God Rock, Inc.

The Business of Niche Music

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Andrew Mall
Fletcher Jones Foundation Imprint in Humanities
  • Berkeley: 
    University of California Press
    , December
     2020.
     322 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780520343429.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

There are many different approaches in popular music studies; however, many scholars’ focus is so narrow that it does not contribute a broader framework to allow for discourse between the smaller areas. Andrew Mall’s book, God Rock Inc.: The Business of Niche Music, is an important and necessary addition to popular music studies and studies of religious music-making more generally. Mall’s purpose is to contribute a new broad theoretical framework and demonstrate how that framework works through examining the development of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM). He explains that his approach “differs [from other popular music approaches] by using an expansive category (markets) within which other taxonomies remain valid and useful. Studying popular music markets can unify an otherwise diffuse body of literature and enable broad comparisons” (5). In American Christian popular music studies, it is rare to find a scholar who does not identify as Christian. While Christian scholars often struggle with their own denominational biases, Mall’s insider knowledge from growing up in the Christian faith yet outsider’s perspective as an atheist today provides a unique lens through which to view the Christian music industry.

Mall’s framework centers around the topic about which music executives are most interested: markets. Mall defines markets as “realms in which popular music is commodified, produced and distributed, bought and sold, or imagined to be” (3). If markets are the primary concern for those who create and distribute the music, it is a significant area for analyzing popular music because it situates it within actual practices. When discussing markets, the question that all music executives and creators must answer is: what is it for? This question is complicated for Christian music because of its desire to minister to Christians yet remain profitable. The book examines the tensions between ministry and industry by understanding how the CCM market must negotiate the balance of artists’ ethics with musical aesthetics.

God Rock Inc. has two parts. The first part traces the history of CCM from the Jesus People (1960s) to Amy Grant’s crossover success (late 1990s), ultimately demonstrating a shift in the target audience. Originally Christian music had an evangelistic approach wanting to reach non-Christians; however, the market revealed the need to minister to Christians, thereby causing a shift in its focus and purpose. The second part examines three specific topics by utilizing concepts from other scholars as lenses for interpreting CCM. Chapter 5 addresses ethics by applying Timothy Rommen’s “ethics of style.” The next chapter examines resistance at Christian music festivals through Dick Hebdige’s subculture theory. In the final chapter, Mall expands beyond David Brackett’s musical definition of crossover and David Bruenger’s consumer definition of crossover to address fringe crossovers between same-sized markets.

By observing concerts, festivals, and interviews with label executives, Mall draws various conclusions that support his claims for how the market has shaped the music. In addition, his conversations with cultural intermediaries, such as CCM magazine’s editor John Styll, offer unique, unscripted insights. Because there is a limited amount of literature on CCM, these ethnographic sources provide crucial support for his proposed framework.

Mall’s success in providing an approach for popular music studies is one of the strengths of this book. Though he focuses on a niche religious music, his discussion on the negotiations between niche and general markets demonstrates how this framework can apply beyond those niche markets. Another strength of this book is the conclusion. Mall demonstrates how unique the Christian market is by comparing its neglect of back catalogs with the general market’s reliance on them.  The general market relies on the popularity of old songs in a way that the Christian market has never had an interest.  Mall reveals the discontinuity between older Christian songs that are neglected, while oldies stations that play secular songs from the 80s and 90s remain popular. While CCM is primarily used to present a proposed framework for the field of popular music studies, Mall’s conclusions about the Christian market are a significant contribution to Christian music studies. For example, his analysis of the motivation for shifting the target audience from non-Christians to Christians is crucial for analyzing and understanding the purpose of Christian music lyrics. In addition, by using markets as the framework, Mall provides Christian music studies with a unique narration of the history of CCM that contributes a rationale for the developments made to the music concerning its audience over time.

While one book cannot accomplish everything, it is essential to note a few areas where Mall could have expanded or been clearer. Though the summary mentions tracing the history through the 2010s, the book stops its historical narrative in the early 2000s. Many of the mentions in the 2010s are about music festivals instead of the market. Additionally, it becomes harder to discern what Mall is classifying as “niche” in later chapters. In the historical

section, it appears that he is focusing on the CCM market as niche but later uses Christian market as the general market from which smaller niche markets such as Christian metal derive.

In God Rock Inc., Mall successfully creates a broad framework for future music studies. To understand niche markets, Mall addressed many aspects and priorities of the general market; therefore, his approach to CCM through this lens can expand to popular music generally. Similarly, while focused on music, this approach could be applied to religious markets more broadly to understand the rationale behind the commodification of Christianity. While Mall could have developed a few elements further, the main content and theory proposed in this book is a significant contribution to popular and religious music studies. Using the primary practical perspective that music executives use to discuss their work, Mall offers a pragmatic and innovative approach for research in any genre within the music industry while also providing important insights for Christian music studies.

 

 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shannan Katherine Baker is a PhD student in church music at Baylor University.

Date of Review: 
July 15, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew Mall is Assistant Professor of Music at Northeastern University and a coeditor of Studying Congregational Music: Key Issues, Methods, and Theoretical Perspectives.

Keywords: 

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