The Catholic Song Contest was started to plant the seeds of a new music industry niche of songs and songwriters who want to create great art and transform culture.
By Burke Ingraffia | July 14, 2021
If you do a web search for “Catholic music,” you might find some hymns and liturgical music, or maybe some Gregorian chant, and probably some worship leaders who play at events for teenagers. And while these forms of music can be beautiful and give glory to God, they are only a fraction of the way that Catholic songwriters can express their faith, share their emotions, and communicate through song.
Now do a web search for “Christian music.” What you’ll find is a robust industry with festivals, radio shows, publications, and Spotify playlists galore. And in this music you will find a wide variety of sounds and production methods. What you will not find in this music are songs about the Saints or the Sacraments or any reference to the rich history of the Church before 1517 AD. It’s like going into a Lifeway book store and asking where their Patristics section is.
How did this happen? How did Evangelical churches end up with an industry that has a half a billion dollars in sales each year and Catholic songwriters not have much opportunity at all? Part of the answer has to do with the music publishing industry that is based out of Nashville, TN, in the heart of the Bible Belt. Part of the answer has to do with the fact that the Catholic liturgy is in no way meant to be entertaining – it is a ritual, a rite, that is meant to take a person deep into the mystery of Christ.
In many, but not all, Protestant and Evangelical mega-churches, there is a strong emphasis on the entertaining emotional value put on the service, and a lot of money is poured into PA systems, backline music equipment, and paid professional musicians. These venues often double as concert halls for touring Christian musicians where national and international acts can sell tickets and merchandise and build their audience with the built-in congregations.
Catholic musicians do not have this sort of infrastructure. A Catholic Church that houses a tabernacle should never be used as a concert hall. Some parishes have an additional community hall, which might be gym or a just a room, but many don’t, and many do not have the money to put into any sort of sizable production that can be marketed series of events.
One of the silver linings of this lack of commercialized Catholic music, is that the music that we are drawn to and that Catholic musicians desire to create is, perhaps, more substantial and less disposable.
There have been a lot of great Catholic musicians, starting at the very beginning of Western notated music with Gregorian chant. The Classical giants, Haydn and Mozart, were Catholics, as were Chopin and Vivaldi. Monteverdi was a Catholic priest. Other great composers such as Liszt and Elgar were also Catholic. There are many more that I could list here. I am not here to defend the holiness of any of these men, but they were given the grace of the Sacraments and adhered to the faith. Not surprisingly, none of the above listed are in a “Catholic” genre on Spotify or iTunes.
There have been some more recent mainstream Catholic musicians. Dave Brubeck, Aaron Neville, and Harry Connick, Jr. come to mind. And even though they have done side projects of religion-inspired songs, they are still not in any sort of way pinned as “Catholic.” With 1.4 billion Catholics on this planet, this list of popular musicians who are also Catholic is way too short and hard to fill.
Perhaps there has been no push towards a Catholic music industry because right-headed Catholics are creating music for the properly ordered reason of giving glory to God, not commercial success.
That being said, the reason is probably more likely that the music industry is the playground of Screwtape and Wormwood. Catholicism, when proclaimed whole-heartedly and correctly, is a powerful force that the world repels. Anything that smacks of temperance, fortitude, and the natural law is no longer allowed within Caesar’s Palace, and if it somehow makes it in gets thrown out by its bouncers.
So the only way for Catholic songwriters to get their songs heard, in the name of Christ, is to go it alone, run the end-around play, and show that audiences do like it and will support it with their hearts and wallets. Capitalism can be a good thing, but in our present day, attention-deficient culture, money has become required for the full scale, mass transmission of culture. God doesn’t need money, but artists do – if they are to be able to take the time to create something beautiful.
In the 20th Century, before there was the digital media consumption that there is today, when more people read books to fill their leisure time, there was a literary movement among Catholic authors. Some that come to mind are G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy, among others. These authors were writing fiction in a way that could be enjoyed by all, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and still informing their craft with their faith. In short, they were creating good art.
The reason it was good art is because, though their faith guided their pens and typewriters, they didn’t have to inject statements of theological clarity or philosophical propositions into the narratives or dialogues. Their message was woven into the development of and the actions chosen by the characters. Walker Percy once observed that he was too Northern for Southerners, too Southern for Northerners, too Catholic for non-Catholics, and not Catholic enough for Catholics. What that tells me is that he was doing something right.
Contests are a tricky business. Some people are called “winners,” but where does that leave everyone else? This contest was started as a way to gather all of the Catholic songwriters out there in the world who know that they are good at their craft but don’t have the channels to really get a foothold in the music industry. We wanted everyone to submit their best stuff – to show off their A game.
No one is going to “lose” this contest. The main objective here is to build the community, to identify, promote, and to grow the talent pool out there of musicians and lyricists who have been given this gift by God and who feel called to use it. We also hope to identify and connect musicians and lyricists who might make great collaborators.
You might be asking, “Well then why have an entrance fee?” For a couple of reasons: 1). There are technological and marketing costs. No one is getting rich here, and most of the entry fees will go back into marketing to grow this community and awareness of both the contest and the entrants. 2). We want the submissions to be intentional and everyone’s best material. Any contest with free entries will get spammed with either sub-par songs or so many songs that the judges can’t get to the best stuff. Most songwriting competitions cost between $25 to $50 to enter, and we feel that our fees are reasonable.
When all of the songs are submitted, they will get passed along to the judges, a collection of music industry professionals and influencers who are either practicing Catholics or who have an appreciation for the Church. I don’t know where all of this is going to lead, only that God asked me to organize it. The Catholic Song Contest was started to plant the seeds of a new music industry niche of songs and songwriters who want to create great art and transform culture. Perhaps it will lead to a new infrastructure of venues and audiences and marketing channels, but what I hope for the most is that it is a platform that helps both musicians and audiences find their way to Heaven with greater joy and love of God.