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The New York Times: Arts and Leisure Desk

Sunday February 6, 2005

Missionaries To the Mainstream

By JAKE HALPERN

FOR Lee Trink, who is the general manager of Lava Records, Dec. 7 is not a day that will live in infamy. It's the date the Recording Academy announced nominations for the 2005 Annual Grammy Awards, one of which went to a relatively obscure Christian rock band called Skillet for best rock gospel album. Of course, the public barely noticed. Almost everyone was more interested in Kanye West, who earned 10 nominations, or Alicia Keys, who had 8. But for Mr. Trink, this day meant a great deal. It confirmed his gut instinct that he had successfully primed another Christian band for mainstream success.

Within the last several years, there have been a number of very popular bands -- including P.O.D., Evanescence, Switchfoot, Sixpence None the Richer and Mercy Me -- that got their start by signing with Christian record labels or by playing at Christian music festivals. These bands have succeeded in large part because, unlike Petra and the other successful Christian rock bands of the 80's and early 90's, they have avoided being too preachy and yet found a way to keep God between the lines.

Skillet appears to be on this same trajectory. The band's Grammy-nominated album, ''Collide,'' is devoid of any explicit references to Jesus, Christianity or God. This is a marked contrast to its previous album, ''Alien Youth,'' whose title track begins with these lyrics: ''Worldwide Jesus domination/Love conquers all/Rise like a chosen generation/There's no stopping it all.'' Yet if Skillet does become the next P.O.D., it won't just be because of the band's lyrics. It will also have a lot to do with Lava Records and Lee Trink.

Mr. Trink is a handsome man in his mid-30's with gleaming white teeth, light-blue eyes, strapping shoulders and a chiseled jaw. He is, by his own admission, an unlikely record executive. In fact, his life story is as eclectic as Forrest Gump's: he has been a child actor, a soldier in the Israeli Army, a criminal prosecutor and, finally, a Jewish record-industry executive heavily involved with Christian rock bands. Given all this, it is perhaps fitting that one of his first real hits came in 1999, when he was at Atlantic Records, from a band that seemed doomed to fail: P.O.D., for Payable on Death -- four born-again Christians from San Diego.

''It was tough to break them, especially back then, because there was a real stigma against Christian rock bands,'' Mr. Trink recalled during an interview at Lava's Manhattan headquarters. ''You've got to figure the bulk of your fan base is teenagers, and faith-based music just didn't seem rebellious or cool.''

This may be an understatement. Not long ago Christian rock bands were considered a joke by most Americans. There was the ''Seinfeld'' episode in which Elaine discovered, much to her chagrin, that her boyfriend, George, had preset the dials on his car radio to Christian rock stations. In an attempt to console her, George remarked: ''I like Christian rock. It's very positive. It's not like those real musicians who think they're so cool and hip.''

And then there was the ''South Park'' show in which Cartman became a Christian rock star by rewriting classic hits and replacing the word ''baby'' with the word ''Jesus.'' This derision only reinforced the perception that this was second-rate music; not surprisingly, the major record labels stayed clear.

But not Lee Trink. ''For me the Christian rock bands were just another pool of artists to look at,'' Mr. Trink said. ''It was almost like going to Britain or France and mining another country's artists -- only we didn't have to take a plane to get there.'' Mr. Trink said two factors caught his attention. First was his belief that some of the Christian bands, like P.O.D., were actually making good music. Second was that these bands were selling albums.

For a long time, the major labels had no idea just how well Christian albums were selling. Historically, this was because most Christian bands sold their albums at Christian bookstores, whose sales were not factored into the Billboard charts. Then, beginning in the mid-1990's, almost all record vendors -- including the Christian bookstores -- began using Soundscan. This new, computer-based system allowed record sales to be registered, tabulated and ranked instantaneously. As a result, previously disenfranchised genres were now included on the Billboard charts; almost overnight, several Christian albums became best sellers.

Nonetheless, many top Christian rock bands remained uninterested in signing with the major labels. Some were content to go on making music in the Christian market. Others feared alienating their fans and being branded as sellouts. And still others were unwilling to relinquish their status as stars in the Christian world in order to start from scratch in the mainstream.

Mark Joseph, author of ''Faith, God & Rock 'n' Roll'' (Sanctuary Publishing), said this last issue was often the deal breaker. As he explained it: ''Imagine that you were a famous actor in China, where you are making good money and getting treated like a huge star. Would you really want to forsake all of that just to become a virtual unknown, with a long-shot hope of making it in America?''

When Mr. Trink began working with P.O.D. in 1999, he was their product manager, which meant he was responsible for overseeing all of Atlantic's efforts to promote and market the band. His main goal was to declassify P.O.D. as a Christian band and thus pre-empt all the negative stereotyping. His countervailing concern was to keep the band's very loyal fans, who called themselves the Warriors, and who had propelled the band thus far.

His solution was to reach out to the Warriors and forge an alliance. ''We heard countless times about P.O.D. waiting until after their shows to meet any kid who was there, and frequently kids would tell them how their music had saved them from a host of bad episodes,'' Mr. Trink recalled. ''They were very gripping stories. So our message was: 'If this band is that important to you, how many other people out there could it also be important to? So help us do this.' And of course, it was the band that conveyed all of this, because if you put that corporate tag on it, kids smell a phony a mile away.''

With the help of the Warriors, Mr. Trink started a grassroots campaign that got the band onto ''TRL'' on MTV. Record sales spiked. Ultimately, P.O.D. brought in gross earnings of roughly $60 million for Atlantic. ''It was huge,'' Mr. Trink said. ''Very few bands reach that level of sales.''

Around this time, many artist-and-repertory executives -- like Andy Karp at Lava -- began to look very seriously at the Christian market for other bands able to cross over. Mr. Karp said that when he first heard Skillet in the summer of 2002, they appeared to be just such a band.

''I went to see Skillet play at this Christian festival in New Hampshire called Soulfest,'' he said. ''They went on in the middle of the day, which is never ideal for loud guitars, but they did great. I saw so much energy coming from the stage and the crowd was passionately into it. There was a prayer in the middle of their set, but it was interesting -- it didn't put me off.'' Not long after this, Lava signed the band.

Once Skillet was signed, Mr. Trink unveiled his marketing plan, which focused on Skillet's fans, the Panheads. ''We're trying to use the same format that was successful for P.O.D. to galvanize Skillet's crew of hard-core fans and have them be missionaries for the music,'' Mr. Trink said.

John Cooper, the lead singer for Skillet, is less enthusiastic about using the Panheads in this fashion. ''It feels like it could be a form of manipulation -- do this for me, do this for me -- when I honestly just appreciate them as fans,'' Mr. Cooper said. ''And you have to be honest about your motivations. I don't want to be using God to make a lot of money or benefit myself.''

Mr. Cooper sometimes worries about how the Panheads will react, not only to Lee Trink and Lava but to the band's new lyrics as well. Not long ago he received an e-mail message from a Panhead who complained: ''I don't think you should be yelling the Gospel and start forcing the issue, etc., etc., but if you are really meant to bring the Gospel to mainstream in some fashion, you have to at some point. There is a difference between not talking about Him and trying to avoid talking about Him.''

Oddly enough, Panheads may be heartened by Skillet's recent Grammy nomination, because it was in rock gospel and not in hard rock, where the big mainstream bands compete. P.O.D.'s ''Alive,'' for example, was nominated for best hard rock album in 2001, and this seemed to cement P.O.D.'s status as a bona fide mainstream band.

For his part, Mr. Trink professes not to care about any of these distinctions because he thinks that Christian rock is no longer a limiting term. Rather nonchalantly, he added that he had faced much bigger challenges. To illustrate his point, he gestured toward a framed photo on his desk. The picture showed the musician Kid Rock giving his middle finger to the camera. To the right of Kid Rock's finger were six consecutive zeros, which together form the numeral 1,000,000. An inscription at the bottom of the photo reads: ''Trink: Ha! We'' -- omitting a Kid Rockism -- ''did it.''

Mr. Trink said: ''He gave it to me when he went platinum for selling a million albums. And he was a white rapper, so if you want to talk about monikers, now that was a hard one to shake.''

So how did he finally do it?

''Well,'' Mr. Trink replied, ''there were a handful of people at the label who really got it -- and we believed in him like religion.''