Problems with Christian Contemporary Music: An Interview with Trey Pearson of 'Everyday Sunday'
Trey Pearson, front man and creative mind behind the band, Everyday Sunday, is in many ways the picture of a successful Contemporary Christian Music artist. He’s toured the world, played to thousands of fans at a time and sold hundreds of thousands of records. So I was intrigued when I sat down with him at the recent Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina to learn more about why this icon of Christian pop was going solo with his most recent record.
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How did you get started in the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) scene?
I was introduced to the scene as a teenager, finding out that people listened to "Christian music.” I started going to "Christian concerts,” and was inspired to write my own songs and have a band. I was already into performance art as a teenager from doing theater, musicals, acting, and modeling for commercials, print, and things of that nature. I grew up teaching myself piano, and was intrigued by the idea of playing songs for people.
Given my background, I felt like I needed to do "Christian songs" to glorify God with my art. Long story short, after opening for several signed artists, I dropped out of college (after being on honor roll through my freshman year) to make an independent album and pursue a record deal. I went to Nashville, and knocked on doors until someone would listen. I signed a deal three months after I released my independent album.
What about the industry surprised you?
I have been in the industry for 11 years full time, so that's a bit of a loaded question! I was pretty naive coming into the industry. I assumed everyone there was just trying to make great art, to glorify God. But it was more than that. I thought that what these musicians were doing was somehow sacred, distinct from the "secular" music that other artists were producing. That is what I had been taught as a teenager, by people that were really influential in my life.
I didn’t realize how much the industry was geared toward soccer moms, who support Christian radio. I didn't realize how many people in the industry had really different views on what it meant to follow God, or just flat out didn't seem to care. The Christian music industry has the same struggles with drugs, sex and power as the secular music business.
With that said, there are a lot of good people that really seem to care about what they are doing as well, but there are a lot of compromises [an artist has to make] most of the time to get one of these labels behind you. Not that some people aren't genuinely doing art they love and also end up being successful. But a lot of the music gets watered down and repackaged to fit the adult contemporary world, which is where the records really sell big numbers.
Tell me a little bit about how the proverbial sausage is made in CCM. Is there a formula? Rules? Do the artists all believe what they’re singing?
The formula of CCM started with them knowing how to sell to the adult contemporary (AC) format. About a decade ago, worship music became really popular, and it has pretty much melded with that AC format. There are some slight differences at times, but it is all geared to be cool enough to make a soccer mom think that it's edgy, and yet not be too controversial.
What is intriguing to me is that you will almost never find someone making art in the rest of the music industry, trying to become an "adult contemporary" artist. You will see Top 40 [pop artists] cross over some of their songs to AC, but all the artists at the top of those mainstream AC charts right now are Rihanna, Katy Perry, Bruno Mars, Maroon 5, and Justin Timberlake.
That's a far cry from an industry that pushes young people into trying to make Christian AC music, that never ends up being about the art, but just fitting in the right formulaic words like “grace,” “saved,” “Jesus,” and trust me, they have them. And it never leads to good art.
No offense to the artists that are ruling Christian music, but it's just not at the peak of the creative music spectrum. It almost never is. It always feels behind, and that's because the gatekeepers in this industry allow it to stay this way, and force artists to feed this backward way of thinking. They know it will help their sales as long as their listeners believe what they are doing is more holy, even if they don't believe it themselves.
There are rules to how the music is made that keep it constantly behind popular mainstream music. But there are so such rules as to how artists should live or anything like that. They just like to keep hidden all the crap that goes on, because they know they would stop selling records if their listeners knew the truth behind most of what goes on.
As far as if all the artists believe what they are signing, I assume most everyone does to some degree. That is such a vast spectrum though, I am not sure who cares about what, or how important it really is.
But there are still a good amount of artists that do seem to care a lot, even if I would disagree with them on a whole lot of what I believe about how God works. That is part of the problem, though. The people that support this industry, and promote this industry, fit a very particular part of Christianity.
Tell me a little more about the “Particular part of Christianity” you see it conforming to. What’s allowed, and what’s not acceptable?
Generally, only messages of certainty and positivity are promoted and accepted within Christian AC and worship music communities. It is next to impossible to create art that has transparency and honesty, expressing doubt, and vulnerability. You can see those things all throughout Scripture, but the system in place to sell albums has a very narrow view of belief that they want to promote to their consumers.
With your new EP, you’ve kind of gone more independent. Why? And how is that going over with your fan base and the CCM industry as a whole?
I finished my record deal with my last album, Best Night Of Our Lives. A big reason I had no desire to re-sign with the label I was on at the time was their lack of professionalism toward our last album. We had no A&R department at our label, which basically means we had no one overseeing our album to make sure it came out the way we wanted it to or the way it needed to in order to be successful. It still did relatively well compared to most artists I guess, but not nearly as well as it should have or any of us wanted it to.
I have talked to every major Christian record label since I parted ways with Inpop Records, but I continued to run into the fear of doing anything that wasn't completely focused on being Christian AC or worship-driven. I have made sacrifices my whole career, not being an adult contemporary artist, and I just decided to go on my own without a Christian label and try to make great art, instead of compromising by doing something that I didn't believe in.
It is definitely a lot harder to fund yourself, and to market the way you need to, but I have a lot of great fans that are supporting me. I believe I will have a chance to make more of an impact by striving to make great art.
Talk about the authors and others who started opening your eyes to other ways of thinking about God.
The biggest influence that made an impact on making me rethink the sacred vs. secular divide, and on understanding that everything is spiritual, was Rob Bell. He helped me realize again that everything that is good is from God. I stopped believing in Christian music or Christian events or anything else described as a “Christian” that didn’t seem intent on following Jesus.
I’m all for a group of Christians coming together to try to make an impact in people's lives for the Kingdom of God. I just believe there are better ways to go about it. If you believe that everything that is good is from God, it starts to really change your perspective on how all of this works. Rob was sort of a gateway for me to other authors that have had huge impacts on me like Dallas Willard, N.T. Wright, Jurgen Moltmann, Walter Brueggemann, and many more.
I expect this shift away from CCM has caused a little bit of anxiety for you and your family. Why risk what you’ve built by going out on your own?
It may sound cliché, but I really believe that to do important things, or great things, you have to be willing to step out in faith. In making music or art, there are always risks. There are always sacrifices to make when you want to accomplish something great. You have to decide what risks and sacrifices you are willing to take, and how important it is to you.
I didn’t feel like there was any way I could make another decision. I chose to try to be a part of the change I wanted to see in the world and to have that kind of impact with my art. Fortunately, my wife loves me a lot and she is super supportive of all the dumb decisions I make!
What are the most important things in your own faith walk that you’ve learned, traveling all these years, meeting so many different Christians?
To try to love God with all my heart. To try to love my neighbor as myself. It all seems to keep coming back to that. I’ve learned a lot along the way. I’ve been challenged in countless ways. I’ve learned how much I don't know, how much I have been wrong about. One of the most important things has been to be able to admit that I might be wrong. That's hard to do, but it's also extremely freeing.
Ultimately, what impact do you hope that your music has on people who listen to it?
I want to make art that moves people in different ways. As far as the people who listen to it, sometimes I hope it will move them to be happy, to dance, to think. I have all sorts of hopes with all sorts of different songs.
That's the beauty of writing songs. You can have a lot of different intentions or hopes for how you want the art to affect the listener. Sometimes I want to take the particularity of my story, and find the universal truth to connect with the listener. Sometimes I just want someone to smile as they think about love. Sometimes I just want to bring the joy and celebration to dance. Sometimes I want to be vulnerable about my thoughts of God, or to make them think about spiritual things in a special way.
I just want people to be moved by what I do, and as in all things, I hope that I somehow do it in a way that is glorifying to God.