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Inside Hillsong Church’s Hit-Making Music Machine

The savvy church has quietly turned its worship program into one of Australia’s biggest music exports.

It’s a full house at New York City’s Hammerstein Ballroom when a heavenly bassline starts to ripple through the crowds. Spotlights come up on a bearded singer in a denim jacket who looks remarkably like Post Malone without the tattoos, and the 10-piece band starts to play. The crowd lifts its hands. Up above, a band of angels playing harps and flutes on the hand-painted ceiling seems to look down with approval.

In the foyer, uniformed security guards dig through bags as their owners are eyed going through a metal detector. It’s a typical scene for this major music venue. But instead of IDs being checked on the other side, a smiling woman greets arrivals: “Welcome to church!”

It’s 10 a.m on a recent Sunday in January, and the Manhattan location of Australian megachurch Hillsong is about to kick off its first service of the day. It’s one of five services the church will do today in New York, and the 8,000 worshippers expected to come through the doors are just some of the 50 million people worldwide estimated to sing Hillsong songs in church each week.

The venue and the numbers are indicative of the unprecedented international success Hillsong has had overseas, not only as a church but as a Christian music brand. A brand that, without broadcasting it to the local music industry, has steadily grown to be one of Australia’s biggest music exports.

Megachurch a Mega Export

While Hillsong – which counts celebrities like Justin Bieber and Kyrie Irving among its followers – is well known for its music within the Christian scene, the true scope of its international success may not be fully understood by those on the outside.

Data provided by Nielsen Music to Rolling Stone shows songs by the three Hillsong groups were streamed more times on demand in the United States last year than Aussie exports Tame Impala, Sia, rockers AC/DC, or 5 Seconds of Summer. Hillsong music might just be the biggest Aussie act mainstream Australia hasn’t listened to.

“It’s not a prominent brand in Australia necessarily to anyone other than those who are embracing what the messages are,” Sounds Australia Executive Producer Millie Millgate says. Her organisation helps represent the Australian music industry at international events. “They’re not constantly sending out press releases here, you’re not always hearing what they’re doing… until you find out they’ve won a Grammy.”

The Hillsong Conferences have become massive affairs, with their Sydney edition bringing in close to 40,000 people. Photo by Hillsong

Hillsong sprung onto the world stage in 1996 with the song “Shout to the Lord”, and has since become one of the most internationally recognised Australian music labels and a leader in global worship music. Hillsong albums have reached number one on Billboard’s Top Christian Albums 15 times. In 2018 Hillsong won a Grammy in Contemporary Christian Music for its track “What a Beautiful Name,” which has been viewed on YouTube more than 342 million times.

But Hillsong Music Publishing manager Steve McPherson doesn’t think the average Australian would be aware of Hillsong Music’s international success. “People may see the charting success of our albums in this country but would have no idea of what our music is doing around the world, especially in the USA.”

At home, Hillsong has won ARIAs for album sales (though some in the music industry complained the albums were flogged to a captive audience in church conferences). One of its groups, Hillsong United, is in the top 10 Australian artists streamed on Spotify globally – but not among the top 10 Aussie artists streamed on Spotify locally.

But there might be other reasons Australian listeners aren’t familiar with the Hillsong music phenomenon. Australia is more secular than other music markets where Hillsong is shipped — for example the United States, says worship scholar Wen Reagen.

Since 2011, Hillsong United has had one #1 song, three in the Top 10, and 41 songs total in the Billboard Hot 100. Hillsong Worship, another of Hillsong’s brands, has hit the Billboard 200 16 times – with both bands topping all other genres in the open charts. “Now these are not Christian charts, or even worship music charts. These are charts for all genres!” Reagan points out.

Plus, in Australia, Hillsong is a physical church first and foremost. Reagan says the megachurch could not turn the media’s focus from its perceived moral, financial, and political threats, even if the music was good. In the last 20 years, Australian media has covered a number of Hillsong scandals, including its founder’s father being charged with child sex abuse, accusations of “prosperity preaching” to the benefit of its top pastors, and its stance on homosexuality.

Members of the Hillsong Young & Free group. Photo by Hillsong.

“In contrast, Hillsong was exported out of Australia not as a church, but as a sound,” Reagen says. While the church did follow, the “beachhead” was Hillsong’s music, which he says has been consistently innovative and excellent within its genre.

Millgate has been working with Hillsong for almost a decade now, and admits when she first started working with the brand, she did not quite realise the scope and savvy of its music arm.

“I was aware that Hillsong existed as a church entity, but until my dealings with Tim [Whincop, Hillsong’s general counsel] it wasn’t something I was hugely across. Then through that I started to see the scope of their reach and the amount of product they were releasing and how they were doing it. Across the last decade it’s been quite phenomenal to see that growth.”

Seeking Influence, Not Sales

Tim Whincop wears many hats. He is both head of Hillsong Music & Resources, and also one of its legal counsels. He represents Hillsong Music’s interests overseas, while also issuing legal statements such as this response to a media report the church covered up Frank Houston’s child sex abuse.

The former performance trumpet player’s business savvy is one of the things Millgate credits to Hillsong Music’s success, calling him a “truly impressive operator.” As I reach him over the phone one Wednesday morning in January, Whincop is getting ready for another business trip to the States. He describes how Hillsong’s strategy of seeking influence over sales has allowed the brand to grow enormous and global.

For example, Hillsong jumped on streaming services early, as other labels remained leery of low monetisation rates. In 2010, Hillsong signed with Capitol Christian Music Group (CCMG), a subsidiary of Universal Music Group, around the time music streaming started gaining popularity. CCMG’s Bill Hearn encouraged the church to be on the front foot with streaming services, even as others in the music industry held back.

Whincop says a decision was made early on to get on any and as many music platforms people listened to, while making sound business decisions for the church. Millgate says the church’s approach when meeting with streaming services overseas like Apple and Spotify have had a wider impact for Aussie music. “I’ve got to say, a lot of time it was the questions that [Whincop] was putting forward that were of benefit to the other labels as well.”

Hillsong Pastors Brian and Bobbie Houston. Photo by Hillsong.

The brand has exploded further due to its focus on translation for its global Christian audience. “We knew a lot of remote places around the world were singing our songs in English when they don’t even speak English,” Whincop says. Hillsong now releases translated sound recordings of its songs in 17 different languages, including Spanish, Portugese, Korean, Arabic, Italian, German, and Swedish.

Plus, the church has a practice of fostering young musical talent as it comes up, ensuring a steady stream of songwriters and performers trained by its veteran members. The church also has a side label, SHOUT! Music Publishing, which is for songs and artists that aren’t Hillsong. Hillsong now has publishing operations in the USA, Australia, and the United Kingdom, with more than 300 songwriters and close to 200,000 works under administration between Hillsong Music Publishing and SHOUT! Music Publishing.

Despite Hillsong’s huge international success, Whincop wants to be clear that it’s influence the church is going for, not numbers. Though he does know the numbers, and they’re big. “CCLI [Christian Copyright Licensing International] have estimated 50 million people per week sing our songs. And if you’re talking album consumption, it depends on how you measure it – we quote 30 million in album consumption but it’s probably closer to 55 million worldwide since 1992.”

When asked how that translates financially, Whincop declines to comment, although the figures can be guessed at in the church’s annual reports. It’s clear the church is wary of the media, especially around talk of money. “People are always going to have an agenda when they talk about these things,” Whincop says. “I don’t know why that is. I think maybe it’s a combination of misinformation, a lack of understanding, and an Australian culture thing.”

Finances Under Fire

According to the church’s self-released 2017 annual report, which was independently audited, its total revenue for 2017 was a little over $109 million. About $14 million of that came directly from music. Revenue made from music is a little more opaque in the 2018 annual report (because ‘Music & Resources’ and ‘other revenue’ are grouped together), but can be estimated to be up to $14 million again, all of which is tax-free as Hillsong and its subsidiary companies operate as charities under the Charities Act.

Under the act, to get the tax benefits, the organisation must be not-for-profit and have only charitable purposes that are for the public benefit. Advancing religion in the community falls under this purpose.

It may be unfair that churches can compete with other commercial companies which do pay tax, but that’s the law, University of Technology Sydney sociology professor Andrew Jakubowicz says. “There is a huge subsidy structure offered by government to religion and it’s an individual thing whether people think it’s crooked when local community groups unincorporated and without clear market positioning may have to pay tax and religions don’t.”

He says there’s an argument that all religions are forms of economic enterprise that produce “power” for their leaders and “pablum for their followers” – and should be taxed. “Deists however think that God’s work is sublime and Mammon should be kept well away.”

Hillsong has also been criticised for sometimes listing the church, and not its songs’ performers, to receive performance royalties (songwriting royalties always go back to the people who wrote the songs). Cutting performing artists out of revenues has been common in the history of rock n’ roll, but not in the worship industry before Hillsong, Reagen says.

He points out that, in the past, money in the worship music industry hasn’t come under scrutiny because there just wasn’t much money in it. Now it’s a multi-million dollar industry, people are taking notice, particularly Aussie media. “The critique that emerges is pretty simple: If you (Hillsong) are making millions off of these records, why not share that revenue with the performing artists who pour their time and energy into these songs? And further, where is all that money going? Those are fair questions.”

The performers may be paid another way, or the church’s endless pool of willing volunteers may just be happy to be helping its mission. But Reagan says Hillsong has pioneered an approach to controlling the intellectual property emerging from its community and has successfully leveraged it to grow its brand globally. Part of that strategy has been controlling and benefiting from music revenues just as a traditional record label would. “The rub, of course, is that most record labels are for-profits, while Hillsong is a non-profit church.”

But Hillsong’s reps are quick to remind people that its core activities are not music, but service. McPherson says he feels there is a lot of “misinformed attack” when it comes to the financial structure and practises of Hillsong and its music operation. “While our music may be the most visual to those outside of our congregation, Hillsong is a church with a myriad of services and ministries that support our congregation and the wider community, both in Australia and around the world,” he says.

Members of the Hillsong Worship group. Photo by Hillsong.

“Like all other churches and charities in Australia, all revenue including the publishing share of any revenue we receive for our songs which is not paid out to our songwriters is used for these charitable purposes.”

Asked how he feels about Hillsong being called a record label, Whincop is pragmatic. “We’ve found that operating our own distribution and marketing was important to us because we could control our message, we could control the distribution platforms,” he says, pointing out that while they do still work with record labels such as Capital CMG they independently distribute around most of the world.

He says most of the senior leadership would adamantly say Hillsong was a church not a record label, despite them having a label and publishing division. “But I would hope that people see the greater vision of what were trying to do and that we want to see people genuinely and authentically worship their God. I think that is really important and we want to champion the cause of other churches, so if part of that has resulted in churches doing music differently within their church, I think we’re fulfilling our mission.”

Beloved Artists, Fresh Sounds

While some may question the finances of the Australian megachurch, there is no doubt its music is revered by its audiences at home and abroad.

Sonically, the church pushes the envelope of what worship music can be, from the hits of its early talents like Geoff Bullock and Darlene Zschech to its innovative Sydney music machine where a community of songwriters produce new songs while mentoring the next generation of worship superstars. One of its groups, Hillsong United, even calls its sound “almost uncomfortable in its uniqueness.” And Christians worldwide can’t get enough.

Noted Hillsong Worship member Brooke Ligertwood, known professionally as Brooke Fraser. Photo by Hillsong Worship/Matt Johnson

In October 2019, one of the church’s groups, Hillsong Worship, released its first studio album in 15 years, Awake, before embarking on a US tour that reached more than 200,000 people over 17 dates. The album has so far been a critical and chart success, hitting #1 on Billboard Christian Albums chart, and peaking at #3 on the Australian ARIA charts.

Reviewers call the album “refreshing” and gush about its lyrics – something Hillsong is often given props for. “Singing of revival and renewal, this album offers a wave of new creativity in word and sound for the global church,” The Christian Beat writes.

Brooke Ligertwood is one of the group’s lead singers and songwriters. In 2018 she won a Grammy for Hillsong with her song “What a Beautiful Name” winning the Best Contemporary Christian Music Song category.

Also known as Brooke Fraser, the New Zealand-born singer’s career had already taken off after being signed with Sony as a mainstream pop artist, when she moved to Sydney and started attending Hillsong. She got involved with the church’s music arm and then, for the next 15 years made records and toured as Brooke Fraser whilst also writing for and leading at Hillsong.

“It was never ‘either or’, it was both,” she says. “I think that’s the big message for artists and for the church – artists need not be afraid of digging into community, and the church need not be wary of being a breeding ground for creativity that goes beyond it.”

The group is set to tour the states again in mid-2020, hitting venues like Los Angeles arena The Forum, and New York’s Kings Theatre.

The Power of Worship

Back at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom, there’s only room left in the nosebleeds for late arrivals. The tiered, three-floor venue, which last week hosted Extreme Championship Wrestling, and has upcoming bookings for Thom Yorke and Tory Lanez, is packed to its 2,200 seated capacity.

As the songs throb through what, today, is a church, everyone is on their feet. There are lyrics on all three big screens behind the band on stage, but no one seems to need them as they join in chorus to the new Hillsong Worship song “King of Kings.”

“It’s not just a lyric, it’s a declaration of the God we serve,” the flannel-shirt wearing pastor grins to the crowd, which cheers and snaps its fingers in approval. “Go ‘head!” one woman whoops. It’s clear that the predominantly young, diverse congregants are genuinely moved by the music.

For Candace Boahene, the stylish young woman in the seat next to me, the worship part of the service is even more than that. It’s a chance to cry out to her god and to thank him for all he’s done for her. She started visiting Hillsong after making friends at Columbia University who attended. “What I love about Hillsong is they write music that is driven for Christ, they write their own lyrics and that means a lot because God is using them in such melodic ways to touch people.

“Music touches people, when you hear something, that beat can resonate with you or move you to do something. That could be for good, that could be sometimes not for good, but it inspires you to tap into something greater than you, and that’s the beautiful thing about worship music.”

Hillsong NYC chief operating officer and pastor Tolu Badders calls the music “vital” to what the church does on a Sunday. She calls the weekly production lift “a huge undertaking” involving rehearsals, creative team nights, training, and production meetings, but says “it’s mostly volunteers who make it happen.” “Worship is a key component of our relationship with Jesus,” she explains.

She points to Hillsong musicians like Brooke Ligertwood and Joel Houston as writing worship music that is both raw and authentic in its search and struggle to connect with God, something that the global music market and the younger generation has clearly appreciated. “It’s incredible to see how that’s had a global impact and it starts with individually humble, true people.”

Despite this, Ligertwood herself isn’t sure that worship music will ever fully break into the mainstream. She points out that it’s the only genre defined by its lyric and its aim, rather than its sound. For those seeking or open to God then this may appeal to them, she says. But it’s not necessarily what every person is looking for when they open their music apps or turn on the radio.

“For that reason, I think crossover worship songs or projects will be more like shooting stars than LA traffic. And I think there’s something beautiful about that.“