10 years ago, I was an independent artist, working a full-time job while working part-time as the worship pastor at my church. I was playing 2-3 shows a weekend, hustling with my band to get our name “out there”, sometimes getting no sleep on a Saturday night because we were driving back to Greenville, SC so I could lead worship at my church on Sunday morning. And then we’d play shows a lot of Sunday nights, too.
Those were the days. There was hope and there was an innocence to what I was doing. I wasn’t making music to try to have a radio hit or to try to work through the politics of the music industry — I was just trying to learn as much as I could while making the coolest music I could. It was seriously that simple then — just make music I thought was cool and – on the back end – hope people liked it.
Then this weird thing happened. I was a finalist on American Idol – despite never ever watching Idol and being about as anti-American Idol as any contestant had ever been – and suddenly I was famous and I was making music that other people told me was cool and then there were managers and labels and distribution and marketing people and… the list goes on. And I seriously got to work with so many incredible people. But the innocence was lost. We were suddenly talking about the mysterious Christian music listener, Becky, and we were talking about how to make her cry in 30-second clips and we were planning out my albums not by what song naturally flowed into the next but by which songs in succession on iTunes would make people want to buy the album 1st and we were putting the 5-6 singles at the front of the album and we were doing photo shoots to make me look cool (they failed) and we were paying massive amounts of money for me to be on tour with this artist and that artist and…
The innocence was lost.
It wasn’t anyone’s fault. My manager – who had managed Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant – told me many times he’d never met an artist who understood the music industry more than I did. I knew what I was stepping into. I was prepared for it.
But what I didn’t know is what the journey into the center of the music world would do to me. It wasn’t anyone’s fault – these people were doing their jobs (and they did it incredibly well I might add). But what I hadn’t accounted for was the cost of this innocence lost. I steeled myself to the pain with arrogance and with over-confidence that my knowledge of this business could make me successful. I studied pop songs and learned how to write the best hooks from the best writers and I wrote with all the best writers in Nashville and L.A. and New York and I was proud of my skill. And yet it felt so empty.
I knew so much to know so little. I had made my career and being great an idol that could never match the beauty and innocence of what I’d felt 10 years before, practicing with my band in my attic, just making music that spoke to us. I could never match the feeling of leading my campus of 4-500 people in worship, no matter how many big shows I played, no matter how “awesome” I made my show, no matter how many hits I wrote.
Because the thing I felt then was so innocent… and maybe you can never regain the innocence. Maybe you can never have true humility after true arrogance. Maybe you can never turn the ship around.
But now I’m in the phase of life where I realize how little I know. How little all that knowledge of the music industry did for me. How fleeting the “success” I had was. And I find myself desiring to be the learner again. And I find myself making music that means something to me again. I find myself writing what is true about God, to me, and for the first time in years I stand on stage not arrogantly like I have something to offer, but humbly asking my audience to join me in discovering something new about God and maybe about myself. Oh, and maybe you’ll like these songs that I really like, too.
And when someone comes to me and says, “Have you heard of Celebrate Recovery? I’m in Celebrate Recovery and your songs, man, they speak to me. It sounds like your recovering from something, just like me.” And I look at him and I say, “I am recovering from me, man.” And we both laugh and pat each other on the shoulder and he gives me a hug.
And this thing I do feels innocent again.
Chris Sligh is an artist, speaker and church Creative consultant. He lives in Nashville with his wife and two kids and writes about God, the Church, music and creativity at chrissligh.org and thechurchcollective.com. You can get his new album “Mighty Roar / Healing Flood” on his website or iTunes.