Giving Away Free Music, Developing New Artists, and the Relationship to the Church.
Thomas Terry and Bryan Winchester of Humble Beast, with Aaron Halvorsen and Todd Miles of Western Seminary.
AARON: What are the challenges and obstacles of giving away music? Has that model worked?
THOMAS: I would say that it has worked in terms of our goal, as far as getting the content out there and reaching people. But we are bi-vocational. If you take a record company’s biggest commodity or highest selling good, every businessman is going to think you’re stupid. But for us, we are so committed to it. If we have to work part-time jobs, so be it. We’ll just continue to do what we have to do to make sure the gospel gets out there. That can be challenging, definitely. We have seen God’s faithfulness in it; we don’t go without eating! And we’ll know providentially, when we are no longer able to provide for our families, that the door is closed. But God has continued to show us providentially that we are supposed to keep going.
BRYAN: I think the free model plays a huge role in how God continues to humble us in this goal to create something that is excellent with humble means. Because we give the music away for free, we don’t have the same budgets another record label might have to invest in a major project. We have a very humble means and a very lofty task, and that keeps us dependent. It also ensures that we are motivated by the content. What’s going to motivate us? We’re not motivated by how many copies we’re going to sell, which could then lead to shaping the communication to what is popular or shaping songs by what is popular. Sales aren’t a factor for us. So now we’re stripped down to asking why we are doing what we are doing, and we’re moved by our core motivation. Our target is to get content in peoples’ hands that makes the gospel clear and makes the gospel known. And if we have little means to do that, it just means that we are going to have to work really hard at creating something reflective of our end goal. We find ourselves extremely dependent in that process. It keeps us true to our name- Humble Beast- trying to achieve excellent things with humble means, being dependent on an excellent God, presenting His excellent truth, and trusting that when His truth cuts through it will bear fruit in people’s lives that goes far beyond the talents and resources that we brought to the table.
THOMAS: We have seen a lot of fruit, to God be the glory. It has been amazing to see what God has done, it’s crazy.
AARON: Are you excited about the current shape and direction of Humble Beast?
THOMAS: Definitely! We’re also looking at different mediums now through which we can communicate the gospel. Music has been our primary focus, and will continue to be a major vein of Humble Beast, but we are also seeing the value in the way words are connected, and the way word-pictures can be used, the way the gospel is presented in mediums such as spoken word and video. We feel there is so much we can do. So now we’re tackling the development of curriculum and putting more of an emphasis on helping to disciple people. What would it look like if we were not just doing music, but also writing articles and blogs, or creating video resources that would help young Christians in this hip-hop context grow in their faith? I’m excited about the prospect of using every tool in our tool kit.
BRYAN: We say hip-hop context, but I guess that may be a looser or loaded term because we are at a point in our culture where hip-hop crosses over into other cultures. It is one means that we use, so we’ll continue doing records. But we are connecting with a variety of people, some of whom just share a common interest in the gospel, or a common interest in design aesthetics, or rhyming, or music production. So the palette is broadening, and we want to bring resources that not only cater to hip-hop, but also reach others that God has given us access to.
AARON: What goes into bringing a new artist on to Humble Beast?
THOMAS: I think it’s changed. In the beginning, we just wanted to connect with guys we could disciple. So it didn’t matter where they were at. If they just professed Jesus, no matter how messed up their lives seemed, we were like, “Let’s do it!” We figured we would just figure out the rest once we did life with them. We would figure out what stewardship looks like, what church submission looks like, what yielding to the Scriptures looks like. We’d figure that out just by doing life together. I think that was a nice idea in the beginning, and it had a lot of positive aspects. However, for some folks, music was always the main thing, and you could never go deeper. So we don’t necessarily do that with artists anymore. We still do life with folks. If people want to engage with us, we’ll do discipleship, and we’ll do life-on-life with them. But we won’t push them into a platform until after we’ve been with them for a long time. It works sort of like a courtship. We find somebody that resonates with us, in terms of artistry, aesthetic, and ambition- the free model is a huge thing- somebody who’s committed to the cause of Christ and the gospel. We build a relationship with them and court them for a long time and the chemistry has to be right, because chemistry is another huge component. Courtship works a lot of that stuff out. How does it work to put a song out together? Maybe even a record? We’ve just found it’s been healthier for us to do that before investing a lot of time in an artist that is not stable enough or not able to handle a platform. So it’s different now. Courtship is a huge thing.
BRYAN: I think also, when you think of positions and positioning someone, if someone is already operating in a similar position in a healthy way, it can be really encouraging in our process. There’s a big difference between taking someone who doesn’t already have a platform, giving a platform to them, and seeing how well they handle it, as opposed to finding someone who’s already handling something similar and coming alongside and supporting them. So that’s been a big factor as well in determining how long that courtship takes.
THOMAS: And if we see guys who are interested in music, who we don’t know very well but they say they are interested in what we’re doing, we tell them to move to Portland. Come to our church. Do life with us that way. In a few cases, that has actually developed into an artist relationship. So guys who were interested in discipleship have come to Portland, they’ve come to Trinity Church, and it’s been awesome for them. They’ve grown tremendously.
AARON: How would you encourage young Christian musicians, both hip-hop and other?
THOMAS: We get asked this question a lot at shows, and the first thing we tell them is to submit to a local church. Serve in your local church, and not only in a way that uses your gifts. Don’t think “I’m going to serve in the church by just rapping for the church.” Serve in any capacity. Rappers all know about sound, so run the soundboard. If you can steward that well and serve the church, that will help level you out. If you’re not submitted to a local church and just floating around the country autonomously with no church praying for you and no accountability, you’re just setting yourself up to fail. We’ve seen that, especially in hip-hop. All these guys just running around the country, not committed to a local church, without a body of believers praying for them. We see time after time that their lives are a wreck. So our thing is, “Stop what you’re doing, and get submitted to a local church.” There’s huge value in submission, there’s huge value in elders praying for you, and there’s huge value in serving your local church first and doing that well before going out and doing whatever the Lord opens up for you. Church submission is huge for us.
Next Monday (9-28), we will run the third and final part of this interview. In it, Thomas and Bryan talk about Beautiful Eulogy’s second album, the lyrics and theology, and the evangelical response to hip-hop