Original published on JUNKEE – March 5, 2013
“I don’t believe in an interventionist God,” proclaimed Nick Cave in perhaps his most widely known non-Minogue-stoning song, ‘Into My Arms’. Perhaps if he did, he would have been able to call upon the Lord to stop the fifteenth Bad Seeds album, Push The Sky Away, from being knocked off the top of the ARIA Albums chart by Hillsong United’s latest record Zion, which debuted in pole position this week. Divine intervention wasn’t behind this particular miracle, however; rather, it can be attributed to the same savvy business acumen that has seen the church/business land thirteen records in the ARIA top ten.
For those unaware of the Hillsong phenomenon, it is a Sydney-based Pentecostal “megachurch” which routinely draws over 20 000 worshippers to their centre in Baulkham Hills. The evenings are filled with worship, sermons and music, guiding wayward sailors towards the light while peppering prayer sessions with inspirational, inoffensive, insipid concerts. They have also registered this church as an ARIA-accredited store, which means any album sales from the centre will count towards the official ARIA sales charts. With over 20 000 people a week soaking in the word of God through catch-cries and slap-bass, this is like shooting fish in a barrel.
Is this the cooking of books, or a valid business practice?
Well, these are actual physical sales, and therefore as legitimate a practice as bands selling records over a merchandise desk. Tamworth Entertainment Centre, for example, is also an accredited ARIA store, and only report statistics when there are big festivals or arena shows on, which no doubt helps to spike album sales by country artists performing at the centre. However, it’s the insidious nature of the Hillsong United sales that should be cause for concern. The topic of religion is far too broad and contentious to even get into here, however it is doubtful that country music fans feel the immense pressure of contributing to a cause when they decide to purchase the latest Lee Kernigan record. Nor is there the indoctrination from an early age. You want peer pressure? Try not buying the latest recording, released by your church, which claims to be “an expression of a really extraordinary God doing what only He can do through really ordinary people who love Him, want to serve Him and to build His church.” Now that’s a sales pitch!
There has also been a sexy rebranding, of sorts. Since the first release in 1998, the brand has gone from Hillsong, to Hillsong Live, and then to Hillsong United. This latest record drops the Hillsong tag altogether, with Zion being released under the banner of ‘United’. The church has poured thousands of dollars into print and online campaigns for the album, with the more secular-targeted advertisements not featuring the Hillsong name in any way. When booking their campaigns with publications (a number of which I write for), they stressed that they didn’t want to focus on the Hillsong aspect. With churches being under the gun in the media at the moment for a number of crimes, which range from the regressive to the horrendous, it is no wonder they are seeking to distant themselves from the negative connotations that a brand like Hillsong can bring. So, obviously Zion’s impressive first-week sales rush can be explained away by a mixture of aggressive marketing and inner church pressure. But don’t expect this to just be a one-week sales spike: last year’s live release, Cornerstone, sat on the charts for fourteen weeks and, considering both the revolving cast of 20 000 worshippers attending weekly, and the fact that Zion is yet to sell Gold (which indicates sales of over 35,000 units), look forward to the record hanging around the charts for a while yet. That Zion toppled Nick Cave–who regularly draws on Old Testament imagery in his songs, more often than not siding with the devil–cannot be lost on Hillsong, who must be feeling very smug at this juncture. The real tragedy in all of this is that Zion marked the 664th album to hit the top spot in Australia. Had just two others beaten this record to the peak, Hillsong United would currently be reconsidering just how divine their plan is, after all.