Chris Tomlin Burning Lights

TobyMac Eye On It

When Chris Tomlin released his highly-anticipated new studio album, Burning Lights (sixstepsrecords), January 8, he made Christian music history when the album debuted at the top of the Billboard 200, scanning more than 72,000 units. The feat marked the award-winning songwriter’s first trip to the top of the Billboard 200 chart and only the fourth time in history that a Christian music album has entered the chart at No. 1.

The exciting news is that this is the second time in less than a year that a Christian album has topped the all-genre Billboard chart. In late August, TobyMac took the coveted top spot with 69,000 sales of his album Eye On It (ForeFront/EMI). Prior to that, Christian music hasn’t visited No. 1 since LeAnn Rimes made it there in 1997.

Rimes’ You Light Up My Life: Inspirational Songs–which featured mainly inspirational faire but was categorized under “Christian/Gospel” and included covers of “Amazing Grace,” “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” and even “The Star Spangled Banner”–was only the second Christian album in history to top the Billboard 200, following Bob Carlisle’s Butterfly Kisses (Shades of Grace), thanks to the success of the mega title track. Personally, after researching this info, I found it odd that the success of “I Can Only Imagine” never propelled MercyMe into the top spot.

Tomlin and TobyMac weren’t the only faith-based musicians holding their own among their secular counterparts within the past year. In 2012, new albums from Tenth Avenue North and Lecrae started inside the Top 10 as well. In 2011, industry insiders predicted Casting CrownsCome to the Well (Beach Street/Reunion) would land at No. 1, but the band just narrowly missed the top spot as Adele ended up claiming No. 1 that week.

I don’t know about you, but this news fires me up! Landing on top of the all-genre charts puts Christian music in the spotlight, and people (other artists included) are beginning to take notice. The achievement opened media doors for Toby and seems to be doing the same for Tomlin with his recent appearance on “Fox and Friends” last week. There are very few artists in Christian music with the momentum it takes to land at No. 1 on the Billboard  200. So what’s the secret? Though not all-inclusive, here are my thoughts behind how Tomlin and Toby landed at the top…

1. Relentless Touring

Chris Tomlin and TobyMac are two of the hardest-working acts in Christian music. They are on the road constantly, and staying in front of people is one of the most powerful tools artists have in their arsenal. And these two keep it large and high-profile. Tomlin kicked off the year performing in front of over 60,000 college students at Passion 2013 for four days. His Burning Lights tour with Kari Jobe and Louie Giglio begins next month and runs through the beginning of May, hitting large churches and mid-size venues across the country. Meanwhile, Toby not only did a string of Eye On It headlining dates soon after the album released last year, but he created the “Hits Deep Tour” that took him to arenas alongside an A-list line-up, not to mention that he’s currently headlining Winter Jam 2013.

2. Powerful Press

In addition to Christian outlets, both artists have received a considerable amount of high-profile coverage in the secular media, and their debuts at No. 1 only fuel that heightened coverage. Press breeds additional press, and high-profile outlets like “Fox & Friends,” The L.A. TimesThe New York TimesUSA Today and Billboard magazine are taking notice, exposing both artists to a wider, more diverse audience.

3. Radio Play

In preparation for their album releases, both Tomlin and Toby saw their singles rise at radio. Choosing the right first single from a new album to send to radio is key. It can determine the fate of an album. Fortunately, Toby’s “Me Without You” became an instant hit, while Tomlin’s anthem “Whom Shall I Fear? (God of Angel Armies)” is already in the Top 10 on three different charts and poised to land at the top spot. Long known for crafting radio-friendly songs, both artists have a solid history at radio that has laid a great foundation for them.

4. Timing is Everything

As with anything, this is perhaps the most important theory to keep in mind. Everything boils down to release week. It’s all a numbers game. Often, it’s hard to predict when other big albums will be releasing the same week, but it often bodes well for a Christian album if artists can release on weeks secular artists like Taylor Swift aren’t bowing new albums. It’s all about the competition and the buzz that’s been generated for the album prior to release. In Tomlin’s case, the largest Passion gathering in history had taken place the week before, where attendees could purchase the album for only $7 prior to release. It was a brilliant marketing move that likely propelled the success of the album.

Tomlin and Toby’s achievements simply prove that consumers dollars do count. Every Christian album legally purchased is a step in the right direction. 2013 holds a long list of new releases slated to bow. However, few artists already have the ingredients brewing to make it to the top of the Billboard  200. Perhaps Skillet‘s highly-anticipated project releasing this spring has the greatest potential to join their ranks? Only time will tell.

Why do you think these artists landed on top? What new albums slated to release in 2013 do you think have a chance at topping the Billboard 200 chart?