Friday, March 25, 2011

Life In The Christian Music Industry--Jason McArthur

Brandon and I go way back. We first met in 1995 at Abilene Christian University, and from the start it was obvious both of us had performing arts in our blood. We did some singing together, did some shows together, went to church together, and eventually recorded many Zoe Group albums together. Through the years, our friendship has grown stronger (he even married me and my wife Alisha in 2005). And for more than a decade we have shared the absolute joys and honor of leading people to worship our great God via the music and ministry of Zoe.

Little did I know back when I first met Brandon that I’d eventually be earning my living in Christian music. As Vice President of A&R for Sony Music Entertainment’s Christian label division, Provident Label Group (“A&R” stands for “artists and repertoire”, a music business term), my job is to discover, sign, develop, guide, counsel, provide direction for, minister to, and help launch the careers of Christian music artists... on a grand scale!

In my nearly 13 years with Provident, I’ve had the privilege of working with some amazing artists and songwriters, such as Casting Crowns, Michael W. Smith, RED, Leeland, Rebecca St. James, Kerrie Roberts, and Fireflight, to name a few (be sure to check out my newest signing Royal Tailor… their debut album comes out in June… you’ll love them!).

As exciting as it may sound to work for a record label -- even a Christian record label -- the truth is the music industry is fraught with perils. People aren’t buying music like they used to (how many full albums did you purchase last year?), they are paying less and less for music, they are downloading music for free, they are stealing music online and from friends, they aren’t going to concerts as frequently, and on and on. Simply put, the overall music business model is in major transition.

And if all this weren’t enough, working in the Christian music business comes with a whole added layer of conflict. Christian artists are often judged by much higher standards than the rest of us… standards, by the way, that virtually none of us could live up to. Just imagine the tensions that exist between “Christ-likeness” and “celebrity,” between “ministry” and “artistic integrity,” and yes, between “self sacrifice” and “sound business.”

This is where I live. Every day. In working with these artists and their art, I am constantly wrestling with the awkward tensions between putting out quality music, earning a good return on investment for the company that employs me, and devoting my life and work to God as a “living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1).

I dare say, one need not work in the Christian music industry to wrestle with such things… but at times the tensions seem amplified. It can be frustrating and confusing. Sometimes I wonder to myself as I stand on the set of a music video shoot, or in the studio with a recording artist, or on the red carpet at an awards show like the Grammys, or at the moment a new artist is about to sign on the dotted line, “What am I doing here? Is this really what God wants? Is this what Christ died for? Is this making any difference in the world?”

So why do I do it?

Simply put, I do it because God constantly and continually – and powerfully – touches my heart and opens my eyes to the healing, moving power of music. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve seen anything else with such power to turn a heart or shake a spirit as dramatically as a song. I know this to be true because I read the emails and letters sent in by listeners of the artists I work with. Hundreds of them. With stories so amazing, so incredible, so inspiring, you’d think it nearly impossible.

Consider this letter recently received from a fan who had just seen a concert by our artist RED. Now RED is a heavy rock band, and not what many would consider the traditional “Christian artist.” Yet, their music inspired this person to write: “I can’t thank your band enough for the work you are doing for Jesus. My son was depressed and on the verge of being suicidal. The other bands he listens to left him so depressed and in a bad mood. After listening to RED he feels the love of God. Thanks for signing his CD and being who you are. I haven’t seen my son act this positive about himself in a long time.”

Or this email written to our new artist Kerrie Roberts about her song “No Matter What”: “Kerrie, I know you don’t know me yet but God does and I just wanted to share why your song is so special to me. About a year and a half ago my daughter got cancer. Her name is Tricia. When the doctors told me, I lost it and she said, ‘Mommy why are you crying instead of praying?’ Wow… I play your song over and over and over and over. I was crying today but my joy is coming in the morning. God Bless You! Tricia is 8 years old and loves Jesus No Matter What.” (name changed to protect identity)

These are real stories. Real lives. Real pain. And real transformation.

More and more I appreciate the gift God gave us in music. What else could possibly inspire or persuade people so effectively or comfort them so dramatically than the healing power of a song? I’m certainly not suggesting there isn’t plenty to criticize about the Christian music industry. And many have criticized it. Christian artists make mistakes like all of us do. And it’s often easy to get caught up in the unimportant things and the self-centeredness of celebrity, and to lose sight of the big picture. Yet, it’s obvious to me that music of all kinds is having dramatic influence in every corner of the world – both good and bad.

Just think about the values and ideas being promoted by artists like Lady GaGa and Katy Perry and Kanye West and countless others (and I actually love their music… which is precisely why they are so powerful and influential). They have no problem at all using their art to promote all kinds of destructive values and self-centeredness. Why shouldn’t Christian artists whom God has specially gifted and appointed, create and sell music that points people to Him?

I am thankful that a Christian music industry exists, for this very reason. I’m thankful I get to work at a company that distributes and promotes such music. And I’m thankful people like the ones who wrote those letters got a chance to hear it.

As a final thought, consider how important musicians were to King David as he and the whole of Israel celebrated “with all their might before the LORD, with songs and with harps, lyres, tambourines, sistrums and cymbals” (2 Sam. 6:5). In fact, so important was music to him, so critical to focusing the minds of the people on God, that one of the first things David did after setting up a place for the ark of the covenant was to appoint musicians and singers, those specially gifted, to sing songs of praise to God (1 Chronicles 15:14-29).

The power of music to touch the soul and reinvigorate the spirit is virtually unmatched. So remember this the next time you happen to see a Christian artist’s album sitting in the rack of your local Walmart or Target (or Christian bookstore). Maybe even buy one, so these artists can continue to make music that points people toward the great God we serve. Music is one of God’s most powerful tools for ministry. Use it wisely… and use it often!

For more information on Provident Label Group’s artists, go to

Jason is one of my very best friends. I love what he does and who he is. He walks the walk. It has been such a blessing over the years to laugh, sing, minister, travel, laugh some more, and grow into adulthood with him. I'm so grateful for his friendship and ministry. I also am really thankful that he turned us on to Kerrie Roberts . (click on her name to go to her website) My girls LOVE her music and she's an awesome alternative to other artists out there whose messages are considerably less positive. Jason and his beautiful wife Alisha are expecting their first child...Maddox in about a week! We're all excited to welcome baby Maddox into our lives!

ZOE Group celebrating the impending arrival of Maddox.


Sarah said...

Love this. So true that music ministers to us so well, yet few of us are willing to realize that it is still an industry. Excellent all the way around.

Amanda Brooks said...

This is awesome. Thank you so much for sharing, Jason.

annie said...

What a great guy! Thanks for letting him "guest" on your blog. I'm enjoying reading about your talented AND gifted friends. You guys must've been a FORCE when all together in college. :)