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ONWARD, CHRISTIAN SINGERS!

THE KINGS OF CONTEMPORARY CHRISTIAN MUSIC BELIEVE THAT THEIR PRAYERS ARE ABOUT TO BE ANSWERED.

Now, however, Marshall feels that his patience may finally pay off. "The possible effects of SoundScan are incredible," he says. "When people in the music industry finally realize the potential of this music, there'll be no stopping it."

In fact, Christian music already represents a rather hefty slice of the music-business pie. Bob Darden, the Waco, Texas, writer who formerly helmed Gospel Lectern, a regular column in Billboard, says, "Christian music has passed classical and jazz in total sales. DC Talk is going gold and platinum, but it's strictly within the church markets."

"That's why the mainstream doesn't know anything about it," adds John Styll, the executive editor of CCM, a Nashville magazine devoted to Christian music. "You go into Tower Records and they've got a whole room for classical music and half a rack for Christian, because Christian music has existed more or less underground for years."

In many instances, Christian bookstores, where most CCM fans purchase recordings, have helped keep Christian music in the closet. Mike Fine, chief executive officer of SoundScan, based in Huntsdale, New York, says, "There's been some resistance to installing SoundScan among some independent stores because they think they've got a niche. They're afraid that if mainstream stores realize how well CCM titles are selling, they'll start to sell them, too, and sales [at Christian bookstores] will be hurt."

At first, country retailers resisted SoundScan as well. Country had always maintained a large base of support, but the industry charts didn't reflect its popularity because Billboard and the like based their sales figures on interviews with managers at supposedly representative stores across the nation. However, this sample was skewed to urban areas where country has never been as strong. With the coming of SoundScan, which electronically records each sale based on albums' universal price code symbols, the industry got a much more complete look at total sales--and those stores that had ignored C&W suddenly realized how much money could be made from artists in the genre. Four years later, seven country albums are listed among the top forty best-selling discs in the country--and that's one of the lower country totals of the year.

"As a result of SoundScan, people became more aware of country," Fine says, "and the momentum that generated helped generate more momentum. The individual retailers thought they were going to suffer, but the market expanded so that they sold more country, and everybody else did, too."

With the SoundScanning of the majority of Christian bookstores set to be complete before the year is out, some big players in the mainstream music industry are positioning themselves to be ready should history repeat itself. Zomba, a British-based company affiliated with the massive BMG corporation, recently purchased Nashville's Brentwood Music, a leading force in the CCM world, while EMI has taken possession of Sparrow Records, among the most successful CCM imprints (it's Steven Curtis Chapman's label). More impressive yet, Jimmy Bowen, whose Liberty Records is given much of the credit for making Garth Brooks the most popular country singer of all time, has been named Sparrow's CEO. Based on nothing more tangible than Bowen's track record, mainstream retailers around the country have made Chapman's latest CD, Heaven in the Real World, among the first CCM releases to be widely available outside Christian bookstores.

Heaven, which was released this summer, was supposed to be the first CCM album to truly benefit from SoundScan, but a delay in the installation of the system blunted its impact: It's been at the top of Billboard's Top Contemporary Christian chart (still based on surveys) for the past thirteen weeks, but it does not appear on the Top 200 roster of mainstream albums. The same is true of another Christian superstar, Carman. Road Home's Marshall uses his "flamehead" term to describe Carman's approach, but there's certainly an audience for what he does: He's had five consecutive gold albums, and on October 22 he played a concert at 73,000-seat Texas Stadium.

Chapman hasn't made it on the stadium circuit yet, and he hasn't gotten much credit for his sales prowess, either. "Sparrow shipped 460,000 units of Steven's albums to Christian stores," CCM's Styll reports, "and none of that got tracked. And that makes a difference. When a DC Talk record finally charts, 10,000 stores will add it the next day, and that right there will create a lot more interest. CCM may not be as big as country, but it will be a lot bigger than it is now--and soon."

Steven Curtis Chapman, the spear carrier for CCM's march on the record biz, knows that a lot is expected of him. "I have a desire to keep encouraging the people who have been so faithful and have given me this platform up to this point," he says, "but I also want to find ways to expand that and not stay in a comfort zone. I really do want to impact my culture."

He's got the tools: Handsome and personable in a Bryan Adams kind of way, he seems like the very picture of a teenage girl's safe-and-sanitized dream date. He grew up in the American South, and was enrolled in pre-med at Kentucky's Georgetown College when he was discovered by an Opryland talent scout. He subsequently attended Nashville's Belmont College, where he began to write songs in earnest. That led to a deal with Sparrow, which issued his Christian-music debut, First Hand, in 1987. He now has seven albums under his belt, and his popularity has grown after the release of each one. This summer, figures at one of the many state fairs he played indicated that he easily outdrew fellow performers Roger Daltrey and Fleetwood Mac.

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