Study: Female songwriters are abandoning the cult…
When songwriter Krissy Nordhoff moved to Nashville in 1996, she had hoped to be guided and supported by the women who had preceded her in the Christian music industry.
Her first musical mentor was a woman – her grandmother, who inspired her to start writing songs at the age of five. But since she found success in the industry, penning hits such as “Your Great Name” and “Famous For (I Believe),” there weren’t many female veterans by her side.
“I prayed for 15 years for a mentor, for a woman, who had learned to navigate industry, ministry and family,” Nordhoff said.
Female songwriters are significantly underrepresented in worship music, and over the past 30 years the number of women writing or co-writing hit worship songs has dropped dramatically.
According to Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) – which tracks songs allowed to be sung in churches – the last time the country’s top worship song was written by a woman was in April 1994. In 2018, just 4% of songs on the CCLI Top 25 were written by women.
A recent study in the Journal of Contemporary Ministry followed the fall of Christian songwriters, concluding that as the industry evolved, they struggled to penetrate the spheres that produce the most popular worship music.
In April 1994, the song “I Love You Lord” by Laurie Klein took the No. 1 spot on the CCLI Top 25. Klein wrote “I Love You Lord” in a difficult moment during a morning devotional outside his trailer in 1978, a story that contrasts with many of today’s top worship songs, with lyrics designed for worship and radio.
“Many popular songs today are written through intentional collaborations in a highly competitive industry,” said study author and uOttawa PhD candidate Anneli Loepp Thiessen. . “As the contemporary worship music industry has grown, it has become increasingly commercialized, with men subsequently coming to dominate the top 25 list. Women have not only struggled to occupy the first place, but any place in the Top 25.
Women’s songwriting has a long history in faith, which of course goes back to Scripture itself. The powerful songs of Miriam, Deborah and Mary have taught and inspired the church for millennia. Lyrics and music written by Hildegard of Bingen, Fanny Crosby, Anne Steele, Darlene Zschech, Sinach and Brooke Ligertwood have served millions of devotees.
But current trends in the worship industry have some experts worried about the crowding out of female voices.
In her research, Loepp Thiessen explores how celebrity status, commercialization, complementary theology, and technological advancements influence women’s participation in songwriting.
“I expected to see an increase in the number of women,” said Loepp Thiessen Christianity today. “And that’s not what we see. We see a decline in female songwriters, an increase in collaborations, and that women are generally not well represented in these collaborations.
Data from Loepp Thiessen shows that in 1988, 30% of CCLI Top 25 songs – released twice a year – were written by single women, and 13% of collaborations had at least one co-writer. In 2018, 4% were written by single women and 24% of co-written songs credited a female contributor.
In 30 years, the list has gone from 15 of the 50 songs written by single women to just 2.
“It’s a bit sobering,” Loepp Thiessen said.
A 2010 analysis in CT found that female Christian artists were absent from Billboard’s top ten for a decade. Since then, co-written songs have increasingly become the norm with the rise of influential mega-church labels like Hillsong, Bethel Music and Elevation Worship dominating church and radio playlists. Solo songwriters of both sexes have become even rarer.
One would expect the collaboration to open up more opportunities for female songwriters, but it didn’t.
A collaborative model seems to have heightened the importance of personal relationships and the “it’s who you know” philosophy of the music industry. The importance of connections is not new; Nordhoff was able to get a demo of her song “Your Great Name” from CCM artist manager Natalie Grant through her husband, who also worked in the music industry.
But even stories like hers are getting rarer, according to Nordhoff. It’s rare to see a praise artist take on more “outside ground”; they tend to be writers themselves or work directly with writers they know and trust. An unknown songwriter is unlikely to find a manager, producer, or label rep who will bring a demo to an artist.
Additionally, mega-churches like Bethel, Hillsong, and Elevation all have their own labels; there is an effective system in place for writers and performers (many of whom are both) associated with these organizations to write, record and promote music.
Elevation Worship, for example, has over two million followers on Instagram. The music he produces can instantly reach huge audiences, catching the attention of worship leaders eager to discover engaging new music.
It’s also possible that the genre of male-centric worship music that evolved in the late 1990s and early 2000s helps explain women’s continued struggles to find a place in the music industry. worship. Musicians like Matt Redman, Chris Tomlin and David Crowder rose to fame as cult leaders-songwriters, performing rock-influenced music in the vein of a historically male-dominated genre embodied by the image of a man with a guitar.
Loepp Thiessen points out that, more and more, women only appear in the Top 25 CCLI in mixed collaborations, and often as a woman in a group with several other men. No all-female collaboration has made the list since 1988. Rather than opening up space for women to contribute, the collaboration model in the industry seems to crowd them out.
Her findings came as no surprise to industry veterans like Nordhoff, who has experienced first-hand how women struggle to be heard or even included as collaborators.
Creative collaboration is vulnerable and emotional. For some, this type of partnership between men and women is uncomfortable, particularly in ministry contexts where close male-female relationships outside of marriage or family are seen as potential responsibilities (or strictly prohibited, depending on the rule of thumb). Billy Graham or similar limits).
“It’s easier to avoid learning all these things, I think,” Nordhoff said. “It’s actually more difficult for [men] to learn how to bring in women and how to navigate.
Loepp Thiessen’s research sheds more light on this dynamic; his analysis shows that of the 11 male-female collaborations that have made the CCLI Top 25 since 1988, eight of them were husband-wife collaborations.
Even so, Nordhoff has seen and is part of fruitful and healthy collaborations and hopes to see more.
“I think it’s possible for us to learn to work together as brothers and sisters,” she said. “It is imperative for the church of the future.”
It’s worth asking why CCLI’s Top 25 is a useful barometer to use in examining the health and inclusiveness of the worship music industry.
There are, after all, many women songwriters, performers, and worship leaders—Davy Flowers, Maryanne J. George, and Tasha Cobbs Leonard, for example—whose work is respected and recognized. Why is it so important that they don’t produce high profile “hits”?
“Because the lists are used to build a worldwide worship repertoire, songs that reach the CCLI list are encountered more often, leading to more frequent singing in churches, a higher usage ratio and, by subsequent to repeat Top 100 occurrences,” Loepp Thiessen wrote. “In other words, the cycle is self-reinforcing.”
When a songwriter’s work reaches the CCLI Top 25 or 100, their words, their vision of God, their experiences and their wisdom can reach and serve a larger part of the church. Getting to the top lists isn’t just about achieving a higher level of fame or influence in the industry. A more diverse group of songwriters contributing to church music will, God willing, enrich our worship and deepen our understanding of the divine.
Women like Nordhoff are determined to amplify women’s voices and help expand the creative community that produces most widely. worship music sung in the United States. Nordhoff wants to provide resources and a support network for women entering the industry.
For this she started brave worship, a community of female songwriters through conferences, writing workshops and meetings. According to its mission, “the voices of mothers and daughters are not only valued but necessary. You can hear belonging, healing, freedom and unity when they sing, and many said they heard angels.