By Doug Minnick

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Nashville. I lived here since I was six.

How did you get started in the music business?

I guess I cheated. My father has worked at this company for about 20 years. I grew up on a tour bus when he was a musician, travelling around the country with a band called 2nd Chapter of Acts and with a guy called Phil Keaggy. He played in bands when I was growing up, and then he started working at Sparrow. I grew up around it my whole life. When I was 16, I started working at Sparrow in the tape vault in the post production department. Then when I was 18, my father wanted to hire someone young that was just obsessed with music, and going to clubs all the time, and reading all the magazines, and buying loads of records. That was me. So he hired me part-time, and I was sort of a junior A&R scout for a couple of years. Then two years ago, I started doing A&R full time.

What do you like to listen to in your spare time?

Oh my gosh, I could go on for days. I'm a rock kid. I listen to a lot of British bands. I'm really into Franz Ferdinand right now, and Snow Patrol, Elbow, The Scissor Sisters. I like that new Keane stuff. I'm obsessed with the new Cooper Temple Clause record. I love Björk, Radiohead, and Massive Attack. I like a lot of heavy stuff like the Blood Brothers and Poison The Well. I'm pretty stoked on some of this post-punk and dance punk stuff, like The Rapture, and The Faint.

Is the company still called Sparrow Records?

We are in the midst of a massive overhaul and restructuring of our company. Officially, as of two weeks ago — I'm not even really used to it — I work for EMI CMG. They basically rolled another label that was under the same umbrella called Forefront into Sparrow. So we're all one big happy family now. But basically, our artists will still be on Sparrow. On the records it will still have the bird logo on the back, or it will have the Forefront logo. But I work for EMI CMG, so it's kind of confusing.

Who are your biggest artists on Sparrow?

The biggest artists on the label are Steven Curtis Chapman, the Newsboys, Nichole Nordeman, Avalon, and Jump5.

And what about on EMI CMG?

We also have Toby Mac, Rebecca St. James, Audio Adrenaline, and Delirious. The band Switchfoot is doing very well right now. They've been with us for their first three records, and now we're doing a joint-venture with Columbia. They're one of our biggest acts right now.

Can you help define the sub-genres of contemporary Christian music?

I think that pretty much for any musical genre that you can think of in the secular world, there is a version of that in the Christian market. There are always going to be Christians singing about their faith and doing it in all of the different musical styles. Other than that, worship music is probably one sect of what we do that is totally unique. It's a hard thing to define. We're in a weird time right now. In this post-modern mindset that so many people have, you could talk to ten people, and they'd all give you a different definition of what worship music is, so it's rather confusing. To break it down in the most simple way, it's basically songs that are like love songs to God, or songs that are speaking about God, or songs that are to God. Generally, they are written in a way that a congregation or a large group of people can all sing it together.

So not only are the lyrics overtly Christian, but the melodies have a sing-along quality in terms of the chorus. Is that a fair way to put it?

Generally. But then again, on Sparrow we have a DJ who leads worship. He is spinning records that are sick electronic music, but in his case, he is basically MC-ing and leading people into the presence of God through the words that he says. So as soon as you break it down to such a concise definition, you'll find examples of people doing "worship" in different ways. It's a weird time, like I said. Emo bands, for instance, will never say that they're an emo band. They always just say they're rock and roll. A lot of worship bands wouldn't consider themselves a worship band because I think there are connotations and people have different ideas of what it is. A lot of Christians would say that worship is a lifestyle, and it's not a style of music. When I go running, I'm worshipping. When I'm driving my car, I'm worshipping. I'm praising God. It's kind of confusing as to what it actually is.

What do you look for musically in a new artist that you might be considering to sign?

I think there are obviously the standard things with bands — that they're tight, unique, that they're making music that is at least close to what is going on musically and relevant to what's happening in music culture. I think it's probably all of the obvious things. But for me, I've found when I am listening to records and demos all day long in my office, a lot of times when I leave at 5:30, the last thing I want to do is listen to music or demos. It's usually that rare exception of a demo that when I get into my car, it's the first thing that I want to listen to. I bring it home with me on the weekends because I want to listen to it on my runs, and in my car, and on my iPod. That's generally a pretty good indication to me that I'm passionate about something. When I take it away from the 9-to-5 time slot of listening to bands, then I'm listening to it because I'm crazy about it.

How important is radio in your decision-making process?

Very important. Because we're in the Christian market, we don't have MTV, and obviously we don't have a lot of TV media. Our print media is very limited, too — the Christian sub-culture magazines and what not. Radio is actually very important to us. It is one of the biggest vehicles for getting our music to people. We're in a place right now where, musically, Christian music is extremely narrow. I think it's tempting for A&R guys to just sign bands that fit into that narrow musical category. I'm trying not to do that. I'm trying to sign things that are going to sound different than what's going on in our industry. But recognizing how important our radio is, I'm in a time where I'm doing my records, mixing my records, and making them right, and then going back and doing radio mixes that are tailored a little bit more to Christian radio.

What are some of the other ways that you might typically go about breaking a new artist other than radio? How important is it for a band to have a big following?

It's totally important. The times when we're really seeing things win, especially when it's a singer-songwriter or a band, is when we can come along and kind of build off of something — a following, an email list, a website presence, chat rooms. It's easier when a band is already self-sufficient and has a van, a trailer, and a sound system and is playing shows. That gives us a lot to build off of, rather than if we have to build it from the ground up. Obviously, it's different with pop music because that's so radio-based. Touring is vital in our industry. I know it's the same in the mainstream, of course, but I think it's even moreso with what we do. Christian festivals are huge too. There are probably 15 massive Christian festivals that go on every summer. Some of them have 60,000 people at them. That's a massive audience that we try to get our artists to.

Do they have main stages and second stages and all of that?

Oh yeah, some of them have 12 stages!

Besides the festivals, what is the nature of touring for an unsigned band? Where would they play?

It's an interesting time right now because a lot of Christian bands are playing clubs these days, and they're signing to major labels and not Christian record labels. I'm kind of finding that most rock bands that are made up of a bunch of Christian kids are usually going down the same route that any other band would and playing those same circuits.

Who is an example of a band that's done that?

Eisley on Warner Brothers, or Sleeping At Last on Interscope. There are tons of other bands that are doing that right now. Their route is very similar to any other rock band. A lot of kids growing up that want to do "Christian music" are worship leaders at their churches. They mostly play churches. You've still got rock bands and singer-songwriters and who are making music whose primary target is the church. There is a whole circuit of Christian clubs that they play to do that. They play youth groups at churches. They open up if a big Christian band comes through town. They can get opening slots on those shows. There is a whole network of venues to play that are Christian rock clubs, basically.

In the Christian rock world, the bands mostly write their own songs, right? What about for the pop artists? Do they cut outside songs a lot?

Oh yeah. That's far from my expertise and what I know about, though. We have a bunch of pop artists, and that's typically who does outside songs. An exception to that would be that worship bands often times do worship covers. I have a band right now called Something Like Silas who are a worship band, and their whole record is their own songs but they did one cover of a really big worship song called "Better Is One Day." It's a song that they do in their set all the time. It's really well known, and they have a super unique version of it. That's probably the one instance where Christian bands are doing covers or outside songs — when it's standard worship songs.

We've seen more and more Christian artists crossing over into the secular market these days. Is this something that you consider when you're looking at signing a new artist? Do you want them to cross over, or do you just let that happen?

I think for where I'm at, I'm just trying to sign bands that are good enough to do that. It kind of seems like every time a band has "crossed over" or done something in the mainstream, I've never seen it be because the label had some brilliant marketing plan, or because their management did some unique thing to get them a deal. It's usually because the bands are just really, really good. They're writing great songs, and they're making great records. They always find their way to that side of things. I'm consciously trying to sign great artists and great bands, not specifically so that they can cross over, but hopefully the music is good enough to where it will find its way there.

Who are the biggest Christian crossover artists that come to your mind, on your label or any other?

Switchfoot is probably one of the biggest right now. Stacie Orrico has done really well this year. P.O.D. did three records in the Christian market before they exploded on Atlantic. Those are probably the biggest, and there are certainly many more.

Are record sales suffering in the Christian market like they are in the secular market these days?

Absolutely. The Christian market, on a sales level, typically follows the patterns of the mainstream by a year or two, so we're certainly still in the thick of shrinking record sales.

What kind of sales do the biggest non-crossover Christian artists enjoy?

Platinum. DC Talk has a double platinum record. Steven Curtis Chapman has many, many platinum records. Those are rare, but it certainly happens. There is definitely an audience that is that big. Gold is huge in our market. Then you have a band like Relient K who is just a pop-punk band, and they've got a couple of records that have sold more than 300,000 units each. You can sell quite a few records just in our market.

What are some good resources that an aspiring Christian artist can turn to if they want to find out about festivals and things? Are there magazines they should read, or websites, or conferences they can go to? What are the ways they can educate themselves about the Christian market?

CCM Magazine probably has a bunch of stuff in it. Relevant Magazine is a really cool magazine that would have some info in it. HM Magazine is another cool one that might have some stuff. Searching for Christian festivals on the web is probably another way.

Is the festival in Estes Park still a major industry event?

Yeah, it is actually. There are usually people from every label that go up for that. They've got a bunch of vocal contests, and band contests, and seminars and what not.

What's the best advice you would offer an aspiring Christian band that wanted to get signed to your label?

I would say right now for a band that is made up of a bunch of Christian kids, there are more options and choices and routes to take than ever. I would say to really fine tune your vision and what you want to do, and then pursue that. There are a lot of bands right now deciding: Should we be a worship band? Should we be a Christian rock band? Should we be a mainstream band? We don't really know, but we're just going to try to get signed anywhere we can. I think there are so many different routes to take, and so many people I think sign to the wrong label and don't realize it until a few years into it. Just make sure you know where you're going and pursue that and focus.

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