You've never heard of Brandon Heath, but he wants to give you his phone number. And he wants you to call him. Seriously.

Heath, a new artist with Essential Records, wants to make himself—and his music—known. So when his debut album releases this fall, he'll include his cell phone number in the liner notes. For every fan who calls and leaves a message, he'll pick one per week and return the call for some personal chat time.

Call it a brilliant idea, call it a gimmick, call it whatever you want. It's just one of many strategies—some clearly defined, many of them not—for marketing a new artist in the already crowded world of Christian music.

The industry calls it trying to "break" an artist—doing whatever it can to help a new musician or band rise above the pack, create some buzz, and, ultimately, get noticed . . . on the radio, in stores, online, on tour. Wherever. Whenever. However.

Marketing a new artist takes a combination of skill (from publicity pros and promoters), hard work (for everyone involved, but especially the artists themselves), luck (and who can lasso that?), a good story (a junkie-to-Jesus testimony doesn't hurt), networking (it's nice when a superstar is on your side), and, maybe, divine intervention (though that's sorta like saying God wants one sports team to "win" and another to "lose").

Oh, and a schtick doesn't hurt. Like including your phone number on your CD.

Heath says a friend suggested the idea.

"I took it as a joke at first," he says, "but the longer we thought about it, the cooler it sounded. I'm on the phone all day long, so how much time would one more call take, especially if I could thank someone for buying my record? Obviously that couldn't be a daily dialogue, but it's a connection and a very cool opportunity."

Connections and cool opportunities are all part of a much bigger picture of marketing and promoting new talent, and we at Christian Music Today tried to get a better feel for that world by interviewing a number of artists and industry insiders.

An evolving process

The annual Gospel Music Week in Nashville is a whirlwind of activity—interviews, performances, showcases, seminars, parties … and lots of schmoozing.

For labels, it's a great opportunity to introduce their new artists to the industry, especially to radio and the media. This spring's GMA event was dominated by new artists; a copy of a heavily circulated April issue of CCM magazine boasted over 40 fresh faces, and that was just scratching the surface of the countless new artists arriving on the scene throughout the year.

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So, how do you make one new artist stand out from the rest? Depends on whom you ask.

"Marketing new artists is a continually evolving process," says Brandon Ebel, president and founder of Tooth & Nail Records. "Thirteen years ago when the label was started, I didn't own a cell phone or an e-mail address, but now every child has a cell phone, Internet access and e-mail. Songs can be downloaded digitally and the market is always changing. You have to always be adapting with it, and it takes a lot of work."

For the artist, the leap from indie to a label can mean a constant workload of promotion and performance. The gig expands beyond a casual, recreational affair into a full-time mini-business on van wheels.

But that workload can be made a bit easier when you're on a good label, says David Josiah Curtis, vocalist/guitarist for Run Kid Run, a new band with Tooth & Nail.

"Being signed gives you so much leverage," says Curtis. "You can say [your label's] name, and it pretty much opens a lot of doors."

Heath doesn't necessarily agree. Though he now shares a label with some of his musical heroes (like Jars of Clay and Caedmon's Call), he wonders about the importance of a label's "brand name" in breaking a beginner, especially in an age when so many consumers discover—and buy—music on the Web.

"Sometimes I wonder if consumers really look at labels," Heath says. "If they hear something interesting and like it, they'll probably go out and buy it. And now, with the digital side of music, they can purchase a download online, and the label name is not that upfront in that sort of packaging."

Seizing the EP-portunity

It's been two years since teen pop singer Jessie Daniels released her debut EP, with just six songs on it. But that EP sparked enough buzz to eventually land Daniels on the Radio Disney website, where listeners can light up request lines with the click of a mouse, and on a number of Radio Disney concert tours. Daniels' first full-length project, a self-titled CD due in June, will release on the brand-new Midas Records label.

But it all started with the EP and its ensuing buzz.

"The EP was six great songs that could be sold on my website or at shows," says Daniels. "It was an awesome tool to spreading the word. And now it just benefits me even more, because people who were familiar with my EP have been waiting for my new release."

Daniels isn't the only artist to get some of the buzz rolling with an EP. Other recent examples include Mute Math, Building 429, Taylor Sorenson, and Paul Wright

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Crossing over

For new artists seeking a breakthrough in both the Christian market and the mainstream, the journey can present both obstacles and opportunities.

Daniels, for example, is gaining some notoriety via Radio Disney, and hopes that success on the Christian side will follow. Aly and AJ have exploded at Radio Disney and secular radio, but haven't yet seen the same success in Christian music.

Katelyn Tarver, another teen queen, first found some fame in the mainstream as a contestant on American Juniors (an American Idol spinoff). That led to a deal with New York label TC Music and her debut, Wonderful Crazy. She's also scored a title role in The Barbie Diaries movie, plus time on Radio Disney tours. But as of yet, she's still barely a blip on the Christian music radar screen.

Tarver says it's all a matter of working harder—and she clarifies that a little mainstream notoriety is hardly a free ticket to success.

"I think the public assumes getting on American Juniors means automatic success, but it's not really happening like that," she says. "I am getting to do a lot of stuff, but I'm still pretty much like everybody else, having to work for it."

And those are just the relatively innocuous teen pop artists, who are more likely to find a groove in Christian music. The edgier the music, the harder the road when trying to bridge both sides of the secular-sacred divide.

Many hard rock bands have a difficult time making inroads in a relatively conservative Christian marketplace, but are finding more receptive audiences on the other side.

Decyfer Down, for example, would like to reach the "church crowd" with its hard music style found on End of Gray (S/R/E Recordings/Epic). But they know most of their bread and butter may come from the world.

"Being a Christian hard band is hard enough because our genre is very small," says guitarist Chris Clonts. "It's not accepted by everybody, and it's not a sound everybody likes. We actually started out trying to get in as a Christian band, but no doors were opening. We're still able to bless fellow believers, but we also go outside the box to plant seeds."

Another new aggressive act, NEEDTOBREATHE, is one of the rare acts to land record deals on both sides of the divide—with Sparrow on the Christian side, and Atlantic/Lava on the mainstream side. They hope to stand out with an edgy sound, explosive performances, and a reality-based message, appealing to those uncomfortable with Christian clichés.

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The band sees completely different musical mindsets in the two universes.

"With Christian concerts, if there are 15,000 people at a festival concert, half have probably heard of one of the bands on the bill," says vocalist/guitarist Bear Rinehart. "The rest are there because the church bus went and it was something to do. In the secular market, the audience base is much bigger, and there are more outlets like radio and more ways for press coverage."

Story time

All strategies aside, sometimes the most effective route to a breakthrough can't be invented. Sometimes you just need an interesting story.

Veteran publicist Velvet Rousseau Kelm of The Media Collective has worked with many artists, from crossover giants MercyMe to CCM staple Steven Curtis Chapman. She says that having a great CD isn't always enough.

"The music itself is the best tool, but an interesting bio and a story really helps," she says. "NEEDTOBREATHE has a great story in that Bear [a college football star] wanted to be professional football player, and Bo [Bear's brother and guitarist] wanted to pursue a film career. Decyfer Down came to the table with a diverse history—from being burned out on religion to parties and drugs—[but] these guys all returned to their faith. Their music is great and their story is also very interesting, which makes for a great combination."

Others who have interesting or unique stories include Jeremy Camp, who lost his first wife to cancer, but is now happily remarried with two kids; Matthew West, who almost died after severing an artery in his arm, and doctors feared he'd never play guitar again; Sara Groves, who was a high school English teacher before switching to music full-time; and Shawn McDonald, who was abandoned as a child and wrestled with drugs (as a user and a dealer) as a teen before coming to Christ.

'Hi, I'm Smitty's friend'

Sometimes the phase "it's all who you know" can help springboard a fresh face to fame.

The Turning, a new band on RKT (Rocketown's rock imprint), got a nice boost at GMA Week when the label founder introduced the band at an evening showcase, and endorsed their debut CD, Learning to Lose.

Oh yeah, the label founder happens to be Michael W. Smith, who rarely does artist endorsements.

"It's a huge honor because from what we understand, Michael doesn't endorse a lot of stuff," says Matt Warren, The Turning's guitarist. "His support and enthusiasm is unparalleled. He's making phone calls to radio himself, which is seriously unheard of. We never want to over-use that, and we're not great because Michael said so, but it sure is enormous to have him behind us."

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Rock/pop/soul hybrid Hyper Static Union had been touring and recording independently for eight years when a concert promoter passed their music on to one of his famous friends—Third Day frontman Mac Powell. Powell and his bandmates liked HSU so much, that they signed the band to their own Consuming Fire Productions and brought their debut, Lifegiver, to RKT.

Powell introduced the group at a GMA showcase and announced they'd be opening Third Day's 40-city spring tour, sure to produce an instant surge in record sales.

Still, HSU realizes it's just a start. Guitarist Bryan Albrechtson says Third Day's Brad Avery made that clear enough.

"I asked him, 'Is this tour [with Third Day] really going to help us go to the next level?'" Albrechtson says. "He said that even though this tour is a really important factor, all the work is going to need to come after this. So if we go to Chicago and play a show with Third Day, we have to come back a short time later to keep expanding that city's fan base."

A number of prominent artists started out by touring with well-known acts. Jars of Clay used to open for Michael W. Smith, and Audio Adrenaline for dc Talk. Casting Crowns and Chris Tomlin each warmed up for Steven Curtis Chapman.

Marketing worship?

What about musicians who prefer to be called "worship leaders," and would much rather promote God than themselves?

Such is the case for Pocket Full of Rocks, recently signed to the praise-and-worship oriented Myrrh Records. Rather than pumping up their personalities and product, Pocket members spent GMA week focusing on the vertical leanings of their national debut, Song to the King, which includes well-known originals like "Let It Rain" (covered by Michael W. Smith) and "Let the Worshippers Arise" (made famous by Phillips, Craig and Dean).

"This project is a tough thing as far as marketing because it's a worship album," says frontman Michael Farren. "It's hard to take what we do live and put it on disc, because live it's like [spontaneous] worship when we're engaged with the King of Kings. But Myrrh has done an amazing job of making sure people know, 'OK, look, this is a team and this band is geared toward worship.'"

Jessica Wolstenholm, Myrrh's senior director of marketing, says spreading the word about Pocket Full of Rocks isn't so much a case of marketing worship, but rather providing a base of exposure for the genre.

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"Pocket Full of Rocks is six humble people that just love to be in the presence of God," Wolstenholm says. "They have great songs and great hearts, so to me, I'm working alongside them to serve them and help tell their story: 'Did you know this band's singer wrote a song Michael W. Smith put on his record, and over 1.5 million people have that record? Now here's a whole album from that band.'

"Our approach is a little different than a contemporary Christian artist. It's a fine line between spending too much time marketing and just being real, but we want to be real about the hearts of our artists."

Phil Wickham, a recent signee to Simple/INO Records, concurs, suggesting a checks and balance system between the artist and label is essential for promoting the message rather than the mouthpiece.

"Worship music is about Jesus obviously, and the direction needs to be pointed at God through the music rather than the person," he says. "I completely trust my label, and they understand who I am and that I want to ultimately glorify God. While their job is to get a record in front of people, they also understand who I am as a worship artist."

Making a connection

Getting the word out is one thing, but keeping the ball rolling is another. One key to that is connecting with the audience, not just through the music, but through various means of communication—whether it's personal contact after shows, or via other means like websites, e-newsletters and message boards.

In the last couple of years, the potential for online connection has soared with the massive success of, with over 75 million regular users. It's not enough any more to just have a website; you also want some space at MySpace.

"MySpace is great because it's a community that's already set up that serves as an extended network of friends," says Heath, the Cell Phone Guy. "It's an invaluable tool because it allows you to put your music out there. It's also a place of affirmation where I can read nice letters of feedback."

And, of course, the music itself has to make the connection.

"You can market and spend as much money as you want and sing the best vocals, but if it doesn't connect, it probably won't amount to much," says Wickham. "The heart of a listener responds to the heart of the artist, and there's a connection there. They feel like they can own the songs themselves, and that's where the ministry happens."

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Myrrh's Wolstenholm says that kind of connection is the key to longevity—to becoming an established artist, and not just a new artist who quickly vanishes from the radar screen. "There are a lot of new artists," she says, "but the ones that break through are the ones able to make a lasting connection with their audience."

"It's not good enough just to be good or work hard," adds Tooth & Nail's Ebel. "You can't just go from your van or your bus to the hotel after the show. You need to get out there and separate yourself from everybody else, meeting fans and taking the time to build up your name. There are a lot of good bands out there, but those who find a better connection with the audience will have a better chance to wade through the waters."

Even if it means including your phone number in your liner notes.