Hillsong UNITED: Crossing the Great Industry Divide

A single Australian music artist won a prize at last November’s American Music Awards. In fact, only one Aussie artist received a nomination — not Delta Goodrem, Sia or even Keith Urban. Many music punters would be surprised to learn that that honour goes to Hillsong UNITED, winner of the Favourite Contemporary Inspirational Artist.

While worship music has often been criticised as an odd fit for a domain dominated by pop trendsetters and high-handed record labels, UNITED has emphatically crossed the historic divide between secular and religious. The vanguard has well and truly been breached and no one apart from God could see it coming.

“Most of the stuff with UNITED happened really organically — not because we had a 10 year marketing plan to do what we’re doing,” says Jonathon “JD” Douglass, one of UNITED’s most experienced and enthusiastic worship leaders. “For us growing up inside Australia, it wasn’t until the band started travelling to America that I even knew that there was such thing as the Christian music industry,” he admits.

Born out of Hillsong Church based in Sydney’s north-west, no other worship band has earned quite the cachet of UNITED. Since its inception in 1998, the band has been a staple contributor to the Hillsong Music empire that has sold over 18 million albums worldwide, boasts three ARIA #1 albums, has won countless awards and continues to take the world by storm.

To say that a band with a religious base is making waves internationally is a humbling thought, an eye-opener for many. To a degree, operating out of a relatively small and underrepresented music market serves to benefit the cause rather than cripple it.

“I feel like you’re not boxed in here in Australia, whereas in the States, you may feel like you’re having things dictated at you.” One of the band’s newest members, Taya Smith, sees the band’s self-determining attitude and creative musical license as a major factor in mobilising an increasingly receptive audience.

“I think that’s why we have been able to cross a couple of lines that maybe hasn’t happened before.”

Only a decade ago did US chart-makers Billboard launch their Christian and Gospel Music chart category, while in the UK, it took until March 2013 to establish the first Official Christian & Gospel Albums Chart, a seemingly “catch up” response from the global industry. Topping that particular chart in its opening week was none other than Hillsong UNITED with their 2013 studio album Zion — not surprising seeing as the album carries the song that the members of UNITED call “one of the most significant things for us a band.” UNITED celebrated one year at the top of Billboard’s Hot Christian songs with their single Oceans (Where Feet May Fail), a feat that had never been achieved before. Oceans’ 107 total chart weeks are also unequaled in the chart’s 12-year history, occupying 45 consecutive weeks at the top and reaching #83 on the Billboard Hot 100 — the first time a Christian Songs #1 track has ever cracked the chart.

Oceans (Where Feet May Fail) LIVE — of Dirt and Grace — Hillsong UNITED

Matt Crocker, one of the three writers of the chart-topping single, plays down the commotion around the band’s charting and commercial success. “It’s not that crazy anymore,” he tells TMN. “Back when we started, it all was mind-blowing because we were doing and achieving stuff that was different.”

Having eventually become a recognised chart category in overseas markets, Australia is yet to follow suit. Steve McPherson, Manager Hillsong Music Publishing and Tim Whincop, Manager Hillsong Music Australia, tell TMN that the contributions of the Christian music scene to the Australian music market have long been overlooked.

“The industry is just starting to recognise it because there is an audience out there,” says McPherson. “Simply put, we chart because we sell albums. There is no official Christian genre in Australia,” Whincop affirms.

Image: (L-R) Joel Houston, Dylan Thomas, Taya Smith, Benjamin Tennikoff, Taya Smith, Matt Crocker, Jad Gilles

“There are more musicians playing in churches this weekend than there are in bars and more churches buying PA and musical equipment than any other establishment across the country,” says McPherson, who also serves on the board of AMCOS (Australasian Mechanical Copyright Owners Society).

While the scenes’ impact on the local industry is economically beneficial, it seems to have much more to offer. Many popular and successful Australian artists, such as Guy Sebastian and Matt Corby, were originally planted in church environments, sharpening their skills and talents on the music teams.

“The amount of people that I’ve spoken to who have somehow started in the church, or are still in the church — it almost becomes a musician’s training ground,” says Whincop, who himself started out on the church’s music team before transferring to an administrative role. “The interesting thing about music coming out of the church generally is how influential it is in the formation of the entire music industry.”

Whincop cites a lack of understanding across the industry, and indeed among consumers, that commonly spawns general misconceptions about the motives of a faith-based Christian label.

“Our measures are totally different,” Whincop explains, in relation to the fundamental distinctions with other record companies. “As a label, we have to apply the same principles of distribution, we have to apply similar principles of getting the message out there, but our message isn’t ‘listen to this music because our music is great’, it’s more about helping people on their journey.

“Thinking about someone’s consumer journey is something that every record label has to think about,” Whincop continues. “We still think about it but from a totally different paradigm. When they’re thinking about how to take a person from being a listener of a single on Spotify to purchasing all the merch from this band, we’re thinking about how can we take this person on a journey to be a follower of Christ.”

Naturally the industry is skeptical, which makes clear, or at the very least, contributes to the doubt that is apparent in the industry when talking about a religious enterprise. “It’s very difficult to explain because we don’t work in the same metrics as other industry participants,” McPherson states.

McPherson, Whincop and the entire christian music sphere are eager to see the influence of worship music extend beyond the boundary lines of the church and its long history outside the nation’s mainstream music market and into the lives of the uninitiated.

Invading the realms of mainstream culture has become somewhat of a recent focus for the band. UNITED has had numerous memorable appearances on NBC’s The Today Show in the US, international press spots in influential publications such as The New York Times and GQ, as well as recording a host of music videos at the iconic Capitol Records building in Los Angeles, all happening in the past two years.

Image: UNITED with The Today Show hosts Hoda Kotd & Kathie Lee Gifford

The most significant, however, was last year’s theatrical film, Hillsong: Let Hope Rise, documenting the recording process of their 2015 album Empires, as well as the life and spirit of one of the most noteworthy groups in evangelism.

“This is what happened,” JD started. “We had just done a sold-out concert at the Hollywood Bowl. Two producers from Hollywood came up to us and said, ‘We want to make a movie on Hillsong church.’ Nobody could believe it.”

As one would expect, the presence of noted Hollywood directors was a dramatic step-up for this group of local church kids, despite being well-accustomed to the limelight. “Who would want to watch a movie about us?,” JD laughed. McPherson was equally as unconvinced about the opportunity. “Originally, there was a general hesitancy around the film,” he honestly recalls.

The Forum in Los Angeles was among the many locations in the film that helped piece the story of the band together. “There was one specific time at The Forum when it all got pretty intense,” Crocker says. “Joel and I were trying to finish lyrics for this song.”

Along with Joel Houston, the duo write the bulk of UNITED’s material, including songwriting credits on Oceans. Houston is the son of church founders Brian and Bobbie Houston and has become a pivotal figure in shepherding the church’s music onto a global platform. “I just wanted five minutes alone with Joel to talk to him,” Crocker continues. “The tension was heightened because we hadn’t finished the song yet. We were about to go on stage and the guys with the cameras were following us around.” Crocker admits that “very rarely do songs just drop out of the sky”, even for a group whose name is practically etched in the charts.

Image: Crocker (center) & JD (right) during the filming of Let Hope Rise

While the Hollywood drama was inevitable, theatrics that occurred off camera could have made a memorable concept for an entertaining sitcom.

“I must have been left out of emails about the film,” Smith jokingly reminisces about the initial stages of the film’s recording process. “I walked into the studio and I see all these massive cameras. Michael Guy Chislett, our producer and guitarist, came over to me and said ‘Hey, you know that movie that I was talking about? Well, it’s happening so we need to put a microphone on you and we need you to walk back out and walk in again,’” an unorthodox initiation to the studio environment for Smith who had never recorded a full album with the band before. “If I knew we were recording, I probably wouldn’t have worn my DORK T-shirt.”

Image: Taya Smith, The Forum

With the film grossing US$2.4 million worldwide and the Australian box office accounting for US$212,000 of the total, nearly 400,000 people across the world attended screenings of the film, according to Whincop.

Despite its unquantifiable spiritual impact, Hillsong’s theatrical debut had little appeal to box office critics. However, for the band, understanding the realities of the industry has not been a dampening experience: “We are just aware and cool that there are going to be people out there who are never going to understand us,” JD says.

UNITED’s eyes are firmly fixed upon a trip to Israel in April. The journey will mark the second time the band has ventured to the Holy Land after recording a live album, Of Dirt and Grace, in the region last year. Crocker states that the chance of recording again can never be ruled out — “we’ll probably record something,” he says.

Writing has already begun for their next creative project — a fifth studio album. Judging by the numbers, the upcoming record will likely cross the divide once again, finding its way to the peak of the local and international charts and into the hands of a diversified crowd of believers and non-believers alike.

Accordingly, 2017 may well deliver a further reminder of the magnitude and value of worship music to the Australian industry.

“What UNITED do is part of the flavour of the Australian music scene,” McPherson argues. “Along with pointing people in the right direction, our hope is when people stop and think ‘What are the music successes of Australia?’, they would think about all the obvious names and that UNITED would be part of it.”

**This article was written by Peter Tuskan, originally published on The Music Network

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