Every few years, it seems like Christian music gets its turn in the national spotlight with an album or a song taking off and unexpectedly capturing a much larger audience than anticipated. There will always be the artists who embrace the mainstream stage like Amy Grant, Stacie Orrico, Switchfoot and P.O.D. Then there are the discovered songs from Christian artists that receive massive mainstream exposure like MercyMe's "I Can Only Imagine," Mark Schultz's "He's My Son," and Bob Carlisle's "Butterfly Kisses" (who doesn't love that song?).
Very rarely though, does the small, but continually growing world of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) make its own headlines in the mainstream music world. Typically, we need the help of an MTV, or a syndicated radio show or the latest episode of Grey's Anatomy to make a splash, and it's been awhile since people have talked. In fact, the last Christian artist to make major music headlines was Switchfoot back in 1995 when their album Nothing Is Sound dominated both mainstream and Christian sales and radio charts.
It appears that the cycle has started again, and it couldn't happen to a better group.
Earlier this month, Casting Crowns made headlines with their third full length studio album, The Altar and the Door. The album released nationwide on Tuesday, August 28th and sold an impressive 129,000 copies, making it the #2 selling record in the nation, bested only by High School Musical 2.
Given that Christian retail heavily promotes pre-ordering for weeks before an album releases, (something major retailers like Wal-mart, Best Buy and Target rarely do) it's no surprise that the hottest band in Christian music had a strong release week. What was surprising to me was to see the second week's sales land at #4 on Billboard's Top 200 albums chart with another 40,000 units sold bringing their two week total to more than 170,000. Who knows where it will go from here?
There are a number of things that make this news more exciting for the Christian music fan. The Altar and The Door's first week sales make it the fourth highest debut in terms of units sold for a Christian/gospel record since Nielsen SoundScan began counting sales at Christian retail in 1996. However, given that Casting Crowns has had no major mainstream exposure in any medium, their sales seem that much more impressive.
Switchfoot's 2005 Nothing is Sound sold 131K the first week out, but they were backed by a major label and had massive exposure through mainstream radio and retail and their video was everywhere. P.O.D.'s 2001 Satellite sold 133K with similar mainstream exposure. Leann Rimes' 1997 You Light Up My Life sold 186,000 copies, but the artist was well known in the country music world giving her instant exposure to more fans than most Christian artists could even dream of.
Casting Crowns has hit the ground running with zero mainstream exposure. They don't have a single song on mainstream radio, their album is not being promoted on TV and they haven't released a music video for any songs on the new album. This makes the launch of their new album even more impressive.
For me, it's always exciting to see Christian music of any kind acknowledged in mainstream media, and with a top 5 album in the country for two weeks in a row, it has sparked some great conversation already. Whether it is an inclusion in the music section of a national retailer's Sunday sales ad or a review in a major magazine or newsletter, it's a nice validation of a genre that I've embraced for years, knowing full well that Christian music remains very much a nitch market.
It will be interesting to continue to watch the evolution of this release. The group has always said that they desire to speak to the church and encourage believers, and I believe them. Don't expect to see Casting Crowns doing an appearance on MTV's TRL or Conan O'Brian anytime soon. Then again, the "church" seems to be everywhere today, and Lord knows, we all need a little talkin' to. At least 170,000 of us have digested the band's message already, and that ain't bad.
Kevin McNeese started NRT in 2002 and has worked in the industry since 1999 in one form or another. He has been a fan of Christian music since 1991.