Winter Jam Heats Things Up

Since its inception in 1995, the Christian music-based Winter Jam (originally known at January Jam) has grown to become thelargest American music tour, regardless of genre. Routinely bringing nearly a half million faithful listeners together every year, Winter Jam is a dominating musical force: in 2010, for example, according to Pollstar's ticket sale data, Winter Jam was the second largest music tour on the planet, for the first quarter of the year. Not bad for a genre that is more often than not written off by critics as being too uncool to bother with.

But Winter Jam highlights the imbalance within the Christian music community today. Individually, record sales are flagging. Numbers are down for album sales regardless of genre, this much is true. But when your genre is starting from a much lower high point, any loss in customers is going to be felt more acutely. And yet, while Christian music sales are down nearly 43% in the past six years, Winter Jam attendance is up almost a third over the same period of time. In short, people are not buying Christian music like they used to, but more people are listening.

So while people remain hungry for music with a message of hope and faith, even if they are increasingly less willing to open their pocketbooks for it, Winter Jam becomes even more attractive as a means of one-stop shopping. Why wait for King and Country, Michael W Smith and Toby Mac to all come through town on their own over the course of a year, when you can pick up one ticket and catch them all on the same day? It is this festival atmosphere and large-scale access to the music that sends fans flocking to Winter Jam year after year.

Winter Jam is also one of the most diverse musical experiences you are apt to see in a tour format. If you want to head down to a large-scale music festival you can catch a wide variety of music, but most every tour coming through your town is going to feature one kind of sound. One wouldn't, for example, expect to see Ratt, Justin Timberlake and Nancy Sinatra on the same bill. But Christian music is the one genre where members are judged by lyrical content rather than sound. So while Amy Grant, Toby Mac and Stryper are all “Christian music acts,” there is little that ties them together sonicly.

Which all comes together to make Winter Jam a unique experience for those on the lookout for such things. The tour services a large — one could argue under-served — segment of the population, provides a diverse range of sounds and musical sensibilities, and does it all for the ridiculous price of $10.

Winter Jam 2016 is a week away from hitting Des Moines, so allow us to introduce you to a couple of the acts that will be playing their way through town.

For King And Country

Formed in 2007 by Australian brothers Joel and Luke Smallbone, For King and Country have quickly become one of the most popular Christian music acts today, with their blend of well-crafted, thoughtful lyrics and an upbeat, alt-laced sound that has prompted American Songwriter magazine to call them “Australia's answer to Coldplay.”

“Like Coldplay” might be an even more polarizing description than “Christian music act,” but it is one that the Smallbone boys are happier to hear.

“I feel like it's a funny thing that we do,” Luke said. “Christian music is the only genre that's based off lyrical content. I liken it to when you're in a new city and you're scanning the radio. What makes you stop is if you hear a song that you like or not. The way I look at it, genres of music is crazy. The only 'genre' I listen to is good music.”

And there's the rub. If the music is not good, it will not capture anyone's attention. Then, it does not matter what your message is, it is not going anywhere. Sincerity is key. Whether you are writing about God or groceries, fans can sense obsequiousness coming from a mile away, and will generally avoid being pandered to at all costs.

“My goal in music is to write music that is authentic,” Luke agreed. “Whether it's me singing about hope, or a doctor trying to give a family hope when he has bad news, we're all on our journey. Just knowing that hope is real is important. When I play music, I want to let people know that hope is real.”

Striving for that authenticity has paid off for the group. Their debut album, 2012's “Crave,” hit number 2 on iTunes' Christian & Gospel chart on the day of its release. The album went on to peak at number 4 on Billboard's Christian charts, and number 15 on the Heatseekers chart. Their 2014 followup, “Run Wild. Live Free. Love Strong,” has done even better, topping out at number 2 on the Christian chart, and running all the way to number 13 on the Billboard 200. The two albums have combined for 7 top 25 Christian singles.

“One thing that I think is interesting about this day and age, is that we're all prepared for failure,” Luke said, talking about the way “Crave” was received. “But few of us are prepared for success. I don't know if I had an opinion one way or another. When I asked my wife to marry me, I went and spoke to her father. He asked me about music. He said, 'is this going to work for you?' I said I don't know, but I have to do this. Or else I'll always regret not knowing if this would have worked for me or not. That's the way we went into it. If it works, great. If it doesn't, we tried.”

“Joel and I are the band,” he continued, talking about the chemistry that has driven their success. “We were kind of arch rivals growing up in high school. When we started music, that was the beginning of a new relationship for us. Our bond has slowly gotten closer and closer, and now Joel and I are best friends. I think that has a big effect on your music. You can say 'I don't really like that and here's why', or 'I love that and here's why'. Our dynamic has chanced because the kind of music that we write gets better.”

This year marks For King and Country's third time on the Winter Jam tour, but their first that has not come on the heals of a new album release. The brothers enjoy the tour because they feel like it gives them a chance to reach fans they never would have other wise, since the large tour schedule and low ticket price makes the music much more accessible than a regular solo tour would.

“There's two different types of performances,” Luke explained. “There's the one where it's your your tour. Every single person is there to see you. Usually your concerts for those are around 2000 people, and there's a certain feeling there because they know your songs.”

“Winter Jam is interesting because there are 10 different bands,” he continued. “If there's 15000 people in the room, not all of them are there for you. There's still people there who you have to try and win over. There are still a lot of people there who don't know if they'll like you or not. Those are the people you try to reach.”

Matthew West

Born in the Chicago suburb of Downers Grove, Matthew West started performing and touring independently at the age of 20. Signed to a record deal in 2002, his debut album, “Happy,” was released the following year and reached number 42 on the Heatseekers chart while netting West five Dove Award nominations. Since then, four of his next five albums have cracked the top half of the Billboard 200, including four straight top 10 Christian chart releases.

“Hopefully what being known as a “Christian artist” stands for is me putting music into the world that has a positive message,” he said of attempts to label or qualify his success. “This world can be pretty depressing, so I hope that the message I get to bring is a message of hope. That no matter how dark things can get, music has the power to be a ray of light.”

Part of the reason why West's music has been able to connect with people so directly, comes from the manner in which he writes. Since the release of Happy, West has interacted with is fans in a unique fashion: anyone moved to do so is encouraged to tell West stories from their lives. Emails and letters have poured in, giving West glimpses at people who have over come family despair, death, illness and heartache. He has received stories of unbelievable courage, and nearly depthless compassion and strength. It is those stories from which West draws the inspiration for his songs.

“There was a moment when I was on stage singing,” he recalled. “I was holding the mic out for the crowd to sing a part. I had an image in my mind of a performer on stage, holding the mic out for the audience. I started thinking, what if I metaphorically held the mic out for the crowd in real life? Gave them the real chance to tell their story. After a show people will come up to me and tell me their stories, so I just wanted to give them a bigger chance. I'm so glad I did that. It's been a life changing experience.”

Sometimes the stories West hears will spark something inside him and send him down the path for a new song. Other times, those stories make the leap straight to sheet music all by themselves. In the instances where West winds up telling someone's story directly, reconnecting with those people when the song is finished provides a moment of completion that West relishes.

“That's one of my favorite parts of the process,” he admitted. “I'll find that person and surprise them, and invite them to a show and share with them that it was their story. All I've got is a song, but it's calling a pizza restaurant in Minnesota to tell the manager that his story inspired my song 'Day One.' Or calling a middle school student and telling him that his story about bullying inspired 'To Me'.”

Not that West needs to rely completely on others' stories for examples of perseverance. In 2007, West was diagnosed with polyps on his vocal chords. By the time they were discovered, the polyps had begun to hemorrhage, and West was left with surgery as his only option. He was put on complete vocal rest for two months, and his career was cast into serious doubt.

“We all go through trials in our lives,” he said. “That was a difficult experience. I'm a singer, and I was unable to sing, unable to talk. I wondered if my career was over. I was asking God for guidance. I'm so glad that it worked out, and I'm so glad that He helped me through that season. My voice returned, but I found myself appreciating it so much more.”

His first album back after the surgery, 2008's “Something to Say,” became his first album to enter the Billboard 200. For West, it was a return to the only career he knew, and an emphatic confirmation of God's influence in his life.

“For that specific season in my life, fear was very real,” he said. “It involved my family, because I didn't know how I was going to provide for them. It was something that I couldn't really turn from. It's easier to say that you can choose not to be afraid, but sometimes that just overruns you. Prayer, for me, is the greatest way to overcome that fear.”

“I'm thankful that during that time, I watched my fear grow into trust,” he continued. “That transformation is probably the most important transformation that can take place, watching our fear transform into trust. What's now front and center in my mind is that I once lost my voice, and I'm just so grateful that I get to get up there again and share with people.”

Originally appeared in Cityview January 13, 2016