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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Pirating Songs of Praise

Some Christian music fans believe digital downloading is a way to spread the Word. Other voices tell them: Thou shalt not steal.

October 10, 2006|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

Regina Kennedy prides herself on being a good Christian, so when the pastor at her Pentecostal church in Delaware called it a sin to download gospel songs without paying for them, her heart began to race.

The out-of-work driver went home and stared at her download collection, which included artists such as Yolanda Adams, Kirk Franklin and others. "The songs are so beautiful, and I couldn't afford to buy them all," the 43-year-old said. "I just didn't know what to do."

In the end, she deleted every song. She's still not sure, though, that she was really stealing. "I don't know what to think, really."

Kennedy is hardly alone among conflicted fans of Christian music, but her decision to erase her library does set her apart from most of them, especially younger ones. Surveys show that born-again Christian teens are just as active in stealing and swapping music as their secular peers who pinch the latest Eminem rap hit or Kelly Clarkson power ballad.

Take Matthew, a 13-year-old who attends Hewes Middle School in North Tustin and attends youth programs at nearby Red Hill Lutheran Church. Asked if it's wrong to take songs for free, he answered: "No, because the artists are making billions of dollars anyways." Another kid at Red Hill, 16-year-old Mike, a student at Beckman High, said that music is beyond commerce or at least beyond the cash register: "They should give it away 'cause it's art anyways."

Those attitudes, along with the arrival of an edgy and restless new generation of artists and lean times in the music industry, have created a clash between familiar imperatives: Spread the Word and Thou shalt not steal.

"We are all conflicted, it's true," said John Styll, president of the Gospel Music Trade Assn. "This is not a business first, but it still must be a business at some point to keep going."

Styll's association was behind a campaign called "Millions of Wrongs Don't Make a Right," which used well-known Christian artists as spokespeople against piracy, but Styll said the perception lingers that all music stars are fabulously wealthy, and he wonders how effective they are as voices in the debate anyway.

His association is preparing to go to youth events and organizations in coming months with presentations that frame the question of digital downloading as a purely ethical issue. That's a far different tack than the mainstream music industry, led by the Recording Industry Assn. of America, which has used legal action and language to spook young pirates.

"The RIAA feels it can't address it as a moral issue, but we certainly can, and our audience should be more receptive to that," said Styll, who seemed plainly exasperated with the notion of young churchgoers taking music illicitly. "It's like stealing. You wouldn't walk into a Christian bookstore and steal a Bible off the shelf.... some fans say, 'This music is made to spread the Word, and I'm just helping.' Well, this is also about people's livelihoods."

"Christian music" is an unwieldy and misleading name for a music market that is big enough to cover recent releases from artists as disparate as Ohio pop-punk band Relient K, smooth L.A. gospel singers Mary Mary, country singer Alan Jackson and P.O.D., a hip-hop and reggae tinged band from San Diego.

It's hard to imagine fans with music tastes eclectic enough to embrace all the artists on that list. But as a collective, the sector just got some great news. Christian music sales, both on CD and via paid download, over the first six months of 2006 were 11% higher than during the same period in 2005. That double-digit surge stands in stark contrast to the rest of the music industry, which experienced a 4% decline during the same time period. And no other genre has a 2006 sales jump anywhere near the level of the Christian sector.

When the six-month numbers were released, industry leaders said the figures showed that efforts such as the "Millions of Wrongs" campaign were making in-roads. But that view may be a leap of faith, says Joe Fleischer, chief of marketing for Big Champagne, a top barometer of online media activity.

Fleischer said the uptick in Christian music sales was more than matched by a jump in Christian music that was traded on peer-to-peer networks, e-mailed as file attachments and (the new popular mode of youth distribution) via digital files tucked into instant messages.

While much new revenue came in, more was missed, Fleischer said, adding that the same zealous fans that are taking their music for free are also minting new stars for a genre that is amid a major crossover into mainstream rock.

"That increase in sales is driven by what's going on with these newer acts, and all of that is happening on the Internet," Fleischer said. "Bands like Underoath."

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