Brad O’Donnell on the changes in the music industry over the last fifteen years

Brad O’Donnell discusses the changes in the music industry over the last fifteen years. The advent of Napster, YouTube, iTunes and similar outlets has brought about huge shifts in how music is marketed and sold. And worship music has become the most popular and profitable subgenre of the Christian music industry.


A lot has changed in the music industry over the last 15 years. The advent of Napster, YouTube, iTunes and others has brought about huge shifts in how music is marketed and sold. And a lot has changed in the world of worship music. While music sales in most areas have declined dramatically, worship music has become the most popular and profitable subgenre of the Christian music industry.

Brad O’Donnell, vice president of A&R at EMI - CMG label group, discusses these changes, and considers what has driven them. For instance, increasingly people seem to want to listen to worship music throughout the week – not just on Sunday morning. And, as worship music has grown more popular, the musicians recording that music have grown more interested in creating recordings that are musically interesting and well-produced (which has drawn more people to this music).

As you read Brad’s comments consider the following questions: 

  • Sales of contemporary worship music have grown steadily, even as sales figures for most other segments of the music industry have fallen dramatically. Brad offers some possible explanations for this growth. What do you think might account for it?
  • As worship music has become more popular, it also has become more profitable. How should the church and how should musicians think about this development?  
  • Another outcome of this popularity is that certain worship musicians are very well known. Are there ways the church and the music industry can encourage the development of gifted musicians and songwriters, without falling prey to a culture of celebrity?
  • What opportunities and benefits are opened up by the increased popularity of worship music?
  • Many Christians now enjoy listening worship music throughout the week. How might the church make the best use of this practice to nurture maturity and growth in discipleship? (For instance, perhaps pastors could regularly suggest listening curricula, to accompany the teaching of the church; or point church members to new music that is particularly rich, musically and lyrically.)

Can you tell me a little bit about what an A&R person is and does? What’s your role at EMI/CMG? 

Brad O’Donnell:  A&R stands for Artists and Repertoire. It’s an old term. I think it used to literally mean you oversaw the artists and then you found their repertoire. So if Frank Sinatra was making a record – records used to be made in one day – you’d go choose all 11 songs, you’d hire the studio and the orchestra, and then Frank would show up and sing the songs. Obviously it’s evolved since then, but it still essentially means you go out and find artists, and then you manage those artists on your roster. And specifically the way you manage them is their repertoire. And that’s different in every artist’s case. Some artists write all their songs.  Some artists write some of their songs. Some artists don’t write any songs; you have to go find them. That’s what an A&R person does in the most general terms. The other side of it is an admin piece. You’re the person who has to make sure the record gets turned in on time, and that the budget is met. It’s like any other business in that sense. 

And you’re working with, EMI/CMG. EMI is a record label, and CMG stands for “Christian Music Group” – is that right?  And so, is it the case that the artists that you’re working with are making music for the Christian market?

BO:  Yes, that’s true.

And of those, are there some that are particularly directed toward worship music and others that are directed toward just kind of a more general Christian market?

BO:  Definitely. It’s interesting how there’s kind of a delineation. People know “that’s a worship artist,” “that’s a CCM artist” (Contemporary Christian Music or CCM is the term that’s usually used). There are CCM artists that make worship records, but I think people still do delineate between someone who is basically a CCM artist, and someone who’s primarily a worship leader.

It seems like worship music makes up a much bigger piece of the Christian music market than was the case 20 years ago. Is that the case?

BO:  Absolutely.

How did that come about?

BO:  That’s a great question.  I mean, even thinking about it, our biggest artist on our label, from a sales perspective, is a worship artist.  His name’s Chris Tomlin.

I mean, when I was in high school I used to listen to CCM and Christian rock, but there wasn’t any sense that this music was for church worship services.

BO:  And even the reason I bring up Chris is because I remember when we started working together – probably 11 years ago now – it was a foregone conclusion that he made church music.  Like, he’s not going to get on the radio, and radio stations would say: “Oh we love worship music, we play it on Sunday mornings so people can listen when they drive to church.”  And to your question of, what changed and when and how, I would say somewhere five to eight years ago, that wheel started spinning, and worship music became the music for seven days a week instead of just Sunday morning.  It became what people desired. 

And do you have any sense of what’s driven that?

BO:  That’s a great question.  What I want to say at some level is that worship music got better.  My sense of the worship leaders that I remember 15, 20 years ago, was they viewed themselves as, “Okay, primarily what I do, is I provide an experience in a context; I lead worship.  If I’m making a recording, it’s a demo, because I want churches to sing my songs.”  So I’m not worried about selling records, radio, tours – that’s all very incidental.  The first artist I remember that kind of broke that mold was Delirious.  The line got blurry. You went to a Delirious show, and they were dressed up, and they had a light show, and the sound was great, and it was entertaining; and at the same time, at moments your eyes are closed and your hands are raised and you were in a worship experience. I think a lot of worship leaders would tell you, I didn’t know you could do that before Delirious.  Actually, as I think about it, I’m sure Delirious was inspired by U2.  Do you remember that [U2] song “40?”  It wasn’t strictly a worship song, but it was scripture [a paraphrase of Psalm 40], and people would sing along. And it was like, “Wait a minute, this is a U2 concert.  I came because ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday’ sounds great on the radio, but . . . .”

I was only 13, but I remember knowing that they were Christians and they were singing words from the Bible.  And to me, there was something very powerful about the way those things blended.

That blew my mind, actually. I went to see U2 on the “War” Tour. I was 14. Actually, I bought tickets at the door! It was a thousand-seat theater. I bought tickets at the door; they didn’t sell out.

BO:  You’re kidding me!

In Pittsburgh.  And it was an amazing show. 

BO: Did you have that experience that night?

Absolutely. I remember them closing with “40” and they did that thing that they did on their “Live at Red Rocks” recording, you know – where they get everybody singing, and then they walk off stage one-by-one.  And it was an extraordinary experience. It wasn’t just…I had been to good concerts. It wasn’t just a good concert moment. It really was a worship moment.

BO:  That’s why I say, it’s definitely like this expression of worship got better.  Whether it was Delirious, or before Delirious, whether it was U2 or maybe U2 got inspired by somebody else.  I don’t know how far back it goes, but at some point, the kind of, the merging, the blending of those two things happened. When Delirious innovated and merged those two experiences, like a concert experience with a worship experience, a lot of worship leaders went: “I want to do that.”  As much fun as it is to stand up with an acoustic guitar on Sunday morning . . . . man, you mean, I can go out on a Friday night and do this music in a powerful way, that kind of thing I’m experiencing with U2 and Coldplay?  I can provide music in that context, that draws people into the presence of God?  That’s when I started to see that change.

And in some ways that merging of experiences seems both really helpful and . . .  

BO:  And really dangerous?

And really dangerous –  yeah. I mean, on the attractive side, there’s kind of a pushing back against any sort of segregation of worship from everyday life. That seems good – that worship is kind of intruding on every day of the week, not just Sunday.  But yeah, you’re right, the other side of it is that it does seem to introduce all kinds of ambiguities, when worship becomes marketable, when worship leaders become celebrities.  I mean are there any points at which you feel like you have bumped up against some of those dangers?

BO:  Every day.  I think you’re absolutely right, that where there’s great reward, there’s great risk.  They typically go together, and I don’t think we can have the power and potential of worship music without also having the dangers of it.  But my sense is that most worship leaders actually live in that very tension.  Like they talk about it all the time: “Is that about me?” or, “when I do this ad or I do this radio promotional event, is that to sell more records and elevate myself or does that mean more exposure for my songs and more opportunity for people to experience worship?” I think everything in life is a little bit that way – where the way you do something becomes as important as the thing you’re doing.

Well, as you say that, it occurs to me that there is a sense in which even if you’re the church pianist or if you’re the choir director, there’s at least a bit of that tension – a bit of that danger – that comes with moving people, or with being in what is potentially a “spotlight” or “performance” kind of setting. This question is going in a little different direction. I know that the music industry has faced some massive financial and market challenges in the last 10 to 15 years.  Can you say a little bit about that?  What has happened?  And how has that played out in the world of worship music?

BO:  That’s good.  I mean, the short answer is, I think we’re experiencing what every intellectual property business in the world is experiencing, which is – I mean, I’m not an expert, but I would say – that five to ten years ago we became an “on-demand” world.  [We expect] everything now. I want to be able to get what I want, in the shape I want, when I want it.  It used to be, you had to go to a record store and buy a record: it’s 15 bucks; you’ve gotta buy 12 songs. But maybe you don’t want all 12 songs. You don’t want to go to a record store to get it.  And then people began to discover – actually there’s this thing called “Napster.”  Even though it’s illegal, you can go on line and just pick and download the songs you want.  The same thing is happening with newspapers, with authors.  It’s not like the music business is the only one.  The world changed and consumers realized, wait a minute, the technology is giving me more choices and you guys aren’t.  So I’ll work around you to get it if I have to. And now even more, it’s like, not only do I want what I want when I want it, but I want to sample it first.  I think that’s the other thing Napster did.  I’ve got a 12-year-old in my house and if she hears of an artist, or hears a song on the radio, the first place she goes is to YouTube. She’ll just minimize the window on the browser and listen.  And most music, that’s enough, she’s content.  So there’s no commercial exchange.  She doesn’t buy anything.  So  that’s obviously my job, is then, how do I convert that interest to relationship and purchase? So it’s gotten way more challenging. 

So obviously that’s had a huge impact on recording budgets, on the number of artists a label can carry on its roster. What are some of the ways that that change has played out in the music that we end up hearing?

BO:  Well, and to your point about worship artists, you know, one thing that’s interesting is…I guess a question maybe to ask is, is the rise of worship music, is it connected, has it been insulated from that maybe in a different way?  So in other words, if I hear a song at church on Sunday, you know, a) the worship artist is getting…through CCLI there’s a really great revenue collection opportunity where churches pay to sing the songs they sing.  So first of all, even if I’m just hearing it passively, or if I’m singing it, that artist is still making money. And then second of all, do people, I guess I’ve wondered, do they put worship music in a slightly different category?  You know, if I hear a pop song on the radio and it’s hooky, it’s like “That’s fun,” but if I hear a worship song and it really moves me to change my relationship with God, like, am I more willing to put down 10 bucks on iTunes? Is that part of it?  Do people…

So it’s possible, I mean, there might be some ways that the worship thing sort of acts as a…

BO:  Benefited a little bit.

Acts as an incentive for people to actually…

BO:  I’ve wondered that.  I’ve wondered if…just because it’s coincidental that as the music industry went down, worship music seemed to actually have a little bit of a renaissance, and it’s doing really well.  And the other side of that, maybe the more obvious answer would be, as the economy got tougher and the world became tougher, people wanted more music with substance.  Like, I don’t know if I just want to drive to a show and be entertained. I want more of a meaningful experience. There’s something much more powerful about a shared experience rather than just a performance.  People seem much more interested in joining something rather than watching something.

I guess I’d like to think at some level the reason for selling a lot of records is because it’s really affecting people and there’s truly inspiration in it.  It’s truly something that God’s doing and we’re benefiting from.  You know, we’re not causing it.  There’s a real movement in the church and real interest, renewed interest.  Another interesting kind of convergence to talk about is, I’d say at this moment in the church there’s more conversation and interest in social justice and compassion than there was seven or eight years ago.  Did worship music play a part in that?  In kind of renewing the church’s sense of mission?

That is interesting. Do you see some connection there?

BO:  I think about one of the movements we work with, which is called Passion. Passion conferences have always been great, but I remember going to them initially, there would always be an artist who would perform and then a speaker.  The speaker would usually be on a theological topic, more about your personal relationship with God, challenging and awesome.  Then about four or five years ago, they started something called “Do Something Now,” where you would go to an event, or you would go to a hall, where they would have a number of exhibits set up. There might be a charity that needs a thousand wells built in Africa and they’d have kids hold these buckets of water, and walk a quarter of a mile with them. And the kids would experience this and give money to these charities.  I was just amazed at how much money the kids would give to the point where last year, their goal was to raise a million dollars for charity, and the 40,000 college kids in attendance gave $3,000,000.  So there’s some sense in which a conference like that, they’re asking more of these kids; challenging them. It’s not just that the music’s really good and really entertaining.  There’s some connection to the way it’s changing people and the call to action that, you know, people really want.  They really want that experience – I want to be changed; I want to be challenged.  There’s some sort of progression in their kingdom life, rather than just, “Yeah, I love that song.”

I’ve wondered though – what happens then when those kids come back from that to their local church? Do they then expect their local congregation to reproduce the Passion conference experience for them? 

BO:  So, you mean, is it a little bit like, going to church camp when you’re a kid, and you’re on a spiritual high and you walk the aisle and then you go back to normal life, and it’s just, it’s a little underwhelming?

Yes that – exactly. But not only that, it also makes me wonder – if these kids are wanting to reproduce their conference experience, then is the music we end up singing in church shaped by a stadium setting rather than the local church setting? I mean, those are really different venues. Those are really different environments, right?

BO: You know what, it’s actually a great point, and I think the really smart artists and smart publishers in particular who represent the songs go out of their way to translate that.  They understand that yeah, if you’re from some small town and you went to an awesome worship conference you may think: “This is great, I’m taking this song home to my church.”  But you may not really have the tools to do it.  So one of the things we did at EMI was set up a website called “Worship Together.”  It’s now the most visited worship-related website in the world.  I think there are 600,000 members and if I get the stats right, I think it’s something like 300,000 new visits a month.

But the reason I bring that up is that on the website we do, for example, something called the New Song Café.  The idea is if Chris Tomlin’s written a new song and you’ve heard it on his record, now here’s Chris sitting in a room with no lights, no sound, telling you, here’s how I wrote it.  Actually they show his hands.

I’ve learned a couple of songs from it.

BO:  So you know it.  And that’s one example.  But the point it, I think smart artists are like, “I’ve got to make sure that this moment translates to the local worship leader.” It’s not enough to have a great concert experience and a great recording experience.  It’s got to be translatable to the local church. 

Are there any other developments you see happening in the world of Christian music that you think are particularly notable?

BO:  You know, it’s interesting.  I do think there’s a growing pain going on right now that’s interesting.  And that is that now we’ve got a second generation.  We’re through our first, the Delirious, Chris Tomlin.  Those guys are now the, they‘re the adults in the worship world.

They’re the elder statesmen.

BO:  Exactly.  Matt Redman.  So now you’ve got these kids that, they didn’t grow up with Coldplay and U2.  They grew up with, I don’t know if you know, [Icelandic atmospheric rockers] Sigur Ros in particular? And if you’ve ever seen a Sigur Ros show, it’s very much an experience.  The media is as important as the audio.  The visuals, the light show. And so there’s a little bit of a reaction against the sing-along.  These bands are interested in providing a whole experience, beyond just giving you songs where you can sing along.

And so it’s like, it’s really interesting, you know… there’s a whole influx of bands  . . . . You can ask them: Are you a worship band?  “Yes, we’re a worship band.  We provide a worship experience.”  Let’s hear your songs. And few of them are corporate sing-alongs.  They tend to still be theologically rich, they’re very Christ-centered and God-centered. But you can’t always send their songs out to worship leaders and have them sing them on Sunday mornings. They don’t have a band who can pull off the music; the songs aren’t typically simple singable choruses; they don’t have the visuals. Gungor is one artist that I’d characterize that way.

So we’re at an interesting moment where, you know, seven or eight years ago, it’s like, who knows if worship music will ever become popular.  Well now it is popular.  And so now we’re going into the second generation of leaders and those guys have to grapple with, like, what’s my job?  Is it to provide an experience?  Do I want to make cool recordings that compete with the great music but also feeds people spiritually?  Do I need to put on some sing-along moments, is that still an important part of community worship?  They’re asking all those questions.

Well it really forces the question: what does it mean to call something “worship music”?  I mean, is something worship music just because of its lyrical content?  Is it defined as worship music because it facilitates a particular kind of experience?  Or is it – I think I’d want to say, at least in part – something is worship music because it functions in a particular way within a community, you know, that worship happens as God’s people are gathered in God’s presence.

BO:  And I think those guys would say yes, yes and yes. I think the main point though is that before, it didn’t matter as much how good the recording was, because that wasn’t the point.  The recording was just the delivery system to get the music out in the church and get the church singing these new worship songs.  And I think worship leaders now, are saying, you know, we want to make great records. 

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