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Catholic artists seek a place in popular music


When the pope visited St. Louis last month, more than 20,000 attended the “Light of the World” Youth Gathering and celebration. High profile contemporary Christian artists there included dc Talk, Rebecca St. James and the Supertones.

None is Catholic.

It’s the kind of thing that troubles contemporary Catholic musicians. Mike Zabrocki, who has three albums and a record company contract (with HeartBeat Records, which bills itself as the “first recording company in the United States to bring contemporary Christian music to people within the Catholic faith”), said that the papal visit was a missed opportunity for the church to spotlight Catholic artists.

“You don’t need to sell tickets if the pope comes to town,” he said. “You don’t have to have the dancing bears and the best light show. The pope is coming, and 100,000 people will show up, regardless of the weather. What happened was friendly fire. You get shot by your own people by accident.”

Being a Catholic artist today can be lonely, insiders say, especially if your music style falls outside of the realm of the sacred or liturgical. “We have killer liturgical musicians and musicians that work with choirs and orchestras,” Zabrocki said. “We have plenty of that, but the church doesn’t necessarily recognize us, the other side.”

It’s also difficult to gain recognition in the general Christian marketplace. Doug Van Pelt, editor of HM (formerly Heaven’s Metal) magazine, said that the contemporary Christian music scene is “open armed,” and that “there’s not a lot of people standing guard, saying, ‘Catholics keep out.’ ” Others disagree.

Zabrocki says he was rejected by a major Christian record label because of his “deep affiliation with the church of Rome.” Herb Busi, general manager of Icon Media Group, said it’s not unusual in Nashville today to hear the Catholic church referred to as “the whore of Babylon.”

Busi said, “Up until a few years ago, the only Catholic books you’d find in general market Christian book stores were in the occult section. To pull those out and put Catholic music on regular shelves is something that [book store owners] wrestle with daily.”

Other artists tell similar stories. Tom Booth, the national director of music for Life Teen and one of the few Catholic artists to perform for the St. Louis papal youth rally, told of a Protestant church that canceled a concert that was to have featured Christian artists Michael Card and Talbot.

“The tour was getting too much press and starting to look too Catholic,” he said. Another Protestant church then opened its doors for the singers. More than 1,500 people attended. “There’s just closed minds and open minds out there,” Booth said.

While few Catholics have experienced widescale mainstream success in the contemporary Christian music industry, Catholic musicians seem optimistic about the future.

Susan Bailey is editor of GrapeVine, “the newsletter for Catholic Recording Artists” and a member of the Catholic Association of Musicians. She said, “My sense is that there’s a burgeoning underground movement right now. I think we’re going to find a new way. I don’t think we’re going to end up going the traditional route. Within the contemporary Christian market there’s a lot of pitfalls. I’m very disturbed by the fact that a lot of the Christian companies have sold to larger secular groups that will have the final say over what the product is. There’s a lot of danger that the message will be watered down so more money will be made.”

Booth agrees. “I do feel it’s an exciting time. There’s a buzz in the air, a kind of grassroots movement. We’re on the edge of something. We don’t need stars, and I don’t know that we need to imitate Nashville. ... We shouldn’t seek after hip and put a Catholic face on the contemporary Christian music world, which is kind of putting a Christian face on the secular world.”

New developments in the Catholic music world include the “Table of Plenty” tour, which visited 52 cities beginning in late 1997. Booth, Talbot and Tony Melendez participated in the tour.

A spokesperson for Melendez told NCR, “I won’t say it’s a first, but it’s new to Catholicism to have a tour come in on a bus, with production, lights and sound. It was probably one of the most successful Catholic tours ever, with Catholic artists being on the road and playing to Catholic parishes with contemporary Catholic music.”

A second Catholic Association of Musicians tour, “Cast Your Nets,” will include Melendez, Jean-Ann and Joe Hand, and Jim Cowan and will visit 20 cities beginning this February.

National Catholic Reporter, February 12, 1999