The Emperor Has No Clothes

When I was a kid, I read a lot. In fact, I should clarify that by “a lot”…I mean that I used to spend time leafing through encyclopedias when I didn’t have other stuff to read. My mother liked to support my reading from an early age, so she enrolled my in a Disney book club that existed at the time and I ended up reading a Disney adaptation of the classic story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. I must have read that book a bunch because I can still see some of the illustrations in my head and I just hit 40. (If you are someone that has never read some version of this story, I suggest that you pause and at least do a Google search to read the story before I drop the big spoilers in the next sentence.) I think that I was always fascinated with the story because I found it absurd that it would take a small child to point out that the Emperor was wearing no clothes. I mean really…who is stupid enough to pretend that that someone or something is not actually as it is presented to be? Apparently, most of us are that stupid.

Now, please understand, we are all going to be deceived at some point. I can look back over the course of my life and point out some real humdingers where I was totally snowed by the hype surrounding a prominent figure. Anyone remember Mike Warnke? Like a lot of people, I bought that dude’s load of bullcrap until Cornerstone magazine did a definitive investigation that exposed his con. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the first nor the last time that I was fooled by someone like that. Heck, I even recently believed that a politician could introduce change and transparency in Washington.

Before I digress further, I would like to get to my point. There are many, many, many people and/or causes out there that are not what they appear to be. From preachers and leaders to non-profits and politicians; there are a lot of people that either believe their own hype or worse, have orchestrated it to fool others and thereby profit from their naïveté, either through financial gain or the acquisition of power. I could start listing folks that have done this, but that always devolves into a he said/she said argument because honestly…some people never learn to recognize a person’s bullcrap…especially when it is clothed in god or country or cause. This has played itself out through history with often tragic results. People say that a movement or a church with an explosion of growth and success is definitive evidence of God’s blessing or political mandate or God’s will or even some sort of moral altruism. For those people, I would urge that you investigate the Nuremberg Rallies, Revered Jim Jones, the Communist Revolution, and any number of fallen televangelists. Additionally, for anyone who feels that such critical statements come from a lack of faith or perhaps general negativity, I would suggest that you read Jesus’ interactions with money changers and religious leaders in Matthew 21 and 23, respectively.

It has been said that you learn everything that you need for life in kindergarten. That may be true because that was about the time that I was introduced to the ever-present truth that quite often the Emperor has no clothes! Isn’t it about time that you woke up and starting asking some questions?

Five Iron Frenzy, Kickstarter and Why this may be the most important thing to happen to Christian music in decades.

Just in case you didn’t know, one of the most amazing events in Christian music history has occurred during this past week. It you aren’t a huge fan of the band, it might have been easy to miss but I hope to fill you in on why it might be the most significant occurrence in the modern Christian music scene.

At 7:00 pm MST on November 22nd, Five Iron launched a Kickstarter project for their first album in 8 years and released a new FREE song to go along with it. The goal was to raise $30,000 in the next 60 days to fund the new album and any additional funds were to go towards promotion and touring (hopefully) for that album. At 7:54 pm MST, less than an hour later, they had hit their goal of $30,000. If you would like to skip doing the math, that is just over $555 a minute or $9.25 a second. Although that might seem like the most impressive part of this story (and it IS rather impressive), there is more. At the time of this writing, less than a week into the project, the band had raised over $112,000! In fact, I had to keep changing the total while I was editing this article because money keeps coming in from their supporters.

Clearly, Five Iron Frenzy is going to be able to record, promote, release and support an album all on their own, without the involvement of a record label. It will be a complete DIY project in conjunction with their fans, who are the people that really want to see this happen in the first place. Although this isn’t the first time a band has used to fund a release, it is the first time that such a significant Christian music act has done so. Now, here is why this is so important:

The Christian music industry and Christian record labels kill good Christian bands.

I know this may be the first time that you’ve heard of such a shocking concept but I am going to explain and I would like for you to hear me out.

To start with, I am not saying that the Christian music industry and Christian record labels are evil or even nefarious by nature. These entities, no matter what their stated missions and goals, have one underlying goal that drives everything they do and that is to make money. In this way, the Christian music industry is no different from the secular music industry. You can rest assured that when a record label of any type signs a band, they are looking for a band that will be able to sell records and make that label as much money as possible. What I am saying is that the industry and labels are a business and what is good for business is not always good for the bands in that business.

What is most often misleading about the Christian music business is that most people assume that the emphasis is on labels making decisions and conducting business in a Christian fashion as the main priority. Although I am sure that there are some smaller independent labels which manage themselves in this fashion (such as Grrr Records), I have have found that in most cases, it would be absolutely impossible to distinguish between Christian and secular labels based on business practices and ethics.

With all of this in mind, I would like to point out 3 ways that the Christian music business kills good Christian bands. The first way is just like the secular music industry, but the last two are unique to Christian labels.

Darwinian Economics
The most evident way that Christian labels resemble the secular industry is that they operate on the principle of natural selection based on record sales. In this model a band can absolutely suck-out-loud and have no artistic or personal integrity but sell lots of records and they will always have a fully supported home at a record label. I could mention several very concrete examples of this, but I don’t think that anyone benefits from naming names. We’ve all seen acts like this. They are the acts that make many of us avoid main stage shows at festivals in favor of acts on the side stages.

The real problem with this model is not the promotion and financial success of acts that suck, but rather the neglect of acts that have artistic and personal integrity but don’t sell a bunch of records. Sometimes these bands are just having trouble with exposure or promotion. Maybe a producer didn’t do a good job of capturing the band’s sound on album. Perhaps their music just isn’t the flavor of the week or maybe they have experienced a sickness or personal tragedy that keeps them off the road for a while. No matter what the reason, the end result is the same. These acts are cut from the label based on lack of profitability and it is unlikely that they will be picked up by another label without a deal that leaves them in a position where they will not make any money for themselves. This is how far too many Christian bands have left the scene.

No Legacy in the Christian Music Market
This is my biggest problem with the Christian music industry and the one way that they are most unlike the secular music business. The strange thing is that this is the easiest point to illustrate and explain but the one point that is so hard for them to understand.

Think about these facts: Led Zeppelin was active for only 12 years and has not released any new material since the death of their drummer in 1980, which was over 31 years ago. AC/DC recorded and released “Back in Black” in 1980 and it remains their most successful album of all time. Now, think about this, there are not many teenagers on this planet who do not know who these two bands are. They remain top sellers of albums and merchandise and their primary material is over 30 years old.

Now, tell me when the last time was that you saw a youth group kid wearing a Guardian shirt? How about Plankeye? Stavesacre? Squad Five-O? Bride? I could go on and on naming top tier Christian bands who have simply disappeared from the scene like they were never even there. The Christian music industry is the worst for promoting the “next big thing” and letting the catalogs of unbelievably good older acts rot. If you don’t believe me, just think of you favorite and most popular album by a Christian artist that is older than 5 years and then go try to find it on a shelf at a retail store. Artists like these have produced some very honest material that could continue to speak to the lives of people…if there was any effort to keep their music in front of people.

Dancing the Ministry Dance
This is the single way in which the Christian music business is most unlike the mainstream. There is a guaranteed Christian market, if you are willing to make all the requisite compromises. Special events like crusades and revivals, youth camps and retreats, Christian festivals and Christian radio are all markets that are closed to secular acts. If a band is willing to polish off all of the edges, make the music that their label wants, and move to the lowest common denominator (where they are unlikely to offend or trouble anyone with their message), then they can have a long, storied career and become the band that their younger selves would have hated.

Selling out in the Christian market produces some of the greatest oddities in music:
– Bands who always try to maintain a “hip” look (even though the band members are all over 40) have produced some of the greatest hair and fashion atrocities in history.
– Rotating band line-ups where only a peripheral member of the original band is left.
– Headlining acts with a fraction of the crowd and popularity of their opening acts.
– Bands that have no radio play or concerts outside of a particular ministry, yet continue to headline their own events year after year.

Into the midst of this model comes the perfect storm…a Five Iron Frenzy!

Five Iron Frenzy has one of the most exceedingly loyal fanbases in all of music. When they announced that they were retiring 8 years ago, people flew from as far away as Australia to be at their final show in Denver. Although it has been 8 years since anyone has seen any new music from the band, their fans have never stopped hoping for their return.

Five Iron has always had an internet presence, but it seems that the power of the internet has finally caught up with the band in the form of social media, which gives their fans a way to connect with each other and the band in ways that marketing people from record labels have been trying to artificially promote for years. In other words, the band naturally has a huge promotion machine and market that was in place well before they decided to return. They have given new meaning to the phrase hit the ground running.

Now, has entered into the mix with a way for anyone to propose a project and solicit funding from a world-wide audience. Here’s where that huge, loyal fanbase comes into play. Five Iron Frenzy built a reputation for being a band that wanted to meet and get-to-know the fans. The members are humble and approachable. They are the type of genuine, loving people that one would expect in a “Christian band” and people love them for that. With that in mind, it was really a foregone conclusion that they would easily raise the money for a new album. Think about it, how many times have you wished that you could do something to bring your favorite band back from the dead? Last week, Five Iron Frenzy fans got to do just that.

Here is what makes this a game-changer for the Christian music business: Five Iron can now do this solely with the support of their fans. Christian rock radio is already responding to the new song without the promotion of a record label. The band can now make an album on their own terms without any financial risk to themselves. They can recoup any loses that they incurred the first time around and figure out a way to make the band a sustainable venture for adults with families and children.

These guys proved a long time ago that they aren’t greedy and that it is not about the money, so this type of support will allow them to become the kind of band that never has to quit for any reason other than one they come up with on their own. No worrying about having to compete with other bands at a label, no concern for a label promoting them appropriately, complete control over their own legacy, and no compromising to make themselves fit a particular ministry model. Five Iron Frenzy now has what few bands ever achieve: the complete freedom to be exactly what they feel led to be.

So here’s to Five Iron Frenzy, the band that built their reputation on challenging gross consumerism and inconsistency in the Christian market. May you guys continue to challenge and encourage people in the best of ways. May you continue to expose what is wrong and champion what is right. May you always remember that the only thing that you were wrong about was that in 10 years we wouldn’t know your name. Most importantly, may your fans always continue to help you fight for what is right.