Rich Copley: Lack of headliner Christian bands proves challenging for Ichthus, others

Jon Foreman performed with Switchfoot at Ichthus last year, which turned out to be the event's final festival. The declining number of headliners like Switchfoot has become an issue for Christian music.
Jon Foreman performed with Switchfoot at Ichthus last year, which turned out to be the event's final festival. The declining number of headliners like Switchfoot has become an issue for Christian music. Lexington Herald-Leader

One of the challenges that faced the now-closed Ichthus Festival and vexes other Christian rock presenters these days is a relatively small group of acts that can be legitimately billed as headliners.

There are plenty of bands and solo artists that can ably fill opening and smaller stage slots. But as far as Christian artists that can top a bill and attract audiences in the thousands and even tens of thousands, it's a fairly small and somewhat stagnant club.

"There just aren't a lot of headliners in Christian music," says Mark Vermilion, the last executive director of Ichthus, which announced last month that it was closing after 42 continuous years.

"When there are so few headliners, it creates problems for us because they are so saturated with tours like Winter Jam and other festivals. We all have to go to the same well to get headliners."

Tim Gerst, a Central Kentucky native who has worked in numerous aspects of Christian music, says, "The industry needs to figure something out because it's hard to attract audiences when you consistently present the same six to eight bands."

Generating excitement about the acts at the top of the bill is harder when that group headlined the previous year or topped the bill at another festival or their own headlining tour that recently passed through the area.

This year's edition of the Winter Jam tour, which stops at Rupp Arena in March, will feature Tobymac, 48, who just headlined at Ichthus. Last year's Winter Jam presented the same situation with Skillet.

Skillet, with its pyrotechnic spectacle of a show, headlined Friday Night at Ichthus for several years until last year, when the spot was taken by Red, one of the few acts to emerge as a legitimate headliner in the past few years. Red is also coming back on Winter Jam.

In fact, every headlining artist at Ichthus in 2012 had headlined the event before, including worship artist Chris Tomlin, who closed the festival for the second straight year.

Vermillion says the shallow pool of headliners for big events has come up at meetings of Christian Festival Association, not just because of the small pool, but it is aging too.

"Tobymac is aging," Vermilion says. "Switchfoot is aging. Third Day is aging. Casting Crowns is aging. Tomlin is aging. Skillet — John Cooper's not as young as he used to be. How long can we keep this aging group of headliners when we don't really have a strong set of young headliners coming behind them ... It's been a while since anyone has broken through to be a legitimate headliner."

Vermilion does say he sees some contenders for top billing such as Tenth Avenue North and Needtobreathe, which got a career spark opening for Taylor Swift in 2011 and played a headlining date at the University of Kentucky's Singletary Center in April.

But a number of artists headlining Ichthus in 2012, including Switchfoot and Tomlin, were headlining the event eight years ago. One of the most consistent concert headliners in the last couple years has been the newly reminted Newsboys with former dc talk member Michael Tait, 46, taking over as frontman.

Audio Adrenaline, which in its original form got its start playing Ichthus, has recently reunited with former dc talk member Kevin Max, 45, as the new frontman, stepping in for Mark Stuart whose vocal problems caused the group to disband in 2007. That means three of the genre's major acts will be fronted by former members of an iconic band that had most of its hits in the 1990s.

In the past few years, several established headliners such as Delirious and the David Crowder Band have disbanded.

One reason fewer new acts are emerging is that as more artists such as Switchfoot have courted and found mainstream success, fewer have chosen to focus on the Christian market. Some even avoid it. Without naming specific acts, Vermilion says Ichthus tried to attract some mainstream artists with faith ties to play Ichthus but had no success.

"Crossover bands don't want to be part of an event like Ichthus that has a strong Christian and evangelistic mission because they don't want to get branded," Vermilion says.

Christian music is experiencing something else the mainstream market has encountered: a growing diversity of styles. Indeed, the musical stories of recent Ichthuses have often been second stage acts such as the acoustic pop of Chris August or hard-core of The Devil Wears Prada.

"Mark has done a good job of developing those side stages with acts like White Collar Sideshow that get small but really enthusiastic audiences," Gerst says.

The problem is, while a somewhat niche artist like Mumford & Sons can fill Madison Square Garden for multiple nights in the mainstream market, a niche Christian artist has a much more modest fan pool to draw from.

Christian rock also suffers from the same challenges of declining recording sales as listeners migrate to the less lucrative digital market, meaning artists rely more on touring income and therefore raise their fees, creating another fiscal challenge for promoters and presenters.

There has been good news in the genre. In August, Tobymac pulled off the rare feat of having a Christian market album hit No. 1 on Billboard magazine's Top 200 Albums chart.

The shallow pool of headliners is just one of a number of problems that brought Ichthus and other festivals to a close.

But it is one that needs to be addressed if the genre is to continue to thrive.