Published on March 14th, 2011 | by Hugh Hession0
Interview with Christian music executive John Mays of Centricity Music
John Mays is one of the most respected executives in Christian music having discovered and signed Matt Redman, Point of Grace, Nicole Nordeman, Warren Barfield, Cindy Morgan, Scott Krippayne and the Passion worship recordings. He worked in A&R at Word, Sparrow and Star Song Records, and sat at the helm of Benson Records as president of the legendary label. Mays co-founded Centricty Music in 2003. Their current roster includes Aaron Shust, Downhere, Jaime Jamgochian and more.
I originally connected with John to tap into his expertise in the Christian music business when I was doing research for my new book that I am writing on booking and promotion for the Christian indie artist. This interview is what resulted and will be of particular interest to those who are pursuing a career as a Christian music artist, however much of this information that John provides has relevance, regardless of genre.
HUGH: Hello John. Thanks so much for this interview! I was reading one of your blog posts called “What we want, what we need,” and there was a part that stuck out to me regarding what you look for when signing new artists: (We are looking for) “people who are concerned and curious about all that they see and experience, and who process those things into music that somehow leaves the listener different… forever. We’re looking for artists.” This is something that I hit upon consistently with musicians, bands and singers that I work with: the need to be an artist. There are many elements to consider as you articulately describe in that blog post. With that being said, What can an artist do to align themselves for greater visibility, enabling them to catch the ear of a major label?
JM: Hi Hugh. Good to connect with you. With technology being the ever-changing gift that it is to today’s independent artists, there are almost more things one can do than there is time to do them! But on our website, I tried to generalize four big-picture categories of the sorts of things that usually catch our attention. This is by no means meant to be a comprehensive list; but the items are listed in order of importance to us.
- Work Ethic. I once heard Margaret Becker tell some indie artists that before she was signed, she felt like she was digging a trench with her bare hands. When she signed, the label gave her a shovel, but she still had to do the digging! I like that image because it helps artists to understand how much patience and persistence is required, and the reality that no one will ever work as hard to get their music exposed as themselves. We can’t work with people who don’t understand this.
- Songs. Fortunately, writing and recording great songs continues to play a significant role in the marketability of an artist. Through all the changes in the music biz, this seems to remain the one, consistent factor in building and sustaining a successful music career. If you are consistently writing great songs, either by yourself or with others, we’re interested.
- Qualified Uniqueness. I use the word “qualified” because simply saying we’re looking for “unique” artists isn’t totally accurate. We want artists who are unique enough to not sound like everything else out there; but also sound enough like everything else out there that it still can have mass appeal for it’s time. Tricky stuff. If you’re making commercial music, AND that music has an identifiable distinction to it, we’re interested.
- Talent. We’ll never sign anyone who’s not talented on some level, but we’ll probably never again be able to sign someone on talent alone. There’s simply too much noise out there, good and bad, to rely on talent to cut through. Without a good showing in the first three categories (listed above), it’s almost impossible to gain visibility for an artist or band, regardless of the level of talent.
HUGH: I agree John. I hear indie artists every day that have enormous potential, but don’t understand the importance of your first point. Having patience, persistence and putting forth a concerted effort can have substantial impact on an artists success (or lack of) – it often comes down to staying power and extreme tenacity. Let me ask you, do major labels still have their ear to the street? Or is it more of the artist rising above to get the attention?
JM: Each label is probably different, based on their philosophy and what they can afford. We (Centricity Music) place a high enough value on discovery that we fund an A&R department that can do both things…listen to all that is pitched, and scout for careers that we see bubbling up out there on the landscape, along with the things that just sound interesting to us.
HUGH: Tell us a bit about Becky?
JM: Ha! Yes. Good ol’ Becky. “Becky” has probably been blown out of proportion over time. A few years ago radio stations did some demographic surveys of their listeners, who are primarily women. Somewhere along the way, that woman was personified as “Becky,” and consequently, that’s become the name given to the typical Christian radio listener. The moniker has become sort of infamous since then, as artists and labels will listen to new songs and wonder if “Becky” will like it! In truth, we need to be grateful for these women since they support so much of our music. She is the 32-54 year old listener to Christian music’s Adult Contemporary radio format, which represents most of our exposure.
HUGH: And how about younger people, such as teenagers or college students. What kind of impact do they have in regard to Christian music consumption? I see many of them tuning into bands like Hillsong United.
JM: Honestly, it’s an area of concern industry-wide. There is a Christian radio format called “CHR” whose model is designed to reach the 18-24 demographic, which of course, is difficult to do with all the media voices competing for their attention. It does provide a good platform for bands like Skillet and Red, but most of us in the CCM community want to do a better job of finding ways to reach that audience.
HUGH: What distribution outlets are used to sell Christian music?
JM: Depending on the style of music, as much as half of a record’s sales can be sold digitally (most of that being iTunes and Amazon), and about half sold physically through Christian bookstores. Very few titles are sold any longer in Target, Best Buy or Walmart since they have cut back so much on the real estate they commit to music. There are some direct-to-consumer sales that happen through label and artist’s web sites, but it accounts for very little in the larger picture.
Also, some artists do well selling product at their live shows. This is especially true for the Gospel and Southern Gospel formats. Indie artists make much of their living through what they sell off the table at their shows.
HUGH: You know, I’ve noticed that CCM tends to get flack in regard to sounding very similar and “formatted.” Do you feel that this is something that the industry has done on purpose (staying with “what works”)?
JM: I don’t think this is a criticism that is pointed exclusively toward CCM. It’s certainly true about CCM, but it’s also true about Hip Hop, Pop, R&B, Country and most other commercial music formats.
And yes, all these industries make the music they make “on purpose” since they are all still basically radio driven. The radio stations test their audiences and add the songs that score the highest to their playlists. The labels then try to sign artists and produce music that will test well with that listener since radio is still THE biggest platform for exposing music. Not as big as it once was, but still the biggest.
When radio plays your song, your sales go up (in most cases). Since selling music is what labels do (or hope to do!), they are going to try and purposely produce music that people like and will buy.
Of course, some labels will also take chances on artists that are outside the format. However those artists end up relying on social media to get their music exposed and the sea of indie artists using the same means tends to make it very difficult to cut through.
HUGH: Speaking of taking chances, at one time, labels very much nurtured their artists. Then, it seemed to turn away from that, and whatever stuck, was what they promoted. Do you feel that artist development will find its way back, or is that a thing of the past, from a label standpoint?
JM: Well, “development” can mean different things to different organizations. Labels still do a lot of development in the sense of helping new artists/bands hone in on their style, sound, and especially songs. Some still get involved in development of their live show, either by using someone in-house, or through a professional performance coach. Most still provide media training and PR support. Some still provide tour support to buy artists opening slots on tours.
What isn’t seen as much any longer is the label that will release three or four full recordings (10-14 songs), losing money on each of them while hoping for the right combination of timing and song. For most labels, with their business model decimated and trying their best to survive, it’s simply not affordable to keep re-investing in artists whose recordings don’t return their investment. In the good ol’ days, there was simply more margin for that, so you saw it more often, and many called this “development.” Not so much anymore, but I think that’s more a function of the economic realities, and not the desire of the team at the label.
HUGH: Besides the exceptions (your Casting Crowns, Chris Tomlin’s), what constitutes a successful album campaign in terms of sales for a major league release in the CCM genre?
JM: “Major league release” is a fairly subjective term! Ten years ago, there were probably 10 artists who could sell platinum. Today, maybe one. Maybe. Most labels would consider it a big success if their “major league release” debut did 100,000 in its lifetime. And you could count these on one hand today.
HUGH: Do you see the role of technology as a hindrance to the indie artist trying to get signed, or a benefit? For instance, The Internet has opened up the channels of distribution, however it has also made it possible for anyone to throw up their music, thus creating a glutton of music in the marketplace.
JM: In general, technology has been one of the best things to ever happen for an indie artist. To be able to make a recording so inexpensively, and get it distributed all over the world for free is an amazing thing. Yes, it does result in a glut of music out there that is harder and harder to rise above, but that’s not so bad since typically, what will help you rise above is a great song and a great recording. Maybe all this tech just makes an artist have to reach deeper for better work, and if so, that’s a good thing.
HUGH: What challenges to you see for the future of CCM?
JM: From a business perspective, our challenges won’t be any different than any other commercial music format. Basically, we will continue to try and figure out how to stay in business when the product they offer (music) is no longer considered something to be paid for. That’s a big one.
From a spiritual perspective, most of the marketing we do (primarily radio) is built on what the consumer (listener) wants to hear. As discussed above, this can result in music that is flat, formulaic, common and uninspiring. Not always, but I think our challenge moving in to the future will be how to address the heart as well as the ear, and how to reach that listener with what they need, as much as what they want.
HUGH: Thanks so much for your time, John. This provides some great information for our readers. One quick question before we wrap this up. Do you see the role of indie Christian artists expanding in the industry?
JM: Definitely. One could make an argument that, as labels continue to fail, the system we know now could eventually evolve into an industry made up of only independent artists.
Since there is no professional voice helping to bring objectivity to the indie’s work other than themselves (or friends and family), one could also argue that as indies become the “industry,” the level of mediocrity continues to rise, and of course, that has far reaching implications for the value of music in culture and people’s lives in the coming generations.