Is Being Labeled a "Christian Rock" Band Toxic For Our Career?
By: Jessica Hopper
Are you a musician? Is your group having issues? Ask Fan Landers! Critic Jessica Hopper has played in and managed bands, toured internationally, booked shows, produced records, worked as a publicist, and is the author of The Girls' Guide to Rocking, a how-to for teen ladies. She is here to help you stop doing it wrong. Send your problems to her -- confidentiality is assured, unless you want to use your drama as a ticket to Internet microfame.
Dear Fan Landers,
We're a melodic indie-pop band from a small college town in California. When our band first started, we had a great opportunity to put out two records on a record label that is known mainly for releasing Christian music. We figured it was a great way to get our music out into the world and it was; the label had great distro and treated us well. Even though we have since gone fully independent, we still can't seem to get any love from "cool" indie blogs and press outlets who cater directly to the people who would probably like our music--mainly, I suspect, due to our former label associations, not to mention our home base in the hinterlands of California. How can we become "born again" in the eyes of the secular music press?
Not to dismiss your complaint outright, but have you gotten any direct feedback from people all skeptical about whether or not you are a Christian indie rock band? Because it sounds like you are projecting.
Back in the way-back days, nigh a long decade ago, I was the publicist for Pedro the Lion's jump out of Christian rock underground and into the snobby secular light, and I can tell you: post-Sufjan, post-Dave Bazan indie rock is a different world. Indie rock c. 2013 typically treats Christian bands with curiosity rather than contempt. Music press and secular music fans are much more capable of making a distinction between a band like yours that perhaps came up on the Christian coffeehouse circuit and bands that are proselytizing.
There are a lot of career examples you can work from these days vis a vis bands leaving the God Ghetto. Dave Bazan's Pedro the Lion-era political awakening turned out to be a creeping agnosticism and he is making incredible records about that transformation. Rather than trying to skirt any issue, he has been really direct his entire career and it helps that he made records that are now classics. There are bands like your former label mates Underoath, who courted godless hardcore kids by playing Warped Tour for, like, the last decade straight. Folks in Fleet Foxes managed to shake their Christian band bonafides off real well. Mewithoutyou, rather infamously, has made a point to tour with secular bands. Head and the Heart, Danielson, The Hold Steady have all made records that articulate complex and personal ideas about faith and spirituality; much of the stigma about doing such a thing is gone.
So, how to do you wanna handle it? There is no shame in working on both sides of the fence, as it seems like you already are. From what I can tell, your band is the perhaps biggest band in Chico, CA (congrats) and you recently won an actual award for being the best band in city as well (nice plaque). You have done national touring and some regional, but probably not enough. Being the best band in Chico on album three is no small accomplishment, but is the next step really some hot luv from Stereogum or whomever? No, no it is not.
Here is the bigger issue, and I say this not knowing how you have tried to promote your work or to whom...but (no shots) you may not be an indie blog band. Your quiet tunes are pretty, you have lovely harmonies, but speaking as someone who gets sent a lot of albums, being a plaintive post-Fleet Foxes band with a bit of banjo probably isn't going to cut it. Because there are a crajillion bands like yours, vesting up and kicking out their drummer, right this very instant. It is a Mumford Mumford Mumford world we live in now and your banjo is no longer a novelty.
It's best to stop aiming for underground. Hire a publicist for your new album coming out--nothing too fancy, just someone who can do a little something for you regionally, get press for your tour dates and hit the places that do care about an independent bands making music like you do (Paste, for example). Plus, if there is truly some residual "OMGosh!" about your Christian-label albums, you can build a new press kit on, like, show previews from the San Jose Mercury News.
Given that you have done some national touring, you either have a booking agent or are capable at self-booking. A primary goal needs to be getting on bigger bills locally and regionally, being the first call opener the next time Avett Brothers come through. Your sound is one that has a lot of mainstream ambassadors right now; aim to connect with their fan base. Also, maybe that band from Reno that wrote in last week can hook you up with some shows there and vice versa. Live, what label you are on and who you were before you stepped on stage does not matter, so work on having a live show that convinces people, that can nuke whatever low expectations they might have about an ex-Tooth & Nail band.
And finally: you are 150 miles from the Sonoma Valley--surely there are wine-related festivals you could get on, some vineyard events to play. You are totally that kind of band. Your sound is FM-radio familiar and will not be offensive to older, rich wine aficionados or younger people who actually still enjoy music. Play up the flannel; get a washboard player if you have to. GO GET THEM, WINE BUCKS!
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