Montell Fish is a Christian musician whose songs took off with tens of millions of streams. But unlike artists who have risen through the ranks of CCM, his main platform isn't a worship stage.
The 24-year-old artist went viral on TikTok from his bedroom, where he recorded himself, wearing a T-shirt and black bandana, playing the guitar, and singing in falsetto, “Why don’t you talk to me like you used to?”
His calming, “lo-fi” (low-fidelity) music stands in stark contrast with the high production value of today’s top worship bands. In a world that increasingly defies labels and genre, Fish represents a slew of indie faith-based artists who are finding success on platforms like TikTok and skipping the format and industry contemporary Christian music CCM was long built upon.
For these artists, independence from the traditional constraints of the music industry means greater freedom to explore—and redefine—what it means to be a successful “Christian” artist. With this freedom, though, comes greater responsibility for artists over their career direction and renders other essential parts like financial sustainability more unstable.
Previously known as one of the artists behind the music project Lord’s Child and a YouTuber who uploaded videos like “3 Ways to keep your focus on Christ,” Fish began uploading TikToks in October 2019.
On September 7, 2021, he uploaded a clip of himself sitting in his bedroom, with a sound titled “fall in love with you” playing in the background. The song snippet stands out for its tranquility; it seems content to takes its time, a contrast to TikTok’s fast pace. The video accrued over 3.3 million views, a consecutive YouTube video of Fish playing the song accumulated more than double the original’s views, and listeners have streamed the subsequent Spotify release 92 million times.
Yet Fish released these tracks on his own and didn’t put any paid promotion behind it, according to his manager, Patrick Bradley.
The music industry has shifted rapidly over the past few years, largely because of platforms like Spotify and TikTok. The advent of streaming has made it harder for artists to generate revenue—platforms like Spotify pay about $.004 per stream, whereas in prestreaming days, consumers had to buy entire albums. In a world that places increasing emphasis on the playlist versus the album, record labels have consolidated.
With 60,000 new songs are uploaded to Spotify every day, it’s harder than ever for music artists to gain traction on a widespread scale. Even more, the demise of the traditional structure of the music industry has led to the demise of traditional genre categories. Gone are the days of “pop,” “rock,” “hip-hop,” “R&B,” and “CCM”; music genres have increasingly split further and further apart into various tiny microtrends.
Initially popularized in the 1960s and 1970s during the Jesus People movement, Christian contemporary music—defined by Andrew Mall in God Rock, Inc., as “less by its musical characteristics … than by its lyrical content, representing a biblically grounded Christian worldview”—peaked in popularity in the ’90s and has been on the decline over the past decade due to a changing market and cultural climate.
“The traditional modes of engaging with CCM have been in decline for a long time,” said Leah Payne, a professor at Portland Seminary who is writing a book on Christian contemporary music for Oxford University Press. For as long as CCM has existed, mainly white evangelical artists have dominated Christian radio charts.
“New platforms like TikTok that sit outside that model make it possible for different kinds of artists to thrive,” Payne said. “I think the question I have is: How will these artists sustain themselves and how will they continue to connect with their audiences?”
Indie Christian artist Antoine Bradford sees platforms like Spotify and TikTok as a means by which he’s been able to build a full-time music career. After becoming a Christian, he began writing music as a means of expressing how his faith shaped his life. “I saw that there was a need for Christians to be vulnerable and talk about mental health and just the struggles of what it means to be a Christian,” he said.
In 2017, he independently released “Safe,” a love song to his wife based on Ephesians 5; it’s since accrued over 6 million Spotify streams. The success of the first song inspired and enabled him to release EPs like “Dear Struggling Christian” and “Even in the Dark,” plus an album, “Light Will Find You,” in 2021. It also allowed him to embark on tours with other independent Christian artists, such as Lovkn’s One Big Family Tour.
Bradford is a full-time musician now; he appreciates the flexibility that not being signed to a label affords him, but that means he handles everything in his career, from fundraising to designing merchandise and album artwork.
While Bradford supports himself by doing music, other artists like John Jin Han and Sarah Juers don’t consider making music full time as essential to their long-term plans. To them, creative freedom in their spiritual expression is a larger priority than financial subsistence solely from their music.
Juers sees her music as ministry. An independent artist who works a full-time customer service job, Juers prefers not to rely on her creative work as a means of economic survival, but instead sees it as a way for her to connect with people and glorify God.
“My biggest goal in life is to be authentically myself and to walk humbly with God,” she said. “If I try to be too much of a brand or some sort of figure, I think it just takes away the authenticity and the ability for people to really connect.”
Beyond that, she adds, “For me, my soul is the most important thing in this world. How many people listen to me and follow me doesn’t matter. My relationship with God is the most important thing.”
Han, an independent Christian musician affiliated with Southern California–based Isla Vista Worship, describes his music as on a spectrum between secular and Christian. He submitted his dissertation for his PsyD in clinical psychology this year with the goal of becoming a psychologist and pursuing music in tandem with that career.
“Creativity was definitely always a value for Isla Vista Worship, but more importantly than that was that we wanted to host the presence of God and really write songs for our community,” he said. After he moved away from Isla Vista, however, he realized that he wanted to keep creating music: “It started with a couple worship releases, indie worship, indie Christian. The more and more I wrote these songs, the more I realized I wanted to write other songs about my story as well.”
Han’s experience writing worship music made him want to branch out and write faith-based music outside of the worship genre. He writes songs for young adults struggling with their faith and for “Asian Americans who feel out of place in white spaces.”
Faith informs different Christian artists’ definitions of success, with platforms like TikTok and Spotify enabling them to pursue their creative vision independently. But the attention they’ve found organically suggests there’s an audience that cares deeply about Christian art outside the constraints of the Christian contemporary music machine or even the booming worship music industry.
For artists like Fish, TikTok virality has opened the door to cross over into the mainstream market without ever having been fully under the umbrella of Christian music, which is perhaps indicative of a wider audience hungry for music woven with religious themes.
“I’m still very much a faith-centered person, and I love Jesus,” he said in a recent interview with Billboard. “But I think a lot of my art has taken a different way of telling those stories.”
Fish released his album JAMIE on July 22, the first installment of what he says is a “three project trilogy” on Instagram. His manager announced on Instagram earlier this year that the two had started an independent record label and signed a deal with Virgin Music Label and Artist Services, an offshoot of Virgin Records for independent record labels. Fish is touring this fall following his festival performance at Pharrell’s Something in the Water festival in June, and he appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on August 11.
He sang his song “Darling” while sitting on a bed onstage—a callback to his origins on TikTok as well as a reminder of just how far he’s come. “I’m finally letting you go,” he sings. “Letting my control.”
Rachel Seo is the social media coordinator at Variety.