industry over the last ten years or so.
Ginny Owens is a singer, songwriter and recording artist, who has won three Dove awards and sold nearly one million albums. In addition to her work as a performer, Ginny also regularly leads worship at her home church, and teaches songwriting as an adjunct professor at Belmont University in Nashville (It may also be helpful to know that Ginny has been blind since childhood, as she alludes to this at a couple of points in the interview).
In this interview, Ginny talks about her own route into the music industry, and some of the changes and challenges that have developed for that industry over the last ten years or so.
Here are some things to think about and discuss alongside this interview.
- Ginny talks about the financial pressures facing the recording industry, and how these pressures limit the range of songs recorded and played. She also mentions toward the end of the interview that many of those Christian artists producing the most significant and meaningful music today do so “below the radar.” What are some ways that churches and individual Christians can be more deliberate and active in seeking out and supporting music that might not be as widely played or distributed?
- Ginny observes that many worship songs are simple, but that this simplicity is also sometimes their great gift to worship. She mentions how in her own worship leading she combines simple, sing-able songs with more theologically dense and reflective songs. Consider the different kinds of music that are available to the church. What are the different roles and functions that different styles of music might serve within a worship service?
- Ginny mentions the challenge that hymns presented to her as a blind person. As a young college student, she found contemporary choruses to be a real gift, since their structure and simplicity made them easy to learn and memorize. Think about the opportunities and challenges that different styles of music in our churches present to different populations – the elderly; the deaf and blind; those with learning disabilities or cognitive impairments; the very young. What are some of the ways that our music can fully engage all of these members of Christ’s body?
Why don’t you tell me a little bit about your own background – the path you followed into the music industry and some of the places music has taken you since then?
Ginny Owens: Well, I went to Belmont University in Nashville and found that there were many singer/songwriters in the world, particularly in Nashville, so I changed my major from commercial performance to music education and I thought, well, since everybody else wants to sing, I’ll get an education degree and strive to be the hippest high school music teacher ever.
I’m sure you could’ve been too!
GO: Well, I have to admit now, I’m very glad that God had other plans! But as a college student, I couldn’t imagine being part of such a competitive industry or performing regularly. I mean, I did enjoy writing songs and sharing them with others, but performing always made me nervous, and I figured relating to a crowd would be very challenging if I had to do it often. But during my student teaching semester, my last semester of college, I got asked to sing for a special offertory at Brentwood Baptist Church. They were raising money for Belmont that Sunday. I’ve always figured they asked me because they were thinking: “We’re raising money; if the blind girl sings, we’ll get a better emotional response.” [laughter] There were so many great singers that went to church there; I just couldn’t imagine why they had asked me to sing. But anyway, I sang a song that I had written. There was a producer/engineer in the congregation who approached me afterwards and said, “Have you ever thought of doing music for a living?” And I said, “Well, maybe for a minute, but everybody else wants to do it, and there’s just not enough room for all of us.” And he said, “You might be right, but I think we should record some of your songs and I’ll send them around to some folks in the industry to see what they think.” So I recorded, I think, five piano/vocal demos of my original songs at his home studio, and he started sharing them. I didn’t hear anything for months. In the meantime, I was interviewing for teaching jobs, and finding that no administrator wanted to hire a blind teacher!
Several months later, my friend Doug, the engineer/producer, called me and said, “Hey, there’s a publisher friend of mine that wants to meet with you who really likes your music.” So we met; we talked about songwriting and I played him some of my songs. He was very gracious, and he said, “Let’s try working together, and see where it goes.”
So that is where it all began. Michael Puryear, the publisher, soon signed me to BMG Songs, and I wrote for him there (and later at Universal Music) for about ten years. He continues to be a great co-writing partner and friend. He introduced me to many folks in the music industry including Michael W. Smith and the folks at his label, Rocketown Records. I made quite a few records at Rocketown – I think six. And then I decided to do the independent thing for a while. So far I’ve recorded a hymns project, a Christmas record, and a few studio projects on my own. I continue to write music and do concerts and lead worship.
You lead worship at a church here in the Nashville area. What about when you’re touring – are you usually playing in churches, or in other kinds of venues?
GO: Lots of churches, colleges, and special events. Sometimes we’ll go into an area and play an evening concert somewhere, then morning worship services at a church, and then say a fundraiser banquet for a Crisis Pregnancy Center or a specific organization like that. It makes life interesting. I try my best to tailor my presentation to the event. It’s a little different than touring and setting up your sound and lights and doing your own full band show each night, but I kind of like it, because it forces me to think, pray, and prepare. I find this true with worship leading as well. I’ve learned more about discipline and preparation in the last couple of years than I have in my entire career. I feel like I spend more time preparing for everything than I actually do performing.
You mentioned that you didn’t initially set out to be in the music industry. How has actually being in the music industry changed your perspective on that industry? What are some of the things you’ve learned as you’ve entered into that world?
GO: That’s a good question. I’ve learned a lot about the power of a song. I’ve learned how songs can really impact peoples’ lives and so as a writer, I’ve learned how important words are. How much they matter and how necessary it is to be intentional with every lyric I write. I’ve learned the power of performance. I watch people who can deliver a message, whether good or bad, and if they perform well, if they deliver it well, you know, the crowds will follow.
One of the most fascinating things has been to watch the music industry change so drastically in a fairly short period of time. The music business I started working in soon after college is unbelievably different from the current music business. When I started in the Christian music world, there were lots of artists, lots of labels, and a pretty sizeable amount of money was being earned and spent. I was on a small label, so we never had too much money, but probably what we had for a recording budget then would be what you would spend now at a bigger label. And if you sold 200,000 records, that was pretty good back then. Now, if you sell even 20,000 or 30,000 records, that’s pretty good.
How has that changing economic situation played out in the lives of songwriters and musicians here in town?
GO: There’s a lot less to go around for sure. Companies have down-sized or folded, and writers, publishers, and artists have had to get more creative in how they get their music to the masses.
Has that resulted in changes in the kind of music that gets recorded?
GO: I’d say so.
I mean, if there’s a smaller pie and there are fewer slices to go around, are record companies less adventurous?
GO: Absolutely. Fewer risks are taken these days.
Does that mean there is a narrower band of music that ends up getting out there?
GO: I suppose it depends on how you define “getting out there.” There is so much more music easily accessible today than there used to be, because anyone can create music on his or her computer and immediately release it online. There are so many social media outlets and, of course, YouTube, where artists (and non-artists alike) deliver their material to the masses. But when it comes to radio play, getting the music out there is more of a challenge than it’s ever been. As in other genres, radio playlists have shrunk over the years. (I think playlists tend to be around 12-14 songs.) And in the CCM world, we have the added factor of lyrical content, which is always considered before a song is played on radio. Before I continue this thought, I must say that I’m no radio expert, and that I’m very grateful to have had radio play. I doubt I’d have much of a career without it. That being said, I know that programmers take the process of song selection very seriously. They use a combination of market research and their own intuition about lyrics to choose what will be played. Every market is different, but several factors seem to emerge across the board. For instance, as you might imagine, well-established label artists get played the most frequently. Also, market research apparently indicates that the CCM radio target audience—women ages 35-44--prefer to hear male singers, so there usually aren’t more than a couple of female artists in the top 30 at any given time. Another typical occurrence at Christian radio is that the songs which make it to station playlists tend to be uplifting, positive, encouraging, and light--with several mentions of Jesus’ name. Though some “heavier” songs which contemplate the deeper issues of faith—(trials, sacrifice, repentance, etc)--do make it into the top ten every now and then, it seems that safe and optimistic themes usually rule the air waves. I’ve personally had several experiences where radio programmers have said, “This song is too heavy. Our listener doesn’t want to have to think too hard.” Or, “The Christian theme isn’t obvious enough for us to play this song.”
And let’s face it. Record companies need hits to stay afloat, so they generally sign artists who have potential for immediate mass appeal. Labels used to spend lots of time and money on developing new artists, but now, they can sign an artist who has a huge YouTube and/or social media following or is already touring and recording independently. After pairing that artist with several great, commercial writers and a hit producer, they hope to have a hit record.
In a smaller genre like Christian music, this process gets particularly interesting. There’s a pretty small group of artists working with an even smaller select group of writers and producers. Although the level of talent is incredibly high, we end up with a pretty homogenous sound and type of lyric at radio because of this process.
You’ve written music for a more general market as well as music that is specifically for worship. Are some of the things that you’re talking about in terms of the kind of sound and the kind of lyrical depth – are those things mainly true of the broader Christian market? Or do they tend to be true for contemporary worship music as well?
GO: I think it’s fair to say that both the broader Christian music genre and the contemporary worship genre are bursting at the seams with simple, sing-able melodies which are meant to appeal to a wide audience. And most songwriters would probably agree that the more sing-able and simple a melody is, the more challenging it is to create deep, thoughtful, meaningful lyrics for that melody. There’s just not much room for words. Some worship writers choose to meet this challenge by incorporating simple passages of Scripture into their lyrics. Some writers write lyrics that are more vertical-like love songs to Jesus. And I do believe that some contemporary worship writers work diligently to communicate weightier truths in their lyrics. (Matt Redman is one of my favorites in this last category.)
As a worship leader, I will often use a combination of up-tempo celebratory worship songs; thoughtful, more vertical or Scripture-based worship songs; and hymns during a morning service. I find that the songs of celebration often accomplish the purpose of calling everyone to worship and setting the tone for what is to come, and the more thoughtful songs invite people to contemplate their own journeys with the Lord. Interspersing appropriate Scriptures and stories seems to help connect songs that have varying degrees of depth.
You’ve highlighted some of the areas of the music industry that can be problematic. Are there likewise gifts that contemporary worship music brings to the church? Are there ways the church has been enriched by this music?
GO: I think contemporary worship has its place. It is accessible to a wide audience. So, if you have a congregation that includes 7-year-old-kids, 70-year-old grandmothers, soccer moms who listen to Christian radio, and folks who didn’t grow up in church, they all can come and worship together without a tremendous learning curve. Also, there’s something to be said for those simple, sing-able melodies, especially when their lyrics are Scriptures or truths about the Gospel. Knowing that those I lead in worship might spend their weeks humming “Great is your faithfulness oh God/You wrestle with the sinner’s heart” or “Your name is a strong and mighty tower/Your name is a shelter like no other” seems like a good idea to me, especially when I consider what words they could be humming throughout the week. I grew up on hymns, and I love the beautiful poetry and poignancy they bring to the worship experience, but I know they’re a little harder to memorize and get used to, especially for those who haven’t grown up accustomed to singing them. I remember the church I grew up in. I think our church had a policy that we would sing a hymn no more than three times a year so that we wouldn’t grow too used to it.
What? Whose great idea was that?
GO: I know. So as a person who couldn’t read the hymnbook, I would pick up the melodies, but I was only able to memorize some of the hymn lyrics, and I missed out on most of their beauty and depth. And I remember coming to Nashville and going to church for the first time and being like, “Wow, these songs are so great and simple! You can memorize them so easily.” But then I went to a different church and they sang different songs. It didn’t take long for me to be overwhelmed by the sea of simple songs. Back then, it seemed like everyone had their own brand of contemporary worship, and I guess it is still a little bit like that, but it feels less fragmented now because it is such an industry. These days, if you know contemporary worship, you probably know Hillsong songs and Chris Tomlin songs and Matt Redman songs. At any rate, after several college years of a steady diet of only worship music, I remember reading through hymn lyrics one day and thinking, “Wow, these are unbelievable, beautiful pieces of art and poetry that communicate the Gospel in such a wonderful way. How did I miss these before?” I sincerely hope and pray that the church will never trade in its heritage of hymns for contemporary worship music.
Can you think of any examples of musicians or churches who are doing a particularly good job of faithfully deepening and enriching the church through music?
GO: I definitely can. And I’d say that many who do this well stay under the radar. I’d also say that this is a highly subjective matter. What I see as faithful stewardship may not appear so to others. But one well-known group that I’d say has done a good job of this is the Passion movement. Not only have they introduced lots of contemporary worship music and modern hymn arrangements, but at their conferences they offer solid Biblical teaching from a variety of scholars and pastors. So if you attend one of their conferences, you’ll be offered intense teaching in addition to the hours of singing. There are also modern hymn writers like Stuart Townend and Keith and Kristyn Getty who offer the church many beautiful pieces of music which portray the Gospel. On the other hand, I think that as long as there’s Contemporary Christian music, the task of faithfully stewarding the local church through music will be complex and challenging. In the same way, as long as there are media outlets and venues through which Christian speakers and evangelists can reach the masses, faithfully teaching the local church will be a challenging, complicated task.
That’s an interesting analogy and insight. The ability to reach a lot of people with music or a message is a gift; but at the same time, when there’s a lot of stuff being produced and made available, the need for discernment at the local church level becomes all the more pressing. Maybe one challenge is that contemporary worship music is often produced by people who are not directly connected to the life of the local congregations that use their music, you know? They may not be connected denominationally or even be part of the same tradition; they’re often not local or even full time “church musicians” – people whose primary vocation is working for a local church. I guess that’s the case with some music in a hymnal too, but, I mean if discipleship involves relationships developed over time . . . .
GO: Definitely. Although I’d say that more and more often, I’m invited into churches where worship leaders and musicians are writing music for their own congregations. I love doing this when I can for my own church, too. There’s something very special about giving the gift of music to the body of believers you know and worship with. It gives a song even more meaning. I think it would be a wonderful trend for the worship leaders and creative arts teams at churches to write their own music…music that could facilitate both worship and discipleship.
Yeah, and I mean, you were talking earlier about how many more artists there are now, just because it’s so much easier. You can record a tune in 30 minutes on your Mac Book Pro, sitting in your bedroom.
GO: And make a video for it.
Exactly. Maybe there’s a real opportunity there that wasn’t there 30 years ago – for a lot of people to be creating the music for their own congregation.
GO: Right. I definitely think there is, though the challenge with writers and performers will always be the potential for ego to get in the way. It’s interesting. I was at a church several months ago where, just out of necessity, the worship team had collectively written quite a few songs based around the various sermon topics their pastors were preaching on. They wanted to make a cd of these songs for their congregation, but because the worship pastor felt strongly that no single ego should get in the way, he sent the music to a producer in Nashville and the recording was created by musicians there. I was very moved by the humility of that story. They truly wanted the songs to be useful in worship and discipleship in their community, regardless of who got the recording and performance credit. I wish more of us could have that attitude…that worship is truly about honoring the Lord and that songs—both ancient and modern—are great tools with which God’s people can do that. Those of us who are worship leaders and musicians often have to remind ourselves that we are mere instruments in that process.
That’s interesting – so in that story at least, there is kind of a dynamic interaction between the local church and the “music industry,” with each playing a different role. Maybe there’s even a little echo there of Paul’s imagery of the body of Christ, with different body parts and different functions.