HEARING THE HILLSONG SOUND:
MUSIC, MARKETING, MEANING AND BRANDED SPIRITUAL
EXPERIENCE AT A TRANSNATIONAL MEGACHURCH
Thomas J. Wagner
A dissertation submitted in partial fulfilment of
the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
Royal Holloway University of London
Declaration of Authorship
I Thomas Wagner hereby declare that this thesis and the work presented in it is
entirely my own. Where I have consulted the work of others, this is always clearly
Date: 12 September 2013
Thomas J. Wagner
All Rights Reserved
As I write this, the ‘i’ and ‘page down’ buttons on my laptop are falling off, a
testament to the amount of typing that has gone into the preparation of this thesis
over the past four years. There would have been nothing to type, though, without
the help of my family, friends and colleagues along the way.
Firstly, I am very lucky and grateful to have had Henry Stobart as my PhD
supervisor. Thanks, Henry, for your perfect mix of insight, patience and gentle yet
firm reminders to ‘write about the music from time to time’. Also, thanks to Julie
Brown, Katherine Ellis and Tina K. Ranmarine for helpful comments along the
A special thanks to Tanya Riches is in order. Tanya’s Masters thesis provided the
first major ‘aha!’ moment for this project, and her continued willingness to share
ideas and insights during almost three years of Skype sessions and Facebook
messages has proven invaluable. Many thanks to Monique Ingalls, Carolyn
Landau, James Butterworth and Laryssa Whittaker for their comments on some
rather horrific drafts of this thesis, but just as importantly for being fun to hang
out with. Finally, thanks to the numerous acquaintances, colleagues and friends
that I have met at conferences and come to know through our shared networks and
whose ideas and insights have helped shape what follows.
I am indebted to the friends and acquaintances I made during my fieldwork at
Hillsong Church London, who have very generously shared their ideas, opinions
and in some cases, life stories while patiently submitting to formal interviews and
informal pestering. I am grateful to George Aghajanian, the General Manager of
Hillsong Church, for taking time out of his busy schedule to Skype with me and
also to review a draft of this thesis. Any inaccuracy, misconception or general
silliness contained in what follows is mine and mine alone.
Of course, none of this would have been possible without the unwavering love
and support of my parents, Janet and Richard Wagner. As I get older, I realise
how inordinately lucky I am to have you as role models. I hit the parental jackpot.
I love you both.
Finally, this trip would have been no fun without someone to share it with. That
someone is my partner Katerina Paramana. Thank you, I love you and remember:
You are Pookie to me.
This thesis is an ethnographic exploration of the ways that music and marketing
work in the pursuit and production of spiritual experience within a ‘Christian’
lifestyle for members of Hillsong Church London, the European Hub of the
Australian transnational Hillsong Church, whose music is inseparable from its
message. Specifically, it focuses on branding as a co- and re-productive method of
organising, patterning and communicating information in a media-saturated
consumer culture. While branding is often seen as a top-down, externally focused
method of advertising, I argue that, for members of Hillsong London, the church’s
branding is integral to their experience of self.
As a basis for this argument, this thesis posits the brand as an ‘educational’
resource that relies on participation and agency to ‘teach’. Participants seek the
sacred experience found in a ‘Christian’ lifestyle, and the brand provides the
material for this and a cultural frame in which to do it. Music is an ‘associative
enhancer’ for the brand, tying its musicians, media and message to its values.
Embodied values are central to the production and maintenance of lifestyle.
Therefore, this thesis questions ‘the value of values’. The Hillsong brand is the
discursive framework within which cultural action unfolds and is experienced, but
one that is not ‘value neutral’. The church provides the branded material and
cultural context in which the participant’s sacred experience of self unfolds.
However, this requires the participant to want to ‘do the work’ to properly
understand, and ultimately embody, the values associated with the brand.
Therefore, the brand exerts a kind of Gramscian hegemony that channels the
participants’ agency toward the reproduction of the Hillsong brand’s value
system. Modern branding is perceived as valuable to all participants, yet the
methods with which it directs individual agency raise important questions related
to the modern production of social order.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS IV ABSTRACT VI LIST OF FIGURES VII LIST OF TABLES VII INTRODUCTION -‐ MUSIC, MARKETING AND MEANING 1 CHAPTER 1 -‐ HILLSONG IN ITS SOCIO-‐HISTORICAL CONTEXT 25 PART I -‐ THE EVOLVING CULTURAL CONTEXT OF BRANDS AND BRANDING PART II -‐ THE RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE ECONOMY PART III -‐ HILLSONG CHURCH CONCLUSION 25 40 48 60 CHAPTER 2 -‐ IN – BUT NOT OF – THE (CHRISTIAN) CULTURE INDUSTRY 62 PART I -‐ THE CHRIST/CULTURE CONUNDRUM PART II -‐ DARLENE ZSCHECH: FACE OF THE HILLSONG BRAND PART III -‐ WORSHIPPING THE WORSHIPPER: FANS, DISCIPLES AND THE DANGER OF AUTHENTICITY CONCLUSION 65 72 CHAPTER 3 -‐ ‘OF ONE ACCORD’: BRAND IDENTITY AND PARTICIPATION 89 PART I -‐ ‘OF ONE ACCORD’: COMMUNITY, STYLE AND BRAND IDENTITY PART II -‐ MUSIC, BRAND RECOGNITION AND EXPECTATION PART III -‐ THE HILLSONG BRAND(ED) COMMUNITY: ‘A CERTAIN TYPE OF PEOPLE’ CONCLUSION 90 106 111 115 CHAPTER 4 -‐ THE ‘HILLSONG SOUND’: HEARING PLACE IN THE HILLSONG NETWORK 117 PART I -‐ CREATING THE ‘HILLSONG SOUND’ PART II -‐ EXPERIENCING THE ‘HILLSONG SOUND’ PART III -‐ LONDON CALLING? ‘WELCOME HOME’ CONCLUSION 121 135 139 141 CHAPTER 5 -‐ LEARNING TO LISTEN 145 PART I -‐ ETHICAL LISTENING: LIFESTYLE AND LEARNING TO HEAR GOD PART II -‐ EMBODYING THE BRAND PART III -‐ DOING THE WORK TO EMBODY THE BRAND CONCLUSION 148 158 162 166 CONCLUSION -‐ MUSIC, MARKETING AND MEANING: PROBLEMS AND POTENTIAL 169 REFERENCES 188 80 86 viii
List of Figures
The Dominion Theatre foyer
The Dominion Theatre auditorium
The Cover of the Hillsong LIVE album God Is Able
List of Tables
Hillsong’s yearly production and events calendar
Introduction - Music, Marketing and Meaning
When you emerge from the Underground station on the northeast corner of
Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street in London’s West End, the first thing
you see is the giant golden statue of Freddie Mercury that glowers down over the
entrance to the Dominion Theatre. Fist held high in the iconic pose he struck so
many times during Queen’s glory days, the statue has welcomed theatre-goers to
the jukebox musical We Will Rock You since the show opened on 14 May 2002. A
roaring review of the iconic British band Queen’s hits, We Will Rock You uses no
small amount of quasi-religious imagery to mythologize rock and roll, the apostles
Queen and the saviour Freddie Mercury.
Constructed in 1928, the Dominion is the West End’s largest theatre, boasting a
seating capacity of 2,182. Its architecture suggests a mix of a theatre, jukebox and
church. Replete with lush burgundy carpeting and audacious gold railings, its
lobby recalls both the luxury of high end, old-time theatre going, the outlandish
aesthetic of many of Freddie Mercury’s outfits and the opulence of an Eastern
Orthodox church (Figure 0.1). Inside the theatre, one is struck by the stained glass
arches that frame the box seats (Figure 0.2).
Figure 0.1: The Dominion Theatre foyer © English Heritage.NMR
Figure 0.2: The Dominion Theatre auditorium © English Heritage.NMR
We Will Rock You runs six nights a week in the Dominion. On the seventh day,
while the rock ‘n’ roll faithful rest, a different group of devotees celebrates
another kind of dominion: the dominion of God. At six o’clock on Sunday
morning, a sixteen-wheel lorry pulls up to the side entrance of the theatre, and a
crew of bleary-eyed volunteers sets to work. This crew is the ‘bump’ team from
Hillsong London, a branch of the Australian transnational church Hillsong Church
that has held its Sunday services in the Dominion Theatre since 2005.1 The
Hillsong Church London began as the London Christian Life Centre in 1992, becoming Hillsong
London in 1999. After spending time moving between various London university halls and West
End theatres, in 2002 it took up residency at the Mermaid Conference and Events Centre. Hillsong
London has held services at the Dominion Theatre since January 2005.
services they are setting up for will be every bit as spectacular and professionally
produced as the We Will Rock You show.2 Dry ice will fill the stage. Strobe lights
will flash. The music will be loud and rocky. Indeed, to a layperson that saw the
musical on Saturday evening and returned for church on Sunday morning, the
main difference he or she might notice is that the Hillsong logo is projected at the
top left of the theatre’s proscenium stage.
On Sundays, Freddie Mercury’s statue literally casts a shadow over the entrance
to the day’s proceedings at the Dominion, and his figurative presence continues to
be felt once inside. One can sense him, roaming about the lobby, mingling with
the crowd, always just in the background. In the upper foyer, for example, pictures
of Mercury’s early years peek from behind signs for Hillsong’s ‘Ask Me’ and
‘Living in London’ team stations. The theatre’s merchandising stands, used during
the week to sell all things We Will Rock You, serve as the church’s cloakrooms. In
turn, the t-shirts that identify the Hillsong team members who work those stations
are juxtaposed against the We Will Rock You and Queen t-shirts hanging just
behind them. This semiotic mash-up contributes to a particular experience of
church. In the Dominion Theatre on a Sunday, different values collide,
intermingle, clash, embrace and enhance each other in a negotiation of meanings
and identities. It is a (post)modern pastiche, a place where music, marketing and
meaning coalesce alongside the search for sacred experience.
Research Questions - Music, Marketing, Meaning and ‘The New Paradigm’
Hillsong London’s presence in the Dominion Theatre is a colourful example of
the ‘New Paradigm’ of evangelical Christianity that has ascended to global
prominence since the 1960s, although its antecedents can be traced back to the
beginnings of Protestantism (Mall 2012; Moore 1994; Nekola 2009; Twitchell
2007). Donald E. Miller popularized the idea of the ‘New Paradigm Church’ in his
1997 book Reinventing American Protestantism. In it, Miller highlighted the ways
in which evangelical Christian organisations are reaching people by appealing to a
In fact, the Dominion Theatre actually shares some of Hillsong’s own equipment.
‘postmodern’ sense of meaning-making. Through popular music, innovative
worship styles, informal dress, non-traditional church buildings and an emphasis
on experience, these churches convey a powerful sense of life’s purpose in
culturally appropriate ways. The ‘culturally appropriate’ method of meaningmaking on which I focus in this thesis is branding.
The ‘New Paradigm’ is a broad rubric that describes the ‘seeker sensitive’ (Miller
1997; Sargeant 2000; Trueheart 1996) approach that churches and religious
organizations have increasingly adopted since the 1960s. In contrast to established
denominations that have struggled to appeal to the post-1945 ‘baby-boom’
generation, whose members lack the ‘brand loyalty’3 of their parents, New
Paradigm churches ‘have succeeded in responding to the therapeutic,
individualistic and anti-establishment themes of contemporary culture’ (Aldridge
2007: 126). Worship at these churches uses contemporary music and language,
and often focuses on physical and emotional experiences (Albrecht 1999). The
preaching is rooted in the Bible, and stems from an evangelical Protestant
tradition in which the clergy are often not formally trained.4 New Paradigm
churches encompass a range of forms, the most prominent of which is the
megachurch, which is defined as one that attracts at least 2,000 worshippers a
week (Aldridge 2007: 127). Thanks to the Internet, these churches have radically
expanded the notion of the ‘local church’. Many ‘megachurches’ are now more
Here, I am using the term ‘brand’ somewhat interchangeably with ‘denomination’, what James
Twitchell and Mara Einstein have called ‘brands of faith’ (Einstein 2008; Twitchell 2007: 86-87).
The argument popularized by Miller (1997), that has been taken up by ‘supply side’ theorists of
religion (e.g. Stark and Bainbridge 1986; Starke and Finke 2000), is that the ‘shopping mentality’
of the baby boom generation, at least in the United States, has resulted in the ascendancy of ‘niche’
religious organizations, most visibly megachurches, that cater to religious consumers who are
‘increasingly buying spiritual experiences… rather than accepting their father’s religious
Oldsmobile’ (Twitchell 2007: 87). The synergy between the terms ‘brand’ and ‘denomination’
becomes more apparent if one understands that a brand is essentially how a story is told (or
packaged). In this view, Protestant Christian denominations such as the Baptists, Methodists and
Presbyterians, as well as other denominations such as the Catholics (the Catholic church is often
referred to as one of the world’s most durable brands), tell essentially the same story but in
different ways (e.g. with different liturgies). One of the arguments in this thesis is that these oldline denominations are coming under pressure from new, more mobile and responsive branded
religious organizations such as Hillsong, which are themselves denominations in function if not in
However, many of the largest of these churches do offer training in the form of literature,
seminars, conferences and even their own colleges. For example, Hillsong College offers courses
in pastoral leadership, worship music, dance, television & media, production and a Bachelor of
Contemporary Ministry. The college’s focus on arts and media-related offerings is telling not only
of Hillsong’s communicative focus, but is also reflective of the dominant communicative methods
of modern evangelical Christianity.
accurately described as ‘network churches’ as they operate in several locations,
either as semi-autonomous entities that hold their own weekly services, as in
Hillsong’s model, or by ‘simulcasting’ services from a central location to several
auxiliary locations. Individual homes can also be thought of as part of the
Network church, as people who do not attend a physical church location because
of proximity or other reasons can still participate in the service via live Internet
feed (Campbell 2005; 2010).
Although New Paradigm churches are often described as ‘non-denominational’,
this is a misnomer in two ways. The first is that, while such churches do not
necessarily have a denominational title in their name (Sargeant 2000), the
practices of most evangelical Christian churches are rooted in the denominational
upbringings of their founders. For example, Hillsong founder Brian Houston’s
father was a Pentecostal minister, and Brian Houston was himself the head of the
Assemblies of God in Australia from 1997 until 2000, during which time he led
the move to rebrand it as Australian Christian Churches. The second is that many
of the largest New Paradigm churches have taken over the functions of the
denominations that they are supplanting (Sargeant 2000). For example, Hillsong
provides clergy training at its college, educational resources for other churches in
the form of podcasts, workshops, books, etc., and perhaps most importantly, a
musical liturgy. The self-referential nature of these resources leads to a situation
where the church brand is, in essence, the ‘new paradigm’ denomination.
Lifestyle, Branding, and the Value of Values
Miller claims that ‘postmodern’ meaning-making (of which music is an important
component) is the appeal of New Paradigm churches. This is useful when thinking
about the ways that music, marketing and (sacred) meaning are intertwined with
lifestyle and the culture industries. In consumer culture, lifestyle is a way of
connecting with Truth. This is done through participation in the culture industries,
which provide the material for the ‘prosumption’ (Ritzer and Jurgenson 2010;
Toffler 1980) and the facilitation of the cultural context in which we experience
As will be evident throughout this thesis, Hillsong is a lifestyle brand, and
lifestyle and branding are inseparable from ideas of value and values. The culture
industries understand and exploit the fact that values are valuable. An important
consideration, then, is how values are marketed and experienced. An example of
how marketing ‘adds value’ to an experience is shown in an experiment
conducted by researchers from the California Institute of Technology and
Stanford University in 2007 (Plassmann et al. 2007). In the experiment, subjects
were asked to sample and rate the taste of what they believed were five different
Cabernet Sauvignons. Each wine was identified by a price tag, with the difference
between the lowest and highest costing wine being 900% (either $5 and $45 or
$10 and $90). Unbeknownst to the subjects, though, the lowest and highest
costing wines were the same wine – the only difference was the price tag.
Although the wines were identical, subjects reported a higher experience of
pleasantness after consuming the sample labelled with the higher price. This was
confirmed by MRI images, which showed increased activity in the Medial
Orbitofrontal Cortex (mOFC), the part of the brain linked to behavioural
pleasantness ratings for things like odours, tastes and music (ibid.: 1052). In other
words, the expectation of a better experience actually produced it. The more
expensively labelled wine was believed to be more valuable, and experienced as
The interplay between value and marketing in consumer culture becomes clearer
when one contrasts the marketing and critical perspectives of modern branding
(Carah 2010). Marketers view branding as co-productive activity that generates
The term ‘prosumption’ has several meanings in different disciplines. Here, I am using it
primarily as Ritzer and Jurgenson use it in their 2010 article ‘Production, Consumption,
Prosumption: The nature of capitalism in the age of the digital consumer’. In it, they claim that
Web 2.0 commerce is based on consumers engaging in activities that produce value for companies
without compensation. This may be the case; certainly the mechanisms through which Web 2.0
marketing and commerce that Ritzer and Jurgenson identify are in play in this study. However, the
authors’ insistence on focusing on economic compensation at the expense of other types of
compensators (although they acknowledge that most prosumers ‘like’ and ‘enjoy’ their ‘unpaid’
labour) fails to appreciate other types of value that this thesis focuses on, and, I would argue, are
the important types of value implicated in the hegemonic brandscape (Carah 2010).
value for all parties. For example, according to the Ford Motor Company, its
advertising campaign for its 2013 Fiesta was ‘entirely user-generated’.
Participants were provided a Ford Fiesta, fuel and insurance for eight months. In
return, they were expected to blog, tweet and post on YouTube (presumably
positively) about their experiences of the car (Heine 2013). From a marketer’s
view, this ‘Web 2.0’ type of campaign is a win/win endeavour: participants derive
value by getting a free car, fuel and insurance, and Ford derives value in the form
of user-generated advertising content for a fraction of the cost of a traditional
advertising campaign. More importantly, though, Ford has the opportunity to
generate long-term value for the brand by integrating its products into the
everyday lives of consumers.
While the marketing perspective posits Web 2.0 marketing as beneficial for all
parties involved, the critical perspective on branding asserts that, although Web
2.0 marketers claim to afford participants creative freedom, this freedom is
illusory because the closed nature of the brand delimits the ways in which branded
material can be used and understood (Arvidsson 2006; Carah 2010; Lury 2004).
Derived from critical theory, the critical perspective understands Web 2.0
marketing as re-inscribing capital ever more deeply into our cultural fabric and
consciousness (Carah 2010). Contrary to the marketing perspective, the critical
perspective holds that participants do not create the brandscape through their
actions. Rather, their agency only re-creates a cultural context that delimits the
range of meanings and uses afforded to them by the brand.
The question, then, is ‘What is the value of marketing?’ How do marketing,
expectations and experience interact? What I wanted to know when I began this
study was how Hillsong’s branding ‘added value’ to the worship experience. For
example, did worshipers ‘find God’ more easily, or have a more intense worship
experience, when engaging with Hillsong’s music rather than other music? Did
the context matter? For example, what was the experience during the praise and
worship section of a service compared to listening on the Tube or in the car? The
contrasting views of marketing detailed above also raise questions of agency. On
the one hand, participants derive value from their actions. On the other, the
brandscape inscribes a pre-existing set of values. A further question that underlies
this thesis, then, is: If branding is a method of communicating in consumer
culture, what values and assumptions does this method of communicating bring
with it? These questions are not easily untangled. However, I hope this study
offers a new perspective for addressing them. In the remainder of this
introduction, then, I offer an overview of the existing scholarship on music,
marketing and meaning. I then give a chapter overview that provides an outline
for reading this thesis.
Bringing branding into Ethnomusicology
This study draws, broadly speaking, on three fields: Music Studies, Marketing
Studies, and Religious Studies. While there have been several recent studies of
music and branding,6 branding and religion,7 and countless treatises throughout
These have tended to be from the marketing perspective, and tend to focus on how music and
sound can be used to create an aural brand identity. Strategies can range from associating a brand
with a musician or style of music, to developing a company sound logo like Apple’s startup
‘Booooong’, to fine-tuning the sound of a BMW door closing. Recent examples include Audio
Branding: Brands, Sound and Communication (Bronner and Hirt 2009), Sounds Like Branding:
Using the Power of Music to Turn Customers Into Fans (Lusensky 2010), and Brand Sense: How
to Build Powerful Brands Through Touch, Taste, Smell, Sight, & Sound (Lindstrom 2005).
Another genre of brand management book draws identity management lessons from music stars
like Madonna and KISS. Examples of this include Brands that Rock: What Business Leaders Can
Learn from the World of Rock and Roll (Blackwell and Stephan 2004) and Brand Like a Rock
Star: Lessons From rock ‘n’ roll to Make Your Business Rich and Famous (Jones 2012). While
there are several excellent sociological treatments of branding (Arvidsson 2006; Lash and Lury
2007; Lury 2004; Moor 2007), sociological treatments that focus on music are rare, although two
recent books, Nicholas Carah’s (2010) Pop Brands: Branding, Popular Music, and Young People
and Kristin J. Lieb’s (2013) Gender, Branding, and the Modern Music Industry: The Social
Construction of Female Popular Music Stars suggest that the subject is getting more attention in
relation to popular music. The only attention by an ethnomusicologist to branding that I am aware
of is Tim Taylor’s (2010) The Sounds of Capitalism: Advertising, Music, and the Conquest of
Culture, which traces the development of the role of music in advertising in America in the
twentieth century. However, it is not until the final two chapters (from the 1990s onward) that he
begins to use the term, reflecting its incorporation into popular discourse during that period.
Again, these tend to be written from either a ‘practical’ marketing perspective or an ‘analytical’
sociological perspective. The former tends to note that both successful companies and successful
religions are made up of participants who share an intense corporate culture and set of values. For
example, in Primal Branding: Create Zealots for Your Brand, Your Company, And Your Future
(2006), Patrick Hanlon posits a seven-piece ‘primal code’ of corporate communication that is
shared by successful companies and religious organizations, the idea being that branding taps into
the very core of human sociality. Similarly, Jesper Kunde’s Corporate Religion: Building a Strong
Company Through Personality and Corporate Soul (2002) uses case studies of brands like Virgin
and Harley-Davidson to find the 'right formula’ to create a ‘brand religion’. Because of the ethical
connotations of ‘branding’, religious organizations have been slower to adopt branding, at least in
name. However, as shown by Phil Cooke’s Branding Faith: Why some Churches and Nonprofits
Impact Culture and Others Don’t (2008), as well as a proliferation of church branding
consultancies, this has changed in the new millennium. Sociologically-oriented books from
the ages on religion and music, there seems to have been no attempt to study
music, marketing and (religious) meaning as a single rubric. This is surprising
given the major roles of both marketing and popular music in the spread of
evangelical Christianity throughout history (Moore 1994; Nekola 2009; Sargeant
2000; Twitchell 2007). This thesis begins to address this omission, positing the
experience of music, marketing and meaning as a gestalt.
Music, Marketing and Experience – A Short History
Music, marketing and religion are all associational webs of meaning spun from
temporal, spatial and sensory experiences. Robin Sylvan argues, in his crosscultural study of the religious dimensions of popular music, that meaning is
created in both music and religion through the interaction of multiple facets of
experience, including the physiological, psychological, socio-cultural,
semiological, virtual, ritual and spiritual (Sylvan 2002: 19-44). This is also true of
brands and branding, as several recent studies attest. For example, Lindstrom
(2005) emphasizes sound’s role in sensory branding (physiological), Fournier
(1998) treats brands as relationship partners (psychological), Muñiz and O’Guinn
(2001) explore brand communities (sociocultural and ritual), Manning (2010)
focuses on brand semiotics (semiological), Book (2005) analyses virtual world
branding (virtual), and Muñiz and Schau (2005) delve into religiosity in the Apple
Newton brand community (spiritual). What this shows is that music, marketing
Religious Studies have tended to focus on the way that religious organizations use marketing to
appeal to consumers in a ‘religious marketplace’. This includes Finke and Stark’s The Churching
of America 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (2005), R. Laurence
Moore’s Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture (1994), and James B.
Twitchell’s Shopping for GOD®: How Christianity Went From In Your Heart to In Your Face
(2007). Mara Einstein’s Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age (2008) is a
sociological attempt to show the interconnectedness of ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ goods and their
respective markets. Einstein’s insight, gleaned from celebrities such as Oprah and churches like
Kabbalah, is that the boundaries between the ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ are collapsing in popular
culture. This may or may not be the case (c.f. Gauthier and Martikainen 2013), but the problem
with Einstein’s work is that her almost exclusive focus on the similarities between the marketing
techniques used by the organizations and personalities she studies (perhaps understandably, as she
formerly worked in marketing before coming to academia) glosses over more important insights
into meaning-making and subjectivity that are implicit in her work. Despite this, Brands of Faith is
useful because it makes clear that everyone is using the same marketing techniques with the same
degree of sophistication.
and religion all access the same basic human sensory and communicative
machinery through which we make meaning.
This means that any serious exploration of the relationship between music,
marketing and meaning needs to be interdisciplinary. Ethnomusicology is well
placed to do this because it is inherently fluid, seemingly unafraid to draw from
any number of cognate fields in search of musical understanding. What makes it
particularly suited for this study is that, unlike classical Durkheimian sociology
that seeks to separate ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ experiences, ethnomusicology
understands action and meaning as part of a larger holistic ontology. This
orientation is seen in the ethnomusicological studies of so-called ‘ecstatic’
religions that seek sacred experiences through ‘trance’ (Becker 2004; Kapchan
2007; Jankowsky 2010; Rouget 1985). While trance states are often sought and
achieved in rituals that participants might class as ‘special’ or ‘set apart’ from
daily life, ethnomusicology’s focus on culture as a frame for experiences helps
collapse, or at least problematize, the distinction between the ‘sacred’ and
‘secular’. In other words, even ‘special’ events take place within worldviews that
render them part of a holistic experience of self. From this perspective, ‘trance’
becomes just another normal part of life, what the culture industry would term a
It is here that we find a gap in the ethnomusicological literature. While the studies
above do well in presenting the interrelated nature of ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’
experience, they do so almost exclusively in contexts that, while certainly
influenced by capitalism and (global) marketplaces, are not as thoroughly
interpenetrated by the culture industries as the present study. In the above studies,
if musicians engage in the ‘marketplace’ it is often seen as a separate sphere of
activity. They may perform or record and sell their music as a commodity, but
these activities are separate from the ‘real’ spiritual activities that take place in a
different sphere. While this may not be as cut and dried as it appears, the basic
point is that in the above cases, any ‘marketing’ is outwardly directed. In contrast,
this thesis understands marketing as a fundamental part of the sacred experience
for participants in consumer culture.
Why is the study of music so important when thinking about marketing, and why
is the study of marketing so important when thinking about music? Marketing is
communication, and as Jakob Lusensky succinctly puts it, ‘Music’s history is also
the story of human communication’ (Lusensky 2010: 13). Both music and
marketing are meaning-full modes of communication that, among other things, are
infused with the potential to persuade and manipulate (Brown 2006: 21-23). This
has been recognized by philosophers since Plato, who, convinced that music had
the power to affect people’s morals and values, worried about what music ‘makes’
us do. The ancient Greeks were also the first to connect musical style to identity
and personality. For example, they believed that each mode had a personality and
named those modes after tribes that exhibited similar traits. Both values and
identity are thus profoundly connected to music and, as we will see, are the roots
of the meaning-making processes of branding.
Furthermore, music is an important tool for marketers because music and memory
are intricately connected (Snyder 2000). Music helps us remember, and
sometimes will not let us forget. For marketers, this is a boon – hence the ubiquity
of the jingle during the mid-part of the twentieth century (Faulkner n.d.; Taylor
2010). Musical ‘earworms’ like jingles access deep neurological processes of
learning and memory, aided by the ubiquity of audio technology. As Oliver Sacks
puts it, one of the consequences of our hyper-mediatized auditory environment is,
‘…the omnipresence of annoyingly catchy tunes… that arrive unbidden and leave
only in their own time – catchy tunes that may, in fact, be nothing more than
advertisements for toothpaste but are, neurologically, completely irresistible’
(Sacks 2007: 53). Jingles are examples of music meant to instil a product’s
‘ideology’ in a consumer, and this takes on perhaps even more serious
connotations when music is deployed for political measures.8 Should we worry?
After all, with the exception of some timeless classics and local markets, the
classic jingle may be ‘dead’ (Anderman 2005). But this is only because, while the
basic human processes through which music ‘makes’ meaning remain unchanged,
National anthems are good examples of music deployed for political purposes. The Nazis were
well aware of the political implications of music. This is why they banned jazz but promoted
Wagner. Music has been used to rally both the left and the right. During the Vietnam War, protest
songs abounded. Yet even a protest song’s meaning is slippery, as evidenced by Ronald Reagan’s
attempted appropriation of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ during the 1984 United States
the cultural basis on which it works and therefore the form these processes take
has changed, and continue to do so. Indeed, if anything, music is potentially more
‘persuasive’ than ever. This is because, today, music is integrated into a marketing
mix that reaches into ever-broader areas of culture. Tracing the evolution of the
jingle therefore provides a vivid picture of how this associational web has been
spun, and provides telling commentary on the relationship between marketplace,
ideology and cultural landscape.
Tim Taylor’s The Sounds of Capitalism: Advertising, Music, and the Conquest of
Culture is a provocative analysis of how music, marketing and meaning have
coalesced during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in America. Throughout
its history, the jingle’s primary function has been to keep a product in the mind of
the consumer (Taylor 2010: 70), although the ways that it has done this have
evolved along with technology and culture. According to Taylor, the jingle’s
distant precursors were the street cries of merchants that were first noted in the
thirteenth century. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the use of the term to
1645 (Taylor 2010: 68-69). Yet it was not until the popular adoption of electronic
mass media, especially the radio and later the television, that the jingle was able to
‘worm’ its way into people’s minds and become a symbiotic piece of cultural
It is both interesting and informative that the (modern) jingle and (modern)
branding originate in the final decades of the nineteenth century. In his history of
advertising in the United States, Frank Presbrey traces the origins of the nonmusical jingle, the verse, to a Sapoliao soap advert from 1876-1877 (Taylor 2010:
69). This is instructive for two reasons: first, it coincides with the beginnings of
brandbuilding (see chapter two). For example Lever (which is now Unilever)
began selling Lever’s Pure Honey soap in 1874 (Olins 2003: 53) and Coca-Cola’s
official history places John Pemberton’s discovery of his secret formula in 1886
(Pendergrast 2000: 7). Second, according to Presbrey, it also coincided with a
decade that saw a massive increase in the awareness of popular songs. Indeed,
Presbrey claimed, ‘Probably in no other ten-year period have we had so many new
songs that nearly everybody knew’ (Presbrey 1929; in Taylor 2010: 69). Although
Taylor does not say why this is (and I have not been able to find a copy of
Presbrey’s book), it is worth noting that, since the mid-nineteenth century,
promotional tunes were intertwined with popular music by either writing new
lyrics to popular tunes or by changing some of the lyrics of existing songs to fit
the brand message (ibid.: 72). These tunes were distributed via sheet music to
consumers, often at the consumers’ request (ibid.). Here we see that marketers
were finding ways to harness consumers’ musical agency a century before
branding and Web 2.0 codified the techniques. Furthermore, Thomas Edison
introduced the phonograph in 1887, heralding the beginning of the recording era.9
Popular music and marketing were thus already well-acquainted at the beginning
of the twentieth century, but it was the widespread adoption of the radio and later
the television that afforded the jingle the avenues it needed to became part of the
vernacular of popular culture in its ‘classic’ form. The direct precursors to the
jingle were the theme songs of the company-sponsored radio programmes that
provided the nightly entertainment to many American households during the
1920s and 1930s. For marketers, the advantage to these theme songs was twofold.
First, they circumvented the era’s strict regulations on advertising. A jingle ‘could
mention a company or product’s name without expressly shilling that product’
(Faulkner n.d.). Second, theme songs were particularly effective because they
were unobtrusive; the perpetually upbeat tunes ‘sugarcoated’ hard-sell messages
‘with a catchy tune’ (Taylor 2010: 73). As this 1931 letter in the NBC Archive
With regard to the use of theme songs, we find that a well-written theme
song is a very valuable asset to many radio hours. These not only serve as a
reminder to listeners of the products which they represent, but they provide
in some instances a means of making an advertisement announcement which
is not only effective but quite inoffensive to listeners. (Taylor 2010: 76-77;
Here we see the early stages of the ‘below the line’ marketing techniques (Carah
2010) that are used today. Marketers of the day used music as a way into
consumers’ hearts and minds, ostensibly through their ears but really through
popular culture. By attaching their messages to enjoyable cultural experiences
The History of the Edison Cylinder Phonograph.
<http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/edhtml/edcyldr.html>; accessed 29 August 2013.
such as serial radio programmes, their products became part of a ritual that
constituted the consumer’s lifestyle, even if the product itself was not immediately
present. Even in the 1920s and 1930s, then, popular music was already established
as a way to make the experience of being sold something enjoyable.
As paid advertising took hold after World War II, stand-alone jingles replaced
theme songs, but many of these retained their predecessors’ strategies of co-opting
already well-known popular music. In addition, during this ‘golden age of the
jingle’, famous songwriters were also hired to pen slogans, and copyrights were
granted to the composers rather than to the company who hired them (Faulkner
n.d.). Furthermore, by the 1950s, both the radio and the TV were staples of the
American household, and through them jingles became part of the musical lingua
franca of the country; so much so that in 1948, NBC asked a dairy company
looking for an advertiser, ‘Through what medium can your slogans become part of
the American Language?’ (Taylor 2010: 90). The answer, of course, was the
jingle. Because of its ubiquity and memorability, advertising executives quickly
realised that the jingle could be ‘educational’ on a massive scale. For example,
Chiquita Banana’s jingle following WWII informed listeners that bananas, being
tropical fruits, shouldn’t be refrigerated and that, furthermore, brown spots were
desirable. Apparently this musical education was effective, as all 513 housewives
the company surveyed after the release of the jingle responded that, indeed, the
refrigerator was the place that bananas ‘should never be kept’ (ibid.: 94). The
Chiquita Banana jingle is such an effective ‘public service announcement’ that it
has been used continuously, with periodic updates to the musical arrangement and
lyrics, to the present day (ibid.: 95).
The post-1950s era saw the gradual dissolution of the jingle ‘proper’ as it evolved
from a largely ‘stand alone’ advertising medium into part of the increasingly
complex marketing matrices of the developing culture industries. This was driven
in large part by changes in the cultural and consumer attitudes that characterized
the 1960s. During this time, consumers were becoming increasingly weary of
advertisers and their motives so that by the 1980s, according to Taylor, even the
‘sweetest’ jingles were seen as ‘too obvious a selling device’ (ibid.: 141). Part of
the problem was the fact that the jingle itself had become so ubiquitous that it had
effectively become a style, if not a genre. The so-called ‘Madison Avenue Choir’
sound, which grew out of the 1950s popular music, had at one time been in step
with consumers’ taste and, more importantly, values. However, against a new
cultural background of rock ‘n’ roll and the countercultural revolution, this shifted
dramatically. Once an asset, the style of the jingle now ‘exposed’ its function as
an advertising vehicle (chapter three of this thesis discusses the links between
style and values).
Advertising music thus had to find new ways of engaging with culture, and
increasingly began to do so by focusing on consumers’ emotions. Besides serving
as a vehicle for the (counter)cultural revolution that made the Madison Avenue
Choir suspect, rock ‘n’ roll also had the effect of putting many Broadway
composers out of business, sending them, perhaps ironically, into jingle
composing (ibid.: 109). These composers sought to bring the emotional range of
the theatre to their work in advertising. Although they faced an uphill battle in
some cases (one lamented that, ‘I can’t get any emotion into Sanka coffee’), the
timing of their move was fortuitous, as marketing, increasingly influenced by
psychology, was already moving away from the informational to the motivational
(ibid.: 107-109; also see chapter one of this thesis for a discussion of this shift).
Marketers began to view music as the mood-setter for television commercials. In
other words, rather than being a distinct medium of communication, music was
now becoming part of a multi-media gestalt. Indeed, a 1960 memorandum from
the J. Walter Thompson Company states that:
…basically, it is felt that music… helps set and maintain the feel or mood of
the commercial. It complements the copy and picture portion while acting as
a unifying cohesive force. It gets under the viewers [sic] skin and helps
make the commercial something more than just ‘a commercial’. (Quoted in
Taylor 2012: 107-108)
Music, then, was becoming increasingly interconnected with other media in a
communicative package aimed squarely at consumers’ emotions. This trend
continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s. It is also important to note that the
Thompson Company’s above-stated goal for the commercial was to be ‘something
more than just “a commercial”’; they wanted to use music to produce an
experience. This presages the current marketing climate, in which entertainment
and marketing are often one and the same experience.
As the counter-cultural youth of the 1960s reached middle age in the 1980s, a new
American ‘ideology of consumption’ took hold. Advances in technology allowed
new methods of data collection through which new types of consumer information
were gathered. This information was used to segment the market into ever-smaller
categories, first through demographics and then later psychographics, which were
in turn used to develop models of ‘consumer lifestyles’. Perhaps the most
influential development of this era was that of the ‘values and lifestyles’ (VALS
1) typology, which used consumer data to market products, often through music,
directly to consumers in a ‘personalized’ way (ibid.:182). As marketers
constructed increasingly sophisticated and individualized consumer profiles,
identity came to the fore. Also during this time, MTV revolutionized (youth)
culture with the music video. In response, brands increasingly aligned their
identities with those of musicians, the most spectacular example being when, in
1984, Pepsi signed the newly-minted MTV superstar Michael Jackson to what
was at the time the largest endorsement deal ever. What is particularly telling is
that Pepsi’s campaign used the age-old technique of changing the lyrics of a
popular tune to fit the product. In this case, Jackson’s monster hit ‘Billie Jean’
was altered to contain Pepsi content with lines such as ‘You’re a whole new
generation’ (ibid.: 185-189). Chapter two of this thesis discusses further the
relationship between Pepsi and Jackson in the context of co-branding’s
relationship to lifestyle.
Since the 1990s, the ‘lifestyle turn’ in marketing has further integrated music,
marketing and meaning into the fabric of consumer culture. Brands and branding
have emerged as significant cultural resources. This is evidenced by music’s
further integration into an ever-expanding entertainment complex of marketing
media and marketing strategies that include product placements, brand extensions,
celebrity usage (rather than endorsements), corporate productions (increasingly,
brands host their own music festivals and produce their own music rather than
simply sponsoring it) and so on (Carah 2010). Perhaps the most striking example
Taylor gives of the jingle’s move ‘below the line’ is Chris Brown’s 2008 top 10
song ‘Forever’, which uses the classic Wrigley’s Doublemint Gum tagline
‘Double your pleasure, double your fun’.10 The song’s video was nominated for
the MTV Video Music Award for Video of the Year, and was later featured in a
commercial with Brown. Apparently, Wrigley had commissioned this song, the
plan being first to introduce the ‘seeded’ song in a ‘non-commercial’ context and
later to tie it into more explicit ‘traditional’ advertising. The marketer responsible
for this is quoted as saying ‘Using entertainment assets to introduce products is a
platform that needed to get exploited. The lines needed to be blurred. When done
correctly, there’s consumer acceptance’ (ibid.: 225).
The evolution of the jingle, then, can be seen as an encapsulation of music’s role
in marketing and meaning creation. It communicates on multiple levels of
experience, connecting us to a product or an organisation’s associated values.
When it is most effective, it does this without our full awareness, yet with our full
participation. It ultimately becomes ‘valuable’, then, because it is material with
which we create, participate in and experience culture.
Context For This Study
Clearly, the connections between music, marketing and (religious) meaning have
long been recognized. However, most studies to date have either used religion as a
metaphor, a ‘business model’ or have viewed marketing as a means to strictly
economic ends, separate from sacred experience. In this thesis, I seek to go further
than this, positing the experience of music, marketing and religious meaning as a
gestalt. I posit marketing as essential to the meaning-making process and seek to
understand brand value – which is derived from marketing – as an intrinsic part of
sacred experience. In other words, I want to prove that an effectively musicallybranded church is akin to the bottle of wine with the higher price tag.11
This is one of the top ten taglines of all time: Ad Age Advertising Century: Top 10 Jingles.
<http://adage.com/article/special-report-the-advertising-century/ad-age-advertising-century-top10-jingles/140154/>; accessed 29 August 2013.
Obviously, the strength of this claim is context dependent, and would take different forms and
function differently according to the church, religion, region, musical expression and so on.
However, the point remains that, because marketing both produces and is material for the
production of subjectivity, it is integral to sacred experiences in a broad range of contexts.
How do I go about this? Studies like Plassmann et al.’s Cabernet Sauvignon
experiment draw their validity from combining an analysis of participants’ selfreports with data gleaned from other methods of data collection, ideally producing
as full a picture of human experience as possible. For a variety of practical and
ethical reasons, though, imaging participants’ brains for this case study was out of
the question.12 I therefore used participant observation (Shelemay 2008) as the
primary method of gathering and interpreting data in the ethnographic process. I
collected the data used in this thesis through three years of participant observation
at Hillsong London, the London branch of Hillsong Church. During this time I
attended weekly church services, served on various volunteer teams, participated
in small ‘connect group’ meetings, attended Hillsong’s night college and attended
several Hillsong conferences and special events. I also conducted semi-structured
face-to-face interviews, a Skype interview and several email interviews, as well as
administering an email questionnaire. My observations and interviews are
supplemented by the study of a variety of media produced by and about the
church, including CDs, videos, websites, blogs, advertisements, books, press and
There is, however, a sizable and expanding (but not uncontroversial – c.f. Du Plessis 2011;
Randall 2009) body of literature from the emerging field of ‘neuromarketing’, which studies
consumers’ sensorimotor, cognitive and affective responses to marketing stimuli. Experiments are
often funded by large companies who have partnered with major academic research institutions or,
in some cases, set up their own labs. Perhaps the most well-known neuromarketing study to date
that specifically addresses brands is McClure et al.’s ‘Neural Correlates of Behavioral Preference
for Culturally Familiar Drinks’, published in 2004 in the journal Neuron and popularized in Read
Montague’s 2007 book Your Brain Is (Almost) Perfect: How We Make Decisions. The study is the
latest update to the ‘Pepsi Challenge’. In it, researchers imaged the brains of participants who were
drinking unmarked cups of either Coca-Cola or Pepsi. They then repeated the process while the
participants were shown images of either the Coca-Cola or Pepsi logo. While the response to the
Pepsi logo was negligible, the MRIs lit up like a Christmas tree when the Coca-Cola logo was
shown. This speaks volumes about the effect of marketing on the consumption experience.
Because of Coca-Cola’s formidable marketing savvy and place in (American) culture, participants
had a far greater brand knowledge of Coca-Cola then of Pepsi, which affected their experiences of
an otherwise unknown beverage. Brand knowledge is an important part of the argument of chapter
three of this thesis.
I should note that by the time this thesis is published, it will already be out of date. Hillsong
moves so quickly and is expanding at such a rate that it would take an army of ethnographers to
keep up. For example, since I began my fieldwork in 2010, the church has overhauled its web
presence several times, added churches in Germany, Copenhagen, Barcelona and New York, and
produced four United and four LIVE albums as well as countless other brand extensions.
Furthermore, several new musicians have emerged, while Darlene Zschech, the subject of chapter
two, has left the church.
The advantage of participatory research is related to one of the main arguments of
this thesis: that participation is ‘educational’ in different, and perhaps deeper,
ways than ‘book’ learning. This understanding of the hermeneutic importance of
experience is at the heart of Jean Lave and Etienne Wegner’s influential theory of
learning called ‘legitimate peripheral participation’. Lave and Wegner (1991)
argue that while most (Western) teaching is done abstractly (i.e. in a classroom),
real or ‘deep’ learning comes through active participation in social processes. For
Lave and Wegner, knowledge is embedded and embodied through experience.
Lave and Wegner’s theory is based on their studies of different types of
apprenticeships in different cultures, including those of Yucatec Mayan midwives
in Mexico, Vai and Gola tailors in Liberia, the U.S. navy quartermasters, butchers
in U.S. supermarkets in the 1970s, and ‘nondrinking alcoholics’ in Alcoholics
Anonymous. In each study, participants learned to perform skills by engaging in
the actual process of trying to perform them; they learned from, and through,
experience. It is no coincidence that apprenticeship (either formal or informal) is
an essential part of experiential religions in a number of cultures (e.g. Jankowski
2010; Kapchan 2007; Quereshi  2006). These traditions seek, among other
things, a visceral encounter with the divine. The ‘affective volitional’ states
(Hirschkind 2001) needed to enter into these encounters are culturally framed, and
acquired through various degrees of enculturation, socialisation, acculturation and
practice (Becker 2004; Rouget 1985).
During my fieldwork, I was the apprentice. Coming from a ‘mildly’ Episcopalian
background in which I was taken to church more to acquire a working knowledge
of the Bible than to achieve a spiritual or ideological education, I was able to
experience first hand (to a degree) the evangelical Christian ‘educational’ process,
beginning as a ‘seeker’ and gradually acquiring knowledge in the beliefs and
practices of the group through participation (both in group settings such as
services, conferences, small group meetings or hangouts to participation through
other means such as recordings, books and DVDs) that would allow me, at least
theoretically, to ‘get saved’.
I should make it clear here that I was not actually ‘seeking’ a conversion, nor did I
find one. I am not an advocate of the ‘radical epistemology’ espoused by Edith
Turner (1993). Ethnomusicological inquiry is a social process, and therefore the
meaning it searches for is inherently unstable and uncertain. Although its focus on
participation is meant to close the hermeneutic divide through experience, the
divide will always be there to some degree, even if the researcher is a ‘native’ of
the (musical) culture he or she is researching. ‘Meaning transfer’ between
participants is never a perfect match. The ethnographic problem of
communication and representation becomes even more complicated when the
audience of the ethnography is taken into consideration. In order to nuance the
conversation, then, I have solicited ‘fieldback’ from my conversation partners.
Anyone who has been interviewed for and quoted in this thesis has received a
draft, and responses have been considered and in some cases included in what
follows.14 On the one hand, the researcher has no choice but to take participants
‘at their word’. Indeed, if they are being honest, what they say is what they mean.
However, I seek to balance this assumption with my own voice, and from time to
time ‘problematize’ some of what is said in order to provide an alternative view.
What I hope emerges is a provocative look into the ways that music, marketing
and meaning function in the development of subjectivities and the inculcation of
values. What follows is an overview of the structure of the thesis, which is
intended to give the reader an initial framework through which to understand the
points contained within it.
A brand never exists only in the here and now. Rather, its meaning is a
condensation of associations distributed across time and space, reaching into the
past, suggesting the future and connecting the ‘global’ and ‘local’. I have
therefore structured this thesis to reflect the ‘temporal-glocality’ of the Hillsong
brand. Each chapter in the main body (chapters two through to five) explores a
different formation of ‘imagined’ and ‘imaginary’ community that constitute
I have anonymized or changed the names of some of my conversation partners upon request.
Others were happy to have their real names used. It should be noted that out of all of my
conversation partners, only Hillsong Church’s General Manager George Aghajanian was
authorized to speak, and should be understood as speaking, for the church. All other conversation
partners are expressing personal opinions.
Hillsong Church that moves, roughly, from the ‘macro’ to the ‘micro’ (or the
‘global’ to the ‘local’) – although I seek throughout to emphasise the
interconnectedness of these constructions. These chapters are bookended by an
introductory chapter that gives socio-historical context for the study, and a
concluding chapter that (re)associates the main themes explored and ruminates on
some of the outcomes and future possibilities of this research.
Chapter one outlines the socio-historical context for this study. I begin by
showing how the brand has evolved from a mark of distinction into a media
object/belief system. Because brand identities are understood in a similar manner
to personal identities in consumer culture, and also because the former and latter
are often intertwined, the best way to understand them is to trace how the social
roles of brands have developed and expanded since the late Victorian period,
particularly in Britain and the United States. In part two of the chapter, I trace the
rise of the megachurch, Christian Popular Music (CPM) and the development of a
‘religious experience economy’. This shows how the use of music, media and
marketing by evangelical Protestants in the United States has developed in concert
with developments in communication technologies. This is significant because the
techniques pioneered in the United States have underpinned the ‘globalisation’ of
evangelical Christianity in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Finally, I give
an example of how the developments outlined above coalesce in Hillsong’s
branded music by examining the ways that music production considerations affect
the development of a Hillsong-branded ‘liturgical calendar’. By examining the
positioning of three types of yearly events – album releases, conferences and
holidays like Easter and Christmas – a picture emerges of the ways in which
branding dictates the form and content of worship at the church.
Chapter two explores the dichotomy that is essential to the development of
Hillsong’s brand identity: the biblical call to be ‘in but not of’ the world cast as a
dialogue between the ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ realms. Evangelical Christians
generally agree that the Bible mandates them to engage with the world –
especially for evangelical purposes – through ‘worldly’ materials such as
language and music but in ‘Christian’ ways. However, how this should be done in
practice is sometimes hotly debated. These arguments often manifest themselves
in the discourses that frame CPM. Against this background, I explore how
Hillsong manages its identity vis-à-vis ‘the world’, especially a mass-mediated,
celebrity-conscious one. Hillsong’s trans-national structure dictates that it uses
mass mediated, ‘celebritized’ images of its musicians to communicate its values
efficiently. However, it must do so in an evangelical Christian context in which
only Jesus is the ‘Famous One’ and celebrity is often viewed with suspicion. The
‘celebrity’ of its musicians must therefore be carefully managed. To do this,
Hillsong promotes its values and message through a group of well-known worship
leaders who are also part of the church’s inner circle. Darlene Zschech, perhaps
Hillsong’s most well-known worship leader, is co-branded with Hillsong – she
and the church are inextricably associated with each other. I argue that the key to
the success of this partnership is a synergy of values. Because Zschech holds the
same values and beliefs that are the core of the Hillsong organisation, she can
represent them authentically. Authenticity is both a quality sought by consumers
and a key part of experiential meaning-making. However, in both commerce and
worship, for authenticity to be recognised and ascribed, the values of the
organisation must be synergetic with those of the participant. Zschech is the
medium that connects participants to the church, and the activities of all
stakeholders are framed by and condensed in the brand. In other words, the brand
provides continuity among otherwise disparate notions of fame and sacred
intention that continually challenge evangelical culture, and therefore can be used
to justify the activities of its participants.
Chapter three explores the evangelical idea(l) of ‘The Body of Christ’, an
‘imagined’ and ‘imaginary’ (Ingalls 2011) community that comprises all the
world’s Christians. In this chapter, I use an ‘ecumenical’ evangelical Christian
event, the 2011 Pentecost celebration at London’s O2 arena, as a case study of
how music is used in the formation of Hillsong’s brand identity. At this event,
Hillsong positioned itself in the Body of Christ by using music in the discursive
frame of the Pentecost story to affirm commonalities between itself and similar
churches while simultaneously positioning itself as unique. In doing so, an image
of Hillsong’s brand(ed) community was formed in the hearts and minds of
participants, which in turn influenced their worship experiences.
I argue that the efficacy of Hillsong’s brand stems from what participants perceive
as ‘special’ about it in comparison to similar churches. While (arguably) all
Christian churches offer the same ‘product’ – a personal relationship with God –
every church also offers a unique experience of community. Because Hillsong’s
community is unique, the worship experience at a Hillsong church is different
from that of any other church because of the idiosyncratic way its community
brands it. Hillsong uses music to build and articulate its brand community to
participants through the signification of social markers such as race, religion,
socioeconomics and nationality, to name a few. In doing so, it adds value to the
worship experience by positioning its community as ‘special’.
Chapter four analyses the global Hillsong Church network. Hillsong brands itself
as part of a global community, but also as a global community in its own right.
While chapter three focused on the ‘Body of Christ’ as a community, this chapter
examines the Hillsong Network – the complex web of people and places that act
in the socio-cultural entity that is Hillsong Church – as a level of community.
Focusing on the prominent London and Australian locations in this network, I
argue that the Hillsong brand transforms physical and virtual spaces into places by
condensing them into an associational package that, through global flows
(Appadurai 1996) and mediated imaginations (Anderson 1983 ), affords
participants meaningful experiences of its music – the ‘Hillsong Sound’.
In positing a branded ‘Hillsong Sound’, I first discuss the problem of global
translation that Hillsong faces, as well as some of the advantages of and
limitations to the use of branding as a method of cross-cultural communication.
After defining ‘sound’ as a primarily discursive construction that posits a
space/place as a musical ‘centre of production’, I note how Hillsong’s music
production process establishes its flagship Australian church as the centre of
production of the music and the brand. This Australian centre of production is
imbued with essentialist cultural associations that anchor the ‘Hillsong Sound’ in
its brand’s creation story. It is through the brand’s mythology that the
transcendent efficacy of the music is realised. Finally, I will show how Hillsong
London’s congregation members’ images of places and people in the Hillsong
Network inform their experience of Hillsong’s worship music vis-à-vis the
‘Hillsong Sound’, which is the sonic signifier of the Hillsong brand. Because the
‘sound’ is important to the efficacy of the music, Hillsong actively positions the
church and its network within an evangelical discourse that relies on a global and
local dichotomy to articulate its identity.
Chapter five focuses on the individual participant, the locus of the transcendent
experience. I argue that the brand is efficacious because it teaches ‘how to listen’.
However, the ‘lessons’ of the brand can only be ‘learned’ through active effort on
the part of the participant. The brand shapes the transcendent experience by
framing participants’ activities, thus suggesting certain ways of understanding
while delimiting others. By encouraging participants to actively seek certain
affective-volitional states, it adds value to the experience by allowing them to
make their experiences their own. In other words, the brand accrues value for both
Hillsong and its participants by harnessing the participants’ own productivity.
Chapter six reviews chapters one through five, presenting the main outcomes of
the thesis. In addition, it reflects upon the possibilities that branding presents and
ruminates upon future research avenues.
Hillsong in its Socio-Historical Context
This chapter places Hillsong Church in a socio-historical context. To do this, I
situate Hillsong in relation to two developments that occurred concomitantly with
the industrial revolution. The first is the development of an array of sophisticated
marketing techniques that fall under the rubric of ‘branding’. The second is the
development of a ‘religious experience economy’ and the related emergence of
Christian Popular Music (CPM) and ‘New Paradigm’ churches. In the first part of
this chapter, I outline the history of branding, tracing its expanding cultural role
from a descriptive mark to an associational gestalt, media object, postmodern
identity marker and belief/value system. In the second part, I outline the rise of the
religious marketplace, CPM, and the New Paradigm church, emphasising the role
of marketing in the process. Finally, I discuss Hillsong Church as a brand, paying
particular attention to how branding concerns shape the way it functions.
Part I - The Evolving Cultural Context of Brands and Branding
From cornflakes to cars, our daily lives are increasingly dominated by
branded goods and brand names; the brand is a prefix, the qualifier of
character. The symbolic associations of the brand name are often used in
preference to the pragmatic description of a useful object. We speak of ‘the
old Hoover’, ‘my new Audi’ or ‘my favourite Levi’s’ – not needing to
qualify them with an object description. The brand is at the heart of this
process for many of the goods we buy and sell. (Pavitt 2000: 16)
So claims Jane Pavitt in the opening to her book Brand.New (2000). For Pavitt,
‘the concept of the brand is central to our society’ (Pavitt 2000: 16). Indeed, the
brand is common currency as both an idea and practice in consumer societies.
Although the terms ‘brand’ and ‘branding’ are applied to such a variety of objects,
places, people and activities that the terms’ meanings may be weakened (Murphy
1998: 1), their ubiquity as part of the vernacular of consumer culture shows that
brands and branding have had and continue to have significant social effects.
Perhaps this is why branding has recently attracted the attention of scholars from a
variety of disciplinary perspectives outside those traditionally interested in the
subject, including (but certainly not limited to) sociology, anthropology and
design (Pavitt 2000: 17). While this can be partly attributed to the general erosion
of disciplinary boundaries between the social sciences, I would argue that a major
reason that brands and branding are of such broad interest and are so ubiquitous to
contemporary society is that, as associational gestalts, they tap into basic and
arguably universal ways that humans make and experience meaning – especially
in regard to values and beliefs – and as such are implicated in an increasingly
broad range of identity making activities in everyday life.
It is important to understand the distinction between a brand and branding.
Simply put: the brand is the result of the branding process. A brand is the
condensation of meanings from which a brand identity – an identity that maps
onto both the brand and its participants – emerges. Branding is the process
through which the brand is realised. Digging deeper, brands are ultimately about
‘value’ in all senses of the term. The branding literature most often describes a
brand’s purpose as one of adding value. Added value is usually thought of in the
economic sense, but it should be emphasised that branding is first and foremost a
non-economic activity: it is an integrated communications (or marketing) strategy
that condenses associations into a meaningful gestalt by synthesising the physical,
aesthetic, rational and emotional elements that constitute it (Murphy 1998: 3). For
the consumer, it adds value to the experience of something through emotional
associations. For an organization, it adds value by binding the consumer to the
organization and its other participants, which include other consumers and also
the organization’s employees, thereby strengthening group ties.15 A brand appeals
to the emotions because it is an assemblage of values. On the one hand, it
represents the values that an organisation is built upon, and that its employees
(ideally) hold and promote. On the other hand, brands are reflections of a
Participants in the branding process are often referred to in the branding literature as
‘stakeholders’. I have chosen to use the term ‘participants’ in keeping with this thesis’s emphasis
on the ‘educational’ role of participation in the branding process.
consumer’s values. When a consumer’s values map onto an organisation’s values,
then value is added to the consumer’s experience.16
In consumer societies, economic benefits often follow from this. Consumers
bound to the brand are more likely to be ‘repeat customers’ and are more likely to
recommend the brand to others. They are also more likely to pay a premium for
the branded experience. To paraphrase the famous line from the film A Field of
Dreams: Build it and they will come; brand it, and they will come back, and pay
more when they do. This is often referred to as brand equity. Thus, the purpose of
the brand is to enhance emotional and economic value for stakeholders in an
The yearly ‘most valuable brands’ lists pioneered by the brand consultancy
Interbrand reflect the conflation of different types of value.17 Although a brand is
ultimately an ‘intangible asset’, Interbrand assigns a monetary value to it. This
valuation is derived from an analysis of an organization’s tangible assets, like
infrastructure and available cash flow, balanced against factors such as debt and
current sales figures. The added brand valuation is based on the idea of ‘brand
loyalty’: that consumers’ (positive) emotional associations with a brand will
engender future sales. One need look no further than the historical shift in
weighting from tangible to intangible in the valuation of brands to see the rising
importance of branding in consumer culture.18 For example, according to
Interbrand, the most valuable global brand in 2012 was Coca-Cola, which it
valued at $77.8 billion.19 At the end of 2012, the company’s stock market
capitalization was approximately $163 billion.20 This means that, essentially, half
of Coca-Cola’s monetary value was its name alone.
In other words, the object/phenomenon acquires an identity for the consumer and in turn
becomes part of his or her identity.
Best Global Brands 2012. <http://www.interbrand.com/en/best-global-brands/2012/Best-GlobalBrands-2012.aspx>; accessed 26 December 2012.
Brand Valuation. <http://www.brandchannel.com/images/papers/financial_value.pdf>; accessed
26 December 2012.
Best Global Brands 2012. <http://www.interbrand.com/en/best-global-brands/2012/Best-GlobalBrands-2012-Brand-View.aspx>; accessed 26 December 2012.
When the markets closed on 31 December 2012, Coke was trading at $36.25 a share with 4.49
billion shares outstanding.
$75 billion dollars is a lot of money for a name. The best way to understand why
Coca-Cola and other brands are so ‘valuable’ is to examine how they function in
modern society. This may be done by tracing the evolution of the brand and
branding from a method of denoting ownership and content to one of connoting
different types of values, meanings, reputations and identities for a range of
participants. As with other social phenomena, branding’s evolution is inextricable
from the changes in technology and communication that have accompanied it.
However, although the cultural contexts of the brand and the modes of branding
have changed over time (Moor 2007: 15-38; Olins 2003: 46-69; Room 1998: 1323) the brand’s basic function of distinguishing the offerings of one producer from
those of another has (arguably) remained unaltered (Murphy 1998: 1).
The Origins of Branding: Distinguishing Products
The origins of product branding can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome,
where marks indicated the ownership and origin of vessels as well as their content
(Moor 2007: 16; Room 1998: 13-14; see also Mollerup 1997).21 Over time, the
informational content of these marks increased, describing distinctive qualities of
the product. For example, in Britain watermarks described the size and weight of
paper. Similarly, hallmarks for precious metals indicated their composition, the
regional office where they had been tested, and the date of issue and name of their
manufacturer. Thus, brands not only became descriptors of content, but also
guaranteed quality by linking products to a reputable source (Moor 2007:16).
Brands further became linked to identity during imperial expansion as marks not
only for inanimate goods and livestock, but for people as well. For example,
during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, slaves were routinely branded. The marks
simultaneously identified who owned them and conferred social status upon them
by identifying them as slaves. The brand both established and advertised the
Cattle branding is at least 4,000 years old, tracing back to Ancient Egypt (‘The History of Cattle
Brands and How to Read Them’. <http://kidscowboy.com/history-of-cattle-brands>; ‘History: The
Evolution of Cattle Branding’ <http://www.longmontweekly.com/longmontcolumnists/ci_21490023/history-evolution-cattle-branding>; accessed 25 June 2013).
slave’s status as a ‘permanent marginal’ (Moor 2007: 17). However, these brands
were also sometimes used as badges of honour by runaway slaves, and were used
as symbols of resistance and solidarity (Paterson 1982: 59, in Moor 2007: 17). In
branding’s nascent stages, then, the contested, multiple meanings of the brand
were already evident.
In the 1870s and 1880s, communication, transportation and manufacturing
technologies came together to usher in the first great period of branding in the
United States and in Europe (Olins 2003: 51). Manufacturers were increasingly
able to standardise, and thus regulate, the size and consistency of their products.
Also, developments in printing allowed the packaging itself to communicate a
greater array of images and meanings, which helped create a distinct identity for
the product (Moor 2007: 18-19). Concomitant with these advances was an
explosion in population, which provided a market for an ever-widening range of
goods, and also subsequent legal developments, in the form of trademark law
(Olins 2003: 48-69; Room 1998: 14-15), which increased both the need for the
meanings of a brand to be communicated, and the ways through which this could
be done. For example, the first great branders in post-Civil War America were the
makers of patent medicines. They took advantage of a market in which there were
few trained doctors but a relatively high proportion of literate people, expanding
newspaper circulation and established transportation and distribution networks.
Because of the competitive environment (not to mention the dubious nature of
many of their products) the makers of patent medicines were ‘the first to sell
image rather than product’ (Olins 2003: 50).22 It is no coincidence that one of the
first great brands, Coca-Cola, began as a patent medicine, claiming: ‘COCACOLA… makes not only a delicious, exhilarating, refreshing and invigorating
Beverage… but a valuable Brain tonic and cure for all nerve affections – Sick
Head-Ache, Neuralgia, Hysteria, Melancholy, etc.’ (Pendergrast 2000: 30-31).
Patent medicines were mostly well-advertised quackery, but they were the basis of the fortunes
of several philanthropists (Pendergrast 2000: 7-13). In fact, this thesis is part of that legacy: Royal
Holloway’s founder, Thomas Holloway, made his money peddling patent medicines (‘Thomas
Holloway, the Pill King’. <http://www.fulltable.com/VTS/h/holl/b.htm>; accessed 22 July 2013).
A Move Towards Corporate Identity
The period from the end of the nineteenth century to the first half of the twentieth
century saw an increase in the competition between similar products. This led to a
more systematic use of advertising, and particularly a shift away from
emphasising the functionality of goods to imbuing them with emotional
significance. Advertisers’ shift of interest to consumer psychology is often
credited to Edward Bernays, who (by no coincidence) was Sigmund Freud’s
nephew. Bernays was one of the pioneers of market segmentation, setting up
focus groups in order to understand what kind of customers wanted what, and then
setting about influencing those desires through marketing (Tye 2002).
As the twentieth century progressed, consumer psychology became more nuanced,
moving away from an emphasis on wants, needs and desires towards a focus on
communal and personal identity. Simultaneously, the idea that corporations had
identities and should be understood as ‘pseudo-people’ was making headway in
both theory and law.23 Initially, corporate identity was seen as a design
coordination problem. The post-war period saw an increasing awareness of media
in all of its forms, and the importance of different media in building the image of a
company through an integrated media strategy. Speaking from a design
perspective, Henrion and Parkin (1967) wrote in Design Coordination and Public
A corporation has many points of contact with various groups of people. It
has premises, works, products, packaging, stationery, forms, vehicles,
publications and uniforms, as well as the usual kinds of promotional
activities. These things are seen by customers, agents, suppliers, financers,
shareholders, competitors, the press and the general public, as well as its
own staff. The people in these groups build up their idea of the corporation
from what they see and experience of it. An image is therefore an intangible
and essentially complicated thing, involving the effect of many and varied
factors on many and varied people with many and varied interests. (Henrion
and Parkin 1967: 7, in Moor 2007: 30-33)
The idea of ‘corporate personhood’ has its roots in nineteenth century legal precedents that
granted corporations, as collectives of people, certain legal rights under the Fourteenth
Amendment of the United States Constitution (Block 2013; Smith 2009). It is related to, but
distinct from, the idea of ‘corporate identity’, which developed in the later part of the twentieth
century and grafts ‘human traits’ onto corporate entities (e.g. Aaker et al. 2004; Fournier 1998).
Henrion and Parkin’s work showed that a brand is multifaceted, and that different
actors encounter different elements of it in different situations and thus understand
it in different ways. For them, the challenge was to coordinate all of those
disparate encounters in a way that communicated a single concept.
In contrast to Henrion and Parkin’s visual focus, James Pilditch’s Communication
by Design: A Study in Corporate Identity (1970) drew its inspiration from
Marshall McLuhan’s ideas about the interconnectedness of media and identity.
Pilditch argued that companies needed to understand the ‘total situation… of
information movement’. ‘[F]ar from being an adjunct of advertising,’ he wrote,
‘corporate communications have become the new total…. Advertising, like public
relations, architecture, merchandising materials, and any part of a company’s
outpourings, must be coordinated with the rest so that each contributes to one
appropriate whole’ (Pilditch 1970: 9, in Moor 2007: 32). This acknowledgement
that all of a brand’s offerings are potential semiotic material in identity design (or
assemblage) informed much of the sociological and anthropological consumeroriented branding that gained currency in the 1990s.
Both Henrion and Parkin’s and Pilditch’s studies were concerned primarily with
communicating an identity to stakeholders outside of an organisation. In contrast,
Wally Olins’s 1978 book The Corporate Personality focused on the internal
aspects of corporate identity. In it, Olins argued that, rather than simply projecting
an identity, successful organisations had to create one from within. He presaged
the 1980s, a time of corporate mergers and globalization that put pressure on
newly international companies to streamline their communications and make them
cross-culturally comprehensible to their employees (Moor 2007: 30). In this new
era, companies needed to create ‘a common culture…. [W]hen employees visit
one another’s factories and offices they [should] find familiar things, familiar
names, familiar signs, familiar systems, even familiar furniture – things that make
them feel at home’ (Olins 1978: 61, in Moor 2007: 32).
Liz Moor (2007) suggests that the sociological orientation of Pilditch’s and
Olins’s works, as well as their frequent oscillation ‘between conceptions of
workers as employees on the one hand and consumers on the other’, points
towards ‘a growing awareness of the shifting relationship between production and
consumption [that was occurring in the 1970s], in which people’s identities as
consumers were becoming nearly as important as their identities as workers’
(Moor 2007: 33). In other words, both authors recognized that the emergence of
post-Fordist economies of flexible labour on the one hand and the rise of postmodern consumerism on the other entailed the need to understand marketing as a
The 1980s mark the beginning of the present ‘branded’ era, a new social context
in which brands are now ‘central components of the social fabric’ of our culture
(Arvidsson 2006: 3). Until the 1970s, branding was the purview of companies
such as Proctor and Gamble, Heinz and Kellogg’s that produced ‘fast moving
consumer goods’ (FMCGS) (Olins 2003: 56). During this time (and despite the
insights gleaned from Bernays) competitive advantage was still viewed –
especially outside of the United States – as product-based. In other words, it was
believed that if product A were better designed and cheaper than product B, the
consumer would make the ‘logical’ choice of product A. In many cases, this
proved to be true. However, at this time, there was much more ‘room’ in the
market. For example, in the 1950s, the average grocer’s shop in Britain carried
about 2,000 products. At the turn of the millennium, the number had risen to
around 40,000 (Olins 2003: 57). Because of the ubiquity of technology, there is
today often very little, if any, difference in the quality of similar goods. Thus,
from the 1970s onward corporate emphasis has shifted from products to brands,
their organizations and to the services that those organizations provide (Olins
2003: 63). In particular, corporate branding recognizes that its human element
involves not only internal participants, but external ones as well.
Branding and the Service Sector
Since the practical features of products rarely separate one brand from its
competitors, companies seek to differentiate themselves by enhancing their
customers’ experiences of their products through services. For example, when I
owned a Honda Civic, the dealer would email me to remind me when to have it
serviced, schedule an appointment for me and attach ‘discount’ coupons for those
services to the email. In doing so, Honda sought to make even the tiresome
elements of owning a car, such as maintenance, easy if not enjoyable. In this way,
the product and the services became part of the overall experience of owning a
In some cases, a brand’s products and services are more than just connected; they
are one and the same. These are called service brands. Banks and airlines, which
provide a specific service to a customer, are examples of service brands. Like all
brands, service brands capitalise on developing and maintaining the emotional ties
with customers that add value for both parties. Since customers have no products
per se to interact with, their impressions of an organization are derived from their
interactions with the organization’s representatives, usually its employees. Thus,
the ideas of corporate branding that originated in FMCGS companies have been
extended and refined in the service sector. As meaningful ‘touchpoints’ of
interaction with the customer, employees represent the brand and communicate its
values. Organizations have increasingly realised that employees are key to brand
image. Far beyond uniforms and looks, social cues such as smiles and language
are key factors in consumer satisfaction and establishing the relationship that may
lead to long-term sales. However, the interaction must be experienced as
‘authentic’. For example, if an employee is thought to be working from a script
(‘Welcome to Burger King, may I take your order please?’) rather than being
genuinely involved in the interaction, the customer will understand the experience
as inauthentic. This is why service brands put large amounts of time, money and
effort into employee training programmes. For example, British Airways runs
workshops as part of its ‘breakthrough programme’. This programme seeks to
ensure that everyone in the organisation shares a common vision and purpose, and
follows prescribed steps to communicate this (Hart 1998: 209).24 The idea is that
by instilling a sense of purpose and commitment in its employees, they will
authentically communicate the airline’s purpose and values through word and
Anna Klingmann analyses the branded airline as a combination of design (‘hardware’),
entertainment (‘software’) and service (‘humanware’). She sees these elements as the three parts
through which the aircraft delivers a holistic experience of an airline’s brand personality
(Klingmann 2007: 23). Note the integration (although ‘conflation’ may be a better term) of
machine and employee as branded material.
action.25 In other words, BA follows Wally Olins’s advice: ‘Train your people to
live the brand’ (Olins 2003: 89).
An Experience Economy
What drives service brands is the desire to enhance the consumer’s experience.
Pine and Gilmore (2011) argue that the current phase of capitalism is one in which
the ‘consumable experience’ is a commodity. For Pine and Gilmore, the first stage
of capitalism was the agrarian economy, where raw materials were extracted,
bought and sold. When extracted materials were used to produce marketable
goods, the industrial economy developed. As an industrialized market matured, it
became cluttered with goods of similar type and quality. Producers therefore had
to differentiate their products through services, which enhanced and ultimately
replaced goods as the primary commodity. Thus, the industrial economy
developed into the service economy. Although Olins argues that most service
brands ‘remain pretty awful’ (Olins 2003: 74), as the service economy has
matured, good service is quickly becoming common to all service brands, just as
quality products became common in the mature industrial economy. Since good
service is no longer a point of differentiation, then, Gilmore and Pine argue, the
new point of differentiation is the experience, which is constructed (or as they put
it, ‘staged’) through a combination of goods and services.
Among the standard-bearers of the experience economy are Nike and Disney.
They devote themselves less to creating products than they do to promoting a
holistic, multisensory experience of the brand (although products remain an
important part of this). This is no more apparent than at their flagship experience
hubs, Niketown in Chicago and Disneyland in California respectively. John
Sherry, Jr. describes Niketown as ‘surely the embodiment of the corporate dictum
“Just Do It”’ (Sherry 1998b: 109), a branded ‘servicescape’ or ‘brandscape’ where
the ‘brand is both a noun and a verb,’ (ibid.: 112; c.f. Klingmann 2007: 86-89;
See also: Getting Employees to Act on Your Brand Promise.
accessed 24 June 2013.
Carah 2010). Niketown is designed as a ‘material and symbolic environment that
consumers build with marketplace products, images and messages, that they
invest with local meaning, and whose totemic significance largely shapes the
adaptation consumers make to the modern world’ (Sherry 1998b: 112); a place
where ‘[t]he co-creation of experience by marketers and consumers – the
performance of negotiated meanings – is engendered… by design’ (ibid.).
Niketown is more of an interactive museum than an actual store – it stocks
products that cannot be found at local dealers and never runs sales. Customers can
‘touch greatness’ in a variety of ways, from trying out their moves in a new set of
Air Jordans on the half-court that covers part of the second floor to taking in the
videos running throughout the store that feature the exploits of famous athletes.
Niketown strives to create a multisensory ‘rhetoric of the place’ (ibid.: 140) where
one can touch, smell (and taste – these two senses are linked), hear and feel
The sensually immersive experience is even more complete at Disneyland, the
iconic theme park that for Mark Gottdiener (1998) is nothing less than ‘a large
sign-vehicle of the Disney ideology and [which] forms the semantic universe
within which the many objects of merchandising with the Disney theme make
sense’ (Gottdiener 1998: 31). Thematic coherence is inspired through
‘architecture, landscaping, costuming and other theatrical effects’ (Chidester
2005: 143) (to which I would add the food, music and the ubiquitous mouse ear
hats that are available at every turn) immerse the consumer in the Disney
experience. Disneyland even has its own currency, the ‘Disney Dollar’, which
further divorces the consumption experience from ‘the real world’, enveloping the
consumer in an entire branded ecosystem.26
Nike and Disney understand that we experience brands as we experience life,
through all five senses. Because sensory experience is an essential part of how we
‘know’ things (especially because it is linked to our emotional awareness), the
more ‘sensual’ are the experiences we associate with a brand, the more
Indeed, Disney has perhaps gone further than any other company in attempting to infuse its
brand into everyday life: it has its own branded town, the master-planned community of
Celebration, Florida (Frantz and Collins 2000).
memorable they become. Branding futurist Martin Lindstrom (2005) suggests that
in the years to come, brands will need not only to have signature visual identities,
but also oral, auditory, olfactory and sensual ones as well. This is why engineers
at car companies such as BMW, Rolls-Royce and Cadillac go far beyond look
when designing their automobiles, also focusing on (and patenting) details such as
how their cars smell, how the doors feel when being opened and the sound they
make when being closed. For these companies, the automobile should be a holistic
experience of the brand, a medium that ingrains the brand in the very being of the
The Brand as a Media Object and a Form of Governance
Even the most powerful sensual experience means nothing without cultural
context; the experience of a BMW will mean nothing unless the brand BMW is
already associated with something. The meaning of a brand is in constant dialogue
with culture and history. It is symbolic, and therefore is media. Furthermore,
because it is itself comprised of and produced through different media, it is also a
media object (Lury 2004). This duality is interesting because, while the range of
meanings available to a brand are dictated by its cultural milieu, it also organises
meaning by providing a framework in which branded activities are understood. To
borrow a design term, the brand is afforded certain meanings while it itself affords
Today, as always, knowledge (information) is power. In today’s media-saturated
‘knowledge’ economies, information is arguably more ‘valuable’ than ever
(Castells 2010; c.f. Webster 2006). The brand is an excellent way of converting
information/knowledge into economic capital (Arvidsson 2006), which means that
it is also a good managerial device, a ‘form of governance, a way of managing
populations and reshaping existing perceptions and practices among citizens as
well as workers and consumers’ (Moor 2007: 38, original emphasis). As Moor
What unites… functions of branding is a renewed emphasis on the tactility
and materiality of communication, and its capacity to affect people at the
level of perception and affect rather than only through the more obviously
cognitive work of ‘persuasion’. (Moor 2007: 38)
Branding is a way of condensing and streamlining flows of information to, from
and within an organisation and its stakeholders. In doing so, it both interacts with
and to some degree shapes its stakeholders’ worldviews. Drawing from
information already ‘in the world’, a brand anticipates certain kinds of meanings,
and thus predetermines certain kinds of actions and attachments through a kind of
‘framing’ (Arvidsson 2006: 74). In other words, brands ‘provide part of the
context in which products are used’ (ibid: 8; see also Carah 2010). However, this
does not mean that a brand imposes context or meanings on the user, at least not
in the Taylorist sense.27 Rather, in post-Fordist fashion, ‘brands work by enabling
consumers, by empowering them in particular directions’ (Arvidsson 2006: 8,
original emphasis). Of course, one can see the irony in Arvidsson’s observation.
His point is that brands exercise control by harnessing the human need to ‘create
the social’. In other words, by making the information and meanings drawn from
associations our ‘own’ through our own productivity, we are embodying the
worldview shaped by the brand on deeply personal levels.
While Arvidsson is chiefly concerned with the economic implications of this form
of ‘informational capitalism’, where social interaction becomes embedded as an
economic activity, I am more concerned with the non-economic implications of
what could be called, following Arvidsson and Jameson (1992), an ‘enabling logic
of late capitalism’. If we use brands as part of our natural everyday
communication and meaning-making activities – as ways of sharing information
that shape our lives and worldviews – then the power and potential of brands
becomes clear. Building on Lury and Arvidsson’s insights, the brand can be
understood as a social media object that both creates and extracts value in a ‘Web
Broadly speaking, Taylorism is the ‘top down’ management theory that seeks to improve
productivity through the implementation of rigid guidelines. It is often associated with Fordism,
the economic and social system that is itself associated with industrialization and mass-production.
In contrast, post-Fordism is associated with flexible labour, small production runs and the
‘personalization’ of commodities. The Marxist perspective sees both Fordism and post-Fordism as
capital’s means of control. The difference is that while the former tells the worker ‘You must!’, the
latter tells the consumer ‘You may!’ (Arvidsson 2006: 8).
The Brand in/as Social Media and Culture Jamming
The insight that brands leverage our innate need to be social and convert it into
capital is the economic premise of ‘Web 2.0’, and is exemplified by corporate
brands like Google, Amazon and Facebook. These organisations leverage
information collected through monitoring and recording of user activity in order
to, among other things: target advertisements specific to the customer; outsource
technical support to community forums (which has the added value of also
creating brand community); and react quickly to consumer suggestions or
complaints. The Internet, in other words, provides ways for organisations and
brands to connect with participants and stakeholders in unique and personal ways.
While the ‘Big Brother’ implications of this are clear, the flip side is that
participants are also immediately connected to each other and can therefore to
some degree bypass the organisation in the branding process. Since a brand image
is social, it is subject to the vicissitudes of ‘the social’. For brands, social media
can be a dream come true if people have good things to say about you. However,
the smallest rumour or complaint can quickly become a public relations
The symbolic nature of the brand simultaneously presents opportunities to, but
also creates potential problems for, brand managers. As we have seen, brands
have carried multiple or contested meanings for hundreds of years. Thus, while a
brand may add value to an experience for some, for others, it may detract from the
experience of the same activity. For example, while for some people the daily trip
to Starbucks is an important part of their routines, others avoid the chain at all
costs in favour of their local café (Thompson and Arsel 2004). One of the bestknown articulations of this second type of attitude towards brands is Naomi
Klein’s No Logo ( 2010). Like some of the examples she gives, such as the
‘Ad-busters’, ‘Culture Jammers’ and World Trade Organization protesters, Klein
uses brands as a symbol for the excesses of capitalism and neoliberal hegemony.
Yet Klein’s examples also point to why her position is overstated; the mere fact
that brands can be ‘culture jammed’28 suggests that they can be controlled.
Although branding is first a non-economic activity, like most things, it very rarely
occurs outside the purview of capital. All organisations need participants because
of the social and economic capital they provide. In an era of fierce competition,
not only in the for-profit but also in the non-profit sector, brands are ultimately
subservient to the whims of these participants, who can vote with their feet and
their wallets. The recent controversy over Starbucks’ avoidance of corporate taxes
in the UK could be seen as an example of this. During the time that the coffee
chain was being pilloried in the press and on the Internet, sales of rival British
coffee chain Costa rose by 8 percent while Starbucks’ sales dropped by almost the
same amount (Bowers 2013). Although some might view the company’s claim
that ‘…we felt that our customers should not have to wait for us to become
profitable before we started paying UK corporation tax’ (Saul 2013) skeptically,
the event nevertheless shows how bad press, or the threat of bad press, can affect
corporate action. This suggests that the route to controlling branded organisations
lies not in eschewing consumerism, but in ‘directed’ or ‘intentional’
The above discussion has traced the changing, expanding cultural and social
context of the brand and branding. Always marks of distinction,30 the ways in
which brands differentiate have multiplied through the centuries. Additionally,
Culture jamming is the anti-consumerist practice of altering or parodying adverts of major
corporations to make ironic comments on those products and by extension, capitalism in general.
(Klein  2010: 279-309; Culture Jamming.
<http://depts.washington.edu/ccce/polcommcampaigns/CultureJamming.htm>; accessed 22 July
2013). However, as Heath and Potter (2006) point out in their discussions of Klein and also the
culture jamming publication AdBusters, culture jamming is at best ineffectual entertainment and at
worst perpetuates the same consumerism that it purports to critique.
However, see Heath and Potter (2006) for an excellent critique of the effectiveness of ‘ethical
The use of the term distinction here will probably remind the reader of Pierre Bourdieu’s
Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste ( 2010). There are parallels. For
example, Burberry’s problems balancing between popularity and exclusivity (Heath and Potter
2006: 127-129) very much reflect Bourdieu’s analysis of taste and class. While taste certainly
comes into play in this thesis, in several places I argue that the brand hegemony and the discourses
of ‘unity’ that shape it overrides, tempers or changes taste rather than reproduces it (see chapters
three and five).
they have become more social; not only as culturally contested symbols but also
as ‘people’, complete with personalities and legal rights. Always in dialogue with
the past, present and future, the ‘local’ and the ‘global’, the individual and the
collective, brands are today a meaningful part of culture and integral to its
functioning. Most importantly for this thesis, a brand’s efficacy lies in its ability to
add value to our experience of things, or if not (as in the case of Klein’s
adherents) at least speak to the values that we hold. In other words, brands are part
of how we experience ourselves, others and our environments, whether we like it
or not. The next section explores how the socio-historical context described above
has influenced the development of a Religious Experience Economy in which
Part II - The Religious Experience Economy
The forces that have shaped the evolution of branding and given rise to the
experience economy have also shaped the development of religious institutions
and the forms of religious experience and expression associated with them.
Organisations reflect the larger socio-economic environments in which they
operate, and thus in capitalist societies, they acquire the ‘character and massmediated ethos’ of their social milieus (Muñiz and O’Guinn 2001: 412). In other
words, market forces affect the ways that participants in various economies
organise and communicate in order to achieve their goals – an insight that
undergirds the idea of a ‘religious economy’.
The notion of a religious economy first gained currency in sociological circles in
the 1960s,31 and it is useful for understanding the concomitant developments of
New Paradigm churches and Christian Popular Music (CPM), as both styles (in
the many ways that the term ‘style’ can be understood) and industries.32 Religious
Finke and Stark 2005; Stark and Bainbridge 1985: 39-96; Stark and Finke 2000: 193-276.
I will use the term ‘Christian Popular Music’ (CPM) because it most accurately describes the
contentious interplay between ethical and economic value that is at the heart of the development of
the Christian lifestyle. Ingalls et al. (2013) define CPM as: ‘… a sonically diverse umbrella
category of late twentieth and early twenty-first century commercial popular music. CPM is
characterized by Christian lyrics or themes, created by artists whose self-identification as Christian
is central to their public persona, mediated by self-identified Christian companies (i.e., magazines,
market theory posits religion as a commodity and religious organisations as
merchants that compete with each other for clients. While many, especially within
religious circles, are uncomfortable with using economic terms such as ‘branding’
to describe their activities (Cooke 2008: 10), religious economy theory accounts
for the structural and communicative forms that an increasing number of religious
organisations – evangelical and otherwise (Einstein 2008) – are taking around the
world. However, the weakness in the ‘religious economy’ thesis is that it is
grounded in classical economic theory, and therefore essentially posits religious
changes as a supply and demand problem governed by rational actors (c.f. Young
1997). Although helpful in understanding the way religious landscapes change
over time, its weakness is the same as that of classical economic theory: homo
economicus is not rational. This is where the related concept of the ‘Spiritual
Marketplace’ (Roof 1999) is helpful. The spiritual marketplace focuses on the
consumption of spiritual ‘goods’, rather than the production of them that is the
basis of rational-choice based theories of religious economy (Gauthier and
Martikainen 2013), and is therefore better suited to an analysis of religion in
consumer societies. Indeed, when speaking of religious branding, the most useful
concept is that of prosumption – the ‘Web 2.0’ economic model in which the
production and consumption process are indistinguishable from one another
(Ritzer and Jurgenson 2010; Toffler 1980).33
Transnational New Paradigm churches are similar to secular global brands in that
they communicate ‘glocally’, harnessing both ‘global’ and ‘local’ discourses and
publishing firms, radio stations, and record labels that promote Christian values), and listened to
and purchased by a primarily self-identified Christian audience. In many cases, ‘Christian’ is used
as a descriptive adjective to refer to specific genres of this music, such as Christian rock or
Christian metal, that fall into the broad class of Christian popular music. Other industrial terms for
this music that may be used outside of the US include ‘inspirational’ and ‘gospel’…. Within the
category of Christian popular music thus defined, several distinct subcategories based on musical
genre, industrial context, or function have emerged, including Jesus Music, Contemporary
Christian Music (CCM), Praise & Worship music, and Christian rock.’ Importantly, what defines
the genres incorporated under the CPM rubric is intention. For example, some music may be
written to facilitate congregational singing, while other music may be written for devotional
listening. Furthermore, as Ingalls et al. note, although they may be created with specific intentions,
CPM songs often slip between categories as a result of their commodity status. Because the
mechanisms of production and distribution are often the same for different categories of CPM
music, and also because commercial profitability and popularity often go hand in hand, CPM is
often ground zero for discourses over intention that characterized the ‘Worship Wars’. See Howard
and Streck 1999; Mall 2012; Nekola 2009.
For an account of prosumption at popular music festivals, see Carah (2010).
images in dialectic processes (Wagner 2013). Like most glocal phenomena, the
‘global’ organisational forms and marketing/evangelising techniques of
evangelical Christianity are usually posited as ‘American’ – traceable to what
Finke and Stark (2005) describe as ‘The Churching of America’. In Finke and
Stark’s account, the separation of church and state inscribed in the U.S.
Constitution opened a religious free market in which religious organisations
competed for adherents. To gain and retain these adherents, the organisations
addressed participants’ wants and needs in ways that were broadly appealing and
easily understandable. This stands in contrast to state-sponsored religious
organisations in Europe, which enjoyed ‘religious monopolies’.34 These
organizations did not need to address their participants’ needs, which led to a
stagnation not only in religious participation, but also in diversity and,
importantly, actual belief (Finke and Stark 2005: 8-12; see also Stark and Finke
The expansion and diversification of religious organisations in the New World
was characterised by successive waves of ‘aggressive churches committed to
vivid otherworldliness’ (Finke and Stark 2005: 1). For example, while initially the
dominant religions in the colonies were mainline denominations such as the
Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, by the 1850s they had
largely been supplanted by the more evangelically-minded Methodists. The
Methodists were in turn challenged and gradually supplanted by a newer strain of
evangelical Christians, the Baptists. The key to these movements’ successes was
their preachers, who made ‘careful use of vernacular imagery, metaphors, and
stories that applied to the everyday life of their audience’ (Finke and Stark 2005:
86).36 Importantly, the Methodists and Baptists (and later on some Presbyterians)
‘adopted a belief system that justified both intense emotion and religious ecstasy’
While there has long been a diverse range of other religions/sects in such countries that were not
supported by the state, the lack of a free market meant that they were consigned to the ‘fringe’.
Only in a free market could the ‘fringe’ have access to, and thus become, ‘mainstream’.
While the religious market functioned differently in Britain, evangelical faiths such as the
Methodists and Quakers were far from stagnant in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Indeed,
the Quakers might be seen as the first great branders. For example, devout Quakers the Cadburys
created the village and community of Bourneville, Birmingham, which reflected a kind of utopia
based on their brand values (Dawson 2009).
Finke and Stark go on to note that: ‘It is not only content that is involved here, but the style of
delivery – Marshall McLuhan might have suggested that in some ways the minister was the
message’ (Finke and Stark 2005: 86).
(Nekola 2009: 91), which was seen as proof of salvation. In contrast to the
‘intellectual’ approach favoured by mainline religions, these new upstarts
Starke and Finke attribute the early successes of the Methodists and Baptists in
part to their informal power structure: for both groups, there was little or no
separation between clergy and laity, nor was there a codified system in which
clergy were educated. Thus, the history of Protestantism in the United States has
been marked by a succession of famous entrepreneurial preachers who were eager
users of media and clever marketers. These include George Whitefield and
Charles Finney in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the
preacher/musician teams of Billy Sunday and Homer Rodeheaver and Dwight
Moody and Ira Sankey in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the
(multi)media star Sister Aimee McPhearson in the 1930s and 1940s, Billy Graham
in the mid- to late-twentieth century, and the current crop of branded preachers
like Joel Osteen and T. D. Jakes, who reach millions of faithful across the world
and are nothing less than fully-fledged media conglomerates. Through these
preachers, a picture of the co-evolution of religious structure and forms of
expression, media and marketing can be constructed.
The first great revivalist in the United States was George Whitefield (December
27, 1714 – September 30, 1770). According to Frank Lambert’s study of colonial
revivals, ‘what was new about Whitefield was the skill as an entrepreneur, and
impresario, that made him a full-fledged forerunner of evangelists like Charles
Grandison Finney and Billy Graham’ (Lambert 1999: 813, in Finke and Stark
2005: 88). Finke and Stark note that Whitefield:
…was a master of advance publicity who sent out a constant stream of press
releases, extolling the success of his revivals elsewhere, to the cities he
intended to visit. These advance campaigns often began two years ahead of
time. In addition, Whitefield had thousands of copies of his sermons printed
and distributed to stir up interest. He even ran newspaper advertisements
announcing his impending arrival. (Finke and Stark 88-89)
Whitefield’s media campaigns were not only effective, but also profitable, so
much so that none other than Benjamin Franklin became Whitefield’s publisher.
Franklin evidently knew a good thing when he saw it, as ‘sales of the Great
Itinerant’s journals and sermons soon amounted to a very large proportion of
Franklin’s gross receipts’ (Finke and Stark 2005: 89).
Whitefield and Franklin were pragmatists, and Charles Grandison Finney (August
29, 1792 – August 16, 1875), known as the ‘Father of modern revivalism’
(Hankins 2004: 137), was more pragmatic still. He wrote that ‘[A revival of
religion] is not a miracle…. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of
the constituted means’ (Finney  1960: 13, in Finke and Stark 2005: 89). For
Finney, this meant not only the judicious use of handbills, pamphlets and
newspapers, but also practical measures such as the construction of venues with
good ventilation, keeping prayers short, and encouraging participants to leave
their dogs and young children at home (Finke and Stark 2005: 90). In doing so,
Finney created a worship environment free of distractions, an idea that is central
to the design of most purpose-built New Paradigm churches today. Like today’s
most successful evangelical pastors, Finney was not afraid of the new. Indeed, he
wrote that: ‘The object of our measures is to gain attention, and you must have
something new’ (Finney  1960: 181, in Finke and Stark 2005: 90, original
‘Something new’ included new music. Congregational singing at the camp
meeting, a staple of nineteenth century revivals, was often characterised by new
choruses or refrains added to existing hymns by Watts and Wesley (Nekola 2009:
93). As Nekola points out, these songs were easy to learn and remember and had
cross-generational appeal because their subject matter eschewed theistic content in
favour of a ‘pietistic, emotional, and subjective experience’ (ibid.). Significantly,
Finney’s collaborator, Thomas Hastings (15 October 1784 – 15 May 1872),
believed music had the power to channel these emotions and thus influence the
moral character of its listeners. He believed that by appealing to worshippers’
aesthetic tastes, one could engage them in the act of worship and through this
inspire ‘the appropriate mix of devotion and piety’ (ibid.: 100).
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a new generation of
celebrity preachers who took advantage of the advances in technology and
communications to spread the gospel. These star preachers were self-reliant,
building their own venues and even starting their own publishing houses in order
to disseminate materials. Two preacher-musician partnerships that were
particularly adept at this were Dwight Moody (February 5, 1837 – December 22,
1899) and composer Ira Sankey (August 28, 1840 – August 13, 1908); and later
Billy Sunday (November 19, 1862 – November 6, 1935) and his musical
collaborator Homer Rodeheaver (October 4, 1880 – December 18, 1955). Dwight
Moody, for example, was not only a famous preacher but also a skilled
businessman. He recognised that evangelism took many forms, and to this end he
used his fortune to found not only what is today known as the Moody Church, but
also the Moody Bible Institute and Moody Publishers, all of which are still
thriving. Similarly, Nekola (2009) notes that both Billy Sunday’s grand
Tabernacle in New York City and his collaboration with Homer Rodeheaver were
emblematic of an attempt to control both the physical and emotional atmosphere
of his revival meetings (Nekola 2009: 334; footnote 18). As for Rodeheaver
himself, he started a successful music publishing house, and later his own record
label, Rainbow Records – the first to be devoted exclusively to publishing gospel
music. This presages by almost half a century the beginnings of CPM, when
record companies devoted exclusively to Christian music, such as Vineyard and
Maranatha!, were established.37 By consolidating the means of production and
dissemination ‘in house’, Moody and Sunday were able to control their messages
across a variety of platforms.
The twentieth century’s evangelical upstarts, the Pentecostals, made full use of
mass media from the very beginnings of the movement. For example, the Azusa
Street Revival’s publication The Apostolic Faith had a peak circulation of 40,000
in 1907 and was distributed around the world (McGee 1999). The Pentecostals
also used popular music such as the brass instrumentation of the Salvation Army
bands (Eskridge 1998). This tradition, infused with the pragmatism and media
savvy of previous generations, was embodied in Sister Aimee Semple McPherson
(October 9, 1890 – September 27, 1944), who, according to Harvey Cox, ‘was a
Like Hillsong Music, both Vineyard and Maranatha! began as in-house publishing operations.
Vineyard began as Mercy Records at Vineyard Church in 1985 and Maranatha! produced its first
records at Calvary Chapel in 1971.
genuine celebrity, one of the best-known women in America’ (Cox 1995: 124). As
‘the first of… a series of full-fledged Pentecostal media stars’ (ibid.: 127),
McPherson built her own church, the Angelus Temple, in Echo Park, Los Angeles
in 1923. With floors ‘softened by red carpets’, the temple seated 5,300 and
accommodated two large choirs and a full orchestra. Despite its size, ‘visitors
often lined up for hours to get seats for services’ (ibid.: 123).
Cox’s description of ‘Sister Aimee’ aptly describes the mediated Christian
Sister Aimee was a talented thespian as well as a legendarily eloquent
preacher…. With professional lighting, imaginative costuming, and
entertaining scripts typed out by the Sister herself, she had attracted
hundreds of thousands of people to the Temple with production values that
rivalled Florenz Ziegfeld. (Cox 1995: 124)
In doing so:
Aimee Semple McPherson was the principal pioneer in what has become
one of the most characteristic – and most problematical – qualities of
Pentecostalism, its uncanny ability to utilize the prevailing popular culture
for its own message, while at the same time raising questions about that
culture…. in this lover’s quarrel with Tin Pan Alley. (ibid.: 128)
This ‘lover’s quarrel’ with popular culture – and especially popular music – came
to a head when the ‘Worship Wars’ broke out in the 1960s,38 but Billy Graham (b.
November 7, 1918), was appealing to youth through popular music decades earlier
(Eskridge 1998). Graham’s use of popular music to engage his audience was
nothing new. What was new, though, was that while his predecessors thought of
the music as a tool of transcendence and the preacher as the evangelical voice,
Graham and later the Jesus Movement viewed music increasingly as a way to
spread the message of Christ separately from the transcendent experience. In other
words, they saw music as a way into the hearts and minds of unbelievers (Nekola
2009: 335). This is the philosophy behind the ‘Seeker Church’ strategy, which
sees ‘churching’ as a journey on which the seeker must be invited to take his or
her first tentative steps through reassuring, familiar means such as music
(Sargeant 2000). So while the use of popular music coalesced with the increasing
For an excellent history of the ‘Worship Wars’ that shaped evangelical worship during the
second half of the twentieth century, see Nekola (2009).
influence of Pentecostal-style charismatic worship and the pursuit of
transcendence for the faithful, it was simultaneously increasingly divorced from
transcendence as a way to reach the ‘unchurched’ (Nekola 2009: 335-336). In
other words, the same music was used differently according to market segment; it
was initially a means of ‘attracting an audience’ in the hope of eventually
transforming the seeker into a believer, at which point it was used as a means of
Bill Hybels (b. December 12, 1951), the founder of Chicago’s Willow Creek
Church, is often credited with popularising the ‘Seeker Church’ strategy (Sargeant
2000) that sees the ‘unchurched’ as a distinct market segment. Willow Creek
Church is one of the first and largest nondenominational network churches in the
United States. While not officially a ‘denomination’,39 its network – the Willow
Creek Association –provides many of the organisational functions that have
traditionally been the purview of denominations. This includes defining a musical
liturgy, providing training and resources, and organizing networks for the sharing
of information and hiring of staff (Sargeant 2000: 134). As of January 2013, it
claimed over 7,000 members in 85 countries around the world.40
Hybels and Willow Creek are just one example of the New Paradigm of church
leader and organization that are, in equal parts, media conglomerate and brand.41
Although this model of church marketing is most strongly associated with
evangelical Christianity, it has been adopted by a range of other religious
organisations such as the Jewish mystical Kabbalah movement (which counts
Madonna as one of its vocal supporters), the Japanese Buddhist organisation Soka
Gakkai International, and even Scientology, which has recently engaged in a
rebranding effort that includes an advertising campaign on the streets of London.
Given the socio-historical context discussed above, it is clear that church growth
In the Seeker Church view, a denominational marker may keep a seeker from exploring a new
church because, as a mark of identity, it denotes insider/outsider status. Therefore, many of these
churches eschew the marker while remaining true to many of the beliefs and practices.
<http://www.willowcreek.com/>; accessed 29 January 2012.
Other U.S. notables include: Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Orange County, CA, Joel
Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, TX, and T. D. Jakes’ The Potter’s House in Dallas, TX
(Jakes also runs the for-profit production company TDJ Enterprises). Outside the U.S., Joseph
Prince’s New Creation Church in Singapore and Ulf Ekman’s Word Of Life Church in Uppsala,
Sweden are prominent international examples of the ‘New Paradigm’ of evangelical Christianity.
and influence is tied to marketing. In this cultural milieu, Hillsong’s mix of music
and marketing has made it one of the most influential religious brands in the
world. The following section presents Hillsong’s musical brand and its branding
Part III - Hillsong Church
Hillsong Church began in 1983 as the Hills Christian Life Centre. Founded by
Head Pastors Brian and Bobbie Houston, the initial congregation of 45 met in a
rented school hall in the Baulkham Hills district, a suburb of Sydney, Australia.
Today, around 30,000 worshippers a week attend services at its purpose-built
3,500-seat flagship church (which is located in Baulkham Hills) and eight other
campuses across Australia’s Eastern seaboard (Aghajanian, email exchange with
author, 5 September 2013). Furthermore, an estimated 40,000 attend Hillsongbranded churches in major cities such as London, Kiev, Cape Town, Stockholm,
Paris, Moscow, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Barcelona and New York City
(Carswell 2013). Hillsong’s annual conference draws in excess of 28,000 people,
while its European counterpart, the Hillsong Europe conference, attracts about
16,000 people annually. The church’s beliefs and practices are rooted in
Pentecostalism (Brian Houston’s father, Frank Houston, was a Pentecostal
minister and Brian is a former head of Assemblies of God in Australia, which he
helped to re-brand as Australian Christian Churches, or ACC), but Hillsong’s
website does not align the church with a specific tradition (McIntyre 2007: 176).
This is standard practice for most ‘seeker’ churches (Sergeant 2000). In this
respect, then, Hillsong Church is better classified under a broad ‘evangelical
Christian’ and ‘New Paradigm’ category.
Hillsong is a striking example of the confluence of sophisticated marketing
techniques and popular music that has characterized the New Paradigm movement
(c.f. Sergeant 2000). Since 1992, it has produced over 45 albums, sold over 14
million albums worldwide, and amassed over 30 gold and platinum awards. These
albums are separated into product streams meant for specific target audiences. For
example, Hillsong Kids features music produced for children and Hillsong Chapel
offers acoustic arrangements of Hillsong’s songs for those who seek a ‘quieter’
worship experience than that afforded by the electric guitar, keyboard, and drumsdriven originals. Hillsong’s global popularity, though, stems primarily from its
two main product streams, Hillsong United and Hillsong LIVE. Hillsong United is
the name of the band that grew out of the Australian church’s youth program. Led
by the Houstons’ son Joel, Hillsong United regularly tours the world and is
arguably the most prominent face of the church. In contrast, Hillsong LIVE
albums are promoted as the expression of Hillsong’s ‘global’ network; while
relying heavily upon the Australian church’s creative team, Hillsong LIVE albums
incorporate singers and songwriters from Hillsong churches around the world.
Despite their separate marketing programmes, there is a good deal of crossover of
artists and songs between United and LIVE (Riches 2010; Riches and Wagner
2012), which helps to promote an overall Hillsong musical identity. While
Hillsong’s global membership is relatively small compared to the megachurches
that claim up to six-digit attendances, its worship songs have had an outsized
influence on both the Australian and global Christian sonic (and theological)
landscapes (Evans 2006: 87-109). Every Sunday, its songs are heard and sung in
thousands of evangelical and non-evangelical churches around the world.42
Like most megachurches, Hillsong is structured and operates like a secular
business. According to its website, its governance policies are ‘based on the
Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) Principles of Good Corporate Governance and
Best Practice Recommendations, together with adherence to foundational Biblical
values’.43 Senior Pastor Brian Houston is the head of its board of directors, which
includes members with considerable business acumen, such as General Manager
George Aghajanian, who has a background in senior management for Australian
and international companies, and Nabi Saleh, CEO of Gloria Jean’s Coffees.
Unlike secular for-profit companies, though, Hillsong Church is a registered nonprofit organization, so it is income tax-exempt. Additionally, it is able to lower
operating costs because a significant amount of its labour is provided by
<http://www.ccli.com/licenseholder/Top25Lists.aspx>; accessed 23 January 2013.
Corporate Governance. <http://myhillsong.com/corporate-goverance>; accessed 07 August
A general picture of the church’s finances can be constructed from its annual
report.44 Income is generated from donations (its members are encouraged to
tithe),45 ticketed events such as conferences, and numerous products, including
CDs, DVDs, MP3s and books. Its 2010 Annual Report listed earnings of AUS$64
million, with total assets of $28.7m and income from conferences of $6.7m.46
Hillsong’s music is produced by its own publishing arm, Hillsong Music Australia
(HMA), and distributed by Capital CMG in North and South America, and
Kingsway Music in Europe and the UK. It can be purchased at church events like
weekly services and conferences, through the Hillsong Music website, or via
music download sites such as Amazon.com or iTunes. In addition to income
generated from album sales, the church also receives royalties paid by other
churches that use its songs in services or other events. These undisclosed licensing
fees, collected in part through the Christian Copyright Licencing International
(CCLI) organization, accounted for between 35 and 45 per cent of all its total
musical royalties in 2011 (McKenny 2011). Hillsong’s intellectual property
extends well beyond its music: in the countries in which it operates, it has
trademarks that cover everything from its logo to its services.47
Hillsong’s mission and message is one of global transformation: it seeks to ‘reach
and influence the world by building a large Christ-centred, Bible-based church,
changing mindsets and empowering people to lead and impact in every sphere of
life’.48 It does this by building a globally networked community of local churches,
and by promoting its brand tagline, ‘Welcome Home’, which neatly sums up its
Hillsong’s audited financial statements are lodged annually with the Australian Securities and
Investment Commission. In 2013, the Australian Government established the new Australian
Charities and Not for Profit Commission, where future financials will be lodged (Aghajanian;
email exchange with author, 5 August 2013).
Tithing is the practice of giving the first tenth of one’s income to the Church. While the practice
is not uncontroversial (usually grounded in debates over whether or not it is ‘biblical’), it is widely
encouraged in New Paradigm churches and often provides them with a significant revenue stream
Available online at: <http://mumbrella.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Hillsong-AnnualReport-2010.pdf>; accessed 6 September 2013.
This includes trademarks for audiovisual, printed material, clothing, Christian conferences,
church and religious services. In Australia, Hillsong holds additional trademarks for microfinance
activities, business development training, medical and counselling services, and social welfare
Our Vision. <http://myhillsong.com/vision>; accessed 28 December 2012.
glocalization strategy. Because Hillsong strategically locates churches in major
international cities around the world, its trans-national congregation is culturally
and linguistically diverse. This diversity is apparent at some of its larger venues,
such as Hillsong London, which serves around 8,000 worshippers weekly,
translating its services into seven languages.
Hillsong as a Brand
As noted above, Hillsong is only one of the growing numbers of churches that
engage in marketing. The act of evangelising is itself a form of marketing
communications, and evangelicals have long travelled far and wide to spread the
word. From this view, the mediated rise of the New Paradigm church is a
contemporary manifestation of age-old proselytising practices (Coleman 2000: 4).
Richard Reising is the president of Artistry Labs, a consulting firm that works
with churches to ‘strategically present each client’s unique message’.49 According
to Reising, although advertising the gospel is nothing new,50 referring to it
specifically as ‘advertising’ or ‘marketing’ has until recently been avoided:
[T]en years ago it [branding] was met with extreme scepticism. The whole
concept of promoting church was taboo. But there has been a growing
acceptance over time. Now people realize what it means and what it doesn’t
mean. They see it as part of going out into the world to preach, promote and
publish the Gospel. (Richard Reising; in Colyer 2005, in Einstein 2008: 61)
The increase in Christian-oriented branding firms since around the turn of the
millennium testifies to the acceptance of branding as the ‘new paradigm’. Not
only is Hillsong not the first or only church to brand itself, it is also not the first or
only church to produce its own music. This has been done since the 1960s, and the
Vineyard and Maranatha! labels mentioned in the previous section are probably
the best-known examples of this. Additionally, churches like Willow Creek and
Saddleback in the U.S., and Planetshakers in Australia, release globally
distributed albums every year. Hillsong is unique, though, in that its music and
identity are inseparable. Indeed, Hillsong is so named because of its music.
Our Work. <http://www.artistrylabs.com/our-work>; accessed 23 January 2013.
The Rev. Charles Stelzle, for example, published Principles of Successful Church Advertising in
1908 (Twitchell 2007: 141).
Although Hillsong church has operated continuously since 1983, it was not until
2001 that it officially changed its name from Hills Christian Life Centre to
Hillsong Church. Until that time, the ‘Hillsongs’ label was reserved for its musical
product. As the ‘Hillsongs’ music became increasingly well known, though, its
origins and intent – a congregational expression of worship from Hills Christian
Life Centre – became lost. Many listeners thought that ‘Hillsongs’ was just a
band. Thus, the decision was made to ‘brand’ the church as the artist – fusing the
identity of the organization with the music. According to Brian Houston:
Hillsong was originally the name of our music and the church was called
Hills Christian Life Centre, but people used to talk about ‘that Hillsong
Church’ and the name Hillsong actually became famous, if you like,
around the world. So in the end, we thought, that's what we're known as,
so we became Hillsong Church. (Jones 2005)
Music is featured in almost all of the church’s communications. For example, it is
present in both the foreground and background of promotional videos and is also
played in the lobbies of its churches. Visually, images of its musicians and of
congregation members in worship adorn many of the banners, ads and magazines
that are distributed. Perhaps most importantly, Hillsong’s music is a primary
component in most aspects of the ‘Hillsong experience’ such as services and
conferences. While Hillsong’s use of music is not necessarily different from that
of the many evangelical churches that emphasise the experiential aspects of
worship, its almost exclusive use of its own music reveals the extent to which
marketing is interwoven with the life of the church, and to some extent drives it.
This in turn speaks to the concomitancy of branding and experience that is the
focus of this thesis. An example of this can be seen in the ‘Scarlet Thread’, the
leitmotif of Hillsong’s music, preaching and marketing in 2012. To understand the
significance of marketing to the overall functioning of the church and the way it
delivers its message, it is necessary to examine the production cycle that governs a
year in the ‘life of the church’ through the lens of branding.
The Scarlet Thread: Branding as Liturgy
Branding organises disparate media (and their associated messages) into a
meaningful gestalt. Each interaction with something or someone associated with
the brand – from videos, songs and printed material, to an organisation’s
representatives, to word of mouth and things written and said about the
organisation ‘in the media’ – contributes to an understanding of its message.
While the fundamentals of Hillsong’s message have remained consistent over the
years, as the church has grown and its needs, participants and environment have
changed, the way it has delivered that message has evolved. This evolution
includes not only changes in the music, but also the metaphorical and visual
imagery associated with it (Riches and Wagner 2012). The following discussion
analyses how this marketing package is disseminated over the course of a year,
and how the marketing and roll-out of its musical offerings, and important events
such as conferences, to some degree dictate what music is used and when. In other
words, branding concerns influence Hillsong’s liturgy and liturgical calendar.
A year in Hillsong’s liturgical calendar begins with ‘Vision Sunday’, which is
generally the first Sunday in February. As the name suggests, Vision Sunday is
the day that Brian Houston’s vision for the coming year is shared with Hillsong’s
global congregation. This is done via a video presentation that is shown in every
service at every Hillsong church around the world. Although the style of the video
varies from year to year, it always introduces the central message and the
metaphorical and visual materials that the church will use to communicate during
the particular year for which the video has been produced. For many participants,
this is a highly spiritual service in which a prophetic unction is brought for the
year (Riches, personal communication; 1 July 2013).
The 2012 Vision Sunday video was entitled ‘The Scarlet Thread’.51 Shot through
an Instagram-like filter, its central image was a red thread that symbolized Jesus
Christ as the cord that holds together the tapestry of humanity – the red colour
symbolising His blood. Shot in short ‘chapters’, the video intersperses dramatic
Video available at: <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VnG1si3xLto>; accessed 5 January
scenes of a tapestry being hand-woven on a loom in Jerusalem (the way it is shot
leaves the date ambiguous – it could be in the present or two thousand years ago)
punctuated with the testimonies of three congregation members (two from
Australia and one from a Londoner now at the New York church).
The Scarlet Thread was appeared throughout 2012, in communications such as
adverts, in-service videos, pastoral messages, and most spectacularly at Hillsong’s
conferences. For example, it both figuratively and literally took centre stage at
Hillsong’s European conference, where a giant loom was erected. It was also the
central trope on the cover of the 2012 Hillsong LIVE release, God Is Able.
Figure 1.1: The cover of God Is Able
Here we see integrated marketing at work. Spread across videos, advertisements,
album covers and in preaching throughout the year, the Scarlet Thread ties
together Hillsong’s media in a branded tapestry that draws meaning from (and
provides continuity to) its communications.
One important thread in Hillsong’s brand tapestry is its yearly calendar, which is
marked by three important kinds of event: conferences, holidays, and album
releases. Tanya Riches shows in her analysis of the role of Hillsong’s yearly
‘product rollout’ calendar that the functioning of the church and its branding are
directly linked to a production schedule:52
Table 1.1: Hillsong’s yearly production and events calendar
‘Colour Your World’
Hillsong LIVE Recording
Hillsong Youth Camps
Hillsong United Album
Release (option 2)
Hillsong United Tour
Hillsong LIVE Album
Hillsong LIVE Tour
Hillsong United Album
Recording (option 1)
Hillsong United Album
Release (option 1);
Hillsong United Album
Recording (option 2)
As the above chart shows, conferences, which are an important part of Hillsong’s
global reach, are synchronised with album releases. Hillsong’s production
The above table (Figure 1) is based on Table 19 ‘HB and UB Annual Calendar and Marketing
Rollout’ (Riches 2010: 146). I have supplemented and updated it (as of December 2012). Some
dates change from year to year as it is adapted to new products, the expanding Hillsong Network
of churches and local constraints. For example, although Hillsong’s European conference is
usually held in London in July, the 2012 conference was held in October in two locations, Den
Haag and Stockholm, because of the Olympics. 2013 featured October conferences in the United
States in New York and Los Angeles.
calendar can also be thought of as its ‘liturgical calendar’. Hillsong celebrates
only a few of the traditional Christian high holidays (Easter and Christmas), and
does so with special theatrical productions. Of at least equal importance to these
are its own branded events, which are more heavily promoted.53 Taken in the
context of the New Paradigm’s quasi-denominational evangelical Christianity, in
which independent church networks are supplanting traditional denominations
(Sergeant 2000), this is not surprising.54
Historically, the form and content (especially musical) of Christian church
services have been dictated by a liturgical calendar. At Hillsong churches, the
musical content of services is largely dictated by recording concerns. Throughout
the year, songs are introduced in the run-up to July’s Hillsong conference, when
the year’s new LIVE album is released. For the rest of the year and on until the
next, these and new Hillsong United songs are the main repertoire sung in worship
services.55 According to my interviews, as well as my own observations, there is
an overall integration of the year’s message, the weekly preaching and the songs
played in services. This is not to say that different messages are not delivered at
different churches throughout the year – only that there is a ‘meta-message’ that
derives from Vision Sunday. The Vision Sunday themes are integrated into the
songs sung in church, although not always explicitly or consciously. This was
expressed to me by a number of my conversation partners, including Hillsong’s
general manager George Aghajanian:
The songwriters don’t necessarily take the Vision Sunday elements and
make them the focal point for the albums. I think the albums are more of an
This observation should be nuanced by noting that the holiday specials are more ‘local’ affairs
while the conferences are intended to be more globally-focused. Therefore, it is difficult to assign
more ‘importance’ to one or the other in the context of Hillsong’s branding. However, this bolsters
my contention that traditional holidays and the events most important to Hillsong’s global
branding can both be considered ‘high holidays’ in its liturgical calendar.
Although Hillsong is, to all intents and purposes, ‘non-denominational’ (albeit with a
Pentecostal background and leanings), it can also be thought of as a quasi-denomination. Beyond
its music, which has not only contributed a number of staples to the developing new Christian
musical canon (Hartje-Döll 2013) and also influenced its stylistic development, Hillsong carries
out a number of other functions that were formerly the purview of mainline denominations. For
example, Hillsong provides training for pastors at its own Hillsong college in Australia, through
workshops at its conferences, and also through educational materials which can be purchased on
Some older ‘favourites’ will from time to time be pulled out, but my observations have been that
the repertoire of services largely follows the cycle detailed above.
organic process. Now, at times they’ll take the theme of Vision Sunday…
like the theme of the Scarlet Thread… and some of those songs may be
reflective of that, but that’s not the prerequisite for [inclusion on the album].
(Interview with author, 28 September 2011)
Jorim, a worship leader at Hillsong London, echoed this:
I don’t purposely sit down and go, ‘Right, I need to write a song about
healing or about such and such’. I kind of start an idea in the moment.
[However] at church here, the songs are for backing up the preach, as
opposed to having separate preach and songs. The song should actually back
up what [Hillsong Pastor] Gary [Clark] is preaching. (Interview with author,
22 April 2011)
Although songs may not always be written with the express purpose of
dovetailing with Vision Sunday, I observed a correlation between the 2011 release
of the Hillsong LIVE album A Beautiful Exchange (the title of the album and the
title track itself are references to Jesus’ death on the cross and the act and meaning
of communion services) and an emphasis at Hillsong London on these topics in
the preaching and also in connect groups and team meetings, where communion
was, for a time, instituted.56 When I asked Jorim about this, he responded that:
The pastors definitely decide. Like Peter or Gary and then maybe Brian. I’m
not sure they’re thinking behind preaching, but yeah, A Beautiful Exchange
that’s a perfect example of how a song comes second to preach at Hillsong,
and how it literally backs up whatever is being said at the pulpit. I think
some of the places that we go to, sometimes it can be a bit misread or
misunderstood that we’re a band and we’re very much not in that sense. Just
to reiterate that songs come second to whatever is being preached. Every
Sunday, the preparation for a Sunday is literally ‘How will this song work in
the grand structure of a Sunday after who’s preaching and what they’re
talking about’. So it’s very much not left until the last minute. (Interview
with author, 22 April 2011)
Here, Jorim is talking about song selection rather than songwriting. At least at
Hillsong London, the worship leaders choose songs from the repertoire that are
Because of factors such as the roughly 2,000 participants in each service, the design of the
Dominion Theatre and the need to put on four services every Sunday, it would be impractical if not
impossible to offer weekly communion at Hillsong London. Thus, during 2011, communion was
practised in team meetings before services and also encouraged at weekly private connect group
meetings around London. As of 2012 when my fieldwork had finished, this had subsided at team
meetings, although it continued in the connect group I attended. Several participants within the
church have told me that the lack of consistency I observed had to do with the difficulties of ‘doing
church’ in a rented space like the Dominion. The point here, though, is that before A Beautiful
Exchange came out, I had not observed or participated in any communion services, nor had it been
emphasised in the preaching. When the album was released, A Beautiful Exchange became
thematic material – both musically and as an idea – in services for the next year.
pertinent to the pastor’s message that week.57 Whether the song precedes the
preach or vice versa, it is clear that both are integrated in the gestalt message that
Hillsong conveys. Chapter four details the process in which songs travel from
inspiration to release on a Hillsong album. This includes a number of ‘quality
control’ steps that ensure they are synergetic with Hillsong’s mission, values and
theology. Here, though, it is enough to say that while songs do not necessarily
derive directly from a single pre-planned talking point or theme,58 the music and
message are nevertheless intimately associated. Furthermore, because the message
is also contained in the visual and discursive tropes that are introduced each year,
the product releases and their associated events are important temporal markers
that influence the rituals that communicate and (re)affirm the church’s purpose
and values. Hillsong’s production schedule can thus be understood as – along with
album releases and traditional holidays such as Christmas and Easter –
constituting Hillsong’s branded liturgical calendar.
The previous section presented Hillsong as a brand, a confluence of the historical,
individual and organizational effects (Usunier and Stolz 2014) of a ‘religious
market’. Certainly, Hillsong can be spoken of using the language of branding: for
example, it has a brand name, brand personality, brand equity, brand positioning,
brand image and brand promise. Even Hillsong’s founder, Brian Houston, has
recently started using the term ‘brand’ (with ambivalence) when referring to his
church.60 However, marketing language is territorially ambitious: as was seen in
Part II above, today the notions of a brand and branding have been expanded to
This is interesting because Hillsong London often welcomes guest pastors to preach. These
pastors bring their own messages. However, it should also be noted that these pastors are drawn
from a transnational – but still fairly small – circuit of preachers and churches that preach
variations on the same theme. Very often, the guest preacher will begin by telling the congregation
what good friends he or she is with Gary and Cathy, and how he or she had a great time hanging
out with the Clark family the previous evening. Thus, the message never strays from the values
that are promoted by the hosts.
Although they may do, as many of Hillsong’s main songwriters are also part of Hillsong’s inner
circle, and are intimately familiar with the church’s long-term plans. See Chapters two and four.
Many thanks to Liz Moor and Byron Dueck for their thorough readings of this these and helpful
comments, which form the basis for this section.
‘Hillsong has got a credibility that I want to look after. I don't like using a marketing term, but if
you did use a marketing term it is “strong brand”’ (Carswell 2013)
the point where they can be applied to almost any phenomenon. As David Voas
… there is little difficulty in applying the terminology of brands to religion.
The question is whether it is wise or illuminating to do so. How far are we
willing to allow the empire of markets to extend? And are we speaking in
metaphors, or is it really the case that religious belief and practice are most
usefully analysed with the tools of microeconomics? (Voas 2014, xviii)
The language of branding helps identify some of the tools and strategies used by
Hillsong, but perhaps not all. Furthermore, branding language may not be the
most helpful language to use when describing the intent of Hillsong’s actions.
This is to say that, because branding is a range of tools and strategies, it is
difficult to know when the marketing ends and something else begins. For
example, Hillsong collects royalties from its music, and its sales (and thus brand
equity) are undoubtedly boosted by the fact that people draw positive associations
with its brand name (see chapter three). However, many of Hillsong’s musicians,
administrators and participants would argue that the economic benefits of
branding are a secondary effect of a primary goal (to spread the Gospel); besides
which, the money is reinvested into growing the church, which helps achieve this.
This can be seen in the church’s approach to copyright. While, as noted above,
Hillsong’s name, music and activities are all trademarked, as far as I am aware it
has not actively enforced its intellectual property rights. For example, its music is
freely shared on YouTube, most notably as the backing tracks to fan-produced
‘worship videos’ that often receive several times more views than its official
channels (Ingalls forthcoming). By allowing its music to be used in this manner,
Hillsong bolsters its claim that its music is first and foremost a resource for
worship rather than a source of income (see chapter 2). Simultaneously, though,
non-enforcement can be seen as a strategy of music economics in the digital era,
in which music is given away in the hope of generating name recognition that
drives returns in other areas.
In this thesis, the use of marketing language is to be taken literally when
describing some of the tools and strategies regarding matters like distribution
mechanisms, but at other times it should be understood as a strong metaphor that
points to Hillsong’s larger socio-historical cultural milieu. The latter usage can be
found in the final chapters, which explore the normative and governmental effects
of branding. This view of branding, held by sociologists such as Arvidsson
(2006), Lury (2004), and Moor (2007) is one that I employ because it makes
important points vis-à-vis the hegemonic effects of branding (see also Carah
2010). However, one could argue that this view of branding is a ‘market’
perspective on social processes that could equally be explained through other
means, such as psychologist Charles Galanter’s systems approach (concluding
chapter). In the chapters that follow, then, I use a set of marketing terms that are
part of the contemporary cultural and economic conjuncture, in part because they
are very active within this conjuncture, but also because they may call into
question assumptions about just how far ‘the market’ extends. This is perhaps
reflected in the ambivalence that evangelical Christians often feel towards ‘the
market’, which is reflected in my collaborator’s own meditations and language
use that appear throughout the thesis. Perhaps more importantly, the use of
marketing language is meant as a provocation to the ethnomusicological
community, whose project is to understand the place of music as a socio-cultural
phenomenon. On the one hand, I believe that, in applying the language of ‘the
market’ to the things we study, we come closer to understanding how actors in it
think, understand and experience everyday life, of which their faiths are an
integral part. However, one could also argue that in relying on this language, we
further normalize the ethos that we seek to critique (Usunier 2014). Evangelistic
faiths have always been litmus tests for the socio-historical milieu within which
they exist. In the end, then, the broad application of branding terminology as a
way of describing a church like Hillsong (or any organization or social process for
that matter) is a way to ‘take the temperature’ of both evangelical Christianity and
our own time and self-understandings.
New Paradigm churches are products of a socio-historical cultural milieu in which
branding is an integral part of social life. Operating in a religious experience
economy, religious brands such as Hillsong may be becoming a new form of
denominationalism. If branding functions by appealing to culture – especially to
the ‘ruptures’ in it (Holt 2004) – and is also a resource for shaping world views,
then it becomes clear how Hillsong and churches like it have developed.
Hillsong’s form, functioning and expression have been shaped by the social,
economic and technological changes that have characterised and driven
globalisation. As will be shown in the following chapters, Hillsong is at once a
brand, a denomination and a social system. A player in a competitive religious
market, its form and actions are driven by a confluence of production needs and
vision. This is seen in the way its product roll-out schedule dovetails with its
message to create a ‘branded’ liturgical calendar. What results is an integrated
The next chapter interrogates a specific media object and medium of consumer
culture: the celebrity. It does so in relation to the evangelical Christian discourse
of the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’ that informs attitudes and ways of being ‘in the
world’. In other words, it defines how Hillsong’s participants see themselves and
their actions in relation to humanity as a whole, the first level of ‘community’ that
this thesis explores. Branding provides continuity to the experience of the world
for participants who live the contradictions inherent in everyday life, providing
the discursive material with which they justify their attitudes and actions as being
‘in but not of the world’.
In – But Not Of – The (Christian) Culture Industry
An effective brand communicates an organisation’s purpose and values to its
participants, and does so by demonstrating fidelity to and being literate in the
idiosyncratic cultural codes of its target market(s) (Holt 2004: 65). As an
evangelical organisation, Hillsong has multiple ‘target markets’. For example, it
seeks the ‘unchurched’, but also ministers to its participants. While there are
myriad differences between and among the individuals that constitute these
markets, what unites them is that they are all, to some degree, participants in
‘electronic culture’ (Sample 1998) whose worldviews are shaped by and
embodied through the use of electronic mass media (Coleman 2000; McLuhan
 2001). They speak a language that draws from a variety of ‘global’ and
‘local’, ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ sources, in turn both producing and reproducing
understandings of what it means to be, among other things, ‘Christian’. Brands are
part of the language of mass-mediated societies (Lash and Lury 2007), so it
should be no surprise that branding is a way through which Hillsong and its
participants communicate their purpose(s) and values among themselves and to
As noted in chapter one, the integration of brands and branding into the social
fabric of consumer culture affords them an influential role in the ordering of
culture and the on-going production of the culture industry (Arvidsson 2006; Lash
and Lury 2007; Lury 2004; Moor 2007). Like capitalism itself, the culture
industry is a paradoxical creature, one that flattens and homogenises while
simultaneously feeding on and encouraging diversity. In late capitalism (Jameson
1992), goods and services are marketed to ever-smaller ‘lifestyle’ groups. This
includes groups that aspire to a ‘Christian’ lifestyle sustained through the
consumption of ‘Christian’ goods and services (Einstein 2008; Ingalls 2008;
Nekola 2013). The recognition of Christians as a potentially lucrative niche
market has led to the development of a ‘Christian culture industry’ that exists as
both a subset of and an alternative to the ‘secular’ culture industry.61 Christian
Popular Music (CPM) is both part of this industry and emblematic of the forces
and discourses that shape it, as the commodity status of the music serves as both a
driver of its development and a point of contention in evangelical Christian
circles.62 The products that constitute the Christian culture industry are often
distinguishable from their secular counterparts only because they are marketed as
‘Christian’ (Einstein 2008), and the marketing strategies used by the Christian
culture industry to reach its audience are as sophisticated as secular marketing
strategies (Nekola 2013; Romanowski 2000). Arguably, then, the only difference
between the secular and Christian culture industries is the ‘Christian’ label. If this
is the case, it follows that Christian brands function in the same manner as their
secular counterparts; both are ‘anointed’ with certain ‘sacred’ aspects, but the
meanings of Christian brands are associated with specific Christian discourses.
One fixture of both the Christian culture industry and the secular culture industry
is the celebrity. Although the Christian celebrity is not a new phenomenon – all of
the influential evangelists presented in chapter one could be considered celebrities
– it is now an increasingly globalised one. World-famous pastors, worship leaders
and Christian bands circulate both physically and virtually in a transnational web
of conferences, products and mass media (Coleman 2000; Ingalls 2011). This is
true of Hillsong, which boasts a stable of internationally known worship leaders
such as Reuben Morgan, Hillsong’s lead Worship Pastor and author of several
famous tunes such as ‘Mighty to Save’; Joel Houston, the son of Brian and Bobbie
Houston and the leader of Hillsong United; and Darlene Zschech,63 as well as
crossover pop stars such as Brook Fraiser and Natasha Bedingfield and Christian
Contemporary Music writers such as Jason Ingram. These musicianspokespersons are the ‘faces’ of the church, which relies on them to disseminate
Economics and religion have always gone hand in hand (Moore 1994). For example, religious
commodities have been sold at pilgrimage sites for centuries. The point here is that they are now
distributed on a much wider scale, sharing the same production, distribution and consumption
patterns as their secular counterparts (Einstein 2008; Ingalls et al. 2013)
See, for example: Beaujon 2006; Howard and Streck 1999; Ingalls 2008, 2011; Ingalls et al.
2013; Nekola 2009.
Zschech now pastors her own church on the south coast of Australia. However, she is still
strongly associated with Hillsong.
its message and values. However, while harnessing the communicative power of
celebrity, Hillsong must also manage the real and imagined dangers of the culture
industry that it is part of. This chapter examines how this is done vis-à-vis
This chapter begins with a short discussion of Contemporary Christian Music
(CCM), a subset of both CPM and the Christian culture industry that has
historically been a locus of struggle over the values that define Protestantism
(Nekola 2009).64 As a phenomenon of mass-mediated culture, CCM draws on a
variety of ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ languages, images and discourses to
communicate identity and values. Although Christians recognise that CCM is
inextricable from the economic and cultural influences of the ‘worldly’ society
that they are part of, they are often at odds over which elements from ‘secular’
and ‘Christian’ cultures should be drawn upon and which should be avoided. This
equivocation is evident in the unease with which many Christians view celebrity
pastors and worship leaders. While it is recognised that they are ‘doing God’s
work’ on a global scale, the fame and fortune that often accompanies (but is also
necessary for) their approach to this work is viewed ambiguously. Celebrities are
mediated products, and it can therefore be argued that they are important not for
who they are but for what they represent (Ward 2011). However, I submit that, in
a branding context, the expectation of authenticity that participants place on their
brands make the ‘who’ and the ‘what’ inseparable. People attach meanings to
celebrities, transforming those celebrities into icons – cultural shorthand for a
variety of (sometimes conflicting) purposes and values. When associated with a
brand, celebrities and the organisations they represent become co-branded in the
minds of participants, so that the values of the organisation, the celebrity and the
participants become inseparable from one another. Following from this, in the
second part of this chapter I analyse how Hillsong’s former worship leader
Darlene Zschech communicates65 authenticity and authentically communicates the
Hillsong’s musicians consider their music church-based rather than talent- (artist-) based, and
therefore distinct from CCM. As noted in the opening chapter, though, the commodity status of the
music means there is considerable overlap between the two definitions. They are perhaps only
differentiated discursively at the level of intention. Therefore, a discussion of CCM is useful for
analysing Hillsong’s music in a branding context.
As noted in footnote three, Zschech left Hillsong in 2011 to pastor her own Hope Unlimited
Church. The question thus becomes whether to use the past or present tense in this analysis. I have
Hillsong brand’s purpose and values in word and action – in other words, through
lifestyle choices. I then discuss how Hillsong discursively manages her image –
and thus the image of its music and its organisation – in order to tell its own story.
Hillsong does this by acknowledging the contradictions inherent in the discourse
of CCM and then adopting a range of strategies, vis-à-vis the Hillsong brand, to
manage those contradictions. In doing so, the brand provides a way for its
stakeholders to understand their activities in terms that resonate with their
everyday lives. I conclude by noting that brands rely on cultural contradictions to
promote their utopian promises (Holt 2004). Participants use brands to harmonise
dissonances in their everyday lives. Hillsong’s brand promise is one of
transformation and transcendence of the ‘sacred/secular’ divide, affording its
stakeholders a means by which they can live both ‘in and of’ the world.
Part I - The Christ/Culture Conundrum
The question ‘What is religion?’ is not easily answered. Sociologists have
generally posited religious objects and practices as ‘set apart’ from those of
ordinary life. This is especially true of the functionalist theories most notably set
forth by Durkheim ( 2001), Weber ( 1993) and Geertz (1973). One
of the most influential articulations of this line of thinking was Emile Durkheim’s
notion of the ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ (Durkheim  2001: 36-40). Durkheim
argued that religion is not constituted by belief in gods or spirits, but instead in a
distinction between things imbued with otherworldly meaning versus things of the
world. Religions ‘presuppose a classification of things, real and ideal, of which
men think, into two classes or opposed groups, generally designated by… the
words profane and sacred’ (ibid.: 36).
decided to use the present tense because, as will be shown, she is such an integral part of
Hillsong’s brand evolution that she continues to exert an influence on it. Furthermore, as this
chapter argues, the ‘Darlene’ that is co-branded with Hillsong largely (although not exclusively)
exists in and as media. In this respect, the argument can be made that she exists permanently in a
branded ‘present’. Although not presently with the church, she still ‘communicates’ as part of its
For many evangelical Christians, the sacred/profane dichotomy is most clearly
articulated in the biblical mandate to live ‘in, but not of, the world’, a
paraphrasing of Jesus’ words to his followers in John 17:13-16:
13 And now come I to thee; and these things I speak in the world, that they
might have my joy fulfilled in themselves. 14 I have given them thy word;
and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I
am not of the world. 15 I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the
world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. 16 They are not of
the world, even as I am not of the world.66
Evangelicals believe that Christians are called upon to engage with society in
everyday life (especially for evangelical purposes) but should also maintain a
higher moral standard than that of ‘secular’ society. While this call is embraced in
theory, there remains considerable disagreement as to how it should be applied in
practice. According to H. Richard Niebuhr ( 2001), Christians negotiate the
tensions between ‘Christ and Culture’ by adopting five strategies to relate the
sacred to the secular. These strategies are differentiated by the degree to which the
‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’ are ‘mixed’. One extreme, which Niebuhr calls the
‘Christ against culture’ view, separates the realms of the sacred and secular and
calls for a withdrawal from the latter into the former. The other extreme, the
‘Christ of culture’ view, sees Christian values as the ‘best’ of human culture and
thus the two cannot be separated. Niebuhr also posits three mediating positions,
which he calls ‘Christ above culture’, ‘Christ and culture in paradox’ and ‘Christ
the transformer of culture’. Each of these positions seeks, in different ways, to
maintain a distinction between the realms of sacred and secular while still drawing
from both. The ‘Christ above culture’ perspective acknowledges the synthesis of
the two realms, but argues that Christians must distinguish between the two in
daily life. The ‘Christ and culture in paradox’ view essentially argues that
Christians must struggle to live a holy life, but will ultimately fail to do so. For
those who subscribe to the third mediating position, ‘Christ the transformer of
culture’, culture is a product of fallen humans and therefore redeemable through
See also James 1:27 and Romans 2:12.
In their book, Apostles of Rock: The Splintered World of Contemporary Christian
Music (1999), Jay Howard and John Streck apply Niebuhr’s typology to show
how concepts of the sacred and secular shape Christian Contemporary Music
(CCM, a subset of CPM; see Ingalls et al. 2013). Using rhetoric that articulates the
Christ and Culture conundrum, Christian music artists, labels and fans adopt
different and often contradictory views about the nature and purpose of Christian
music in order to justify their activities. For example, ‘crossover’ artist Amy
Grant’s songs are grounded in her faith but her lyrics are generally not explicitly
Christian. For some, Grant is helping ‘covertly’ spread Christian values by
reaching the ‘unchurched’. To others, though, the lack of explicitly Christian
lyrics in her songs is understood as a capitulation to the ‘secular’ market.
Arguments over artists like Grant reveal the latent confusion within evangelical
Christian culture about how to engage with contemporary ‘secular’ culture –
particularly with its consumer elements.67
The (Christian) Culture Industry
Durkheim’s dichotomy is part of the sociological tradition that viewed the rise of
scientific rationalism and the declining influence of centralised religious
institutions as evidence of a ‘secularisation’ process that would eventually lead to
the collapse of organised religion, if not a complete disregard for the otherworldly
(Stark and Finke 2000: 57-58). However, challenges to this view began to arise in
the 1960s and 1970s (ibid.: 62), and with a few exceptions (e.g. Bruce 2002,
2011), it is now widely recognised that religion is neither dying, nor has it
assumed less importance in people’s lives (c.f. Berg-Sørensen 2013). Instead, the
way people express, practise and experience belief is changing. Religion is being
‘updated’ to exist as a cultural practice that is natural to its members. This is
nothing new. The incorporation of popular culture has long been a defining
feature of evangelical Christianity, and the history of CPM shows that it is a
continuing dialogue about the relative synergy between the practice of the Church
and the culture of its flock (Ingalls et al. 2013; Mall 2012; Nekola 2009). For
For other accounts, see Beaujon 2006; Joseph 2003; Thompson 2000.
example, along with his 39 treatises, John Calvin is known for re-writing hymns,
often setting them to popular tunes of the time. Many missionaries in the
American colonies incorporated local repertoires and cultural practices into
church services in order to appeal to the local group (Finke and Stark 2005).
Furthermore, a contemporary approach to musical mission, ‘ethnodoxology’,
looks to ethnomusicology to ‘help missionaries be culturally sensitive’.68 Society
is not becoming more secular; rather, mainstream evangelical Christianity’s
practices are sacralising elements of popular culture. The Church now speaks the
language of popular culture. It has a dialogue with the broader culture in which it
exists, adapting its practices and organisational structures to integrate seamlessly
into a larger cultural experience – a lifestyle (Sargeant 2000; Twitchell 2007).
This phenomenon accompanies a massive, growing market for religious goods.
From movies, books and music to clothing and coffee, billions of dollars are spent
each year on ‘Christian’ products (Einstein 2008: 6). Significantly, much of this
money is not spent in niche Christian shops, but in havens of consumer culture
like Wal-Mart, which at the turn of the millennium was selling around $1 billion
worth of Christian books, movies, music and other merchandise annually
(Coolidge 2003). The appellation ‘Christian’ is now a selling point, a mark of
However, while the look, feel and sound of the sacred and the secular may be
merging (and even sharing the same worship and retail spaces) the meanings
ascribed to the offerings that travel in and between the two spheres are different. It
is not always clear, for example, what defines ‘Christian’ music (Beaujon 2006;
Howard and Streck 1999; Ingalls et al. 2013), however ‘Christian music’
nevertheless clearly exists, at least as a marketing category that allows the
Christian music industry to position itself as a subset of the music industry as a
whole. In fact, all of the remaining multinational music firms have dedicated
Christian music arms.69 The Christian culture industry is big business (Beaujon
Ethnodoxology: Calling All Peoples to Worship in Their Heart Language
<http://worship.calvin.edu/resources/resource-library/ethnodoxology-calling-all-peoples-toworship-in-their-heart-language/>; accessed 28 October 2012.
For example, Capital Christian Music Group (Capital CMG – part of Universal Music Group),
which distributes Hillsong’s albums in North America.
2006; Mall 2012; Romanowski 2000), but as Howard and Streck (1999) show,
this is a source of consternation for many who engage with Christian music. On
the one hand, money, fame and corporate backing are often needed to reach a
large audience – or at least come with reaching a large audience – and thus they
are tools that, theoretically, maximise the evangelical potential of Christian music.
On the other, the glitz and glamour needed to be noticed in an over-crowded
market risk distorting the values that the music is supposedly grounded in and
meant to communicate. Artists, labels and consumers are often forced to make
choices based on perceived dissonances between economics, fame and Christian
values. These choices are often justified in the same economically-inflected
language that is used in the larger music industry (e.g. ‘selling out’), something
which points to one of the most influential discourses that shapes all culture
industries: the discourse of authenticity.
Authenticity and the Value of Values
Brands, bands and people are all judged according to authenticity (c.f. Cavicchi
1998; Elliot and Davies 2006; Gilmore and Pine 2007; Lim 2005; Thornton 1995).
Despite the philosophical arguments that it is an ideal rather than an ontological
possibility (e.g. Guignon 2004; Taylor 1991), authenticity nevertheless remains
real in that it is socially ascribed and experienced by actors, with measurable
consequences (Alexander 2006; Gilmore and Pine 2007).70 For Gilmore and Pine
(2007), organisational authenticity boils down to expressing a set of values and
then performing those values in action through offerings. An organisation whose
offerings perform its values is perceived as authentic. An organisation whose
offerings are perceived as dissonant with its expressed values will be considered
inauthentic. Furthermore, a consumer is most likely to recognise authenticity in an
organisation’s offerings when those offerings resonate with the consumer’s own
self-image (Gilmore and Pine 2007: 5, 94). In other words, when the values of an
organisation and its participants are synergetic, those shared values become
Authenticities is a better term to describe the competing hierarchies that impact in different ways
according to context and individual subjectivities. The main point here, though, is that authenticity,
while slippery, is nevertheless a powerful concept that affects people’s judgements, decisions and
actions. In other words, it is phenomenologically real.
associated with its offerings. The offerings become branded, imbued with the
shared ethos and meaning of a brand(ed) community (McAlexander et al. 2002;
Muñiz and O’Guinn 2001), which in turn adds value to the experience of those
Musicians are often subject to the same public standards of authenticity as brands.
For example, Bruce Springsteen’s longevity is due in part to his ability, despite his
success, to remain a ‘real person’ in the minds of his fans. From the stories he tells
at concerts to making himself accessible to fans in hotel lobbies and bars,
Springsteen’s professed desire to remain true to his New Jersey roots is backed up
by his actions (Cavicchi 1998: 63-72). For Springsteen fans, his authenticity is
connected in the way he uses the music industry machinery for his own ends; like
many CPM participants, both Springsteen and his fans seek to be ‘in but not of’
Brands and celebrities (and celebrity brands – see Lim 2005) are culturally
important because of the meanings that stakeholders attach to them (Ward 2011).
Both are types of cultural shorthand for values. This is one reason why celebrities
are often chosen as spokespeople for brands. Yet not just any famous person can
promote a brand; for a brand spokesperson to be effective, there has to be synergy
between the spokesperson and the brand (Kamins 1990). For example, one of the
most successful brand/celebrity pairings of all time is Nike and Michael Jordan.
Nike’s brand ethos is conveyed in its ubiquitous tagline ‘Just do it’, which is
perfectly embodied in Michael Jordan, who even in retirement is renowned for
being willing to ‘just do’ anything to win. Thus, Nike’s swoosh and the iconic
Jumpman are cobranded.
This raises the interesting question of ‘who’ is consuming Hillsong’s music. As noted in the
introduction, Hillsong’s music is the staple of its weekly services around the world, and thus
presumably reaches its participants on a regular basis. However, its music is also used by countless
other churches around the world. Furthermore, its social media ‘likes’ and sales, both of which
number in the millions, indicate that the ‘typical’ Hillsong consumer is difficult to pin down
(although see chapter five of this thesis). Also noted earlier, the evangelical Christian ‘self image’
is at least partially shaped by mass media. For example, the worship postures adopted by
evangelicals are ‘normalized’ through live worship DVDs (Coleman 2000) – a genre that Hillsong
helped popularize (Riches, personal communication 23 June, 2013).
Pepsi had the opposite experience with another famous ‘MJ’ – Michael Jackson.
In 1983 Pepsi signed Jackson to what was at the time the most lucrative
sponsorship deal ever, leading to a string of successful ad campaigns. However,
Jackson’s increasingly bizarre behaviour began to change this and in 1993 Pepsi
chose to drop Jackson after charges of child molestation were filed against him.72
Although the charges were never proven, Pepsi did not want the negative publicity
around Jackson to be associated with the Pepsi brand. In this case, the suspect
value system of ‘The King of Pop’ vis-à-vis children did not play well for a brand
with the tag line ‘The Choice of a New Generation’.73
Ethical values are thus an important part of ‘brand value’. The efficacy of a brand
is realised when the values of all of its participants – the brand itself, its users, and
its spokespeople – are perceived to be synergetic. The difference between the
above examples and Hillsong’s ‘celebrities’ is that while Jordan and Jackson were
chosen to market already existing products, Hillsong’s songwriters create the
product, and then become celebrities (or at least ‘celebritized’) because of the
marketing, distribution and use of their songs. In other words, exposure of the
music inevitably leads to the musician becoming a celebrity. Furthermore,
because the songs are the creations of the songwriters and by extension the
church, the relationship between them and the brand is actually tighter than that of
an ‘outsider’ who has been hired to promote a product.74 The next section
explores how this works in the case of Darlene Zschech and Hillsong, and how the
values of each are articulated in relation to ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ discourses.
Pepsi Drops Michael Jackson. <http://www.nytimes.com/1993/11/15/business/the-mediabusiness-pepsi-drops-michael-jackson.html>; accessed 08 August 2013
But death can rehabilitate images: Pepsi brought Jackson back posthumously in a new marketing
campaign (Horovitz 2012; accessed 01 January 2013).
As will be seen in this chapter’s analysis of Darlene Zschech, this intimacy has overwhelmingly
worked to Hillsong’s advantage. However, Hillsong from time to time has been dogged by
behaviour of high-profile members that runs contrary to the church’s professed values. For
example, former youth pastor Michael Guglielmucci’s song ‘Healer’, about his battle with cancer,
was a hit track on the Hillsong LIVE album This is Our God. On the DVD release, Guglielmucci
appeared with an oxygen tank, something that he did regularly in performance over a two-year
period. It was later revealed that he never had cancer, but was instead attempting to cover up a
pornography addiction. Although Hillsong removed the video from later DVD releases of the
album, it still serves as fodder for the church’s critics. While Pepsi could easily, if expensively,
sever ties with Jackson – who was recognized as an ‘outsider’ – this kind of incident poses a
challenge for the church, which markets its music as expressions of its corporate values. Brian
Houston’s YouTube response to Guglielmucci’s actions can be found at:
<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eTZ4F5GW4M8>; accessed 22 July 2013.
Part II - Darlene Zschech: Face of the Hillsong Brand
Brands and celebrities are important symbolic elements in the mediated language
of consumer culture because, ultimately, they are both shorthand for values. A
brand and a celebrity that are perceived to have complementary attributes can
become synergetic, or ‘co-branded’. Hillsong has built its brand through its
internationally renowned musical offerings, and as Dann and Jansen (2007) point
… Music relies on brands that are formed by human delivery, and human
interaction – the persona of the band or musician is part of the total branding
performance…. (Dann and Jansen 2007: 2; in Riches 2010: 143)
Alongside founders Brian and Bobbie Houston, Hillsong’s internationally known
worship leaders are the church’s human faces. These worship leaders are at the
forefront of many of Hillsong’s marketing communications, continually espousing
the values that define the brand through word, song and action. Riches and
Wagner (2012) highlight the integration of the worship leader and Hillsong’s
branding in their analysis of the church’s musical offerings. They argue that
worship leaders’ personalities and song repertoire are inextricable from the
musical branding of the church. This is clear in the association between Darlene
Zschech and Hillsong. Both have had a lasting impact on CPM. Zschech’s song
‘Shout to the Lord’ (1993) is one of the staples of the new Christian music canon:
it is sung in thousands of churches around the world every Sunday.75 Having sold
over five million albums worldwide, Zschech is one of the most successful
Christian music performers in the world (Connell 2005: 326; Evans 2006: 108)
and by far the best selling female Australian artist (Sams 2004: 38; see also
McIntyre 2007: 177). During Zschech’s tenure as lead Worship Pastor of
Hillsong, the church transitioned from a local Australian congregation into a fullybranded transnational organisation (Riches and Wagner 2012). She is, according
to Mark Evans, ‘the face and sound of HMA [Hillsong Music Australia] and, in
some people’s estimation, of Australian congregational music generally’ (Evans
<http://www.ccli.com/Support/LicenseCoverage/Top25Lists.aspx>; accessed 15 March 2012.
During Zschech’s tenure as Worship Pastor, for example, her image appeared on
the covers of all eleven of Hillsong’s LIVE album releases, twelve if the rerelease of Friends in High Places (1995) is counted. This is telling considering
that no images of worship leaders appeared on album covers before this period,
nor have they since (Riches and Wagner 2012: 26-31). According to Russell
Fragar, a worship pastor at Hillsong, Zschech’s ubiquitous presence was part of
the church’s marketing strategy:
I think there was a concerted effort to make Darlene a star.... And the funny
thing is, that anyone who knew Hillsong kind of regarded it as a team, but in
America, it was just Darlene. And it probably is still like that, to some
extent. (Quoted in Riches 2010: 161)
Fragar suggests that the ‘concerted effort’ to promote Zschech was a response to a
particular (American) market, the implication being that Zschech’s celebrity was
the language that Hillsong felt that an American audience (or at least one with
‘American’ values) would be drawn to. However, he suggests that those with
insider knowledge of the church understood that Hillsong’s ethos was more
accurately embodied in the worship team, while to those unfamiliar with the
church (in America) Hillsong was represented by a single star performer. There is
an implication here that specifically American consumerist values were in play,
and were mapped onto Zschech by the American market but were not necessarily
‘authentic’ to Zschech or to the church.76
Regardless of whether or not this is actually the case, what Fragar’s assertion
reveals is that Zschech’s celebrity image is a focal point where myriad values and
associations coalesce and coexist. It also reveals that, at least in the United States,
Hillsong’s brand name is synonymous with both its music and its musicians.77
Fragar’s comments were made in 2008, well before Hillsong’s expansion to NYC (although
Hillsong United had previously toured in North America). As of 2013, there seems to be no culture
clash, as Hillsong NYC continues to grow and Hillsong will host conferences this year in New
York and Los Angeles.
Of course, the brand carries different associations for different people, not all of them good.
According to former Hillsong musician Tanya Riches, in Australia, ‘…the music slides into
charismatic churches but the prosperity doctrine [the belief that material wealth is a sign of God’s
blessing] is fought publicly. Many Anglicans don’t even know where the music is from, but
associate Hillsong and money. This was true of my time in Malaysia also.’ (Riches; personal
communication, 23 June 2013). In other words, while churches from a variety of traditions use
Hillsong’s music, they derive meaning from it that is different from the brand meaning that
Hillsong intends. This is interesting because it shows the unpredictability of branding. For
While people who are familiar with Hillsong are likely to understand the team
ethos as a core value of the church, those less familiar with its everyday activities
(but familiar with its music) are more likely to map their own associations and
values onto the organisation through the individuals associated with it. As an icon
of Hillsong, Zschech is the language through which the church is able to reach
new audiences.78 This reveals the inevitability of branding for a transnational
church. With five million albums sold and a song that is part of the new Christian
canon, Zschech’s celebrity is an evangelistic opportunity. Hillsong is a savvy
marketing organisation, and has leveraged its worship leaders’ fame to spread the
Gospel across the globe. But, as Ward (2011) has noted, fame is not due to the
celebrity being everywhere but the celebrity’s image being everywhere. Celebrity
is created through repetition of mediated images that over time coalesce into a set
of meanings and associations in the hearts and minds of those who consume them.
From this view, it is not Zschech herself who speaks to Hillsong’s stakeholders,
but her mediated image and the values associated with it.
Shaping the ‘Darlene’ Image
Many of the branding challenges that Hillsong faces have to do with ‘who’ the
church is. Because it is a transnational organisation, Hillsong must communicate
its brand through mass media. This requires it to mediate its worship leaders’
images in ways that allow those images, as vessels imbued with values, to be
easily disseminated and recognized. The church has done this to great effect; in a
secular context, the recognition that Zschech and other Hillsong worship pastors
receive would qualify them as rock stars (Hartje-Döll 2013: 144). Yet they do not
operate in an exclusively secular context, and for evangelical Christians there is
only one rock star: Jesus. Hillsong is thus faced with the challenge of promoting
Hillsong, the music and brand meaning are one and the same. For other churches, however, the
two have completely separate meanings. On the one hand, Hillsong’s music is a resource for
worship. On the other hand, it is presumably divorced from the values of the church, which are
seen in these contexts to be associated with money and its attendant negative connotations. It
would seem that this is an area that merits further study.
It should be noted that different Hillsong artists are more or less popular in different markets.
For example, according to Tanya Riches, who is familiar with the Pacific Asian and South
American markets, Hillsong’s male worship leaders are more popular there (Riches, personal
communication, 23 June 2013).
‘non-celebrity’ celebrities. It is stuck in the Christ vs. Culture paradox that
informs Howard and Stark’s analysis of CCM.
Some Christians see CCM as tainted by the inauthenticity of celebrity
commercialism (Ingalls forthcoming; Nekola 2009). Therefore churches, artists
and listeners adopt a range of discursive positions in order to justify their activities
in relation to it (Howard and Streck 1999). Hillsong, for example, markets its
music as a resource for worship – an aid to direct connection to God – rather than
as entertainment. Accordingly, the website that promotes its LIVE album series
Hillsong LIVE is the congregational expression of worship from Hillsong
Church - a local church with global influence. This local church worship
team has a commitment to continually resource the Body of Christ with
fresh songs of worship and a deep passion to see people connect with the
Living God in a real and personal way…. Looking to the future, Hillsong
LIVE remains committed to inspiring and empowering the authentic
worship of Jesus and resourcing the Body of Christ, everywhere.79
By positioning its music as a resource for worship, Hillsong circumvents the
suspicions that evangelical Christians hold regarding famous Christian artists by
suggesting a use-value that is antithetical to entertainment and economics, and
thus to the CCM ‘industry’.
Another way Hillsong tries to avoid celebrity is by emphasising the collective
aspects of its musical activities. Hillsong refers to its worship groups as worship
teams.80 Aside from its paid worship leaders, most of the worship team’s members
are volunteers. However, worship leaders are not paid for the performance aspects
of their jobs. Rather, they are paid for other activities such as providing pastoral
care, carrying out various administrative duties and training of other team
members. This important distinction ingrains the notion of worship as a lifestyle
<http://live.hillsong.com/; accessed 28 February 2012>.
The ‘team’ ethos is a vital part of the Hillsong brand. Numerous volunteer groups carry out most
of the work that keep Hillsong’s churches going from week to week, from acting as ushers during
Sunday services and conferences to contributing to its many marketing activities like website
building and video shooting and editing. This has the dual benefit of both promoting community
and instilling a sense of ownership in participants while also, as noted earlier, keeping operating
costs to a minimum.
(as opposed to a ‘job’) into the ethos of the worship team.81 The make-up and
administration of worship teams in Hillsong churches across the globe are, with
small variations, standardised. Each team consists of a few worship leaders and a
large number of volunteer musicians, who perform according to availability and
the needs of the church. A Hillsong worship team is generally made up of an
acoustic guitar playing/singing worship leader, five frontline singers (for a total of
three male and three female voices), two electric guitars, two keyboards, bass and
drums. Depending on the size of the church space, the team will also use backing
vocalists. For example, the worship team that leads worship in the 3,500 seat Hills
Campus auditorium is usually backed by a full onstage choir. In contrast, Hillsong
London’s team, which leads worship in the 2,000-seat Dominion Theatre, is
supported by a group of four to six off-stage singers whose voices are layered into
the front-of-house mix. Although worship leaders lead services weekly, they and
the worship team’s volunteers will often rotate between morning and afternoon
services and, in the case of the multi-site churches like Hillsong London (which
also holds services in Surrey and Kent), appear at different locations according to
the needs of the church. In doing so, Hillsong makes apparent the number of
musicians involved, and also is able to maximise the number of volunteers that
can participate on the team.82
Hillsong’s team ethos is further evident in its album song credits. For example, a
typical Hillsong LIVE album will feature an average of twelve different authors,
and songs are often co-written. Additionally, although the songwriters retain the
copyrights to their songs, Hillsong Church, rather than its songwriters, is named
the ‘Artist’ in its distribution deals (Riches 2010: 147-149). This set-up further
integrates the songwriters into the collective that is the Hillsong brand. Hillsong
thus positions its musical product in such a way as to set the songs and the church
apart from the CCM industry (in discourse if not in practice) and its attendant
associations with consumer and celebrity culture. Yet it would be disingenuous
for Hillsong’s worship leaders to deny that they are famous. Hillsong’s worship
Thanks to Tanya Riches for this insight (Riches, personal communication; 18 April 2013).
Another benefit of having a large worship team is that new vocalists are always being trained to
be worship leaders. Participation as a backing vocalist is part of the training to be a front line
vocalist, and participation in the front line is part of the training to be a worship leader. There is
never a gap in the team because of this (Riches, personal communication; 18 April 2013).
leaders therefore speak openly and often about the dangers of success, always
taking care to acknowledge the true ‘Famous One’. A typical example of this is
seen in an interview with Darlene Zschech for AwsomeCityTV:
I think we’ve got to be really careful, because worship is marketable. God
will take his hand off once you turn it into just a product or something to do
with dollars. I’m not on the ‘Darlene trail’ at all, but people can easily turn it
over. So you’ve got to be real careful on why you’re doing it – your agenda.
Making sure it’s for the right reasons. Not just for your opportunity to get
your songs heard or whatever… but more for that communion with God, to
point people towards Christ.83
By proactively acknowledging that they are famous, Zschech and Hillsong’s other
worship leaders ‘take control’ of the conversation, an important brand
management strategy (Cooke 2008: 88-125; c.f. Holt 2004, especially pp. 39-62
and 155-188). Like all brands, the Hillsong brand is a story, so it is important that
the church is the one telling it.84
Zschech’s personal brand is a story as well, one of a reluctant star whose rise to,
struggle with, and ultimate acceptance of leadership and international fame is
inextricable from Hillsong’s brand. A child star from the age of 10, she accepted
Christ at the age of 15 and joined the Hills Christian Life Centre’s choir in the mid
1980s (Evans 2006: 107-108). Although she was content to sing in the choir, her
talent shone through and she became the vocal director, but only after two years of
encouragement by Brian Houston:
I loved to sing, especially in a back up role – but God had another plan.
After about two years of trying to convince me, one day as Pastor Brian
[Houston] was leading the meeting, he just walked off and left it to me. It
was just as well I didn’t have anymore time [sic] to think about it because I
was now doing it. (Zschech 1996, in Evans 2006: 108)
Darlene Zschech the Heart of Worship Part 1.
<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kfaB6MyzQsY>; accessed 28 February 2012.
As noted in the introduction, the rise of the Internet means that brands are subject to the
vicissitudes of public opinion as never before. While Hillsong enjoys a great deal of positive press
in personal and industry blogs, websites and on social media, it also has to deal with negative press
(e.g. Michael Guglielmucci – see footnote 74 in this chapter). Criticism has been particularly
pronounced in the Australian press (e.g. Pearlman 2005; Pollard 2010), and also on the web, where
several blogs and YouTube videos accuse it of ‘cultish’ activity (although most of this is rather
polemical; see, for example: <http://www.jesus-issavior.com/Evils%20in%20America/Apostasy/hillsong_music_cult.htm>; accessed 22 July 2013).
A former Hillsong member has even written a book criticizing the church (Levin 2007).
When Hillsong’s first ‘star’ songwriter, Geoff Bullock, suddenly resigned in 1996
Zschech was thrust into the spotlight, this time on the international stage:
Before the Shout to the Lord album… we had been practising for weeks,
getting everything ready. And four days before recording, through various
situations, he [Bullock] decided to move on. Brian Houston said, ‘You have
to lead this’, and I said, ‘I can’t, I really can’t.’ But through Christ we can
do all things. For the next 48 hours my friends got on the phone and said
‘You can do this, you can do this.’ I just thank God we had no video
cameras there that night, because all of us cried our way through that
project. (Zschech, panel discussion, 15 July 1999; Quoted in Evans 2006:
Following the release of Shout to the Lord, which featured the title track that
established her as one of the best known worship leaders in the world, Zschech
was named the head of the Worship and Creative Arts department, a position she
held until 2007. As long-time staff member Donna Crouch maintains, upon
Zschech’s appointment as worship leader: ‘… [i]t’s almost like Darlene became
the face and the leader’ of Hillsong’s worship (quoted in Riches 2010: 161). With
her face appearing not only on the aforementioned LIVE album covers, but also in
countless other Hillsong-branded products and communications such as books,
videos and event flyers, Zschech’s image and that of Hillsong became inseparable.
Indeed, despite now co-leading her own church with her husband in New South
Wales, she continues to appear regularly at Hillsong conferences.
Even with her hit song, Zschech could not have become such an integral part of
Hillsong’s image and marketing strategy if she did not also speak to its target
audience(s). Zschech resonates with many of Hillsong’s participants not only
because they like her music but also because they identify with the values
articulated in her story. Importantly, she does not just espouse evangelical
Christian values of modesty, humility and devotion; she lives them as well. Like
Bruce Springsteen, Zschech’s mediated image and the ‘real’ Darlene are seen to
be one and the same, and by all accounts this is the case. For example, Don Moen
(formerly of the Christian music label Integrity Music, which distributed HMA’s
music until 2010) writes in the forward of Zschech’s book Extravagant Worship:
Darlene is a true leader who is passionate about worshipping the Father in
spirit and in truth and is committed to raising up others all around the world
to do the same. She is real, transparent, and vulnerable as a worship leader,
but more important, she is the same person when she is not in front of
thousands. (Zschech 2001: 11)
Zschech is an icon of the Hillsong brand not only because she is marketed as such
but also because she lives her life in a way that is congruent with the evangelical
Christian values expressed by the church and held by its members. Hillsong is a
lifestyle brand: it promotes a set of values that are offered as alternatives to
secular ones. Zschech is authentic because she lives that lifestyle.
Like Michael Jordan and Nike, Zschech and Hillsong are co-branded. Zschech is a
good spokesperson for Hillsong because she embodies its brand values
authentically. In her actions and statements, she communicates what the church is
about. As a mediated ‘celebrity’, she is shorthand for the brand. Hillsong
encourages Zschech’s celebrity image, using it to great effect to spread the
Gospel.85 Recognising that Hillsong’s vision is one of international Church
growth, it becomes clear that Zschech’s celebrity image is concomitant with this
mandate. However, while taking advantage of the communicative expediency of
celebrity, the church must also manage the negative associations of celebrity
culture. This is difficult, because while Hillsong can proactively shape its story,
and perform its values in discourse and action, it is ultimately performing for its
stakeholders. These are the people who experience the brand as authentic, and
with whose values the brand must align in order for it to be a meaningful part of
the worship experience.
According to one Worship Leader I interviewed: ‘I get the impression Brian thinks Darlene is
pretty amazing… and [Hillsong Worship Leader Russell] Fragar felt it was the most ironic thing
ever, as she is loved by the church because she is ordinary, but Hillsong promote(s) her like she is
the only branding power they have. He [Fragar] didn’t feel that it was them using her celebrity, but
something that made Brian feel less insecure about the product – which was a self-fulfilling
prophecy in a sense.’ (email communication with author, 15 August 2011)
Part III - Worshipping the Worshipper: Fans, Disciples and The Danger of
Celebrities (and brands) represent states of being that might be aspired to – ways
of, as Pete Ward puts it, ‘being human’ (Ward 2011: 96).86 Part of Zschech’s
appeal is just this: she presents an image of evangelical Christian femininity that is
emulated by many of the church’s participants (Riches 2010: 162-163). From a
branding perspective, this presents a number of advantages. However, in the
context of the Christian culture industry, Zschech’s appeal also presents a
problem: by being authentic, she may inadvertently contribute to her own
idolisation. Hillsong’s brand is partly communicated through the ‘Godly’ lifestyle
of its worship leaders. But this, combined with an ‘anointing’87 of their talents,
may lead others to ‘worship the worshipper’ (Toah 2005) instead of worshipping
God. As Zschech is always quick to point out, ‘one of the great dangers we face at
Hillsong is the fact that we have become famous for our worship. But our job is to
make God famous in our worship’ (Zschech 2001:151). Hillsong’s worship
leaders work to remind participants that the purpose of their music is to worship
God. Yet despite Hillsong’s attempts to position itself in opposition to celebrity
culture, the church can never fully extricate itself from the contradictions inherent
in the Christian culture industry.
Hillsong is not alone. Indeed, no participant in the Christian culture industry can
avoid its contradictions. This is why, while evangelical Christians often mistrust
the intentions of famous pastors and worship leaders, many are equally (perhaps
more) mistrustful of themselves, and are vigilant in their efforts to direct their
admiration away from the platform and towards God. These Christians
acknowledge that fame needs an audience, and thus the responsibility of
remaining a disciple of Christ rather than of a celebrity ultimately lies with the
This is of course true in the negative sense as a well – they can represent states to be avoided.
Either way, they represent values.
In evangelical Christian culture, something that is anointed is understood to have God’s blessing
and thus is imbued with the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. This is both a powerful
(Ingalls 2012) and controversial (Evans 2006: 100-106) trope. In recent years, Hillsong has
stopped referring to its music as ‘anointed’, at least in public communications. However, the idea
still pervades the church’s culture, as several participants I interviewed used the term to describe
the music and/or the musicians.
worshipper. The following passage, taken from an article entitled ‘When Jesus
Meets TMZ’ in the online Christian magazine Relevant, is a typical expression of
When Christians look to pastors for wisdom on how to better love God and
love one another, they become better disciples of Jesus and better lights of
hope in a dark world. [However], [w]hen Christians look to pastors to tell
them how to dress, what to eat, what hobbies to have, what systematic
theologies to prefer, how to vote and what personality to adopt, they become
creepy, unthinking clones of broken people – and big red warning flags to a
culture that has grown increasingly suspicious of authority figures. (Evans
The description of fans above bears a striking resemblance to the type that
dominated the first wave of fan studies and still appears in the popular press.
These representations often present fans as leeches feeding unthinkingly on the
mediated mush of celebrity culture in order to provide meaning to their lives. In
extreme cases, fans are pathologized, their behaviour associated with a mental
illness or an allegiance to a cult leader.88
The religious-like activities of music fans have been well documented (e.g. Hills
2002). For example, Cavicchi (1998: 41-59) has described the similarities in
structure and social importance between Christian conversion narratives and those
who ‘found’ Bruce Springsteen. Furthermore, Rodman (1996) has posited
Graceland as a ‘sacred space’ that for Elvis fans is akin to a pilgrimage site or
church. In each case, fans attach symbolic significance to their own activities, in
ways that are similar to those in which worshippers attach significance to theirs.
However, as both Hills and Cavicchi point out, the two activities are similar but
not the same. While most fans acknowledge the ritual similarities between their
activities and religious ones, and even use religious language to describe their
activities, they also strenuously deny any true religious elements in their fandom
(Hills 2002: 124). As Ward notes, there is a certain seriousness in religious
activities that is absent in fan analogues (Ward 2011: 5, 57-86). One might nuance
this observation by suggesting that, while fans often take their activities and the
meanings derived from those activities seriously, they rely on a certain quality of
For discussion, see Hills 2002: 1-23; Sandvoss 2005: 1-10.
‘play’ that is absent from the process of meaning-making in ‘true’ religious
An example of this can be seen in an interview with Roy, a thirty-six-year old
member of the worship team at Hillsong London. Originally from the Philippines,
he had been collecting Hillsong albums for years before he immigrated to the UK:
TW: So you collected the [Hillsong] albums back in the Philippines?
R: Yeah, because I was collecting all of their albums since the mid-nineties.
I’m really an avid fan, I would say! I am an avid fan of Hillsong, from way
back home. I am blessed with all their songs. I listened to them almost every
day. And I said, 'Lord, I can’t help but dream of going there'. And the Lord
was really telling me, yeah, you have to see the world out there…. I
remember one night – I couldn’t help but cry. Because I was listening to
Christian music, and then when I searched for the composer and the church
behind it, it was Hillsong. I was looking on the Internet for Hillsong. I
actually thought that Hillsong is a place in Australia! But I was told it’s not
a place in Australia. It’s like David used to sing songs at the top of the hill.89
That’s where they started creating the church, Hillsong. (Interview with
author, 6 February 2011)
Like Graceland for Elvis fans, for Roy, Hillsong represents a sacred place that is
imbued with spiritual power. Hillsong is also a pilgrimage site, both as a
geographic destination and as a significant marker in Roy’s personal narrative:
TW: How did you come to Hillsong?
R: It all started seven years ago when I got to collecting every Hillsong
album. It all started with a dream, that some day I would have to be either in
Australia or somewhere else where there is a branch. I kept asking the Lord.
I started praying in the year 2001. And then God made it possible for me,
but it took me seven years. Before I came here, I kept asking the Lord. And
I said: ‘Lord, why does it take me seven years’? Then God referred me to
the book of Genesis, when it says that, ‘When I created Heaven and Earth, it
took me seven [days]. And on the seventh day I rested’. And seven,
biblically speaking, speaks of completion. And it speaks of perfection. So I
said, ‘Ok, this may be God already giving me a sign to go out, and I just
have to follow wherever God will lead me’. When I came here, it took me
about – I think two months. Before that, I was surfing the Internet for where
it says Hillsong London is actually located. And it was so amazing, because
‘After that thou shalt come to the hill of God, where [is] the garrison of the Philistines: and it
shall come to pass, when thou art come thither to the city, that thou shalt meet a company of
prophets coming down from the high place with a psaltery, and a tablet, and a pipe, and a harp,
before them; and they shall prophesy’ (I Samuel 10:5).
I was in the countryside at first. And then somebody called me – my uncle –
and he said ‘Why don’t you visit me here, and let’s talk about what you
want to do here and we’ll help you out’. And I was surprised, because I was
reading a book then by Joyce Myer – I’m really into deep reading. And my
flat mate, he asked me, ‘Are you Christian?’ and I said ‘Yeah, how did you
know’? ‘Because I can see from the book you are reading.’ And then he
said, ‘Do you want to go to church?’ And I said, ‘What church are you
going to?’ And he said ‘Hillsong’. ‘Are you serious?’ I was really quite
surprised. It’s so amazing that God really orchestrated this thing. (Interview
with author, 6 February 2011)
As Blackwell and Thompson note, ‘Building a brand on the key values of its
customers causes them to connect with the brand at an emotional level, much
more than just a cognitive level, evoking strong responses and connections that
differentiate customers from fans. Fans feel, perhaps without knowing why, “This
is my brand”’ (Blackwell and Thompson 2004: 36). In my interviews and
conversations, many of Hillsong’s participants referred to Hillsong as ‘my church’
– a testament to its focus on cultivating community. However, unlike Blackwell
and Thompson’s hypothetical fans, Hillsong’s stakeholders know and are quite
articulate about why Hillsong is their church. The church and the brand are
integrated into their life stories, as was evident in Roy’s testimony.
Brands are important to identity-making projects because, through them, we
articulate ourselves to ourselves. When engaging with a branded offering, we are
in part embodying, or at least taking part in a dialogue with, the values and image
of the brand. One important focus of this thesis is the evangelical efficacy of the
Hillsong brand. Many of Hillsong’s participants consider the church and its music
‘anointed’. The brand is imbued with biblical authority, and, as a resource for
worship, has both internal and external evangelical potential. This is significant
for evangelical Christians, for whom evangelising is a mandate:
TW: What is it about Hillsong’s music?
R: Well, I think God’s specific mandate for Hillsong church is to really
influence the lives of people through music. Because music for me is really
powerful. It has the power to change lives, and move their emotions, you
know? And quench their hearts. It’s the life the church. Without music, I
don’t think this church would have gone that far. Yeah, that’s pretty much
God’s mandate for Hillsong. Because they have been sweeping the land,
you know? They’re really sweeping the land. And it’s very popular back
home. Every Christian church used to sing the songs from Hillsong. A lot of
Filipinos – Hillsong is really well known to our country because – I mean,
all Christian churches know the songs of Hillsong. (Interview with author, 6
Roy endows the music with spiritual authority, recognising Hillsong as anointed
with a musical mandate from God. For many of Hillsong’s participants, this
anointing is part of the power of the music, which brands the church and its
people. For example, as Geoff Bullock explained in an interview with Mark
In the end [the Hillsong] fundamental is that the church is anointed,
therefore all those people who come to the church are anointed by
association… whatever success [those people] have is because of their
association, not because of their own doing. (Bullock, interview with Mark
Evans, 1998, in Evans 2006: 99)
Again emphasising the church and the team ethos, Zschech, speaking on a
Hillsong Conference panel, noted:
Our church [Hillsong]… [has] an anointing for a new song. We have tried
other things, but we have an anointing for a new song. We still sing hymns,
we sing them often…. We haven’t thrown out the old, but we understand the
anointing on our house. Now that is going to be different from the anointing
on your house. Once you understand the direction of your leadership [then]
operate out of that in strength…. We have so many songwriters coming
through, but that is the anointing of our house. (Evans 2006: 100)
The spiritual authority associated with Hillsong’s music is key to the experience
of the Hillsong brand, and the efficacy of its music. Since the church, its music
and its worship leaders are all integrated parts of a sacred understanding of the
Hillsong brand, it follows that the musical talents of its songwriters are ‘Godgiven’, as expressed by Hillsong’s General Manager, George Aghajanian:
Our albums are more of a distillation of many, many songs that are
submitted to us through our various songwriters, and those songs are really a
reflection of those songwriters’ relationship with the church but also more
importantly with God. So these guys have their own journey, obviously,
their own Christian journey, and their gifting – these guys have got gifting
to write music, to lead worship, and so they’re writing with the hope that
they can get this song to connect people with Christ…. The songs really
come back to the anointing that God puts on these guys. And out of that
anointing, out of the leading of the Holy Spirit, the songs that they bring –
which hopefully are fresh, they’re new – [will] help people encounter Christ
during a worship service. (Interview with author, 28 September 2011)
Zschech’s authenticity is her relationship with God, as with all of Hillsong’s
songwriters and their songs. Their songs are understood as authentic expressions
of their personal relationships with the Lord, and (because they are both
songwriters and church members) are as such reflective of the church as a whole.
The church, its values, its music and its musicians are all integrated into the
gestalt of the Hillsong brand, and Hillsong’s participants ‘hear’ the meanings
imbued in Hillsong’s brand through its worship leaders and their songs. This is
evident in an email exchange between Vicki, a long-time participant/stakeholder
at Hillsong London, and myself:
TW: What did you think of the [A Beautiful Exchange] album?
V: I especially liked Brooke Fraser’s song.90 The ‘Beautiful Exchange’ song
has a special meaning for me – it is something extraordinary – the way it is
constructed as a song and performed by Joel and the woman…. It is the
blend of music, scriptural truth and the lovely personality of the performers
that makes the Spirit of Jesus alive. Having such songs is a powerful and an
all-consuming experience for each and every personality that listens to it. I
can imagine many unbelievers get to have a first encounter with our God,
who I do not think has been worshipped in such a scale and with such
sources on Earth so far… It reminds me of the greatness of God, who
remains true to himself – that he is fulfilling every single scriptural promise
with the purpose to glorify himself. This performance, the fact that this song
is written and sung is a powerful testimony of the truthfulness of God.
(Email exchange with author, 13 July 2011; emphasis added)
The key here is to understand that an evangelical (and some might argue a
specifically Hillsong) worldview is deeply embedded in the meanings that are
imparted on Zschech and the Hillsong brand. In particular, it is important to
recognise the centrality of the transformative power of the Holy Spirit to the
Pentecostal practice that is Hillsong’s lineage (Albrecht 1999; Evans 2006). In
Pentecostal belief, every Christian is imbued with the power of the Holy Spirit.
This transforms them into a mouthpiece for God, a potential evangelist through
whom the Spirit speaks to the world. Although the understandings and
manifestations of this power vary amongst Pentecostal communities (Anderson
Brooke Fraser is a New Zealand pop/rock star and also a member of Hillsong and part of the
worship team. Interestingly, she neither wrote the song A Beautiful Exchange nor appeared on the
2004; Cox 1995; Hollenweger 1972), it is in ritual contexts (where music is often,
but not always, involved) that this power is most evident.
For Hillsong and its participants, then, Hillsong’s music and musicians are
anointed by God. They have the power of the Holy Spirit, with which they can
transform the world. As seen in Vicki’s statements and Roy’s comments above,
there is a utopian element to this.
Conclusion - Paradox, Utopia and Transcendence
Utopias are always in dialogue with the real conditions of existence (Wenger
2002) and brands articulate their utopian promises through the contradictions
(Heilbrunn 2006), and points of cultural rupture (Holt 2004), that are experienced
by participants in their everyday lives. A utopia is literally a ‘nowhere’, a critical
representation that expresses the ‘differences between social reality and a
projected model of social existence’ (Heilbrunn 2006: 104). It is a picture of what
‘could be’, but it cannot express itself except from within the dominant systems of
values and ideas that structure the real conditions of existence (ibid 105):
Utopia thus has a two-sided nature; on the one hand it expresses what is
absolutely new, the ‘possible as such’, that is what is unthinkable in the
common categories of thought used by the people at a given time; it must
thus employ fiction or fable to express what it has to say. On the other hand,
it appears impossible for Utopia to transcend the ordinary language of a
period and of a place, that is it cannot totally transgress the codes by which
people make reality significant to them. (Heilbrunn 2006: 105)
For Heilbrunn, the power of a brand’s story is derived from its utopian promise: it
gives stakeholders a chance to experience what ‘could be’ through a ‘real’
offering – in this case Hillsong’s music. Hillsong’s brand promise is the sacred
experience, an encounter with God. This utopian encounter will be further
explored in the next chapter.
Douglas Holt (2004) sees brands as sources of material that help people manage
the contradictions they experience in their everyday lives. In his book, How
Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding, Holt contends that
iconic brands such as Coke, Harley Davidson and Volkswagen are successful
because they provide narratives that help people manage cultural contradiction
and rupture. Holt gives the example of his experience of a Diet Coke advert. In it,
a nerdy guy stands in the bathroom flossing his teeth while singing along to Cheap
Trick’s 1979 hit song ‘I Want You to Want Me’. A female voiceover intones: ‘He
flosses too much. But you can’t rule out a guy who knows all the lyrics to one of
the greatest songs of all time’ (Holt 2004: x). Holt confesses that he identified
with the advert’s character not because he liked the song, but because it ‘grabbed
familiar cultural material and used it to tell a story about manhood, a story I
wanted to believe in’ (Holt 2004: x). The song juxtaposed his youth with the
pressures of an adult middle-class existence, providing him, in musical shorthand,
with ‘a little ammunition to manage this contradiction’ (Holt 2004: xi).
For Hillsong and its participants, the Hillsong brand provides the material needed
to resolve, at least momentarily, the conflicts that arise for evangelical Christians
in a world that they are part of but with which they do not necessarily always
share the same values. For its part, Hillsong is faced with a Christ vs. Culture
conundrum that shapes, even constitutes, the Christian culture industry. On the
one hand, as a transnational organisation, Hillsong is dependent on mass media to
communicate its message. This means speaking in the vernacular of the culture
industry, of which celebrity and branding are part. On the other hand, the church
is held to a particular set of evangelical Christian ideals that at first glance may
seem dissonant with the economic and communicative realities of consumer
culture. However, closer examination reveals that while the mediated forms of the
Christian culture industry may be similar, even identical, to those of the secular
culture industry, its content is different. Hillsong makes this clear by presenting its
musical offerings as spiritual resources, its musicians as team members and its
worship leaders as ‘reluctant’ celebrities, thereby proactively shaping the image of
its brand by (re)casting its communication in evangelical Christian language that
resonates with the worldviews of its stakeholders. A key part of this worldview is
an emphasis on the power of the Spirit and God’s anointing, which is inseparable
from the power of the music and the brand as a gestalt of the people, places,
things, feelings and experiences. The key to this is that Hillsong’s discourse
allows its position along Niebuhr’s typological continuum to be fluid and
John J. Thompson claims that ‘Christian rock melds faith and culture’ (Thompson
2000: 11). As a key part of the Hillsong brand, this is certainly true. Hillsong’s
branded music harmonises the dissonances between sacred and secular cultures
that participants experience in their daily lives. The Hillsong brand harnesses the
moral dualisms of the sacred and secular discourse in ways that resonate with its
participants, who also ascribe sacred meaning to the church, its music and its
musicians. As a product of ‘godly’ individuals, the brand is imbued with
evangelical power. Hillsong’s music is a resource, a way to experience the
evangelical efficacy latent in brand promise. In other words, Hillsong’s branded
music affords its participants the possibility of experiencing Heaven on Earth, the
power of the Holy Spirit in their daily lives, and even to be for a moment ‘in, but
not of, the world’.
Having explored how Hillsong’s brand allows it to both embrace and distance
itself from ‘the world’, the next chapter investigates how it positions itself in the
‘sacred’ world – specifically the imagined (Anderson  2006) and imaginary
(Wegner 2002) community of ‘The Body of Christ’ – which is also an articulation
‘Of One Accord’: Brand Identity and Participation
The O2 arena lights dim. On stage, against a backdrop of deep blues and
purples, the silhouettes of Tribe of Judah frame the figures of Hillsong, HTB
and Jesus House London musicians on the drums, keyboards and back-up
guitars. Suspended chords mingle with dry ice as the 16,000 participants
wait expectantly. Presently, a disembodied voice floats out from the arena’s
surround-sound speakers. A few moments later, the giant digital screen at
the back of the stage revealed the voice’s owner: Martin Smith of the band
Delirious?, one of the best known Christian bands in the UK. Smith
proceeds to belt out the introduction to his group’s hit ‘Rain Down’, not
from the stage, but from the audience. This signifies that he, the audience
and musicians are worshipping as one.
The above ethnographic moment is drawn from my fieldnotes of the Pentecost
Festival finale that I attended on the evening of 11 June 2011. As the name
suggests, the event was the grand finale to the 2011 Pentecost Festival – a ten-day,
citywide celebration of Pentecost that presented public events such as art
exhibitions, lectures, workshops and worship services across London.91 The event
drew 16,000 participants to London’s O2 Arena for a night of worship. Most of
these participants were from Hillsong London, Holy Trinity Brompton or Jesus
House London, the three London-based, branded evangelical Christian churches
that hosted the event, but some also came from elsewhere in the city or from
abroad. The theme of the evening was that of ‘one accord’, an articulation of unity
that is important to the construction of a key evangelical Christian ideal: the
‘Body of Christ’. Significantly, not once did anyone on stage explicitly say ‘We
are all in one accord’. Rather, this was made apparent discursively through
appeals to scripture, actively through corporate worship and prayer, and musically
through group performances, as well as through the participation of several
transnational evangelical Christian music stars.
History. <http://www.pentecostfestival.co.uk/about/history/>; accessed 12 April 2012.
Chapter two explored the ways in which Hillsong articulates its utopian brand
promise by positioning its music and musicians in a value-laden dialogue between
the ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’. This chapter examines further the importance of
positioning in the musical branding experience. Using the O2 event as a case
study, I first explore how Hillsong and its collaborators used music as a ‘register
of style’ (Rommen 2007) to position themselves as distinct brands within the
global evangelical Christian imagined (Anderson  2006) and imaginary
(Wegner 2002) utopian community of the ‘Body of Christ’. This positioning was
dependent on the story of Pentecost, which framed difference as essential to unity.
In the second part of this chapter, I use interviews I conducted with two of the
events’ participants to explore the ways in which brand identity framed their
expectations of their participation. This leads on to the third section, in which I
use the experiences of two more of the event’s participants to question the ways in
which branding afforded or hindered actual participation and experience. I
conclude by noting that, although the Hillsong brand’s meaning is predicated on
an appeal to participation in a transnational community, the process of branding
may in some cases actually preclude participation and therefore preclude
Hillsong’s utopian brand promise.
Part I - ‘Of One Accord’: Community, Style and Brand Identity
Brand positioning is important because brands are markers of differentiation or, in
the case of aspirational lifestyle brands such as Hillsong, distinction.92 A brand’s
identity and the identities of its participants are co-dependent. Participants use
brands to articulate values. At the same time, the brand’s identity becomes
associated with the perceived ethics and values of its participants. As identity
The classic understanding of brand positioning is that a brand differentiates one product from
another product that has similar functional attributes. However, as Heath and Potter (2004) argue,
lifestyle is about distinction. Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu, Heath and Potter argue that
consumerism is unavoidable because it feeds on the paradox that ‘good taste’ is ‘exclusive’ (i.e.
not everyone can have it, just as not every student can be above average). However, everyone
wants good taste, so as soon as the market identifies it, it ceases to be special. This is the fine line
trodden by aspirational or lifestyle brands, which are deployed as markers of distinction. The value
of the brand (both intrinsically for the user and economically for the maker) is rooted in feelings of
exclusivity. As will be discussed below, part of the ‘specialness’ of an evangelical Church brand is
that, through it, participants feel part of a ‘mass movement’ in the Body of Christ. However,
simultaneously, that feeling is ‘localized’ or ‘personalized’ as a feeling of distinction.
markers, then, brands express what is distinct about the ‘products’ they represent
and about their participants in relation to others. The paradox of distinction is that
it is achieved as a dialogue with similar ‘others’. A classic example of this is the
co-dependent relationship between Coke and Pepsi. The two brands co-exist in
and help constitute a ‘product category’ that helps consumers understand what
they can expect from the products prior to experiencing them. Most people know
that Coke and Pepsi are both fizzy cola drinks, and therefore expect that both will
be dark, sweet, and may cause one to burp if consumed too quickly. The two
brands’ names refine consumer expectations because each product is associated
with distinct, mostly esoteric attributes instilled through the branding process. For
example, Coke draws on its century-long history to brand itself as ‘the Real
Thing’ – an inseparable and authentic part of Americana (Pendergrast 2000). In
response, Pepsi casts itself as ‘the Choice of a New Generation’ – the alternative
to the stodgy establishment drink in a red can. Each brand’s tagline seeks to
appeal to a set of values, which in turn articulates a community of users for whom
cola is not just a beverage choice, but also a lifestyle choice.
Churches are not colas, but the branding principle of differentiation within a
product category and the relationship between branding, values and lifestyle
discussed above are applicable to both. Hillsong London and its collaborators in
the Pentecost Festival can be broadly classified as New Paradigm churches (Miller
1997). It can even be said that they ultimately offer the same ‘product’ – a
personal relationship with God. However, the experience of church is profoundly
communal, so access to the relationship with God is affected by participation in
the church community. I will therefore begin by examining how each church that
participated in the O2 event produced a distinct culture symbolically, and
ultimately practically, through style.
Style and the Brand Identities of the O2 Event Churches
Style is composed of different ‘registers’ that include music, fashion and language
(Rommen 2007). These registers are not independent and together articulate
identity and value positions. While Rommen’s work will provide the main
theoretical positioning for this chapter, I would first like to discuss it alongside
Roger Wilk’s notion of systems of common difference in relation to branding
language, particularly brand positioning. For Wilk (1995), globalisation has not
diminished local cultural expression. Rather, as more and more people engage
with media around the world, the ways in which culture is articulated on the
global scale have become fewer. Taking the global Miss Universe beauty pageant
as an example, Wilk argues that:
… the global stage does not consist of common content, a lexicon of goods
or knowledge. Instead it is a common set of formats and structures that
mediate between cultures…. that put diversity into a common frame, and
scale it along a limited number of dimensions, celebrating some kinds of
difference and submerging others. In other words, difference is recognized
through commonality. It’s the way the aesthetics are deployed that index the
Brand positioning, particularly the design of packaging, deploys aesthetics in
systems of common difference that articulate both difference and commonality.
For example, a product’s package must communicate to a consumer ‘what’ the
product is almost instantaneously. This is done by drawing on consumers’
previous knowledge of the ‘product category’ that the product is part of. For
example, the vodkas Grey Goose and Chopin have similar bottle designs. They
are both tall, cylindrical and clear, with a frosting that connotes the temperature
and elegance of a fine martini. In contrast, Smirnoff’s bottles are tall but feature a
tapered base and ‘chunkier’ design that, along with the use of red, is meant not
only to communicate its ‘Russianness’ but also its pricing, which is mid-range and
in line with similarly packaged vodkas like Absolut. The aesthetics of each of the
vodkas’ packages thus communicates both the similarities and the differences
The music at the O2 event can be thought of in a similar manner. All three groups
played music that broadly draws from centuries of musical mixing, particularly
between ‘European’ and ‘African’ music, such as gospel, blues and rock and
roll.93 Furthermore, according to some evangelical definitions, all of the music
presented that evening could be said to be ‘gospel’ music (Ingalls et al. 2013).
Indeed, all of these styles have mutually informed one another, particularly in the southern
From this view, all of the musical styles exist within the ‘gospel’ music ‘product
category’, in that it was meant to ‘spread the Gospel’ or to praise and worship
God. They also all shared similar western tonality, chord progressions, rhythms
(duple or triple) and instrumentation (drums, keys, guitars, bass and voice).
However, within these broad aesthetic similarities were several noticeable
differences that branded each church’s music as unique. Below is a brief
description of each church’s style.
Jesus House London:
Located in Brent Cross in North West London, Jesus House London is an affiliate
of the Nigerian-based Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), an umbrella
organization that claims over 4,000 churches world-wide.94 The Jesus House
brand can be found across the United States and Europe. The Jesus House London
website states that, ‘With… approximately forty  nations represented in its
membership – and growing – Jesus House can confidently refer to itself as a home
“for all nations”’,95 yet it is clear from the RCCG website and other media that
RCCG-affiliated churches practise an African expression of Pentecostalism.96
Indeed, the RCCG’s founder, Enoch Adeboye, describes its brand of
Pentecostalism97 as: ‘Made in heaven, assembled in Nigeria, exported to the
world’ (Rice 2009).
At the O2 Pentecost event, Jesus House London’s gospel choir, ‘Tribe of Judah’,
performed its church’s Black/African Pentecostal identity. Its repertoire consisted
accessed 17 April 2012.
Our People. <http://jesushouse.org.uk/our-people>; accessed 12 April 2012.
e.g. Anderson 2004: 103-122; Cox 1995: 243-263; Hollenweger 1972: 111-175.
Throughout this chapter, I will be referring to Pentecostalism in a broad sense. Although HTB is
Anglican and Hillsong might be considered ‘nominally’ or ‘neo’ Pentecostal, and Jesus House
London more of an ‘African’ expression of Pentecostalism, in the context of the O2 event as a
celebration of Pentecost and its associations, I will be applying a broad
evangelical/Pentecostal/charismatic definition to all three churches. The three churches are better
understood as products of the Charismatic movement that began in the 1960s, which uses
Pentecostal expression and takes broadly Pentecostal views (Hocken 2002) and has spawned a
number of related ‘church growth’ sub-movements variously termed ‘non-denominational’ (Miller
1998), ‘New Paradigm’ (Miller 1997; Trueheart 1996) or ‘seeker-sensitive’ (Sargeant 2000). As
with all classifications, these terms are helpful tools for analysis but also insufficient, both because
the practices of the churches they seek to describe/classify usually fall into several overlapping
categories, and also because the participants themselves often reject them.
of popular contemporary African-American gospel songs and its performance
style included coordinated swaying, hand-clapping and foregrounded the oft-cited
call and response that is emblematic of both ‘African’ and ‘African-American’
music (Agawu 1992; 1995). Additionally, Jesus House’s music was more pianodriven then HTB or Hillsong’s. This was most apparent in the musical texture.
While the emotional fervour of all three groups was achieved through a thick
texturing of instrumental sounds, the ways that this was achieved varied between
the groups. HTB and Hillsong are more guitar-driven, so they achieve texture by
building a sonic wall of overlapping chordal instruments. In contrast, Jesus
House’s music was more piano- and voice–driven. Therefore, the texture was
achieved through the improvisation-like interweaving of musical lines, especially
between the piano and voice, but also importantly in the bass, which was much
more active than in either of the other groups. The African-American gospel choir
image was further indexed through the matching outfits its members wore, which
comprised black pleated trousers, white dress shirts, matching waistcoats and
Unlike Hillsong and HTB, Jesus House does not produce its own music. Instead,
it draws from the repertoire of popular African-American gospel artists such as
Alvin Slaughter III and Bishop Paul S. Morton. The music it worships to is thus
widely known, even outside ‘gospel’ circles.98 For example, Tribe of Judah
performed the song ‘Let It Rain’ at the O2 event. This song has been recorded not
only by African-American gospel artists such as Morton, but also by groups that
are stylistically similar to Hillsong and HTB, such as Jesus Culture and
Delirious?. While widely known, it is not self-referential to the Jesus House brand
in the way that the church-produced songs that HTB or Hillsong performed are
The definition of ‘gospel music’ varies according to social context, and involves judgements
about both aesthetics and content. For example, Columbia College Chicago’s Center for Black
Music Research defines gospel music thus: ‘The term "gospel music" refers to African-American
Protestant vocal music that celebrates Christian doctrine in emotive, often dramatic ways. Vocal
soloists are the best-known exponents of gospel, but vocal and choral groups of widely varying
sizes have also helped to define the style. In gospel, simple melodies are heavily ornamented by
blue notes, glissandi, and a dramatic use of a wide vocal range; and the form conducts an on-going
dialogue of influence with blues, jazz, pop, rap, and folk styles.’ (Gospel Music.
>; accessed 23 June 2013). At Hillsong churches, and in the New Paradigm movement in general,
‘Gospel’ music is taken in its broadest sense to mean ‘any music that preaches the Gospel’. See
discussions in Ingalls et al. (2013) and Rommen (2007).
Holy Trinity Brompton:
Unlike Jesus House and Hillsong, which have their roots in Nigeria and Australia,
respectively, Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) is a ‘homegrown’ church. It is part of
the Anglican charismatic movement (Hocken 2002) and seeks to revitalize dying
churches through two mediums that are not stereotypically ‘Anglican’:
charismatic expression and popular music.99 With a constituency that is
predominantly white and British, HTB’s music is the most ‘folk-like’ of the three
– more centered on the acoustic guitar than Hillsong’s electronic pop/rock
aesthetic, and certainly different from the African-American gospel sound of
Tribe of Judah. As noted in the description of Jesus House’s music, HTB’s
textures were achieved through a layering of strummed chords, with the emphasis
on the acoustic guitars giving it a certain ‘twang’. The music was also not as
syncopated as that of Jesus House. The members of HTB’s worship band, which
is associated with its music ministry, Worship Central,100 dressed in casual jeans
and either button-down shirts or t-shirts, a far cry from the Jesus House choir’s
matching uniforms but not as ‘hip’ as the skinny jeans that Hillsong’s musicians
HTB’s Director of Worship, Tim Hughes, is well known in the UK and
internationally, particularly for his Dove Award-winning song ‘Here I am to
Worship’, which, like Darlene Zschech’s ‘Shout to the Lord’, has become a staple
of the new evangelical Christian worship canon. HTB’s music ministry Worship
Central is also similar to Hillsong’s publishing arm Hillsong Music Australia
(HMA) in that it produces music, tours, appears at conferences and promotes
worship, albeit on a smaller scale. However, in contrast to Hillsong – a church
whose brand is synonymous with its music – HTB’s brand is more strongly
associated with its 30-year-old Alpha Course, an introduction to Christianity
programme that is a case study in international religious branding (Einstein 2008).
This was clear in interviews I conducted with non-HTB members, many of whom
were familiar with Hughes’ music but couldn’t recall his name, often referring to
HTB rose to international prominence as the UK centre for the ‘Toronto Blessing’. See Percy
(1996); Poloma (2003); Roberts (1994).
Worship Central. <http://www.worshipcentral.org/>.
him as the ‘Alpha Course guy’ (as opposed to the ‘Worship Central guy’). In
terms of the relationship between each church’s branding and its music, then,
HTB’s music is branded more strongly than Jesus House London’s, but less
strongly than Hillsong’s.
In many ways, Hillsong London’s music and its congregation are a ‘blend’ of
Jesus House London and HTB. In contrast to Jesus House London’s
predominantly black British or African congregation and HTB’s predominantly
white British congregation, Hillsong London’s ethnic and racial demographics are
much more diverse: its congregation members hail from all six continents, and its
weekly services are translated into seven different languages. Hillsong’s heritage
is Pentecostal (Evans 2006; Riches 2010), but its theological emphasis and
presentation of worship is very much in the mainstream New Paradigm vein that
seeks to appeal to church ‘seekers’ and therefore, while not discouraging it, tends
to avoid overt displays of the Holy Spirit such as glossalia and holy laughter, that
are associated with charismatic Pentecostalism or Anglicanism.101
Although its lineage can be traced back to the early Hills Christian Life Centre
albums that exhibited a noticeable gospel influence (Riches and Wagner 2012),
Hillsong’s musical style can be described as pop/rock and is often compared to the
music of U2.102 The hallmarks of this style include thick walls of electric guitar
and a driving ‘four on the floor’ feel. Also, Hillsong often uses its keyboards and
At the O2 event, for example, Jesus House’s pastor Agu Irukwu spoke in tongues and HTB’s
Nicky Gumbel encouraged a bout of ‘holy laughter’ that swept through the arena. In contrast,
Hillsong London’s pastor Gary Clark led the altar call, but did not explicitly encourage any
charismatic expression. Hillsong’s statement of belief, however, does state, ‘We believe that in
order to live the holy and fruitful lives that God intends for us, we need to be baptized in water and
be filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit enables us to use spiritual gifts,
including speaking in tongues.’ (What We Believe. <http://myhillsong.com/what-we-believe>;
accessed 07 August 2013)
Hillsong produces several niche product lines in which its music style varies according to the
target audience. For example, Hillsong Chapel is acoustic as opposed to the primarily electric
sound of United and LIVE. Furthermore, Hillsong’s youth groups produce music that appeals to
them. For example, Hillsong London’s youth groups favour more hip-hop oriented styles.
However, the overall ‘Hillsong Sound’ that is most associated with the Hillsong brand is derived
from its Hillsong LIVE and Hillsong United albums, which have seen a convergence of musical
style based on ‘U2 style’ electric guitars, drums and keyboards (Riches 2010; Riches and Wagner
bass guitar to provide the pedal tones for its texture. These instruments were thus
less melodically active than in Jesus House or even HTB, making Hillsong’s
music sonically distinct. Hillsong’s musicians and congregation members tend to
be fairly ‘hip’ in their sartorial choices, favoring skinny jeans and T-shirts. The
existence of a ‘Hillsong style’ was confirmed by several of my conversation
partners, including Flo, the head of the translation team at Hillsong London.
Hillsong worship is known for being more rock ‘n’ roll and simple enough
for new people to ‘get it’. We also do have a Hillsong-worship-style: vneck, skinny jeans and what I like to call the ‘Peter Wilson’ boots103…
we’ve had moments of hats and scarves but I think that’s gone (for now).
(Email exchange; 6 November 2011)
Hillsong’s music is the most strongly branded of the three churches that
participated in the O2 event. Its ‘global’ congregation is reflected in all aspects of
its musical product, from the visual imagery on its CD covers and in its DVDs to
the lyrical content of its songs to its recognizable ‘Hillsong Sound’ (Riches and
Wagner 2012; Wagner 2013; see also chapter four of this thesis). Furthermore, its
music is distributed to and used in churches around the world on a regular basis
(e.g. Evans 2014). I have spoken to many worship pastors and congregants that
refer to a certain contemporary worship sound as ‘Hillsong style worship’, by
which they are referring to the content, songwriting and presentation of worship.
Thus, Hillsong has to some degree pioneered a ‘style’ all of its own.
What is interesting in Flo’s statement above is that she observes a confluence of
fashion and music in an overall Hillsong worship style. Dick Hebdige introduced
the importance of style to sociological thought in his influential book, Subculture:
the Meaning of Style (1979). In it, Hebdige argued that everyday objects such as
safety pins assume different, value-laden meanings when deployed by different
groups that inhabit different positions in the ‘social order’. For Hebdige, style was
a form of resistance in an asymmetric power struggle between the ‘culture’ and
‘subculture’ of post-war Britain. One of Subculture’s most significant
contributions to music studies was that it showed that sartorial and sonic meanings
are inextricably associated with one another. The Punks, Mods and Teddy Boys in
Peter Wilson is the Head of Worship at Hillsong London. He often preaches and leads worship
in black jeans, a shirt, and a black sport coat in a pair of large black boots, a style that he is known
for throughout the church.
Subculture each preferred a mode of dress and style of music that they used to
construct, maintain and express life-styles, and more importantly the values that
underpinned those lifestyles.
Registers of Style and The Body of Christ
In his study of Trinidadian Christians, Tim Rommen (2007) also draws attention
to the way stylistic choices express values. During his fieldwork, Rommen
attended a ‘Unity Rally’ during which these churches performed together. There,
he observed one church perform North American gospel music while its preacher
wore a suit and tie and spoke with an affected North American accent. In contrast,
another church performed in the ‘Gospelypso’ style drawn from the local
dancehall music. Its members dressed in local garb and spoke the local vernacular.
Rommen observes that at this rally, music, dress and language were ‘discursive
formations in their own right, at once illustrating their own powers of expression
and broadening the ethical horizons of discourse about identity by taking their
place alongside the use of musical style’ (Rommen 2007: 76). The difference
between the Punks, Mods and Teddy Boys in Hebdige’s study and the
Gospelypsonians in Rommen’s study is that while the former used style as a clear
‘us versus them’ demonstration against an ‘other’, the latter deployed stylistic
resistance in an (arguably) more covert manner within a discursive framework that
To illustrate style’s symbolic role in mediating a value-laden Trinidadian dialogue
over nationalism, colonialism and faith, Rommen draws a contrast between what
he calls the invisible church and the visible church. The invisible church is
conceptualized as the ‘sum total of believers everywhere’ (ibid.: 72), the global
Church. His construction has close resonances with the evangelical Christian idea
of the ‘Body of Christ’, which derives from the Pauline Epistles in Corinthians
12:12-14104 and is generally understood to be the sum total of all Christians on
12 For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being
many, are one body: so also is Christ.
Earth, or the Christian Church with a ‘capital C’. Participation in both of these
global imaginaries is often signalled through the use of the ‘non-local’. For
example, in Rommen’s study, participation in the invisible church is signalled by
the use of North American gospel music, dress and speech, all of which have been
imported to Trinidad through conferences and media.105
Style works largely as an implicit value statement that becomes explicit through
the senses. Rommen draws a contrast between the invisible, unified church and
what he calls the visible church, a ‘local’ church where Trinidadian Christians’
value differences play out. In his fieldnotes on the event, Rommen writes:
I am somewhat unsure what to make of this Unity Rally. To begin with, the
word ‘unity’ does not even come up during the rally, a fact that adds to the
uncomfortable sense that the surface sheen of the evening – including
banners and flyers – only diverts attention away from a general lack of
community. To be sure, a mass choir does perform…. But beyond that, the
event itself does not live up to its billing. The choir rehearsal… had the feel
of an uncomfortable reunion – everyone knows each other but no one has
much to say. (Rommen 2007: 74)
Although the ‘Unity Rally’ was intended to emphasize the unity of the invisible
church, Rommen argues that the styles gave away the game, effectively displaying
the disunity of the visible church. Through visible and audible style, participants
in Rommen’s case study signalled their attitudinal positions in relation to each
other and the discourses that formed the invisible church. His analysis of music’s
ultimately differentiating effects highlights difference and unity as dialogically codependent. This co-dependence has been highlighted as one of the primary
features of globalization (c.f. Appadurai 1990; Featherstone et al. 1995; Wilk
1995), and can be seen in the discourses that underpin ‘unifying’ international
events such as the Eurovision song contest or the Olympics. As evangelical
Christianity has globalized, it has also become increasingly concerned with
expressing unity through music (Marti 2012). The O2 event was an example of
13 For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether
we be bound or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.
14 For the body is not one member, but many.
Simon Coleman (2000) observes a similar method of building the Body of Christ through
music, dress, language and even body movement as they become normalized across cultures in a
transnational circuit of preachers, conferences and media.
The vast majority of Christian ‘unity’ rallies, including the O2 event, occur in the
evangelical Christian ‘conference’ format. A worship cocktail that is one part
music festival, one part church service and almost always uses an appeal to ‘unity’
as its mixer, a conference is a place where style serves as a positioning tool ‘in
relationship to local and translocal Others within the global Christian community’
(Ingalls 2011: 266). The vast majority of conferences are not as implicitly hostile
as the event described by Rommen, especially not in the United States and UK.
This is because they are usually self-contained collections of people who are
already united by shared values. While different rallies may attract different
‘types’ of people, each rally in itself will be fairly homogenous. In a real sense,
evangelical Christian conferences are articulations of utopia, both imagined and
‘In One Accord’: Pentecost as a Utopian Narrative, Imagined and Imaginary
Rommen’s ‘invisible church’ and the evangelical ‘Body of Christ’ are both
examples of Benedict Anderson’s ( 2006) imagined community, a
community of people who are too spatially and temporally dispersed to meet faceto-face but who nevertheless feel united through the use of common mass media.
The imagined community is useful for understanding how people ‘learn’ about,
and participate in, the Body of Christ. As Simon Coleman (2000) has proposed,
the mass media that has propelled the spread of evangelical Christianity has also
led to the creation of a ‘generic Pentecostal’. Through transnational flows of
preachers, conferences and especially digital media such as the worship videos
that have made Hillsong famous, participants around the world ‘learn’ the
normative language (and here I mean verbal, physical and musical) that
constitutes evangelical Christian worship and by extension the evangelical
Christian. Anderson’s focus on the imagined community being built through mass
media therefore illuminates how participants learn about ‘others’ in the Body of
Christ, and everyone’s role in it. While there is clearly a utopian element to the
imagined community, Anderson does not address this. However, Philip Wegner’s
concept of an ‘imaginary community’ does. For Wegner, literary utopian
discourses function not as escapist fantasies, but instead ‘have material,
pedagogical, and ultimately political effects, shaping the ways people understand
and, as a consequence, act in their worlds’ (Wegner 2002: xviii, in Ingalls 2011:
264). In other words, stories can have phenomenological effects; the lessons they
have to teach can be embodied, experienced and made real.
The Pentecost story, then, provided the utopian narrative for the O2 event,
painting a picture of a place where everyone worships as one in different but
mutually intelligible ways.
1 And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one
accord in one place. 2 And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of
a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. 3
And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon
each of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to
speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. 5 And there
were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under
heaven. 6 Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together,
and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own
language. (Acts 2: 1-6, KJV; emphasis added)
This discourse was the frame in which, through musical participation, ‘biblical
narrative and personal experience [became] conjoined in a dialectical relationship:
the experience of conference worship [was] used to interpret evangelical
narratives and beliefs… and vice versa’ (Ingalls 2011: 264). As will be seen
below, at the O2 event, registers of style worked between the narrative ‘world as it
should be’ and the actual ‘world as it is’. In the act of worship, the ‘world as it is’
was, for a moment, located (and ideally experienced) within a discursive utopian
The Pentecostal movement derives its name and core beliefs from the second
chapter of the Book of Acts. In the narrative presented above, the Holy Spirit
bestows the gift of tongues on the Disciples, unifying humankind for the first time
since God divided it in the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel. In the
Tower of Babel story, distinction was detrimental – it divided mankind and made
co-operation towards building the Tower impossible. In contrast, the gift of
tongues made distinction an advantage; now, each group could maintain its own
language (and presumably identity), but work together towards building the
Church. The Pentecostal use of distinction is the exact goal of transnational
branding. Transnational brands seek to unify the local and the global, to be a
common language that appeals to common values while being authentically
personal to the individual. The ideal brand is a dialogue between distinction and
At the O2 event, distinction and unity were on display through the common media
of style, a ‘system of common difference’ (Wilk 1995). Different communication
styles were celebrated. For example, when leaving the stage after delivering his
message, Jesus House’s pastor Agu Irukwu brought participants to their feet by
highlighting his ‘Pentecostal’ nature:
You know, I can’t help it… I am Pentecostal, and we make a lot of noise. So
before I go, I want us to raise a shout that would cause an earthquake in the
pits of Hell!
The crowd enthusiastically responded with a sustained barrage of clapping,
cheering and pounding of feet. Into this cacophony stepped HTB’s pastor Nicky
Gumbel, who immediately acknowledged both the diversity of the Body of Christ
and established his place in it:
We love every part of the Body of Christ, but we have a very special love
for Jesus House and for Pastor Agu. Well, I’m an Anglican, and I need to
ask your forgiveness in advance, because I can only talk quietly!
The ethnographic vignette that opened this chapter described ways in which
distinction and unity were musically navigated through style, as well as how style
articulated ways of participating in the Body of Christ. One obvious move was
that musicians from all three churches were represented more or less equally.
There was no obvious ‘leader’, as this role was outsourced to Martin Smith. Smith
is an interesting choice because of the way his own set of associations map onto
the focus of the evening. Smith is the former leader of the recently defunct UK
Christian band Delirious?. In Christian music circles, Delirious? is considered a
‘crossover’ band in two respects. First, it has achieved success in both the
‘secular’ and Christian charts.106 Second, it has achieved international success,
The dialectic between ‘Christian’ and ‘secular’ pop music, their perceived audiences and uses,
is complicated. For the standard academic account of how this plays out see Howard and Streck
‘crossing over’ the Atlantic to the U.S. Through Smith, then, the O2 engaged with
the transnational character of the Body of Christ in a manner similar to Rommen’s
case study. As an internationally-touring musician, Smith does God’s work on a
global stage – and as a ‘local boy’ his evangelical efficacy is rooted ‘at home’. In
other words, he localized the transnational Body of Christ in the UK.
The localizing of the transnational continued throughout the evening. For
example, the first group to follow Smith was HTB’s Tim Hughes and the worship
team from Worship Central.107 The band opened with Hughes’ hit ‘Happy Day’
and followed with ‘For Your Glory (We Will Dance)’, a worship standard written
by the UK star Matt Redman. Most of the participants were familiar with both of
these upbeat, guitar driven tunes, and clapped and sang along happily. A strong
folk influence can be detected in Hughes’ songwriting, but he is also known for
venturing further afield in his collaborations with the West London hip-hop group
29th Chapter. In this spirit, the finale of HTB’s set was an electrified hip-hop
reworking of Hughes’ hit ‘Spirit Break Out’. In this version, the chorus’ normally
smooth hook was given a jagged emotional edge by a rapper whose frenetic
repetition of the words ‘Spirit-Break-Out’ whipped the crowd into a chanting, fistpumping frenzy.
Beyond a stylistic appeal to unity (fusing rock with hip-hop), the song itself
appealed to the Pentecost story’s notion of unity through the Holy Spirit. The
Chorus of ‘Spirit Break Out’ is the following:
Spirit break out
Break our walls down
Spirit break out
Heaven come down
What I am interested in here is how the O2 event simultaneously built and tore
down several ‘walls’, particularly between the local and global. Each church
stylistically branded itself, yet performed with the others against a background
(1999), especially pages 89-90 (see also Ingalls et al. 2013). Other views are also instructive; for a
fan history of CCM, see Thompson (2000). Joseph (2003) focuses on the current plurality of style
in relation to ‘the mainstream’. Beaujon (2006) takes a journalistic perspective.
Worship Central is HTB’s worship music resource hub. Essentially, it is a worship musictraining centre that counts the worship team as one of its resources. It also offers sheet music,
blogs and online courses that can be downloaded and taught by any church wishing to do so.
that framed distinction as harmony. Furthermore, the transnational nature of the
groups – claiming roots in Australia, the UK, and Africa – was localized in the
UK not only because London is the home of all three church branches and where
the event took place, but also because musical ‘leadership’ of the combined group
was ceded to a UK superstar in the form of Martin Smith – himself both an
‘Outsider’ and an ‘Insider’.
Furthermore, Hughes’ engagement with hip-hop brings to the fore associations
from which style is inextricable: those of race and ethnicity. An engagement with
transnational identity cannot happen without consideration of these ‘categories’.
As noted in my description of each church at the beginning of this chapter, race
and ethnicity are part of each of the three churches’ identities, and are mapped
onto the music. For example, Jesus House’s predominantly Black congregation
worships with African-American gospel music, whereas HTB’s predominantly
white congregation uses a folk/rock aesthetic. While the connections between
race/ethnicity and style are of course problematic, the associations between the
two nevertheless exist.108
Just as the transnational character of the Body of Christ was signalled through an
international star, so too was its multi-ethnic dimension. The evening was brought
to a close by Israel Houghton, the worship pastor of Joel Osteen’s Lakewood
Church in Houston, TX, the leader of the band New Breed and one of the bestknown and electrifying performers on the Christian music scene. As a brand,
Houghton embodies the discourses that framed the O2 event as well as anyone. As
a performer, Houghton’s energy, charisma and technique are unparalleled. His
The connection between musical style and race/ethnicity was also noted in Ingalls' (2012) study
discussed above. Her accounts of the Passion and Urbana evangelical Christian student
conferences in the United States reveals that different value sets lead to different articulations of
unity as a utopian concept, and that these concepts are revealed through musical choices. For
instance, at the Passion conference, standard rock-based contemporary worship tunes played by
predominantly white male musicians accompanied preaching that reinforced white male Christian
hetero-normative values. In contrast, the Urbana conference’s self-conscious use of a variety of
music, from rock to hip-hop to gospel, sung by a worship group that included men and women of a
number of ethnicities and led by an African-American articulated the conference’s conception of a
diverse ‘Heavenly Choir’. Ingalls notes that both concepts of ‘unity’ were articulations of different
visions of a utopian ‘Heavenly’ community. More importantly, music was a way for participants to
access and experience, if only for the duration of worship, the utopian construction. In other
words, music was used to articulate an imagined utopian vision of the world as it could (or should)
be while also enabling participation in an imaginary one.
music defies classification, a mix of rock, country, blues and gospel that reflects
his upbringing in the U.S. south. Additionally, Houghton is bi-racial. His personal
semiotics cannot be ignored in the context of the evening.109
The preceding discussion has sought to highlight the interplay of style and identity
with values. Style, built through different, interacting registers such as clothing,
language and music, interacts with local and translocal Others in dialogues that
are, at their roots, about values. While these dialogues work to form pictures of
‘unity’, ultimately it is the production of difference that makes the idea and
experience of unity possible. The O2 event highlights the ways in which the
production of difference and sameness, within the discursive framework of
Pentecost, worked in collaboration with the branded identities of the churches.
Pentecostalism’s tendency towards individualism makes it well suited not only to
modernity and globalization, but also makes it amenable to branding, which
thrives on difference and differentiation. As the discussion above shows, while the
Body of Christ is one predicated on unity – on worshipping as one – it is
difference that helps it grow. Thus, branding may be one of the biggest coups ever
for transnational churches like Hillsong and the transnational imagined and
In many ways, what the Holy Spirit ‘did’ at Pentecost is what modern global
brands seek – mutual intelligibility via distinction within a larger category.
Branded identities set up the expectation that engagement with the brand will
yield a ‘branded’ experience that is different from that of another brand’s offering.
I argue in the next section that brand familiarity and identity set up expectations
that structure a worshipper’s entrance into and experience of an imagined
transnational and imaginary utopian community.
For a discussion of Houghton, see Reagan 2014.
Part II - Music, Brand Recognition and Expectation
For many of the event’s participants, the O2 event was not merely a remembering,
retelling or re-enacting of a biblical story; it was an immediate experience of the
Holy Spirit, a personal encounter with God that reinforced spiritual identity. As
one participant I talked to that night said of the music, ‘The songs… reminded me
of who I am and why I’m here’ (Interview with author, 11 June 2011).
Pentecostalism (and thus Pentecostal identity) is difficult to define because, as
Allan Anderson puts it, ‘Pentecostals have defined themselves by so many
paradigms that diversity itself has become a primary defining characteristic of
Pentecostal and Charismatic identity’ (Anderson 2004: 10). Indeed, the
Pentecostal movement has been characterized by fissures between groups almost
since its inception (Anderson 2004: 39-62). Perhaps paradoxically, this tendency
towards disunity contributed to Pentecostalism becoming the twentieth century’s
fastest growing religious movement, as it was able to adapt to almost any socioeconomic niche it has been introduced to across the globe (c.f. Anderson 2004;
Burgess and van der Mass 2002; Cox 1995; Hollenweger 1972).
Enduring brands use consistency to stake out a piece of ‘mental real-estate’ in the
hearts and minds of participants (Jones 2012: 19-20). As a participant becomes
familiar with an organization’s values through repeated communications, a brand
image coalesces. At the O2 event, the participants I interviewed arrived with
already formed ideas of each church and its music. Our conversations revealed
that the images they held were derived in part from their familiarity (or lack
thereof) of the organization in question. Furthermore, these images informed the
expectation of the ‘type’ of worship they would engage in. An example of this is
seen in the following interview I conducted with Matt and his friend Geoff, two
men in their early twenties. Matt is a member of HTB and Geoff worships at a
200-member church in Canada (he was visiting to take part in HTB’s Alpha
Course). I questioned both while they were queuing to enter the arena.
TW: So you’ve both heard of Hillsong.
M: (immediately) Yes – big fan.
TW: What are you expecting out of tonight?
G: If I know Hillsong is going to be there, I think ‘excellence’ would be one
of the things. (M: that’s good, that’s good). And I like excellence because I
think it’s worship as well, it’s giving their all. So I know that the music will
be tight, the production value will be good, and I won’t find any elements of
it distracting from what I’m really there for, which is to worship.
M: Yeah, I’m with that. (Interview with author, 11 June 2011)
Even before he entered the arena, Geoff had an image of the ‘personality’ of each
church and its worship. From Hillsong, he expected ‘excellence’, something that
Hillsong’s brand has long been associated with both musically and technically
(Stackpool 2009). It is also a value that the church constantly promotes in building
its corporate culture (Zschech 2001: 125-144). Although the high production
value of Hillsong and churches like it has sometimes been criticized as ‘glitz’, the
church counters that, for participants who experience the highest-quality level of
media production in their everyday lives, anything less than that standard will be
deemed amateurish and distract from worship. Geoff, who claimed he knew in
advance that there wouldn’t be any technical flaws to distract him because of
Hillsong’s level of presentation, supported this contention. Part of branding is
establishing consistency over time and across offerings, and over the years
Hillsong has built a reputation that engenders confidence in its product. Geoff
doesn’t just expect excellence – he knows it will be there, helping him to worship
While Geoff’s image of Hillsong was one of the technical wizardry of Hillsong,
his image of HTB’s brand of worship was based on the visibility – or lack thereof
– of its musicians:
TW: What about out of HTB, then?
G: Oh, what am I expecting out of HTB? I don’t know… faceless worship?
That’s what they’re good at – faceless worship, where you don’t notice the
worship leader. Where you don’t notice the worship leader, you just worship
together. That’s what I’m expecting.
TW: So do you think that Hillsong is more ‘faced’ then?
G: They get out more. They tour way more, so of course people begin to
identify with the performers.
M: It’s true. It’s a slightly different model, but not in a bad way. I think both
are good. I do think Hillsong is about grabbing your attention and pointing
you at someone else – at Jesus Christ – whereas I think that HTB is about
worshipping Christ and join in if you’d like to. (Interview with author, 11
Although Hillsong and HTB’s presentation styles likely lead to different worship
experiences, both Geoff and Matt agreed that the sum might be better than the
G: It’s kind of nice to get both [worship styles].
M: Yeah, it’s a good combo. Obviously tonight you’ve got the gospel choir
as well, and Israel (Houghton).
G: I didn’t even know about that!
M: Yeah, it’s good! (Interview with author, 11 June 2011)
For Geoff and Matt, Hillsong’s brand is associated with technical excellence and
the recognition of its musicians. It grabs the worshipper. This stands in contrast to
HTB’s brand of worship, which is often less assertive. The least-strongly branded
church (at least in terms of music), Jesus House London, was referred to as ‘the
gospel choir’. There are many reasons why Matt and Geoff might have been less
familiar with Jesus House than Hillsong and HTB, from demographics to simple
taste in music. However, I think that the fact that Matt, who lives in Canada, was
familiar with both Hillsong and HTB speaks to a disparity in brand recognition
that is directly correlated both to the popularity of the two churches’ music and
also the fact that the music of each is branded.110 Hillsong’s music is some of the
best known in the world, to which its ubiquitous presence on music charts, at the
Dove Awards (the Christian equivalent of the Grammys) and on social media
attests. In addition, it boasts a stable of internationally known stars, some of who
Expansion strategies also play a role in (brand) name recognition. Hillsong and Holy Trinity
Brompton are both parent brands: Hillsong usually plants churches across the globe with pastors
trained at its college – often, but not exclusively, in major cities. These churches engage in
Hillsong-style worship, and if successful, will eventually become Hillsong-branded churches (See,
for example, Evans 2014). HTB ‘grafts’ its name onto failing Anglican churches in the UK,
planting a small number of its congregation in the new church while often revamping the worship
style. In contrast, Jesus House London is more of a ‘spinoff’ in the sense that the Jesus House
name is affiliated with the RCCG, an umbrella organization that lacks the branding focus of either
Hillsong or HTB. Because of this, Jesus House London’s brand image and its attendant
associations were not clear in the minds of those who were not members of the church.
are pop stars outside of Christian music circles.111 Here we see that distribution
and marketing have an impact on the worship experience, something that is
addressed further in chapters four and five. In particular, chapter five explores the
role of branding, agency and participation in the worship experience. As a
prologue to this, the following section explores how branding can affect a
participant’s ability to participate. The ‘God encounter’ that is sought in worship
is attained through participation, but as we will see, ‘the type’ of people in a
church – a branded community – affects the nature of this participation.
Singing Along: Expectation, Participation, and a ‘Branded’ Church Community
Geoff and Matt’s worship expectations were based on brand familiarity. They
expected a different type of worship, in terms of presentation, from each group.
Significantly, this meant that the two men expected to worship differently
depending on the group that was on the platform:
TW: Do you think you’ll worship differently for each group?
M: Oh, that’s a good question. Well, I suppose being from one church, I’m
quite familiar with my own church’s songs and stuff, so probably in that
sense, yeah. But I hope the heart of it won’t be any different anyway.
G: For me, there’s going to be familiarity with one band that I know better
than another, and that, when you’re worshipping and you know the words,
you can just enter in. If it’s HTB, I might not know all the songs they’re
going to play, and I might end up spending more time looking at the words.
It’s obviously a different experience, but I don’t think one is better than the
other. I think they’re very complementary and I like that. (Interview with
author, 11 June 2011)
Here, the manner(s) of worship that Geoff referred to are important. Although
Geoff was visiting from Canada to attend HTB’s Alpha Course, he was more
familiar with Hillsong’s songs than with HTB’s. He admitted that he would
probably need to look at the words in order to participate in worship when HTB
The Grammy award-nominated British pop star Natasha Bedingfield was part of the Hillsong
London worship, appearing on Shout to God’s Fame. Brooke Fraser, a singer/songwriter for
Hillsong’s Australian team, has achieved fame in her native New Zealand, where her single
‘Something in the Water’ reached number one on the singles charts
t=s>; accessed 26 January 2012).
was on the platform, though not, presumably, when Hillsong was. Although Geoff
didn’t explicitly say so, my interpretation of his comments is that he believed it
would be easier to attain flow (Csikszentmihalyi 1990) during Hillsong’s worship
set because the text was already internalized.
One of the reasons that hymnbooks are not used in many evangelical churches is
that the embodied experience, and particularly the emotional elements of that
experience, is thought to be of the utmost importance in a ‘God encounter’. This is
why contemporary worship songs commonly feature easily sung, memorable
melodies and lyrics that are projected above the stage. Simply put, a participant
whose head is buried in a book, trying to comprehend unfamiliar text, will be less
likely to have the intellectual, emotional or physical freedom necessary to engage
with worship in the manner needed to achieve transcendence. The fact that the
music is easily remembered is important because familiarity with and the pleasure
derived from listening to music are often linked (King and Prior 2013). People
enjoy knowing what will come next, which affords certain kinds of participation.
It is perhaps no surprise then that Unwin et al.’s study (2002) showed that
participants’ mood in church singing was improved when they liked the music and
knew what was going to be sung.
Brand familiarity, then, is important in terms of how people expect to participate
in the rituals that make religion efficacious. This is linked to exposure to the
music, which for a transnational church like Hillsong has largely to do with
distribution and marketing. A key point that emerges from the interview with Matt
and Geoff above is that of brand personality. Brands have personalities (Aaker
 2010). As Matt and Geoff showed, we expect them to act in certain ways
(Fournier 1998). However, the connection between a brand’s personality and its
stakeholders’ identity is co-productive. People use branded products to express
their identities both to themselves and others. As discussed in chapter two, they
often choose brands that have value associations that map onto their own. The flip
side of this is that brands, and thus brand identity, become associated with the
‘type’ of person that uses the brand’s products.112 For a musically branded church
like Hillsong, then, music will probably be one of the major elements in
determining the makeup of the congregation (Sargeant 2000; c.f. Marti 2012).
Part III - The Hillsong Brand(ed) Community: ‘A Certain Type of People’
One of the major assumptions that drives musical selection in evangelical
Christian churches is that music plays an important factor both in church choice
(Sargeant, c.f. Marti 2012) and the experience of worship (Nekola 2009). To
appeal to congregational tastes, churches often feel that they have to choose
between classic, organ-based ‘hymns’ and rock-based ‘CPM’ services. Strategies
used to address this supposed division in musical taste usually involve either
offering separate ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ services, or by offering
‘blended’ services that feature both (Sargeant 2000).113 Similarly, especially in the
United States, the concern to attract a ‘multi-ethnic’ congregation has led many
churches to add different ‘ethnic’ styles such as salsa, reggae and rock to their
repertoires (Marti 2012).
Within evangelical Christian circles, then, a style of worship music is often
associated with a certain ‘type’ or ‘brand’ of person. Furthermore, it may be seen
as one of the strongest links between that person and his or her church. Although
the theme of ‘one accord’ was the overriding discourse of the O2 event, and
participants all acknowledged that each church had great worship music, members
of each church nevertheless expressed strong affinities for their own church’s
music. As Julie, a Hillsong London worship team member who attended the event
(not as a performer), told me in a later conversation:
One example of how this relationship can be problematic for brand management is when Tania
do Nascimento appeared on the reality show Big Brother 4. Burberry is an aspirational brand for
which exclusivity (and the social class it connotes) is part of the brand appeal. Nascimento’s
antics, which included parading around the Big Brother house in a Burberry bikini while boasting
that she would spend her prize money on breast implants, did a great deal of damage to Burberry’s
brand image in Britain. As one brand analyst asked: ‘Burberry is supposed to be an aspirational
brand. Are people on Big Brother aspirational?’ (Fletcher 2003).
Tellingly, the ‘traditional’ services are usually on Sunday morning while ‘contemporary’
services are held on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.
Were you at Pentecost? It was so different. Hillsong was my favorite,
because everything came alive, and people were actually jumping. The other
ones were like… it’s like the thing you need to get there wasn’t there. Like
Hillsong, you know it’s going to come. But I think that’s also how they
make us in the church. The character of the church is like that. (Interview
with author, 6 February 2011)
Here we see that the character of the worship is linked to the brand, and the brand
to the ‘type’ of people in the church. However, it would be a mistake to assume
that music directly determines the congregation. While it may be an initial identity
marker, its efficacy is ultimately located in the community with which it is
associated. Hillsong’s members often talk about community as the thing that
makes the church special. Although the music is often what initially drew them to
the church, it is the friends they made and the communities they integrated into
that kept them there and cemented the positive emotional associations that give
the Hillsong brand its efficacy. As psychologist Charles Galanter has noted, group
integration results in satisfaction with and commitment to the group’s purpose and
values (Galanter 1989: 129-175). This is shown by the very different experiences
of two female congregation members at Hillsong. The first, Waithera, is a 30year-old filmmaker who grew up in Nigeria and recently moved to London:
I didn’t know about Hillsong. So I go to London and I’m on the Internet
checking out Hillsong, and it was like, mmm, not bad. And it's in a place
that I can go, you know? On Tottenham Court Road – that’s where I usually
work, so that’s good. The first day I’m there, this lady introduces me to
someone who sat with me, and I began serving that day. I’d not even gone
into church and I was serving on a team! I’m welcoming people into church
– and I’ve never been to this church! But anyway, so we went for the 3:30
service, which is usually really cool, and I sat with all of these girls who
were on the same team as me, and the music began and I was like
‘oh…my...word’! I go for a lot of gigs, and I was like, this is a gig! This is a
rave! Are you for real? I was like: 'This is awesome, this is me!’ (Interview
with author, 16 October 2010)
Recognizing the importance of community as an offering, Hillsong relies on a
large volunteer team that is tasked with identifying and ‘plugging in’ potential
new members immediately. In addition to participating in team activities,
members are encouraged to attend small, regionally based ‘connect groups’ that
are designed to build the more intimate relationships that may be difficult to
establish in larger group settings. In Waithera’s case, she was immediately
identified as a ‘seeker’, and given an active role in church life. Importantly, she
connected with the people and music that she encountered. Sergeant (2000) has
argued that large churches like Hillsong are often attractive to ‘seekers’ precisely
because of the initial anonymity that the size of the church provides (Sergeant
2000: 51, 165). However, if the seeker isn’t soon integrated into the fold, he or she
will likely be lost, as the experience of a second woman – a ‘forty-something’
nanny and native of New Zealand named Deidre – shows:
I changed [churches] because [at Hillsong] I found it hard to get to know
people. I found it very hard to make friends there. I made one or two friends.
I was there for a year, so I gave them a chance. I love the worship, but that
was the only thing I loved about it. I need more. I need friends, so I changed
churches for that reason…. Hillsong is great and I love it, but you need to
push and push to connect with people you can’t. I also found them quite
fake, sometimes; like, ‘Hi, how are you?’ and then they’d quite literally just
move on from you. (Interview with author, 22 July 2011)
Despite ‘loving’ the church’s music, Deidre did not identify with the
communication style that characterizes the church. While both Waithera and
Deidre enjoyed the music, one of them easily connected with a group of people,
while the other found it difficult to relate. Their differing senses of connection
profoundly affected their individual worship experiences. For Waithera:
Hillsong was life changing and the music just added into [the worship
experience]. It was that sauce that needed to be put; do you know what I
mean? (Interview with author, 16 October 2010)
For Deidre, on the other hand:
TW: Did not being able to connect affect your worship experience?
D: It did, yeah. Because when you’re sitting by yourself in a huge place, and
your mates are helping out and no one is around and you have a whole row
to yourself. When no one’s sitting next to you, it does affect your ability
with God because you’re feeling crappy because everyone else is happy but
you and you’ve got no one to talk to. So you sort of find yourself going,
‘you want us to be singing and happy…’ but you’re sort of feeling like you
don’t have anyone to be happy with. Even though God is there, you find
yourself not worshipping as hard or listening as hard because you’ve got no
one to talk to about what you’re saying.
TW: So if I’m hearing you right, you like the music and you like the
teaching but you need to bring someone with you to get the full experience?
D: Yeah, to get the full experience, because you will get lost in the crowd.
(Interview with author, 22 July 2011)
Hillsong goes to great lengths to integrate people into its community. Despite
these efforts, some inevitably feel left out; taste in music may be enough to attract
a seeker, but by itself it cannot provide the satisfaction needed to retain him or
her. The social elements of music contribute to its spiritual efficacy. Participants
need people that they can relate to, people like themselves. Is there such a thing as
a ‘typical’ Hillsong participant? This is where the differentiating power of the
brand, and especially music’s role in the formation and deployment of this power,
is most apparent.
‘Those Sexy Young Christians’
Accounts of the ‘typical’ Hillsong participant, especially in the popular press,
almost invariably describe him or her as young, single and energetic. For example,
in a 2003 Sydney Morning Herald article suggestively titled ‘The Lord’s Profits’,
George Bearup describes his welcome to the Hills church:
A sexy young Christian, a walkie-talkie clipped to her hipsters, greets us on
our walk from the car park. ‘Hi, howya doin?’ she says, with a flick of her
mane and a smile. ‘Welcome to God’s house – what an awesome day!’
Bearup stereotypes Hillsong Australia’s participants for the sake of his article, but
his poetic licence is revealing because it is predicated on associations between the
church’s music and youth. As discussed above, Hillsong’s international pool of
participants is quite diverse. However, there are well-established connections
between age, musical preference and religious belief. For example, Holbrook and
Schindler (1989) have shown that musical preference is cemented during the
teenage and early adult years, while Spilka, Hood and Gorsuch (1985) have
shown that religious belief is often solidified by around 15 years of age. This
suggests that music has profound implications for the demographics of a
brand(ed) community, something both Deidre’s and Waithera’s experiences seem
Deidre, who is in her 40s, told me that she has listened to Hillsong’s music ‘since
the beginning’. She described her preference for the Australian church’s older
worship songs, which she felt were not as ‘loud’ as the newer ones. Significantly,
she related the loudness of the current songs to the type of person who attends a
I just prefer the older version better. I like the sound of it better. It sounds
calmer. I always find myself going back to the older songs. Now, I’m a
quiet person. They [Hillsong] produce lively people – very lively people. To
be part of Hillsong, you’ve got to be a really outgoing, talkative person,
because people who aren’t will get misplaced. If you wanted to join a
Hillsong church, you’ve got to make sure you’re willing to put the effort in
to get to know them. (Interview with author, 22 July 2011)
Although it would be a mistake to posit a typical ‘Hillsong participant’, after three
years of participant observation, I feel confident that Deidre’s description of the
‘typical’ Hillsong participant as young and outgoing is, in general, accurate.
While Hillsong’s doors are open to anyone, the fact that musical taste is one of the
main factors in church preference (Sargeant 2000: 64-66) suggests that, in
branding itself with a certain style of music, Hillsong will attract a ‘certain type’
of participant, which brands the community and will attract ‘more of the same’.
How, then, does branding affect participation in the imagined and imaginary
community of the Body of Christ? This chapter has attempted to tease this out,
showing that part of the Hillsong brand’s spiritual efficacy is due to communal
associations that are inexorably bound up with style, of which music is a
‘register’. The O2 Pentecost event was an opportunity for Hillsong to build its
brand image by positioning itself both in alliance with and in contrast to other
organizations in an ‘imagined’ transnational community. The discourses that
construct this community also framed a ‘utopian’ imaginary community that
‘taught’ what heaven is like through the participatory experience. The Pentecost
story framed the experience. Like branding, the Pentecost story presents a utopia
in which each person’s ‘heart language’ is mutually intelligible and therefore
participants can be autonomous individuals in a collective – the answer to
modernity’s existential dilemma. This suggestion relied heavily on two
expectations that were provoked by participants’ familiarity with the brand. First,
Hillsong’s reputation for energetic, technically excellent music established an
expectation of an enjoyable, uninterrupted worship experience. Second,
participants’ familiarity with the lyrics and melodies sung influenced the mode of
the worship experience. In the end, then, the emotional attachments to the
community with which each brand was associated gave the brand its spiritual
efficacy. As two contrasting communal experiences showed, integration into the
brand was, as Waithera put it, ‘the sauce that needed to be put’. Thus, it becomes
clear that Hillsong’s (and every church’s) unique offering is not the God
encounter per se, but the branded community that is associated with it.
This chapter has focused on participation as a key to the experience of the brand.
The imagined and imaginary community was shown to be important because it
provides a visceral experience of the brand and its associated values. Experience
of the music is therefore of great importance to the brand’s evangelical efficacy.
In the following chapter, I explore further the relationship between imaginaries
and experience. However, instead of focusing on the global ‘Body of Christ’, I
will explore the Hillsong Church Network as a set of imaginaries, focusing on
how participants’ understandings of other participants within the network affect
their experiences of the music.
The ‘Hillsong Sound’: Hearing Place in the Hillsong Network
At 2:30 on a wet, grey London afternoon, a queue is already forming outside the
Dominion Theatre ahead of Hillsong London’s 3:30 service. Despite the damp,
people are in high spirits because this and the following 6:00 service will be
special: both will be recorded for the new Hillsong LIVE album A Beautiful
Exchange, which will feature music written and performed by Hillsong’s London
and Australia-based worship teams. Anticipation has been growing for months,
largely because of regular reminders from Head Pastor Gary Clark and the
cinematic trailers promoting the recording that have been shown during the
‘what’s going on in the life of the church’ segment of weekly Sunday services.
Also, many of the songs that are to be recorded this evening have been in heavy
rotation in the services leading up to tonight, so participants know them well and
are eager to start singing along.
Fifteen minutes before the service begins, the doors to the auditorium open.
People rush to secure the best seats, reserving spots for late arriving friends by
draping coats over chairs with one hand while with the other hand trying to
communicate their locations through furious text message exchanges. At the
appointed hour, the auditorium goes dark. Howls erupt from the crowd as
everyone claps in time to a thumping ‘four on the floor’ beat. Not that anyone
could help but be in time; each thud of the bass drum can be felt in the core of
your being. THUMP – THUMP – WHOOT! – WHOOT!: participants hoot on
every third and fourth beat. They know what’s coming. After about 30 seconds,
the stage explodes in a barrage of lights and sounds as the worship band cranks
out ‘The Answer’. A jumble of lines flashes across the huge LED screen that
frames the rear of the stage, sometimes in disarray, sometimes momentarily
forming a sphere before dissolving away. This continues until the chorus arrives.
Then, as the lyrics ‘When the World…’ are sung, a globe complete with latitude
and longitude lines forms on the screen, eventually coalescing into a fully
rendered image of the Earth. Exactly four minutes after it began, the song is over.
Worship has begun. (Author’s fieldnotes; 8 November 2009)
Six months later,114 A Beautiful Exchange, the nineteenth album in the Hillsong
LIVE series, was released on the EMI label. It subsequently rose as high as
number four on the US iTunes album chart and reached number one on the
Australian iTunes chart. On the US Billboard charts, it debuted at number one on
the Christian albums, number nine on digital albums, and was fortieth on the
Billboard 200 albums charts. In Australia, it reached number three on the ARIA
During the month leading up to the album’s recording, A Beautiful Exchange was
marketed to Hillsong London’s participants as a collaboration between the
Australian and London churches. The album was a move towards a more ‘global’
Hillsong musical expression. A full night’s worship was recorded at the Dominion
Theatre that evening. Yet upon final release, only one song made it on to the CD
version of the album (‘A Father’s Heart’). Five others were released on the DVD,
but these were relegated to the Bonus Disc.
Why was this? In posing this question to Hillsong’s congregational participants,
worship leaders and General Manager, I was given several reasons, all of which
were connected (although usually not explicitly) to branding.
This chapter explores how marketing and production concerns affect sacred
experience. It explores how Hillsong brands itself not only as part of a global
community, but also as a global community in its own right. While the last
chapter focused on the Body of Christ as an imagined and imaginary community,
this chapter will examine the Hillsong Network – the complex associational web
of people and places that constitutes the socio-cultural entity ‘Hillsong Church’.
My discussion of the Hillsong Network will focus on Hillsong’s Australian and
London locations because of their prominence in the hierarchy of Hillsong’s
A Beautiful Exchange was released on 29 June 2010 in the United States.
placemaking portfolio (Gilmore and Pine 1999), which comprises all the physical
and virtual spaces where Hillsong has established a presence. The definition of
space and place varies across disciplines (e.g. Feld and Basso 1996; Lash and
Urry 1994; c.f. Hubbard et al. 2004), Here, I am defining a place as simply ‘space
made meaningful’. The Hillsong brand makes physical and virtual spaces ‘places’
by condensing them into an associational package that, through global flows
(Appadurai 1996) and mediated imaginations (Anderson  2006), affords
meaningful experiences of its music – the ‘Hillsong Sound’.
In positing a ‘Hillsong Sound’, I first discuss the problem of global translation
that Hillsong faces, as well as some of the advantages of and limitations to the use
of branding as a method of cross-cultural communication. After defining ‘sound’
as a primarily discursive construction that posits a space/place as a musical ‘centre
of production’, I show how Hillsong’s music production strategy establishes its
flagship Australian church as the centre of production of the music and the brand.
This Australian centre of production is imbued with essentialist cultural
associations that anchor the ‘Hillsong Sound’ in its brand’s mythological creation
story (Holt 2004). It is through this mythology that the spiritual power of
Hillsong’s branded music is experienced. Finally, I explore how Hillsong London
participants’ images of places and people in the Hillsong network inform their
experience of Hillsong’s worship music vis-à-vis the ‘Hillsong Sound’, which is
the sonic signifier of the Hillsong brand. I conclude by noting that, because the
‘sound’ is important to the efficacy of the music, Hillsong actively positions not
only the church network but also the city of London itself within an evangelical
Christian discourse that relies on global and local propositions.
The Hillsong Brand: A Global Language?
Like pop music and evangelical Christianity, brands such as Coca-Cola,
McDonalds and Disney seem to be able to penetrate and adapt to any sociocultural milieu. Furthermore – and also like pop music and evangelical
Christianity – the meanings of brands are multiple and contested. For some,
brands are globalization’s agents of cultural imperialism (Cocacolonization),
bureaucratic rationalization (McDonaldization) and even engineers of the human
imagination (Disneyization) (Chidester 2001: 131-149).115 Others see global
brands as symbols of neo-liberal hegemony (Klein  2010) that homogenise
our urban environments into replicated ‘brandscapes’ (Klingmann 2007) and
colonise our global ideoscapes (Askegaard 2006). Indeed, the association of
branding with the hegemony of ‘American style’ capitalism might lead one to see
brands as a brave ‘New World’ religion. However, as Maharaja burgers in India
and McSushi in Japan demonstrate, even the most ‘cross-cultural’ brands are
subject to local tastes (Chidester 2005: 138-142).
What is common to all the examples above is that brands are shared semiotic
material in conflict, negotiation and exchange (Holt 2002). As seen in culture
jamming and the now annual anti-globalization protests at the World Trade
Organization meetings (Klein  2010: 280-323), brands are significant
symbolic stand-ins for disputes about the ethical and value assumptions that
capitalist cultures and societies are built upon. This is because they are systems of
common difference (Wilk 1995) par excellence that retain core identities even as
they are deployed symbolically for often-contradictory purposes. For better or
worse, then, it is clear that brands are a form of cross-cultural communication in a
globalized world, and branding is therefore not a luxury but an imperative for
organizations that aspire to global reach (Tragos 1998), including religious
organizations such as Hillsong.
This is not to say that branding is a failsafe method of cross-cultural
communication –far from it. Even iconic global brands such as Coca-Cola,
McDonalds and Disney have made (sometimes comical) missteps in their attempts
at communication. For example, Coca-Cola’s supposedly panhuman message has
been lost in translation on numerous occasions, as related by David Chidester:
… Coca-Cola has sometimes generated a chaos of signification in its
attempts at global translation. For example, the Chinese characters that most
closely reproduce the sound of ‘Coca-Cola’ apparently translate as ‘bite the
wax tadpole’. In Dutch, ‘Refresh Yourself with Coca-Cola’ translates
For Cocacolonzation, see Wagnleitner (1994); for McDonaldization, see Ritzer (2010); for
Disneyization, see Bryman (2004).
directly as ‘Wash Your Hands with Coca-Cola’. French-speakers misheard
the French version of the song ‘Have a Coke and a Smile’ as ‘Have a Coke
and a Mouse’, while Spanish-speakers in Cuba reportedly misread the skywriting for ‘Tome Coca-Cola’ (drink Coca-Cola) as ‘Teme Coca-Cola’ (fear
Coca-Cola). (Chidester 2005: 135-136)
Like Coke, Hillsong faces the problem of cross-cultural translation. As seen in
chapter two, authenticity is largely the product of consistently expressing a core
value system. For a religious organisation like Hillsong, the specificity of this
system is paramount as it is inherently bound up with a claim to Truth. As a
transnational church, Hillsong faces a challenge of ‘global’ proportions: it must
deliver a specific, consistent and coherent message, and must do so through a
broad range of offerings delivered by a number of different people in a variety of
cultural contexts. Further complicating the realization of this imperative is the fact
that music is one of Hillsong’s main communicative mediums. While popular
music is easily absorbed into a variety of cultural settings, and thus is a good
vehicle of communication, it is also notoriously subjective, and thus its ability to
reliably communicate meaning through either sounds or lyrics is debatable (Negus
1996: 25-35). The culturally specific medium of music thus presents Hillsong
with unique opportunities for, as well as challenges to, its ability to communicate
in transnational contexts.
Part I - Creating the ‘Hillsong Sound’
‘Sound’ and the City
The word ‘sound’ has multiple meanings and uses. For example, a sound is a
psycho-acoustic phenomenon in which vibrations are detected by our sensory
organs and interpreted in meaningful ways by our brains. However, a sound can
also be thought of as a distinctive style or, as the American Heritage Dictionary
defines it, ‘a mental impression; an implication’.116 Through culture and
experience, we come to associate certain sounds and patterns of sounds – what we
Sound. <http://www.thefreedictionary.com/sound>; accessed 27 April 2012.
often call music117 – with a variety of things such as emotions, people, life events
and so on. The sonic palette of our environment thus profoundly affects the way
we experience it and ourselves. Perhaps the most holistic view of sound and
experience is that put forth in Steven Feld’s work with the Kaluli of Papua New
Guinea (Feld 1984; 1988). Feld argues that the acoustic environment of the
rainforest in which the Kaluli live permeates and shapes the interlinked cultural,
social and perceptual aspects of their human experience. For Feld, the sonic
environment of the rainforest is nothing less than the Kaluli world-view, a
‘sociomusical realit(y)’ (Feld 1984: 406).
Feld’s work in the rainforests of Papua New Guinea dovetails with
(post)subcultural treatments of Henri Lefebvre’s writings about the relationship
between spatial practices and cultural production in cities. In The Production of
Space (1974), Lefebvre argued that economic modes of production shape cultural
production, and thus the character of cities and their inhabitants. The (sub)cultural
theorist Andy Bennett has usefully applied Lefebvre’s work to thinking about the
ways music, space and place are intrinsically linked. As Bennett shows in his
discussion of the ‘Canterbury Sound’, aficionados of a ‘sound’ claim particular
(usually urban) spaces as ‘active centres of production’ (Bennett 2002: 87) of the
music(s) they engage with. For Bennett, the technologically enabled mediascape
is a space/place where images and information about spaces are ‘recontextualized
by audiences into new ways of thinking about and imagining place’ (ibid.: 89).
This imagined place exists in a self-referential ‘mythscape’; that is, a space in
which stories, discussions and anecdotes exist ‘entirely in relation to that place’s
representation as a mythscape’ (ibid.). Myth building is a branding activity (Holt
2004) that cities engage in in the hope of securing cultural capital that will
translate into financial capital through tourism (Klingmann 2007). Cities such as
Vienna, New Orleans and Memphis have sought to associate their identities with
those of a musical artist or genre, thereby differentiating themselves from
John Blacking described ‘musical’ sound patterns as ‘humanly organized’ (Blacking 1973).
Interestingly, this conception of music might not be as cross-cultural as one might think. For
example, Steven Feld maintains that, for the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea, ‘there is no "music",
only sounds, arranged in categories shared to greater or lesser degrees by natural, animal, and
human agents…. No hierarchies of sound types are imposed, no rationales constructed for
differentiating human-made sounds from those of other sources’ (Feld 1984: 389; emphasis
otherwise similar cities. If they are successful, their stories become inextricable
from the music. As Bennett remarks, ‘the marketing of canonized “genres” such
as Cajun, blues, and “world music” has served to create a series of romanticized
myths surrounding particular regions of the world as listeners use these musical
styles to map out the relationship between social and geographical landscapes’
(Bennett 2002: 89). Listeners connect musical sounds with assumptions about
where, why, how and by whom music is/was produced. These assumptions inform
ascriptions of authenticity and meaning. In this mix of (extra)musical associations,
the city ‘performs an important anchoring role as myths surrounding the city are
constructed’ among communities of music consumers (ibid.: 88). Thus, a
(branded) ‘sound’ is born.
While Bennett’s work is primarily concerned with ‘insiders’ – i.e. the fans or
aficionados of a music or artist – Sarah Thornton’s work on subcultures can be
used to further nuance the understanding of the connection between city and
sound, through her focus on the roles of ‘outsiders’ in creating a sound. Often,
associations between musicians, styles and cities have material truth – for
example, the Seattle bands Nirvana and Pearl Jam played formidable roles in the
rise of grunge and the concomitant creation of a ‘Seattle Sound’. However,
Detroit’s association with techno illustrates, according to Thornton, that a city’s
‘sound’ does not require locally based artists to produce it. Indeed, Thornton
asserts that ‘despite the fact that the music was not on the playlist of a single
Detroit radio station, nor a regular track in any but a few mostly gay black clubs,
the British press hailed ‘techno’ as the sound of that city’ (Thornton 1995: 75).
For Thornton, both subcultures and the ‘sounds’ that they are associated with are
products of the media. As she observes, ‘communications media create
subcultures in the process of naming them and draw boundaries around them in
the act of describing them’ (ibid.: 162). Thus, a city’s ‘sound’ is a discursive,
highly mediated construct that is at least partially produced by people who may
have never visited the city or heard the music in question.
While people brand places, places also brand people. For example, neither Bruce
Springsteen nor Bon Jovi would ‘sound’ the same without New Jersey; it is
understood that part of each artist’s authentic sound comes from the place in
which it was honed. The same can be said for the ‘typical’ resident of an area, for
whom stereotyped forms of self-presentation such as speech patterns, dress and
physical mannerisms are often more a matter of ascription than reality.
What the above discussion reveals is that spaces, places, people and musical
meaning are all inextricably linked to one another in a ‘sound’. For Hillsong, its
‘sound’ is also part of the larger web of signification that is the brand. As such,
the rest of this chapter investigates some of the ways in which the efficacy of
Hillsong’s branded ‘sound’ relies on associations among the places – and those
places’ people – that constitute the Hillsong Network. These places are both
physical and virtual, and are real and efficacious in different, overlapping and
mutually constituting ways. Furthermore, participants impart meaning to the
places that constitute the Hillsong Network. Of key importance to my argument is
that authenticity (see chapter two) is always partially grounded in the ideas and
meanings that are associated with people and places, ‘real’ or ‘virtual’. Again, my
definition of a place is ‘a space made meaningful’. Places are made.
People make space meaningful in countless ways. As a theoretical framework for
this chapter, I introduce James Gilmore and Joseph Pine’s discussion of
‘placemaking’ to illustrate how Hillsong makes its network of physical and virtual
spaces into branded places (Gilmore and Pine 2007). Gilmore and Pine point out
that – like Darlene Zschech in chapter two – organizations need to be perceived as
authentic in order to be successful (ibid.: 147). Stakeholders must be afforded the
opportunity to experience an organization’s authenticity through its offerings.
Therefore, Gilmore and Pine’s suggestion to organizations is:
Stop saying what your offerings are through advertising and start creating
places (my emphasis) – permanent or temporary, physical or virtual, feebased or free – where people can experience what those offerings, as well as
your enterprise, actually are. (ibid.: 149, original emphasis)
Recall from chapter one that advertising is only part of the integrated marketing
effort that is branding. Everything associated with a brand has symbolic meaning,
and thus can be considered an offering. This includes a brand’s spaces, which
become places where a brand’s authenticity is both experienced and realised (c.f.
Sherry 1998a).118 According to Gilmore and Pine,119 a full organizational
placemaking portfolio extends from a single place – its flagship location – to
ubiquity in the worldwide market. The flagship location, whether it is a single
store or geographic area (usually both), is the focal point of the brand. In other
words, it is the brand’s centre of production. For Hillsong, this is the Hills campus
in Australia. ‘Experience hubs’ are located in major economic centres such as
London and New York City, both of which are part of Hillsong’s portfolio.
Further experience opportunities are presented at ‘major venues’, which are places
that have a population large enough to support a primary outlet. For Hillsong, this
includes its smaller (but growing) churches in cities such as Paris and Stockholm.
Major venues are followed by places of ‘derivative presence’, which are venues
that distil the essence of a larger venue in the portfolio in a more accessible way.
Examples of this are Hillsong London’s Surrey and Kent extension services,
which are video-linked to services at the Dominion Theatre and thus allow
participants outside of London to experience Hillsong London ‘first-hand’. Finally
a ‘worldwide market presence’ is achieved when ‘every feasible place where
customers might encounter [an organization’s] offerings’ has been occupied
(Gilmore and Pine 2007: 160). While Hillsong certainly has not exhausted this
level of its portfolio, a quick look at the CCLI charts confirms that participants in
churches all over the world encounter its music every Sunday.120 A full
placemaking portfolio has a virtual counterpart to each of the physical places just
described (ibid.: 156). Hillsong boasts a diverse placemaking portfolio that
provides worshippers with both physical and virtual access to the ‘Hillsong
Experience’. The ‘Hillsong Sound’ is in part a product of Hillsong’s placemaking
Both physical and virtual spaces can be branded places. Some famous examples of physical
spaces are Chicago’s Nike Town and Disney World. A good example of a virtual branded
space/place is Amazon.com’s website (Moor 2007: 50-51). As brand guru Martin Lindstrom has
pointed out, though, one of the advantages that a physical branded space has over a virtual one is
the potential to engage all five senses in the brand experience (Lindstrom 2005). For example,
while a visitor to a Disney theme park can touch, taste, see, hear and feel Disney’s myriad
offerings, a visitor to Disney’s website is unlikely to have his or her sense of taste, smell or touch
titillated. Perhaps this is why online retailers such as Amazon, which has been instrumental in the
demise of many ‘brick and mortar’ retailers, and even Google, whose entire identity is web-based,
are rumoured to be or are actually building physical locations (Isaac 2011; Sanburn 2012).
The following discussion is drawn from Gilmore and Pine (2007: 153-62).
Top 25 Songs. <http://www.ccli.com/Support/LicenseCoverage/Top25Lists.aspx>; accessed 5
strategy, whereby Hillsong Australia is the brand’s centre of production and
Hillsong London its European ‘experience hub’ (ibid.: 156-157). The hierarchical
ordering of importance of these places, in conjunction with touring, album sales,
and a ubiquitous Internet presence enables Hillsong to ‘entice the greatest number
of customers to experience [the church and] its offerings’, through its ‘rich
portfolio of harmonized places flowing one from another’ (ibid.: 154). The ideal
brand is one where meaning flows between offerings in a harmonized
communications gestalt. Here, I seek to understand how Hillsong’s congregation
members experience the ‘Hillsong Sound’ in relation to the church’s portfolio of
branded physical and virtual spaces, to what extent these spaces ‘harmonize’ to
become places, and how this ultimately feeds into participants’ experiences of the
music and the brand.
Hillsong Australia: The Centre of Production
Branding is a way of communicating a consistent and easily understood message
to stakeholders in a variety of contexts through a variety of offerings. To ensure
the consistency of its musical offerings, Hillsong has codified a production
process through which songs travel from inspiration to recording. First, a worship
team member submits a song for consideration. Robert Fergusson – a Hills
campus senior pastor – then vets the song to ensure that its lyrics align with the
church’s teachings. If it passes lyrical muster, the song is then played in services
in various Hillsong locations in Australia to gauge congregation members’
reactions. This determines whether a song is either rejected or recorded. Although
this process is straightforward in theory, song selection is also influenced by
extra-musical branding considerations. Hillsong’s official policy is that any
worship team member may submit a song for consideration, but according to an
Australian worship leader with whom I spoke, some songs have a better chance of
being recorded than others:
I don’t know if you’ve talked to the guys who have submitted maybe fifty
songs and none have gotten returned, but they [Hillsong] do have an idea as
to whose songs they’d like to see on the next album. So they want to see a
couple from Joel [Houston], a couple from Rueben [Morgan], there’s going
to be a couple from Ben Fielding. It’s pretty clear, you know? And maybe
there will be two from random people in the congregation or the team,
maybe a song or two that the youth really love and got brought out during
summer camp, but it’s pretty set. (Interview with author, 1 June 2011).
In the above statement, we can see the branding process at work. As discussed in
chapter two, Hillsong needs ‘stars’ to be the face of its brand. Another reason is
that Hillsong’s main songwriters are full-time worship pastors who draw a salary
from the church. In contrast to most worship team members who are volunteers,
and thus spend the majority of their time occupied with other pursuits, Hillsong’s
core songwriting team has the time and support to devote to writing songs for
their church. They are also part of Hillsong’s ‘inner circle’, and are therefore more
intimately familiar with the church’s vision at any given time.121 A strong brand is
fluid, changing concomitantly with an organization as it evolves, and therefore its
music needs to reflect that.122 From a branding perspective, then, it benefits
Hillsong to maintain a core of songwriters who are deeply involved in ‘the life of
As described above, if a song passes lyrical vetting, it is then ‘field tested’ for
efficacy in performance, usually during worship services at Hillsong’s Australian
churches. Since the primary goal of worship music at Hillsong is to afford the
transformational and transcendent ‘God encounter’, it is vital that worshippers
engage with it. This is why, according to most worship leaders I interviewed, if a
song does not go over well it will often be abandoned right away. However,
according to others, a song may get a second chance if it has been identified as a
candidate for an upcoming album, especially if a main worship pastor authors it.
According to a worship leader of one of Hillsong’s Australian extension services:
The [song may not be immediately good], but they are often going to make
it work because they know that they want it on the album. So they’ll tell you
‘we throw a song out if it doesn’t have a response’, but yes and no. Yes, if
it’s their song – if they put it out there and it doesn’t have the desired
response, they know it’s not really good enough to get on the album. So they
might retract it and rewrite it and then they’ll try it again. So Reuben
The above statement could also suggest that personal sensitivities may play a part in the song
selection process. For example, leaving out the songs of particular individuals within the inner
circle might result in tensions and questions about competence and authority.
For how Hillsong’s musical branding has changed to reflect the changing organizational
character and needs of the church, see Riches and Wagner (2012).
[Morgan] will do that, Joel [Houston] will do that, a couple of the worship
leaders will do that. But in terms of other songs, it’s a mixture. So they’ll
work a song, they’ll do a back and forth. They’ll try it in a few contexts.
They’ll try it with the youth or maybe a couple of the satellite churches to
see whether different links or motifs make it work (Interview with author, 1
In keeping with a core group of well-known songwriters, Hillsong manages the
‘sound’ of its musical offerings by integrating the songwriters’ personas and styles
with its brand (see also chapter two). Additionally, because songs are primarily
field-tested in the Australian church, Hillsong Australia’s congregation members
become the de facto arbiters of taste for the entire Hillsong network. From a ‘top
down’ perspective, then, Hillsong Australia is the centre of production of the
music that is identified with the ‘Hillsong Sound’. However, a ‘sound’ also relies
on an expanded notion of production that integrates stakeholders outside of the
song creation process. As the discussion of views from both Hillsong
congregation members and the media in the next section will show, this side of
production is mediated and imagined (Anderson  2006), and relies heavily
on essentialist notions of ‘others’ within the Hillsong Network.
Remix! Part 1: A ‘London Sound’?
From the previous section, it may be tempting to label Hillsong’s music as
‘Australian’, as it is largely written, produced and vetted in an Australian context.
Once it is released, though, the music is experienced in myriad ‘local’ contexts
around the world. The most prominent locality in the Hillsong Network is
Hillsong London, which Gilmore and Pine (2007) would describe as Hillsong’s
European ‘experience hub’. Because of its strategic location, Hillsong London is
both a destination for international worshippers and a base for evangelistic
activities, which includes touring. Hillsong London’s worship team regularly tours
Europe, presenting Hillsong’s worship music in a variety of cultural settings.
According to Julie, a member of the worship team, these appearances are quite
Well, actually (Hillsong London Senior Pastor) Gary said something about
[touring] yesterday. He said they call it tours, but it’s actually [Evangelical]
crusades. Because London goes to Italy, they go to Europe, and like a
thousand people get saved in one night. (Interview with author, 6 February
While Julie may be exaggerating the number of souls saved nightly, her account
nevertheless underscores Hillsong London’s popularity across Europe. One of
Hillsong London’s worship leaders that I spoke to, while acknowledging that the
team will often play for much smaller crowds, told me it also encounters crowds
of over 15,000 people (personal communication, 22 April 2011). However, it is
not clear whether Hillsong London’s reception is due to an idiosyncratic ‘London
Sound’ or to the overall popularity of the Hillsong brand. Is it the ‘Australian’
music, or the particular way in which Hillsong London’s worship team presents it,
that affects people? One worship leader I spoke to believed it was the latter – a
Euro Sound’ that was distinct to Hillsong London:
The London stuff goes off really well in Italy.... It’s ‘Euro’, it’s got its own
flavour. (Interview with author, 1 June 2011)
This worship leader went on to tell me that, while he understood the confusion
it might cause, he believed that a distinct ‘Euro’ sound would reach more
Europeans than a sound they might hear as ‘foreign’. Notably, this leader was
neither European nor did he live in London; he was born and raised in
For a time, Hillsong attempted to fashion a distinct musical identity for Hillsong
London. From 2004-2008, Hillsong London released four albums under its own
name. These releases spoke to a range of stylistic influences, but largely
conformed to the overall rock-based style that was coalescing between Hillsong’s
United and LIVE releases during the same period (Riches 2010). In 2007, though,
Hillsong London broke from convention with the release of the Jesus Is: Remix.
This album remixed the rock-based songs of its 2006 release, Jesus Is, as dance
tracks. Much of the Christian music media portrayed the album using language
similar to the following review:
Passionate Euro-styled worship has been a core driving force for the
explosive growth at the new Hillsong London church. A group of talented
and creative members of the church have taken 12 songs from the original
Jesus Is worship project released in 2006 and remixed them from a pop and
rock sound to electronic and ambient versions while maintaining the same
lyrics and Biblical messages. Mixing a sound from their Hillsong Australia
heritage with the current European/London music scene, this Euro-Worship
has a fresh and exciting, yet familiar sound…. This creative project is a
perfect addition to any Hillsong music fan and any fan collection of
electronic and ambient music.123
Here, the importance of essentialised notions of place in the construction of
‘sound’ (and the media’s role in this construction) is apparent. Australia is posited
as a musical lineage that is sonically remoulded in the Euro-London scene. The
next section explores the role of these notions in the subjective creation of the
Remix! Part 2: City, Sound and Scene
While the problems with positing typical ‘Europeans’ or ‘Londoners’ are obvious,
what is relevant to this section is the above review’s connection of the Jesus Is:
Remix ‘sound’ to an implied ‘Euro’ music scene in London. In (post)subcultural
theory, a scene is ‘the formal and informal arrangement of industries, institutions,
audiences, and infrastructures’ that over time ‘becomes spatially imbedded
according to a dense array of social, industrial and institutional infrastructures, all
of which operate at a local and trans-local level’ (Stahl 2004: 55; see also Straw
1991). To those who interact with a ‘local’ scene,124 it is connected with the level
of vibrancy and diversity of active musical life in a place as measured against
perceived activity elsewhere. A ‘happening’ scene is one that supports a diverse
array of musics or a large number of people involved in music. In contrast, a
‘dead’ scene is characterised by few opportunities to hear or perform music, and a
lack of diversity of musical styles available.125 Interviews conducted during my
fieldwork indicate that, to Hillsong’s musicians and participants, the ‘sound’ of
Hillsong London reflects a cosmopolitan ‘Euro-ness’ that itself is a product of the
accessed 21 August 2011.
As Stahl (2004) suggests, scenes can be ‘virtual’ and ‘global’ as well as ‘local’.
Unless one is talking about a stylistic scene (e.g. a ‘goth’ scene or a ‘folk’ scene). However,
scenes differentiate internally. For example, what one might be tempted to refer to as the ‘dance
scene’ is made up of so many continually-diversifying sub-genres that it would be difficult to
speak of an overall scene in a coherent manner. Nevertheless, the associations do remain and are
diversity of the city’s scene. This diversity is held in opposition to the
homogenous musical scene of Sydney.126 An Australian worship leader who has
been involved in Sydney-based projects outside of the church told me:
TW: I’ve been asking if there is a ‘Hillsong Sound’ and a ‘London Sound’,
and you seem to think there is.
J: Yeah, I do. I think that I was hearing, like you said, some Green Day
influences, almost some ska [On Hillsong London’s first album]. And to me
that’s kind of indicative of England, where the punk movement originated. I
feel like that was something that was really appropriate. I read an article in
Christianity Today on contemporary worship music in which an American
and a British person were having a conversation. At the end of this
conversation, the British person turned to the American and said, ‘Well, in
Britain we’re just not in love with our guitars as much as you are’. I think
that the Euro sound is so much more open to electronica. I think they have a
sense of that soul influence in London. There are a lot of different influences
that are just not present in Sydney. (Interview with author, 1 June 2011)
If London does in fact have a more diverse music scene than Sydney, then the
diversity of the London church’s internal music scene, compared to that of the
Australian church, seems to validate the worship leader’s assertion. Both Hillsong
London and Hillsong Australia celebrate Easter and Christmas with ‘one off’
specials that take the form of music-based theatrical presentations. On these
occasions, the music is not the standard repertoire, but is either specially written
for the event or – as is more often the case – adapted from current secular pop
hits.127 Although much of the music is written, arranged and performed by
Hillsong’s worship team, its youth ministries are given a chance to perform as
well. It is here that the divergent tastes of Hillsong London and Hillsong
Australia’s participants are most apparent.
In contrast to the pop-rock style that characterises the worship music of a normal
Sunday service, the music that drives Hillsong London’s one-off specials is more
I refer to Sydney here instead of Australia (as I have been doing) because, as will be shown in
the following interview excerpt, interviewees often used the two interchangeably. Hillsong does
have a church in Sydney. However, its flagship remains the Hills campus in the suburbs of the city.
This is an example of the gravitational pull that the mythologies of some places exert in contrast to
other, less ‘branded’, places.
This adaptation usually involves changing some lyrics, although Hillsong musicians have told
me that in some cases an unchanged secular song can convey a sacred meaning in a church setting.
For a discussion of this view in a larger Christian music context, see Howard and Streck (1999),
especially pages 75-107.
‘edgy’, incorporating elements from metal, rap, and hip-hop with strobe effects
and break dancing. At the London church, the youth ministry will usually cover
the latest hip-hop track from artists like Tinchy Stryder, but adapt the lyrics of the
song to a Christ-centred approach. In contrast, former Australian church youth
pastor Tanya Riches has told me that Hillsong Australia’s special events remain
more true to the rock-centred tastes of its participants, and that its youth group
prefers to cover guitar-driven rock songs that are closer to the church’s regular
worship music (Riches; personal communication with author, 2 August 2011).
If the Euro-London and Austral-Sydney scenes do in fact ‘produce’ different taste
publics128 (Russell 1997), then it would follow that an effective worship song for
Hillsong London’s participants might be different from one for Hillsong
Australia’s participants. In this view, each group would prefer songs written by its
church’s local writers and featuring on its own albums. Significantly for the
Hillsong brand, though, any difference in musical taste between Hillsong London
and Hillsong Australia’s participants seems to manifest mainly in non-worship
contexts.129 When I asked Hillsong London’s participants whether they preferred
the worship music written by the Hillsong Australia musicians or the music
written by Hillsong London’s musicians, all admitted a preference for the former.
This was expressed in separate interviews with Jason and Luke, two men in their
early twenties who have been attending Hillsong London for five and six years
There’s a lot of crossover between Hillsong London and Hillsong Australia,
but most of the songs that I think are the better ones tend to be the
Australian ones. Maybe it’s just because I like the way Joel Houston writes.
(Jason: interview with author, 18 May 2010)
It’s weird, because at London, a lot of the good ones we sing are actually the
Australian ones. Most of the ones London has written recently haven’t been,
I don’t think, as good. Faith, Hope, and Love was a very good album. Hail
‘A music taste public is a social group comprising devotees of a particular type of music or
performer (for example, opera buffs or Elvis fans) and a music taste culture is the set of aesthetic
values they share (for example, “Elvis is King”)’ (Russell 1997: 142).
This is probably because worship (and its attendant music) is such an important part of
evangelical church life. Taste in music is one of the strongest determinants of congregational
identity (Sargeant 2000: 66, but see also Marti 2012). Thus, it makes sense that most congregation
members in a given church would share a taste for the music that is heard regularly in conjunction
with the rituals of the service.
to the King wasn’t quite so good. (Luke: interview with author, 23
In 2011, the decision was made to officially discontinue the Hillsong London
recording line. Julie, the Hillsong London worship team member, attributed a
difference in style to the reason that it stopped recording:
The thing is: London tried to write their own music a couple of years ago
and it didn’t work. They didn’t sell a lot of CDs, so they just said, ‘Ok, this
doesn’t work’… Like Jorim [a Hillsong London Worship Leader] had a
song on the new CD. They put it on the CD, but it’s never sung in church. I
don’t know actually why this is. I have no idea. Because there are a lot of
people who can write good songs here in London. But it’s not attractive for
the people. But I don’t know why, actually. I think it’s a certain style.
(Interview with author, 6 February 2011)
Style was only part of a larger branding problem that Hillsong faced in relation to
the London albums. The original intent behind the recording of Hillsong London
albums was, as many of my interviewees suggested, to engage with a European
audience. However, this didn’t work in the context of Hillsong’s global branding
strategy. According to a Hillsong staff member who is familiar with the church’s
decision to discontinue the Hillsong London product line, the albums were
creating brand confusion:
[The branding] got too confusing when people were presented with London
Hillsong and Sydney Hillsong. Which one is Hillsong? (Interview with
author, 1 June 2011)
Hillsong had a problem with ‘who’ it was. The London church is a brand
extension of the Australian church, not the parent brand. Although Hillsong
London’s offerings were meant to be different musically, they nevertheless had to
fit into Hillsong’s overall image, which in part is constructed and maintained
through product consistency. This is ultimately why the decision was made to
discontinue Hillsong London albums, as recounted by Hillsong’s general
manager, George Aghajanian:
TW: Could you tell me a little bit about why Hillsong London no longer
records its own albums?
GA: I think we got to a point where we felt, as a church, we didn’t want to
fragment with albums coming out of every church around the world….
What had happened was: London had tried a few albums. Other places were
saying, ‘maybe we’d like to record our own albums as well’ and we really
wanted to make sure that Hillsong, when it was represented worldwide,
didn’t have a variety of different sounds. We wanted to make sure that
everything we did was ultimately distilled onto one or two really good
albums and not three, four, five, six different albums from all over the world
with all different types of sound. Because London has a very specific sound;
Sydney’s got a different sound; Paris would have a different sound, and
Kiev130 and so on. So what we wanted to make sure of was that the Hillsong
name and the Hillsong reputation for worship was preserved while at the
same time being inclusive with what was happening with songwriters
around different parts of the world…. We came to the conclusion that we
would have a ‘United’ label, so to speak…. so Hillsong United was one
stream that we would maintain, because that’s got its own momentum at the
moment around the world and it’s really strong. The second one would be
our LIVE album, but that would be more and more our global expression of
our church. So that’s where our songwriters from London, our songwriters
from Sydney, Stockholm, Cape Town, all contribute to make that the
Hillsong ‘global’ sound.… And so we felt that that would always be the best
that Hillsong had to offer the greater Church, because if you have five
albums, that’s sixty songs you’ve got to come up with versus two or three
really powerful worship albums that would then be the best experience for
the greater Church. And that was really the motivation behind it. (Interview
with author, 28 September 2011; emphasis added)
As discussed in chapter three, Hillsong’s focus on consistency and quality is
essential to the efficacy of its brand. By consolidating its musical output into its
LIVE and United streams, it was able to maintain this. Additionally, the
consolidation allowed it to refocus its narrative centre of gravity on Australia,
reaffirming it and the Australian church as the centre of production of the music
and the brand.
It should be noted that Kiev writes and produces its own albums and produces parallel product
streams to those produced by Hillsong (e.g. the Hillsong Kiev Kids series). This highlights the role
that language plays in brand translation. According to Aghajanian, ‘Remembering that the basis
behind this is reaching people with the Gospel in song as well as in teaching, we take our worship
experience, translate it, and release it into the Eastern European culture. That’s why they’ve [Kiev]
probably had a little more autonomy to do some of these albums, and London really hasn’t.
Because London, being in the English speaking world, can contribute into our global expression of
our worship. Kiev can’t really because of the language issues.’ (Interview with author, 28
Part II - Experiencing the ‘Hillsong Sound’
Hillsong’s Creation Story
So far, we have seen how imagined and essentialised ideas about people and
places create mythological centres of production for a ‘sound’. As chapter two
showed, ‘creation myths’ are important for the authenticity and efficacy of a
brand. This was evident both in how Darlene Zschech’s story provided an identity
narrative and the way participants, such as Roy, interwove their takes on
Hillsong’s history with their own personal identity projects. The brand myth is the
story through which the utopian brand promise is experienced. In chapter three,
stories also played a prominent role in the brand’s efficacy, as the Pentecost story
provided a conceptual and spiritual framework in which church identity was
created, performed and experienced. All strong brands have a creation myth/story,
from Coca-Cola’s humble beginnings as a patent medicine to McDonald’s
entrepreneur Ray Kroc’s rise from milkshake machine distributor to hamburger
impresario.131 The creation myth is important because it anchors the brand in time
and space, which allows its story to be easily understood and thus experienced by
the consumer. More importantly, as noted above in the discussion of Bennett’s
‘Canterbury Sound’, the creation myth both relies on and allows access to the
larger mediated mythscape where the ‘sound’ resides. Hillsong’s creation story is
well known, having been recounted endlessly by its leaders and in popular and
academic accounts (e.g. Connell 2005: 319-329, Evans 2006: 94-96; Riches 2010:
6-16). Like most New Paradigm churches, Hillsong’s story is one that centres on
growth. However, unlike other churches, Hillsong’s story is also uniquely tied to
It is often assumed that Hillsong has always branded itself through music, yet it
did not officially adopt the moniker ‘Hillsong Church’ until 1999, as this story –
here recounted by Senior Pastor Brian Houston – illustrates:
For an entertaining and well-researched history of the Coca-Cola company, see Mark
Pendergrast’s (2000) For God, Country & Coca-Cola: The Definitive History of the Great
American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It. For histories of McDonalds and Kroc, see
Kroc and Anderson (1987) and Love (1995).
We started it as ‘Hills Christian Life Centre’, and we started with just two
conferences. There were three of us in the swimming pool on a Sunday
afternoon. There was Jeff Bullock, Mark Zschech and myself. We were
thinking of a name for the conference, and somewhere between the three of
us we came up with that name. Hills is the name of the area!
Then we started the praise and worship, and rather than just having ‘Hills
Christian Life Centre Live’, I thought it would be good to produce the music
under the name ‘Hillsong’ so that people wouldn’t box it as just another
church’s music. Then we were travelling, and people didn’t even know the
name of the church. They kept getting the name wrong.
In 1999, after my father resigned, we took over the city congregation, the
Hillsong city has merged under one church, and that time is when we
thought if we can’t beat them join them. So everyone knew us as Hillsong
Church, so that’s when we started officially calling ourselves ‘Hillsong
Church’ – just at the end of 1999. (Quoted in Clark 2004; emphasis added)
According to Houston’s account, Hills Christian Life Centre had little choice but
to change its name; the organisation had been branded by its music. Hillsong’s
brand name thus has the advantage of arising organically from a set of strong
associations. It combines musical associations with geographical, historical and
biblical ones into a gestalt. The Hillsong moniker is a combination of its
‘birthplace’, the Hills district where the Hills Christian Life Centre was founded,
and the songs that it is famous for. In addition, hills also carry symbolic weight in
Christian lore (for example the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ death at
Calvary). This was seen in Roy’s quote in chapter two, which I recount again
I remember one night – I couldn’t help but cry. Because I was listening to
Christian music, and then when I searched for the composer and the church
behind it, it was Hillsong. I was looking on the Internet for Hillsong. I
actually thought that Hillsong is a place in Australia! But I was told it’s not
a place in Australia. It’s like David used to sing songs at the top of the hill.
That’s where they started creating the church, Hillsong. (Interview with
author, 6 February 2011)
Recall from Brian Houston’s story above that part of Hillsong’s early branding
problem was that people did not associate the music with the church. Roy’s
statement shows why this is important. After hearing the music, he was so moved
that he felt compelled to search for its creator. He originally thought Hillsong was
a geographical area, and only later discovered it was a church. Notice also that
Roy has integrated his own biblical understanding into Hillsong’s creation myth:
like David, Hillsong started making music on a hill (rather than the Hills
The sacred associations of space and place that the Hillsong brand holds afford
layers of meaning that relate to its sacred efficacy. This can be seen in Hillsong
London participant Vicki’s email response to questions I put to her about the
differences between the Australian and London offerings on the A Beautiful
TW: For [the A Beautiful Exchange] album in particular, but also for any
album in general, how do you feel when you see or hear the London team
play? How do you feel when you see or hear the Australian team play?
V: I think the Australian part is lovelier, more unique and healthier
spiritually. London is more of a crowd, and quite diverse, while Aussies are
more homogenous, and after all, the outpouring of those heavenly songs
came as a result of their faithful worship, we only got the piece of it. Those
people have been worshipping over the years, even when the songs were not
that ‘tasteful’, but for the sake of worshipping God. They have seen a
breakthrough. We in London, on the other side, come from a revolution of
the 70s, whatever, MTV hits; pop music. So it is purifying for our minds to
get to sing massive music to God for free in the idol theatre – [the]
Dominion. I think this was a cultural purification for me to experience –
because Freddie M. was a symbol of our culture. So what is happening in
the Dominion is a cleansing…. We know that the Spirit of God is different
from the Spirit of this world. And Dominion is a bit of a fight for a territory
in the hearts and minds of God’s children raised in a pop idol culture.… Pop
culture did what it was meant to do – it deceived the crowd/the general
public into a new reality, but now it is our time to declare this reality a pure
dominion of God. (Email exchange with author, 13 July 2011)
Vicki’s understanding of Hillsong’s music falls closer to the ‘Christ against
Culture’ pole on Niebuhr’s continuum (discussed in chapter two) than that of most
of Hillsong’s participants. However, her view is still informed by the associations
between style, scene and place that were detailed in the previous sections of this
chapter and are held (as we will see) by many of those same participants.
Although this is probably a reference to I Samuel 10:5 (see footnote 29, chapter two), Roy may
also be referring to 1 Chronicles 23:1-25:31 in which King David paid 4,000 singers and 288
musicians to worship God 24 hours a day. However, there is no mention in the Bible of David’s
tabernacle being on a hill. Also, it turns out that the topography of the Hills district – the area
where the school hall in which the Hills Christian Life Centre was born is located – is rather flat
(Riches; personal communication, 24 April 2012).
According to Vicki, Hillsong’s Australian congregation is ‘more homogenous’,
yet also the product of an older and purer culture than that of London. In contrast,
Hillsong London’s congregation is more diverse, but its participants share an
impure ‘cultural’ heritage. For Vicki, Australia and London are geographical
territories in a spiritual war, territories that are indistinguishable from the terrain
of their inhabitants’ hearts and minds. In this war, worship (music) is the weapon
of choice, one that the Australian church has used to successfully conquer its
homeland. In contrast, London is far removed from the centre of musico-spiritual
production, a beachhead still to be reclaimed from the moral turpitude of pop
TW: On the A Beautiful Exchange DVD, the first disc is – with one
exception – filled with the Australian church’s music, while London’s
worship is on the bonus disk. Why do you think this is?
V: Probably because they [Hillsong London’s songwriters] are not that good
yet. Which is not bad. But we need to worship God first. And we are not
over this cultural worship. God is Spirit, and whoever worships Him, does
that in Spirit. I really think Hillsong London is a big help for the faith of the
believers and for experiencing a genuine fellowship, but we are not yet there
as to Spirit of Worship. We are still mixed with the spirit of this world and
being in the Dominion is once again a testimony of that.… It is good to be
there right now, because we are witnessing in a purifying way how people’s
lives have been transformed, but we want to see the battle won and find a
hill of our own to worship. In Australia they are on a holy hill, we are still
in the Dominion. Is not it obvious, by the symbolism God is using? (Email
exchange with author, 13 July 2011; emphasis added)
For Vicki, the ‘Hillsong Sound’ coalesces in and achieves efficacy through the
myths that surround Australia and London. Geographical spaces and features are
imbued with layers of associations that transform ‘Australia’ into a narrative
centre of gravity, a star around which the offerings that comprise the Hillsong
brand universe orbit and from which they receive their efficacious energy. As seen
in Roy and Vicki’s responses, Hillsong’s participants contribute to this
constellation of mutually referential stories in the mythscape. Yet, as chapters two
and three showed, the places that comprise the Hillsong network also exist in a
larger context of imagined people, places and communities. In each of those
contexts, the transformational and transcendent efficacy of the brand – in other
words, the way that worshippers experience the brand in relation to their
experience of God – is directly related to how the church positions itself within
those contexts. Therefore, the final section of this chapter examines how
participants experience music in relation to their imagined notions of Australia
and London, and the ‘local’ participants, musicians and music of each.
Part III - London Calling? ‘Welcome Home’
For branding to work, people need to experience it. Hillsong’s brand is largely
(and often intensely) experienced through its music, in a variety of physical, social
and cultural contexts across and beyond its portfolio of places. As with most
(popular) music, Hillsong’s music is primarily disseminated and consumed
through electronically mediated forms such as CDs, DVDs, MP3s and the
Internet. However, it is perhaps experienced most intensely in live ritualistic
group settings such as weekly worship services and touring events (which are
presented as opportunities to worship rather than ‘concerts’). The ascendancy of
recording technology has created a situation where the mass-replicated copy has
become the Urtext (Benjamin 2002; Adorno 1991). Recall from chapter two that
one of the reasons Hillsong focuses on consistent ‘excellence’ is so that
inconsistency in musical presentation won’t distract the participant’s attention
from God. Thus, Hillsong works to maintain fidelity to the recorded version in its
live performances. To achieve this, Hillsong largely standardises the
instrumentation and tempos of its songs across weekly church services and, to
some extent, its albums (Riches 2010: 104-135). While precise replication of the
recorded version in live performance is impossible (and according to all of the
worship leaders I interviewed, not desirable), ideally, a participant should
experience little difference between the recorded and performed versions of any
given song.133 However, this aesthetic ideal is mediated by the interdependence of
place and identity that is equally, if not more, crucial to the construction of a
‘sound’ in the social imagination of those who engage with it. As Martin Stokes
This is not to say that worship leaders do not have the freedom to deviate from the recorded
form of the song in performance. The worship team is fitted with inner-ears through which they
receive direction from the worship leader in how to shape the song according to the mood. For
example, if the leader feels that a moment is particularly ‘worshipful’, he/she may choose to repeat
a chorus, raise or lower the volume, and so on. However, most aesthetic elements such as
instrumentation (and therefore instrumentation’s attendant elements such as colour, timbre etc.)
and rhythm remain constant.
has noted, music ‘is socially meaningful… because it provides means by which
people recognise identities and places, and the boundaries which separate them’
(Stokes 1994: 5). In Stokes’ work on nationalism, music is used to articulate
social imaginaries in the service of the ideological apparatuses that are used to
construct and maintain the nation-state. As part of this process, these imaginaries
cleave geography into distinct places that are defined as much by the people who
live within them as they are by the physical landscape. Thus, geographical spaces
become meaningful places to people both inside and outside them, in relation to
perceptions of ‘cultural traits’.134
When applying Stokes’ observation to the ‘Hillsong Sound’ it should be
emphasised that much of the efficacy of the branded experience of the music has
to do with the connectedness that participants feel across the transnational
Hillsong Network. Unlike nationalist uses of music, the ‘Hillsong Sound’ is heard
within a discourse that emphasises the church’s ability to transcend boundaries
rather than to erect them.135 In the words of Brian Houston, ‘We are a tiny church
with a whole lot of people’ (Vision Sunday video presentation; 6 February 2011).
However, this is moderated by a ‘local’ discourse that posits each church location
as the ‘local church’ of the individual participant. Thus, the ‘Welcome Home’
message that greets participants in Hillsong churches around the world
simultaneously references both the Hillsong Network as a whole and the
individual locations that comprise it; the ‘Hillsong Sound’ may be heard in
churches around the world, but it is experienced in specific local contexts. For
example, when asked if Hillsong London has its own ‘sound’ or ‘style’, a typical
answer was this, given by Kimberly, a 28-year-old female congregation member
who hails from London:
Our church plays everything faster and louder, which I guess is what you
would expect from such a vibrant place [London]. (Email communication
with author, 3 May 2011)
As noted above, this is actually not the case: Hillsong worship teams use
metronomes and standardised instrumentation to ensure that worship songs in
Those to whom these ‘traits’ are ascribed may or may not accept them themselves (e.g. Agawu
Although, as chapter three showed, the opposite is equally true.
performance are very close to the recorded version. The music in Hillsong
London’s worship services is neither faster nor louder than in Hillsong Australia’s
In contrast, the Hillsong London participants who I spoke to described Hillsong
Australia, and its music, as more ‘laid back’ than their own. Eunice, a 28-year-old
Bulgarian who has spent considerable time in both the London and Australian
churches, understood this in terms of culture:
There is a lot of overlap. I mean, you get into church and it’s Hillsong
church, bigger and all of that. But it’s slightly different because it’s adapted
to the culture, the Australian culture, so everything will be a bit slower
(laughs), from the songs to – well, everything will be slightly slower.
(Interview with author, 7 December 2010)
Both Kimberly and Eunice’s responses reveal that the perception of the location
and the culture in which music is produced (and by extension the cultural traits of
the people who play it) influence the way people imagine and experience it.
Although there may be a ‘lot of overlap’ between the cultures of the Australian
and London churches, the difference in the tempos of life is perceived in the
tempo of the music. The perceptions of the place in which the music is produced
and its culture affect participants’ experiences of the music’s sonic elements.
Hillsong London’s sound is experienced as ‘edgy’, while Hillsong Australia’s is
experienced as ‘laid back’. To manage its ‘sound’, then, the church must manage
how the city ‘sounds’ to its congregation. This is done through storytelling, the
management of the mythology that is central to the ‘sound’, and the brand
Conclusion - (Re)Branding the City
19 July 2009. Hillsong London’s 6pm service at the Dominion Theatre, London.
I have just found a seat in row H of the Dominion Theatre; front and centre at
Hillsong London’s 6pm service, which is known in the church as the most
‘rocking’ of the day’s four services. The message ‘Welcome Home’ is displayed
prominently on the screen at the back of the stage. As the lights dim to start the
service, an ominous industrial groove replaces what had formerly been
unassuming, ambient background music. The word ‘London’ flashes across the
otherwise dark screen. London’s iconic Tower Bridge appears for a moment,
followed by a succession of momentary, jerky shots of Londoners (they are
identified by London postcodes that flit about above their heads) going
Gradually, the pace of the video accelerates as more active people populate the
screen. The camera zooms out, revealing glimpses of London signifiers: here, a
glimpse of a man handing out copies of the Metro newspaper; there, a red
telephone box. As the visual stimuli increase, so does the music’s insistence. The
silhouettes of the London Eye and Big Ben appear for a moment, and the screen
goes dark again.
An instant later, we enjoy a bird’s eye view of the Thames at sunrise. The sun
shines into the camera, blinding us for a moment, before revealing that the glint is
coming off the golden statue of Freddie Mercury that stands atop the Dominion
Theatre’s entrance. An instant later, we are inside. Shots of the theatre’s busy
lobby, filled with people that many of us in the congregation recognise as our
friends (we may even see a shot of ourselves), appear in rapid succession as the
music grows livelier.
For a third time, the screen goes dark. The music segues into a crunching,
metallic guitar riff. A spinning globe appears, overlaid with the Apostle Paul’s
words: ‘The Church is not peripheral to the world, the world is peripheral to the
Church’. Ephesians 3:8-10 immediately follows, reminding us that: ‘Through
followers of Jesus like yourselves gathered in churches, the extraordinary plan of
God is being known’. This scripture shares the screen with images of people from
around the world who, while nameless, are recognizable by virtue of the ‘ethnic’
clothing they wear. They are soon juxtaposed with sweeping visions of a sea of
raised hands, a scene typical of a large, exciting evangelical event such as a
conference or service. Thus, the second half of the video situates London and the
church in the larger evangelical Christian project of Church building. ‘Church’ is
understood here not only as the local church, but also the church with a capital
‘C’: the global, borderless Body of Christ that incorporates all Christians.
Locality becomes manifold, understood as a continuum ranging from the
individual’s body to the collective manifestation of the Body of Christ. The video,
which began with a single word: London, ends with a single name: Jesus.
(Author’s field notes, 19 July 2009)
This ethnographic vignette shows that, far from being a passive citizen, Hillsong
London actively shapes the way the city of London, and thus the church and its
music, is perceived by its members. By situating London in the context of a
broadly evangelical Christian and specifically Hillsong worldview, the city
becomes a character in the Hillsong brand’s storytelling process. The semiotics of
the video reflect much of the discourse that shapes the purpose and values of the
church: the same purpose and values that inform all of the offerings, musical and
otherwise, that construct the Hillsong brand.
Branding is a means of communication that is at once specific and general. An
effective branded message adapts to a variety of cultural contexts while still
retaining its core essence. The ‘sound’ of Hillsong’s music is its branded message.
Significantly, this ‘sound’ is both constitutive and reflective of a placemaking
strategy in which the physical and virtual spaces that the church occupies become
mutually referential places in the Hillsong Network. In this network, the Hills
campus is Hillsong’s flagship location, the centre of production of the ‘sound’ of
the pop/rock-based worship music that its participants favour and which is the
recognisable calling card of the church. Although its ‘sound’ is largely considered
‘Australian’, this appellation masks the diversity among both Hillsong’s
participants and the church’s (or its churches’) music(s). The ‘Hillsong Sound’ is
a social construct, a constantly evolving negotiation among participants.
Hillsong’s ‘sound’ is achieved through both the physical and discursive music
produced by the brand. The music production process, which centres on the
songwriters, songs and congregation members of Hillsong Australia, ensures the
overall consistency of the Hillsong product. The standardisation of objective
elements such as tempo and instrumentation further ensures that this consistency
is maintained across the range of its musical offerings and across its network. Yet,
despite the objective consistency of Hillsong’s musical offerings, participants
experience the ‘Hillsong Sound’ differently according to the idiosyncratic
associations they draw between the varied people and places that constitute the
Hillsong network. As we have seen, the imagined characteristics of Australia and
London/Europe (and those who live in these places) exert a profound influence on
the way Hillsong’s participants experience the music. While there are undoubtedly
differences between the two places and their respective participants, it is the
mediated, essentialised ideas about each that complete the ‘Hillsong Sound’ and
make placemaking effective in constructing the Hillsong brand. Hillsong’s
participants thus hear meaning in the ‘Hillsong Sound’ through the brand and vice
versa. The ‘sound’ is the brand; they are the same experience.
Chapters two, three and four have progressively moved from the ‘global’ to the
‘local’ as sites of experiential, branded meaning-making. The following chapter
arrives at the ultimate locus of experience, the individual. In it, I will examine the
brand’s ‘educational’ function and the role of values and agency in embodying,
and thus ‘knowing’, the Hillsong brand and its values.
Learning to Listen
I had a housemate… she had, I call it a gift, to look at a normal movie, and
see the Jesus story in it. She just drew the parallels. And she would say that
and all of us would be, ‘yeah, I can see that now.’ And sometimes you need
someone to draw the parallel, because not all of us look through eyes that
see God in everything. But if someone draws those lines for you, it’s easier
to see the connection. I didn’t see Avatar. I don’t know if I would have
made that connection, but because somebody made the connection for me,
I’ll be watching it with a whole different viewpoint… as dots connected.
(Helen; interview with author, 15 June 2010)
The preceding excerpt is from a conversation I had with Helen, a 30-year-old
South African woman who had attended Hillsong London for about four years.
We spoke a few weeks after Hillsong Senior Pastor Bobbie Houston had used a
scene from the movie Avatar during a message delivered at Hillsong London to
illustrate what Helen was describing above: learning to hear God in everything.136
Specifically, Houston was talking about the movie’s theme song, Leona Lewis’s ‘I
See You’ – a song in which the lyrics have considerable overlap with evangelical
language.137 Helen hadn’t seen the movie, but now she wanted to, and was
Message delivered by Bobbie Houston during the 1pm service on 30 May 2010 at the
For example, the first two verses and the chorus are:
I see you
I see you
Walking through a dream
I see you
My light in darkness breathing hope of new life
Now I live through you and you through me
I pray in my heart that this dream never ends
I see me through your eyes
Living through life flying high
Your life shines the way into paradise
So I offer my life as a sacrifice
I live through your love
You teach me how to see
All that's beautiful
determined to experience it from a ‘Christian’ perspective. How would she do
Sacred experiences often have to be sought. Participants need to be in the right
‘state of mind’, which connects the physical, mental and emotional to embodied
knowledge (Becker 2004; Jankowsky 2010; Miller and Strongman 2002; Rouget
1985). This takes ‘work’ on the part of the participant (DeNora 2000). Participants
have to somehow expect the experience (for example, the ‘branded’ worship
expectations of Geoff and Matt in chapter three), but they also often have to
practise to achieve it. In other words, participants have to work to discipline their
minds in order to experience a pious lifestyle (Hirschkind 2001). In her book
Extravagant Worship, Darlene Zschech notes that you must ‘discipline your mind
to agree with God’s Word’ (Zschech 2001: 137). This chapter explores the role of
the brand and branding in the development and exercise of ‘discipline’. How
might a participant like Helen use Hillsong’s brand as a source of inspiration and
discipline in constructing, maintaining and experiencing the world through a
Christian lifestyle? To what degree does she have the freedom to ‘choose’ her
meaning, and to what degree is the meaning already prescribed – ‘branded’ – for
(or into) her? In short, what is the nature of ‘branded discipline’?
Having moved through progressively ‘smaller’ layers of the Hillsong brand from
the ‘global’ to the ‘local’, this chapter explores how the sacred is experienced and
embodied individually as part of a branded social system. In each chapter, we
have seen that Hillsong provides the branded materials and context in which
meaning is created. However, in each case, space was left for participants to
actively create their own meanings. Brandscapes are ‘cultural spaces where
corporate brands are built experientially by consumers and corporations’ (Carah
2010: 5). In his study of Australian music festivals, Carah explores how brands
seek to make themselves part of cultural experience by providing both the
materials with which participants create culture and also the spaces and contexts
in which they create it. For example, at the Virgin V festival, fans were
My senses touch your word I never pictured
Now I give my hope to you
encouraged to take pictures of their experiences in the crowd. These pictures were
uploaded in real time to the V festival screens, websites and their own social
media pages on YouTube, Facebook and Flickr. As these images appeared on the
screens, the festival experience was reinscribed as authentic, but mediated by
Virgin. According to Carah, these texts ‘work[ed] as value-generating information
commodities in several ways: as audience building content for Web 2.0 spaces, as
texts that ratify the social experiences that unfold in brandscapes, and as
advertisements for Virgin’ (ibid.: 54-55). The V festival set out to ‘construct a
mediated social space that harnesses the enjoyment of live music and engages the
audience in social practices that mediate that enjoyment’ (ibid.: 55).
Carah’s view of the brandscape as a space/place that directs subjects’ agency
towards brand-building is derived from the Gramscian notion of cultural
hegemony (Anderson 1976; Gramsci 1971). For Gramsci, dominant structures and
ideologies are reproduced and naturalized through the everyday interactions of
actors in society. Crucially, this depends on the information that is given to them.
For Gramsci, hegemony is not explicitly imposed, but instead works implicitly,
relying on the actions of actors to reinscribe the existing social order and the
ideology that buttresses it. This, however, makes hegemony that much more
totalizing than any overt form of coercion because, according to Gramsci,
participants see it as ‘natural’. The difference between Gramscian hegemony and
the ‘brand hegemony’ described by Carah is that while Gramsci understands the
proletariat as largely being unaware of their role in their continued domination,
Carah acknowledges that participants are reflexive, and understand that they are
being ‘used’ to generate capital (cultural and economic) for corporations. Rather
than resisting this, though, they are mostly resigned to it, preferring to focus on
how they can use the brandscape to creatively produce their ‘own’ culture.
As culture becomes ‘user-generated content’ produced by willing (or at least
cynically resigned) participants, branding emerges as a form of cultural
‘discipline’. This discipline (or, as Lury (2004) and Arvidsson (2006), who
understand the brand as a managerial device – see chapter one – call it,
‘governance’138) is not Taylorist. In other words, it does not ‘force’ a particular
mode of thought or action on the actor. Rather, it is post-Fordist; the brand is a
structuring force, but it structures through suggestions and associations that are
realised through voluntary use. On the one hand, participants are free to choose
which brands they use and how they use them, deploying brands as symbolic
resources in a postmodern assemblage of identity (Belk 1988). On the other hand,
the meaning of a brand is rooted in cultural associations that already afford a
limited range of meanings and uses (Arvidsson 2006; Lury 2004). The meanings
engendered by and imbued in a brand are thus co-produced, concomitantly arising
via the interplay of structural and individual agency. Society, organizations and
individuals derive value from and create value for one another, framed by the
brand and branding.
Part 1 - Ethical Listening: Lifestyle and Learning to Hear God
Music is used in a variety of religious contexts to structure experience and
inculcate meaning (Beck 2006). At Hillsong, for example, worship service
sections are delineated by the kind of music (e.g. upbeat ‘praise’ or more relaxed
‘worship’ music), and whether or not it is foregrounded or in the background.
People also use music in similar ways outside of the religious sphere. Tia
DeNora’s study of ‘music in everyday life’ details how people use playlists to
structure their experiences of events like yoga classes and romantic evenings
(DeNora 2000).139 Similarly, Michael Bull’s study of iPod users focuses on the
agency through which commuters sonically control their temporal and spatial
experiences of the city, transforming the daily commute into a personal,
sometimes transcendent experience (Bull 2007). What these seemingly disparate
uses of music have in common is they structure experiences as part of a lifestyle.
Like the subjects of DeNora’s and Bull’s studies, Hillsong’s participants use
music to set a mood or help the commute pass. For Hillsong’s participants,
though, there is no neat boundary between ‘religious’ and ‘nonreligious’ contexts.
‘Brands exercise a sort of management governance’ (Arvidsson 2006: 129).
Tellingly, the build-up and warm-down of exercise classes is similar to that of the evangelical
Worship is a lifestyle, and music is a means through which that lifestyle is
maintained. For example, Debbie and her husband Neil, a couple in their midthirties who are members of Hillsong London, almost always have music on at
TW: So when do you have music on?
D: We have music all the time. The only time I don’t have stuff playing is in
the bath (we don’t have speakers in this flat), and in the kitchen when I
make food. But we try to keep that, because we both love music. Both of us
feel that music just sets the tone. And that’s also why, if there’s something
on the radio that I don’t like listening to or that’s making me feel ‘bleah’, I
just go and change it or just skip it, or I grunt and then Neil goes and skips
it. (Interview with author, 18 July 2010)
Debbie and her husband use music to create an atmosphere that is appropriate to
the task at hand. It is an important part of many day-to-day activities. Music’s
omnipresence in Debbie’s life becomes even more significant to the present
discussion when it seen as an everyday technology not just for structuring her
experiences, but also for the development and maintenance of a lifestyle:
TW: So you listen to stuff that isn’t Christian?
D: Yes. But I do like listening to Christian music more. Let me rephrase: I
find, when I listen to Christian music, it’s easier for me to connect with
God. I find that when I’ve got the Christian music in my ears, then it’s easy
to focus on God. But when I don’t listen to Christian music, then it’s a lot
harder to focus on God as my provider, and I’m more self-sufficient in
general…. Sometimes I make a decision – like in the mornings, I get quite
angry if I wake up with an alarm, because that disturbs me, puts me in a bad
mood. So it’s music that goes on. I prefer if it’s the chilled out Colby Caillet
stuff, or praise and worship music in the morning and during breakfast
because it gets me into that trusting him feeling and focus. Because I’m
quite a task person, so for me it’s quite easy for me to have a lot of stuff in
my head that’s pulling me away from trusting him. So I’ve already got that
little Debbie sitting on my shoulder going: ‘Oh you’ve got this and this and
this and this and this to do’ and I’m like, starting to get frantic in my head
because I’m not even awake yet, so if I’ve got God stuff playing, it really
helps me to remember that I believe in him, helps me almost to ‘oh yeah’,
you know?.… But at lunchtime or in the evening, then I’m sort of into the
day, and then it’s cool, I can listen to whatever else. (Interview with author,
18 July 2010)
Here, it is not the music per se but what it is associated with – Christianity as a
frame – that provides the meaning and efficacy for Debbie. Although the ‘chilled-
out’ character of Colby Caillet is undoubtedly important, a more important
element of the music is the teaching, which is so strongly associated with
‘Christian’ music that it is arguably implicit in it. Evangelical Christianity teaches
unwavering trust in God; to worry about everyday things is natural, but when one
does this, it implies distrust in God’s provision. Rather than try to control things,
one should adopt an attitude of trust in God in all aspects of life. When one ‘lets
go’ and relies on God, good things will happen. This is the message associated
with the music, and with it Debbie is constantly reminding herself to approach life
through God rather than through her own means.
During our interview, it became clear that Debbie listened to a variety of artists
other than Hillsong. In fact, while Hillsong songs were part of Debbie’s playlist,
she rarely listened to them at home, where she preferred a more acoustic aesthetic.
However, she told me that she valued Hillsong songs when she participated in
worship services because of their volume, which drowned out other voices –
including her own. In contrasting the experience of a Hillsong worship service to
those she attended growing up in South Africa, she revealed that Hillsong’s
presentation of worship afforded her the means both to participate and concentrate
T: So there’s an element to the way the music is piped in… so you can’t
hear yourself singing.
D: Yes, exactly, and I can’t hear other people singing as much, so I can’t put
people off, and I don’t have to worry about being embarrassed, or I don’t
have to worry about interrupting somebody else. I just feel comfortable or I
don’t feel comfortable. So I’ve been back to South Africa a few times and
gone to visit a few friends’ churches. And each time I go to all their
churches, and its all the same: I want to get up and be involved, I want to
say ‘Yes!’ and I want to clap and I want to sing loudly and I want to do what
I want to do, but I’m VERY aware of the surroundings and what other
people are doing. And that almost holds me back from just putting my hand
up or clapping and getting involved. (Interview with author, 18 July 2010)
It is interesting that outside of church, non-Hillsong music is Debbie’s preferred
medium for connecting with God, while in the context of a service, even in
another church, she prefers Hillsong’s music (or at least Hillsong’s worship
For others, the electric aesthetic of the majority of Hillsong’s music is what they
want both inside and outside of church services. For example, Waithera is a thirtyyear old film student who works as a delivery person for a Vietnamese restaurant
(where I interviewed her). She uses Hillsong’s music to get herself going before
W: So, you know, all their songs are awesome… they give you such
vavavavoom! You wake up in the morning and you listen to them and
you’re like, ‘oooh!, I’m on a roll!’ On those days when I’m on the way here
and I don’t really want to work, I put it on, pump up the volume, and I’m
like ‘yeah, I’m going!’ By the time I get here, ask these guys – like, I’m
bubbly anyway, but they’re like: ‘Woah, you’ve got energy’! (Interview
with author, 16 October 2010)
For Waithera, and many other participants I interviewed, Hillsong’s music is an
integral part of the experience of her everyday life. Like Debbie, the aesthetic
dimension is important, but ultimately secondary:
TW: Ok, so what is it about the music that does that?
W: There’s something about [the music] – it just explains a lot about God….
It just really tells you about who God is and what Jesus did. Wow, it’s
genius. It really is. You listen to the songs and your heart just starts to shake.
I just feel happiness when I listen to that album.
In this second quotation, Waithera clarifies that the ‘energy’ she gets from the
music, which she first attributed to the volume, actually resides in the associated
teachings. I pressed her further on this:
TW: Is it the lyrics that do the explaining?
W: Well, yeah…. OK, so you were at Team Vision Night, right? When
[Hillsong Pastor] Peter Wilson preached about the meaning of communion,
and then they played ‘A Beautiful Exchange’? It’s like, then I knew.
For Waithera, then, the teaching and the music accrued meaning in the Hillsong
brandscape. Hillsong provided the resources – which is to say the music, the
teaching that is associated with the music, and also the context in which the music
was experienced. However, it was Waithera who sought out the experience, who
engaged with the music in the moment, and who ultimately formed the
Debbie and Waithera’s uses of music in their everyday lives, while individualistic,
were both directed towards the development of an evangelical Christian lifestyle.
Debbie used Christian music to relax and trust in God’s provision. In contrast,
Waithera used music to get up and go. However, the end result of both women’s
musical use was educational – there was a biblical lesson in the music that could
be used in everyday life. These ‘lessons’ were at least partially learned through
engagement with Hillsong’s resources – the music, but also the associated
preaching, books, podcasts, team meetings, connect groups and so on. In other
words, they listened to the music in ways that helped them see the world through
Hillsong-tinted evangelical Christian lenses.
Both Debbie and Waithera’s use of music was ‘educational’ – it helped them
‘know’ Hillsong’s teaching through experiencing it in their everyday lives. Their
use of music is similar to that described by the anthropologist Charles Hirschkind
as ‘cultural practice through which the perceptual capabilities of the subject are
honed’ (Hirschkind 2001: 623-624). In his study of the ways devout Muslims
listened to cassette sermons in Egypt, Hirschkind highlights how listeners sought
to achieve a particular emotional state of being, a state in which they could
‘properly’ understand the meaning of the sermon beyond the intellectual level, but
within the prescribed limits of a pious Islamic lifestyle. Importantly, this state
involved the total being, acknowledging the concomitance of the mental, physical
and emotional elements of experience. For Hirschkind’s collaborators, in order to
‘hear with the heart’ (ibid.: 624) the ‘proper sermon audition demand[ed] a
particular affective-volitional response from the listener… as a condition for
“understanding” sermonic speech’ (ibid.). Through ethical listening, listeners
sought to ‘construct their own knowledge, emotions, and sensibilities in accord
with their models of Islamic moral personhood’ (ibid.: 640).
Hirschkind’s ethnography corroborates the view that it often takes ‘work’ on the
part of the participant for him or her to achieve a sacred experience, and that the
expectation of, or at least the desire for, that experience often plays an important
role in achieving it. In the Pentecostal context, for example, it has been shown that
‘the stronger the expectation and desire for “religious experience” and a change in
one’s own spirit through singing and worship, the greater the likelihood that these
manifestations will come to fruition’ (Miller and Strongman 2002: 15; see also
Spilka et al. 1996). Emotion drives the experience, but the participant must first
know how to evoke the emotion.
This ‘know-how’ is learned through some mix of socialization, enculturation, and
acculturation – in a word, education.140 Judith Becker (2004) likens the
progression of a trance ritual to a story that produces a ‘habitus of listening’ or a
‘script’ that is followed (Becker 2004: 82). Speaking of Sufi ceremonies, she
notes that: ‘Musical emotion, musical feeling, and movement in the listener
changes both its form and its intensity as the script progresses. The affect of the
script, when fully acted out, is the ultimate joy of a direct and personal knowledge
of Allah’ (ibid.: 82). This ‘script’ is ‘public, situational, predictable, and culturally
sanctioned’ (ibid.: 84):
Within each of these scripts, musical, behavioural, and emotional events
will occur within a certain predictable frame. Simultaneously, each
individual event will be unique and nonrepeatable. All have developed
habits of mind and body in response to specific musical events. These habits
are acquired throughout our life experiences of interaction with others in
similar situations (ibid.: 85).
Berry (2007) describes ‘enculturation’ as a process through which ‘the individual acquires
appropriate values and behaviors by learning what the culture deems to be necessary…. The end
result (if enculturation is successful) is a person who is competent in the culture, including its
language, its rituals, its values, and so on’ (Berry 2007: 547). According to Berry, this learning
process is not necessarily ‘deliberate or didactic’, but rather ‘learning without specific teaching’. In
other words, enculturation occurs through the individual’s day-to-day interactions with his or her
parents, peers and other members of his or her ‘primary culture’ (ibid.: 546-547). This stands apart
from socialization, which refers to ‘the process of deliberate shaping, by way of tutelage, of the
individual’ (ibid.: 547). A third concept, acculturation, is essentially a mix of enculturation and
socialization. Acculturation occurs through ‘contact with other peoples belonging to different
cultures and exhibiting different behaviors’ (ibid.). While enculturation may be thought of as
cultural learning, acculturation is more accurately described as culture learning, which ‘refers to
the process of acquisition of features of [a] new culture, sometimes as replacements for the
attitudes and behaviors that have been lost [gradually, usually during prolonged lack of contact
with the primary culture] but often in addition to them’ (ibid.). To some degree, all three processes
are involved in Hillsong’s branding, and vary depending on the individual in question. For
example, a child born into or brought up in an evangelical Christian family will be more
enculturated than acculturated, whereas a convert to Christianity will be more acculturated than
enculturated. (Importantly, most conversions happen between closely related traditions. For
example, it is far more likely that someone will convert from Methodism, Catholicism or even
Judaism to Pentecostalism than from a tradition further removed, such as Islam or Buddhism (BietHallahmi and Argyle 1997). Also, belief is arguably mostly enculturated, whereas the specific
knowledge that frames belief (for example, the names of the books of the Bible) is specifically
taught, a socializing process.
This is significant in relation to branding. A brand is in many ways a script, a
prescribed way of approaching something the same way over and over again, no
matter where the interaction takes place (albeit with concessions to local cultural
norms). This is most apparent in interactions with service brands. The experience
of ordering a coffee at a Starbucks anywhere in the world, for example, is almost
the same. One knows not only what to expect in terms of the quality of the
product, but also how to order, from the way the queue forms to the specialized
language, to where to find the milk and sugar. Ideally, one could order ‘a tall
skinny soy latte’ in any Starbucks in the world without knowing the language of
the host country – Starbucks has its own ‘native’ language and ways of doing
things. Through repetition, participants have learned how to do things the
Starbucks way. They have been enculturated to the Starbucks brand culture.
Both Debbie and Waithera ‘speak’ Hillsong’s brand culture. Through their
participation in Hillsong’s brandscape, they have learned the social norms,
language and, perhaps most importantly, the values that are the basis of the
church. They use their agency in order to maintain a Christian lifestyle, often in
the Hillsong brandscape. Their agency contributes to the brandscape, but for this
to happen the brandscape must already be there. Corporate culture is an on-going
process of brand-building. How is this culture created?
One of the reasons many organisations have embraced ‘organisational’ or
‘corporate’ branding is that it increases the efficiency (i.e. the speed, reach and
fidelity) with which ideas and information can be disseminated throughout an
organisation and beyond (Moor 2007: 78-82; see also Lury 2004 and Arvidsson
2006). An organisation is more likely to succeed in achieving a goal if its
participants are focused on it, understand it well and are motivated to work
towards it (Aaker 1995: 135). In marketing a service, employee appearance and
actions are the semiotic material of a brand. Organisational participants who are
fully ‘branded’ are valuable because they are able to communicate clearly the
brand’s purpose and values to themselves, other members of the organisation, and
‘outsiders’. Thus, the benefit of cultivating a strong corporate culture, defined as
‘a set of norms and values that are widely shared and strongly held throughout the
organization’ (O'Reilly and Chatman 1996: 166), is clear: it puts all participants
‘on the same page’. They live the corporate culture – it is their lifestyle.
When speaking of a large evangelical Christian organisation such as Hillsong
Church, the concept of the ‘corporate’ takes on several overlapping and
interrelated meanings. In consumer culture, it is usually first associated with being
‘of or belonging to a corporation’ (i.e. a business entity). However, it is also
defined as ‘done by or characteristic of individuals acting together; “a joint
identity”; “the collective mind”; “the corporate good”’.141 These latter definitions
are closer to the evangelical Christian conception of ‘corporate’, and are
especially close to the concept of the Body of Christ that was explored in chapter
three. Furthermore, ‘corporate worship’ (the worship that happens in group
settings rather than individually) is posited as a fundamental part of the
evangelical Christian experience. In the evangelical Christian understanding of
corporate worship, communication is a ‘horizontal’ exercise among fellow
worshippers as well as a ‘vertical’ or one-to-one connection with God.142 The
horizontal element can be understood in terms of education; corporate worship is
one of the activities through which participants become acquainted with the ritual
flow143 and normative gestures involved in the service (Ingalls 2008: 175-258).144
<www.thefreedictionary.com/corporate>; accessed 25 November 2012.
See, for example, Evans (2006: 8-23, 55-57).
Two influential accounts of transcendent experiences are ‘flow’ (Csikszentmihalyi 1990) and
‘peak experience’ (Laski 1962; Maslow  2011,  1994). As described by Schouten et
al. (2007), flow is the ‘total absorption in an activity’ that is ‘achieved through intense, focused
engagement in the mastery of an activity’ (ibid.: 367). Most importantly, ‘flow produces a state of
transcendence, a suspension of temporality, a sense of separation from the mundane, and a sense of
unity with some higher plane of experience’ (ibid.: 367). A related experience is the ‘peak
experience’. Flow is achieved through the individual’s own concentration on a task. In contrast,
peak experiences ‘seem often to originate from outside the individual and to transport that person
to unexpected emotional heights’ (ibid.: 358). Like flow, peak experiences often lead a person to
feel ‘intimately connected with some large phenomenon, such as nature, humankind, or the
infinite’, and are often implicated in a variety of religious experience such as ecstasies, revelations
or conversions (Schouten et al. 2007: 358).
It is not only in ritualized worship settings that the gestures and flow/appearance of the service
are learned. As Simon Coleman (2000) suggests, the performance and discourse of evangelical
Christianity is now circulated in a highly-mediated web of global preachers, conferences and
products that help perpetuate a ‘global, charismatic “consciousness”’ that is ‘not merely a set of
ideas, but also engagement in certain physical and material activities, including the development of
a spiritually charged aesthetic that encompasses ritual movements, media consumption, linguistic
forms and aspects of the internal environment’ (Coleman 2000: 5-6). In other words, evangelical
It is also where the discourses that frame the event are put into action. The
horizontal element provides the knowledge needed for the vertical element to be
realized. In other words, corporate worship is an activity through which a church’s
‘corporate culture’ is cultivated, transmitted and experienced.
How is corporate culture created? Simply put, it involves education through
participation. A strong corporate culture begins from a clear understanding of an
organisation’s purpose and values. For many organisations, this is expressed in a
vision statement, like Hillsong’s:
To reach and influence the world by building a large Christ-centered, Biblebased church, changing mindsets and empowering people to lead and impact
in every sphere of life.145
Part of the way Hillsong seeks to realise its vision is through its worship music,
which, as noted above, is associated with the discourses that frame the experience
of it. Worship can thus be seen as a technology through which Hillsong’s purpose
and values become embodied. Since its musicians often facilitate worship, the
church works to instil its corporate culture in all of its worship team members.
This begins with understanding exactly what is meant by ‘worship’, which at
Hillsong is a lifestyle (Zschech 2001: 31-33). Because corporate culture radiates
outwards from an organisation’s core participants, Hillsong’s leadership goes to
great lengths to instil ideas of proper intention in the culture of its worship team.
Notions of ‘worship’ and purpose are therefore constantly in the forefront of
worship team members’ thoughts. This was expressed by Hristo, a nineteen-yearold drummer at Hillsong London who is originally from Bulgaria and studies
music at a London conservatoire:
It’s not only the music but the fact that when we as musicians are part of the
worship team, we don’t just go out to have a performance, but we go out on
stage focused on God and on leading people into worship. So the music is
Christians learn what evangelical Christian practice should ‘look’ and ‘be’ like not only through
direct participation in events such as worship services, but also by engaging with other types of
media, such as DVDs of worship services. The ubiquity of these videos, circulated on internet sites
such as YouTube, serves to perpetuate a ‘global evangelical Christian’ aesthetic that encompasses
the visual and aural dimensions of the events (e.g. the lighting and flow of the service),
participants’ bodily actions (e.g. raising their hands or speaking in tongues), and the ‘internal’
manifestations – the actual meanings that engender and are derived from the experience.
Our Vision. <www.hillsong.com/vision>; accessed 28 October 2012.
not the most important thing; the message of Jesus Christ is the most
important thing. I think it’s important for the people who lead worship to
understand that before they can lead a congregation into worship. (Interview
with author, 13 February 2011; emphasis added)
Hillsong’s worship team is primarily made up of volunteers, who, while often
trained in music, may not be the ‘specialists’ in the specifics of Hillsong’s church
culture that its leaders are. Therefore, a considerable amount of effort is put into
educating its members in what proper worship is, and what the team members are
there for. Julie, a thirty-year-old Belgian who sings on the worship team at
Hillsong London, expressed this during a conversation we had at the Starbucks
around the corner from the church. During our conversation, Julie admitted that
wanting to perform on stage was part of the reason she auditioned for the worship
team. However, once on the team, she quickly changed her mindset:
A lot of people start on the worship team, especially if they do music, to get
on stage and be seen. The reason I say that is that you’re on the team, and
you live with the team, and you change your mindset really easy. At a
certain point you get it, that it’s not about you. It’s not about your career, it’s
not about your minute of fame, it’s about God; that’s why you worship.
That’s also why [Hillsong] always put the same people in the front, because
those people know why they’re there, and not for the wrong reason. They
put a lot of emphasis on it. And you grow in it; I grew in it. Because I was a
Christian for five months [when I joined the worship team], so I didn’t have
the context. But you develop it… they put a lot of emphasis on the right
reason for being on stage. (Interview with author, 6 February 2011)
Julie started as part of the back-up vocalist group, which performs off-stage and is
piped into the house mix. After spending time with the team and learning the
accepted way of thinking, she was ‘promoted’ to the front, where she now appears
regularly. Julie is following the ‘educational’ path that sees vocalists move from
the back of the house to front line to worship leaders, ensuring a consistent line of
worship leaders in terms of both availability and consistency in training and
values. The team functions as a teaching group that helps instil and reinforce both
broadly Christian and Hillsong-specific values and ways of thinking. Importantly,
this is primarily done through non-musical activities. For example, as Hristo
relayed to me, most of the weekly worship team rehearsals are not focused on
At rehearsal we get together and there are different talks… about worship.
Different guys talk to us and encourage us. The past few weeks, we’ve been
studying the Biblical Finance book.146 We have team vision nights where
the idea of it is just if some people do not quite understand why they’re
doing something, just to help them understand. (Interview with author, 13
In fact, Hristo told me that less than half of a worship team rehearsal is dedicated
to rehearsing for the upcoming service. In the profoundly musical Hillsong
culture, music itself is not seen as the most important factor in worship. It is the
understanding of why the musicians are doing what they are doing that is seen as
the critical element in the music’s efficacy. Crucially, this is disseminated through
seemingly tangential topics like finance. In other words, the church is promoting
the idea of a fully evangelical Christian lifestyle that is ‘branded’ into the music.
In Julie and Hristo’s worship team experiences, we can begin to see how
Hillsong’s brand educates, and how its participants work to absorb and utilize that
education. The brand becomes a self-referential system that perpetuates itself
through participants’ desire to live a Christian lifestyle. The brandscape is the
value-laden frame in which participants orient their actions, but it is also
constructed through their actions. As Julie and Hristo noted above, the first step to
worship as a lifestyle is to understand why one does things. But understanding the
‘why’ is not the same as being able to put it into action. Like Hirschkind’s
collaborators mentioned above, Julie and Hristo have had to practise to achieve
the full integration of ‘mind/body/spirit’. In other words, they have had to embody
the Hillsong brand to really understand it.
Part II - Embodying the Brand
Once worship team members understand why they are on the platform, they must
also understand ‘how’ to worship. As representatives of the Hillsong brand,
worship leaders and team members are semiotic material in the Hillsong
brandscape. Like Darlene Zschech in chapter two, they are symbolic of Hillsong’s
Lloydbottom, Mark. Biblical Finance: Reflections on Money Wealth and Possessions. Crown
Financial Ministries, 2010.
corporate values and are charged with communicating them to other participants.
A simple example of how this works in the worship context is the way a musician
can ‘lead worship’ by raising his or her hands, a common practice for evangelical
Christians. In ritualized situations, inexperienced participants will often imitate
the postures and movements of experienced ones (Becker 2004: 119-121), and
Hillsong’s musicians are taken as ‘experts’ – or at least experienced – in worship.
When they raise their hands, others follow suit. Through socialization, participants
understand that the adoption of this posture equates to worship – not just the act,
but also the larger set of cultural meanings that go along with it. The visual,
observable, aspects of worship are therefore bearers of cultural meaning and
powerful agents of socialization (Coleman 2000).
The idea of external postures and actions conveying internal states of being can be
seen in the following statement by Roy, who sings backup on Hillsong London’s
worship team and was also quoted in chapter two:
You should set an example where people can emulate. So they must see in
you the message of the songs. So it’s about relating to them, being able to
really cause them to worship the Lord. (Interview with author, 6 February
A cursory (or cynical) reading of this might imply that a worship leader could
simply lift his or her hands and, by ‘appearing’ to worship, incite others to ‘really’
worship (Adnams 2013). After all, business writers such as James Gilmore and
Joseph Pine (2007), performance theorists like Jeffrey C. Alexander (2006) and
philosophers such as Charles Taylor (1991) and Charles Guignon (2004) have all
argued that authenticity is both performed and ascribed. The belief on the part of
those observing the act of worship is vital to its engendering a similar experience.
However, these authors are not arguing for a postmodern denial of authenticity.
They all acknowledge that while authenticity is difficult to communicate, it is
ultimately about being true to the inner experience of one’s self. According to
Hillsong’s worship leaders (recall chapter two), one actually needs to be
worshipping in order to lead others into worship – a sort of radical epistemology.
As Roy put it:
You have to really be worshipping God first. You have to be in the right
spirit, because you won’t be able to lead people if you’re not. So – our
ministry is a Christian ministry. We minister first to God. And you will feel
inside if you are able to touch the heart of the Lord. After that, God will just
anoint your worship. And that is how people will see the glory that is in you.
And they will just follow. That will cause them to follow you and usher
them into the presence of God. You simply have to focus yourself first to
God. Like I said, you have to be praying about the songs. You really have to
pray and condition your mind and your body, because once you are
prepared, then people will see. (Interview with author, 6 February 2011)
The conditioning of mind and body that Roy is describing above is a kind of selfdiscipline, the goals and manifestations of which are learned through education
and exposure to a corporate set of values. But the church cannot ‘force’ this
education upon participants. If one does not open to, accept and then put into
practice what is being offered, learning will not occur. In other words, participants
must seek the (self) knowledge they need for sacred experience. According to
Roy, this takes preparation and discipline:
It takes preparation [to lead worship]…. You should be able to not just listen
to the songs, you really have to understand what they mean, and how we
should be able to relay that message to people. I think you have to meditate
over the songs and pray. And you simply have to ask the Lord to prepare
you spiritually and physically so that on the day of service, you will be able
to answer the presence of God…. I discipline myself, like the day before, I
don’t usually talk about anything. I just lay in my bed and just worship and
pray and meditate. And I don’t talk that much. It’s part of my discipline. It’s
really asking the Lord to just anoint you, you know? Because you just have
to do your part and God will do the rest. (Interview with author, 6 February
Over the course of my fieldwork, interviewees routinely claimed that in order to
‘really’ worship, certain conditions had to be present. For example, Roy had a
Saturday routine that put him in the right mindset for Sunday’s service. Others
described having a favourite music or place that put them in the frame of mind
they needed to be in to fully concentrate on God. For worship team members, who
are both worshippers and facilitators of worship, a need for certain conditions to
be in place to really worship is sometimes problematic. On the one hand, they
need to be engaged in worship to be leading others into it. On the other hand, the
worship team’s job is to afford participants the opportunity for a sacred
experience through their on-stage performances, by maintaining the level of
‘excellence’ that was discussed in chapter three. When watching the Hillsong
London team in action, one might notice that either the backing guitarist or one of
the keyboard players has a microphone, but never sings into it. Occasionally, this
musician will say something into it that is audible only to the other musicians on
stage who are wearing inner ear-pieces. This is the real ‘worship leader’ (as
opposed to the lead singer) who directs the musicians through each song. As
discussed in chapter four, although many of the elements of the music are
standardised, the musicians also have room to regulate the flow of the service in
real time, reacting to the ‘mood’ of the congregation or one of the pastors.
Worship leaders I spoke to said that they try to gauge ‘where’ the congregation is.
They may, for example, repeat a chorus if they feel that it is particularly resonant
at that moment. Similarly, they may bring the volume down if Head Pastor Gary
Clark seems ready to say something (particularly during the altar call).
There seems to be a contradiction here. On the one hand, the worship team
members must be ‘really’ worshipping in order for the music to have the sacred
efficacy it is meant to have. On the other hand, circumstances of performance
dictate that a worship team member’s attention must be divided between the
object of worship and the worship platform. This was a source of tension for Julie:
You have to worship, but at the same time you have to think about
everything. Because, like the guys who are on the frontline, they have their
ear, and Dave Kennedy (one of Hillsong London’s worship leaders) is
always speaking in the microphone. They hear it, so he’s always giving
instructions to the musicians, to the singers. So you have to focus on your
own voice, you have to focus on Dave; you have to focus on the crowd. So
it’s a lot of things you have to think about. And still you have to worship. So
yeah, it’s quite tricky…. I find it hard to worship while I’m singing
[onstage]. If I’m just in the crowd, no problem. When I’m backstage or
onstage, you always have to think about your pitch and the lyrics, what’s
going to happen, where are they going to start the song, how it’s going to
end, how the intention is. So it’s more like – it’s not a job, but – it’s actually
doing a job. (Interview with author, 22 July 2011)
This was generally the response I got from worship team members, who would go
on to say that this became less of a problem with practice. However, Hristo
claimed to have the opposite experience:
I find it a lot less distracting when I’m actually playing rather than when I’m
in the congregation. I don’t know why, but I find it less distracting…. I
think one of the things is because I’m a drummer, and when someone else is
playing, I will always either have a critical ear out, or, the ‘I like this’ ear
out. I think it’s just a musicians’ thing. It’s not terribly distracting, but I find
that I’m way more focused and there’s fewer things to distract me when I’m
playing myself. (Interview with author, 13 February 2011)
The worship team members I interviewed faced different challenges in attaining
flow, and employed different strategies to overcome them. However, all of these
strategies were informed by the understanding that worship was part of a lifestyle,
as articulated by Hristo:
Worship is not just songs that you sing, it’s your life, really – a way of life. I
guess that during a song somebody has to say ‘let’s bring it down’ doesn’t
necessarily mean that your worship is being interrupted. Even if it is, I don’t
see why it needs to take hours or a period of time to get back into it. I think
it’s just a quick snap back into it. Because we are worshipping with our
instruments. You don’t stop playing just to listen to them. Even though
you’re not entirely focused on what you’re doing, you are still automatically
giving worship. (Interview with author, 13 February 2011)
For Hristo, the act of playing the drums on Sunday is not necessarily ‘set apart’
from everyday life. The idea of an evangelical Christian lifestyle contradicts the
functionalist sociological perspective of religion, which posits it as a ‘special’
activity. Based on the responses above, it would seem that the apparent
contradiction is resolved through a larger worldview, a lifestyle that frames
worship as a holistic way of being in the world. In the Hillsong context, it is the
brand that is the frame; it provides both the cultural resources that participants use
to direct their actions and the cultural contexts within which those actions accrue
meaning. Put another way, the brand is educational material and branding is the
education that underpins the preparation for, and ultimately is part of, a worship
Part III - Doing the Work to Embody the Brand
Although brands are ‘educational’, they are only educational to the extent that
‘consumers’ actively engage with them. The reason that Hillsong invests so much
energy in inculcating its musicians into its corporate culture is that, once a
corporate culture is successfully established among an organization’s core
participants, it is likely that the culture will radiate outward to others, in this case
the participants in Hillsong’s worship services. Yet despite the sometimes
overblown rhetoric of the overt power of brands (Klein 2010), it is in fact the
covert use of participatory agency through which a brand’s hegemony is realised.
As in chapter one, the brand does not say ‘You must’. Rather, it suggests that
‘You may!’. In other words, Hillsong can train its musicians all it wants, but in the
end, its participants have to immerse themselves in the brandscape.
Although part of Hillsong’s branding is communicated by ‘leading by example’, it
also works through direct teaching, with sermons, books, videos and podcasts
available at the church’s resource centre and online. This makes self-directed
learning available all of the time. Participants can integrate these resources into
their daily lives. For example, several told me that they listen to podcasts on their
iPods during their commutes, in a manner similar to that described by Michael
Bull. Indeed, this is precisely what Darlene Zschech recommends in her book
Extravagant Worship (2001):
If keeping your thoughts in line with God’s Word is difficult for you, then I
suggest that you listen to teaching tapes…. I have listened to hundreds of
hours of Bible teaching147 to re-educate my inner man while commuting.
(Zschech 2001: 149).
Taking the act of educational listening outside of the Sunday service integrates
further the act of seeking Christ into everyday life. Like Hirschkind’s Muslim
collaborators, who also listened to tapes while going about their everyday lives, it
is the listener who is doing the work of self-transformation. This was expressed by
Dele, a 32 year-old finance officer and Christian rapper:
TW: This ‘learning to listen’, is that something you just came upon?
D: It’s something I discovered. Because it used to be that I would go to
church and be like, ‘hmmm, I’m not feeling it. Somehow the worship today
didn’t bring God’s presence in’. That’s true sometimes. But sometimes it’s
you who was expecting a key change or expecting (the worship leader) to
take it to another level and he just sang the song plain and simple, and you
I should note that not all of the material on offer at Hillsong’s resource centre is directly
produced by the church. For example, books by prominent pastors such as T.D. Jakes or Joseph
Prince are often for sale, as well as material from a particular service’s guest speaker. However,
this material is still ‘branded’ in that it is part of the larger associational web of pastors and media
from which Hillsong’s brand meaning is drawn. Additionally, because it is being sold at Hillsong’s
resource centre, it carries the Hillsong ‘seal of approval’.
were expecting some skills or expertise or something. So it was you who
wasn’t worshipping. So it taught me that: to just go in there and keep your
heart open and go for it and just worship God. Hillsong definitely taught me
that. (Interview with author, 21 August 2012)
An analysis of the language Dele uses to describe how he ‘learned to listen’
reveals an interesting confluence of structure, discourse and agency in his learning
process. Dele begins by claiming that he ‘discovered’ how to worship (or at least
the correct way to think about worship) in order to achieve a sacred experience.
Although the worship team is tasked with affording the experience, he notes that
there may be a disconnect between the team’s intention and the participant’s
expectation. The participant may expect the worship leader to do something, and
not have that expectation fulfilled. As noted earlier, the expectation of (or at least
the desire for) a sacred experience is often an important element in achieving it.
This is why evangelical Christians often speak of ‘inviting the spirit’. However,
there is also an improvisational element within the structure of the service, as was
clear in the O2 event described in chapter three. As noted earlier in this chapter,
one of the tasks of the worship team is to respond to the ‘mood’ of the
participants. Worship leaders facilitate the worship environment and provide
examples of how to worship; in other words, they afford the opportunity to
worship. However, they cannot ‘make’ a participant find God. Dele describes
having to ‘keep your heart open and just go for it’, implying that the onus of the
experience ultimately lies with the participant, not the worship team. But this
work is the most important aspect of branding. By working to elevate his focus
from an expectation of what chord will come next to the expectation of an
encounter with God, Dele is able to own a personal experience that has been
shaped by Hillsong’s corporate culture. In other words, Dele discovered the
experience, but the Hillsong brand suggested where he should look to find it.
Dele is not unaware of this. Indeed, he confirms that Hillsong ‘taught’ him how to
I actually learned to separate the love for the music from actually
worshipping God. There are some songs that we sing [at Hillsong London]
that I’m not really fond of; they’re just not my favourite. I’d never listen to
them on my iPod or whatever. So [attending Hillsong London] taught me to
do that. (Interview with author, 21 August 2012)
This is interesting, given that musical preference is one of the key factors in
absorption (Russell 1997; Zillman and Gan 1997). Listeners are more likely to
engage with songs they like than songs they don’t like. Furthermore, to like
something is to feel – a priori – well disposed to it, so it is already more likely
that the meanings associated with it will be accepted. This is part of the thinking
behind the song distillation process described in chapter four. Yet as Dele notes
above, Hillsong’s profoundly musical branding has taught him to separate his love
of the music from the act of worshipping. He has learned to put God first, which is
the basis of Hillsong’s brand positioning (described in chapter two). Importantly,
for Dele, this has been an on-going educational process, something that became
apparent as our conversation continued:
TW: How long have you been at Hillsong now?
D: Nearly four years.
TW: Has your worship experience evolved or changed?
D: It’s become broader. My taste for stuff to get me into a place of worship
has broadened; it’s wider. There was a time when, you know, certain songs
wouldn’t do it for me. I mean, it used to be I heard Darlene Zschech and I
wouldn’t jump on any of her CDs – I still won’t (laughs) – It just wasn’t for
me, you know? But I learned to appreciate it more, and if I went to a
conference or concert where she was there I’d be like ‘yeah’! (Interview
with author, 21 August 2012)
Even today, Dele won’t listen to a lot of Hillsong’s music, especially the ‘older’
Darlene Zschech songs, because he doesn’t really like them. Yet he claims that he
can worship to them. This suggests that, although music is a deeply constitutive
part of Hillsong’s brand and branding, it is ultimately the gestalt of the Hillsong
brand that provides the educational and spiritual efficacy. The Hillsong brand
constitutes the knowledge of ‘how’ and ‘why’ – the education needed to live a
Christian lifestyle. It is embedded in the Hillsong name through its teachings, and
experienced every time it is associated with an action.
Conclusion - The Brand as a form of Governance
A brand is constituted from information (Arvidsson 2006; Lury 2004), and in a
media-saturated world that has moved to a ‘knowledge’ economy, information is
arguably more ‘valuable’ than ever (c.f. Webster 2006). This becomes important
in the context of the brand as an informational managerial device (Arvidsson
2006; Lury 2004). Chapter one discussed branding as a way of condensing and
streamlining flows of information among an organisation’s various internal and
external participants. As an information management device, then, the brand is in
some respects responsible for the content and expression of a (corporate) culture.
However, as noted above, this culture (or cultural) management is not ‘Taylorist’.
In other words, it does not impose a set of meanings or actions directly ‘from
above’. Rather, modern branding is ‘(post) Fordist’; it works by interacting with
participants’ already-held values. Branding is subject to the freedom of the
individual, but it also harnesses it. This was apparent in my conversation with
What I like about Hillsong is that it gives you the opportunity to actually
worship…. There’s enough space to actually worship and not get up in the
vibe. Sometimes there’s nothing going on and you’re still worshipping! And
that’s when you realise that you are really worshipping and you’re not
getting carried away [with the music]. (Interview with author, 21 August
[At] Hillsong, you get to a place where it’s not even about the people, you
just have space and time to worship. Everything slows down during that
transition from praise into worship. There’s not a lot happening, but you’re
just ready and prepared. It’s quiet. A lot of people say that that’s all done to
get people – if it is, it works. Do you know what I mean? It really works.
Because it gives you time and space to think about what you’re doing and
The space that Hillsong creates is important. On the one hand, Dele is referring to
the moments of calm, the moments in worship music characterised by pedal tones
and suspended chords that are meant for ‘personal’ reflection. But I take his
comment as a reflection on the ‘space’ that branding creates for each participant to
make the brand his or her ‘own’ place (space made meaningful – see chapter
four); in other words, I think Dele is talking about the Hillsong brandscape, the
space/place in which branded meaning and values are co-created and (re)inscribed
Drawing from information already ‘in the world’, a brand anticipates certain kinds
of meanings, and thus predetermines certain kinds of actions and associations
(Arvidsson 2006: 124-127; Lury 2004). Arvidsson notes that brands ‘provide part
of the context in which products are used’, and furthermore ‘work by enabling
consumers, by empowering them in particular directions’ (Arvidsson 2006: 8). Of
course, one can see the irony in Arvidsson’s use of ‘empower’: his point is that
brands exercise control by harnessing our agency and human need to create
common social experiences. In other words, he is pointing out that by making the
information, meanings and associations of a brand ours through our own
activities, we come to embody the worldview associated with the brand.
Arvidsson is chiefly concerned with the economic implications of this form of
‘informational capitalism’, where social interaction becomes embedded as an
economic activity. However, I am more concerned with the non-economic
implications of what could be called, following Arvidsson and Jameson (1992), an
‘enabling logic of late capitalism’ (or perhaps more accurately, ‘the logic of the
culture industries’). If we use brands as part of our everyday, natural
communication and meaning-making activities, ways of sharing information that
shape our lives and worldviews, then the power and potential of branding
becomes clear. Brands and branding are part of our culture and our social system.
Indeed, it is increasingly difficult to delineate the boundaries between brands and
other kinds of phenomena or social formations. In other words, brands and
branding shed light on social dynamics and processes that go to the very core of
This chapter has sought to understand the individual’s role in (re)producing brand
values within a cultural and social milieu circumscribed by the brand. In the final
chapter, I will consider Hillsong as a ‘branded’ social system. Although the
critical view of marketing focuses on the ‘negative’ aspects of hegemony, it is
predicated on the fact that participants engage in the brand building process
because they derive value from it. Participants want to live a Christian lifestyle,
and Hillsong’s brandscape is a place where they can do so. In other words, they
derive value from Hillsong’s values, and simultaneously Hillsong derives value
from its participants’ values. I ask, then, who has been ‘brandwashing’ (Lindstrom
2011) whom? What are the potentially positive and negative implications of
branding as a form of governance, and who potentially benefits or is harmed?
What is the value of values, or perhaps even more boldly, what is the value of
Music, Marketing and Meaning: Problems and Potential
The overriding concern of this thesis has been to use brands and branding to
explore the ‘value of values’ in a culture in which music, marketing and meaning
are thoroughly intertwined. It has sought to present musical brands as
associational gestalts woven into the communicative fabric of culture by the
culture industry. Branding is a process of patterning information through which
subjectivities are shaped. It does so by condensing time, space and the physical,
emotional and intellectual into an apparently coherent, experiential story. In this
process, music acts as an ‘associative enhancer of communication’ (Brown 2006:
1), sounding simultaneously at multiple registers in the brandscape. This
concluding chapter therefore considers the Hillsong brand as, following John
Blacking’s definition of music, a ‘humanly organized sound’ (Blacking 1973).
The Hillsong brand is a social system that uses music to organize information,
providing a kind of postmodern continuity among the contradictions inherent in
modernity and affording meaning and order in people's lives. In doing so, it may
be simultaneously valuable to both the group and the individual. The order that
social systems provide is potentially beneficial; as Heath and Potter (2004) point
out, without some social control, nothing would ever get done. However, social
systems are also inherently unequal, and the power that is needed to (re)enforce
them is always at risk of being abused. What does a ‘cost/benefit analysis’ of a
system that uses the ‘value of values’ to its hegemonic advantage tell us about the
interplay of structure and agency? Put another way, what is the value of
In chapter one, I considered Hillsong’s cultural, historical and economic milieu.
As an organisation of people who are natives of a hyper-mediated, ‘branded’
culture, Hillsong can usefully be thought of as the manifestation of two broad,
concurrent developments, both of which are related to the broader technological
and communication developments of the industrial revolution, the subsequent
acceleration of globalisation, and the resulting economic and social changes. The
first of these developments is the evolution of the brand from a mark of distinction
to a value-laden gestalt of meaning, a condensation of associations that affords a
kind of post-modern continuity across time and space through participation. For
natives of ‘branded’ culture, branding is a natural way of communicating and
understanding, and thus is used by organisations such as New Paradigm churches.
The second development is that of a ‘religious experience economy’.
Organisations form and function in particular ways in relation to their socioeconomic environments. This is equally true of profit and not-for-profit
organisations. As a New Paradigm church, Hillsong is the latest iteration of
evangelical Protestant traditions that have thrived in competitive religious
environments. In these environments, religious providers are driven to meet the
needs of their participants, which both encourages religious belief and rewards
those organisations that communicate most effectively. The religious experience
economy has also historically rewarded traditions that privilege participation in
their practice and have made full use of the breadth and depth of the media
available to them. Significantly, successful entrepreneurial preachers and religious
organisations have historically used popular music as a medium to communicate
and create experiences. Thus, the evolution of the branded-media-conglomeratecum-quasi-denomination-preacher/church has been concomitant with the
development of Christian Popular Music.
What these developments reveal is a broader cultural milieu in which the culture
industry has triumphed. Music, marketing and meaning are now so thoroughly
integrated and assimilated into our subjective experiences that they cannot be
usefully separated (Carah 2010; Taylor 2012). In a culture characterized by
flexible identities and multiple subjectivities, participants adopt positions that
ground their actions in lifestyles. For those who participated in my research, the
Hillsong brand provided both the material for and the context in which to do this.
Identities are understood in relation to Others. Branding condenses associations
and affords continuity among and within the different, multiple and overlapping
imagined and imaginary communities in and against which identities are
understood and performed, and subjectivities are created and experienced. In the
main body of this thesis (chapters two through to five), I therefore considered the
different ‘levels’ of these communities, and how, at each level, Hillsong’s brand
In chapter two, I adopted a ‘macro’ view to examine what is arguably the
overriding discourse that frames and constitutes the Hillsong brand: the ‘sacred’
and the ‘secular’. The evangelical Christian articulation of this dichotomy, being
‘in but not of the world’, helps set religious activity ‘apart’ from daily life. At
Hillsong and New Paradigm churches, this is done through the pursuit of a
‘Christian’ lifestyle that is sustained by a particular set of values. Hillsong’s size,
structure and cultural milieu dictate that it operates in highly mediated ways. This
includes marketing its music through mass media, which has the knock-on effect
of celebritizing its musicians (which, of course, often leads to more success).
While this is to some extent unavoidable, some of the values associated with
celebrity culture run counter to evangelical Christian culture. Hillsong therefore
discursively positions its music and musicians in a manner that aligns them with
the values it promotes as well as with the values of its participants. Through
Darlene Zschech, I introduced the idea of authenticity as a brand attribute.
Zschech’s mediated image and the ‘real’ Darlene are generally understood (and
promoted) as one and the same, a primary requirement of authenticity.
Additionally, her values are felt to be synergetic with both Hillsong and its
participants. Through this synergy, actors (i.e. Hillsong, Zschech and individual
participants) are ‘co-branded’, which provides the emotional ties and associations
that give the brand its spiritual efficacy. Ultimately, Hillsong’s brand appeal to a
Christian lifestyle strengthens the ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ dichotomy in discourse
while attempting to collapse it in practice.
In chapter three, I moved from a consideration of a Christian lifestyle in a world
that is both ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ to examining a utopian ‘sacred’ one: the
imagined and imaginary Christian community of the Body of Christ. Using a
collaborative evangelical Christian event – a celebration of Pentecost at London’s
O2 Arena – as a case study, I explored ways in which branding influences
expectations of a worship experience, and may either assist or hinder the
participation needed to realise that experience. Music’s role in the articulation of
community was foregrounded, as was the role of participation in the sacred
experience associated with the community. Participation was shown to be
important because it grounded the utopian discourse of the Pentecost story in
experience. In other words, the O2 event afforded participants the opportunity to
experience, at least for a moment, ‘Heaven on Earth’.
Like ecumenism, which articulates unity through difference, branding is an
exercise in affiliation and differentiation. On the one hand, the overriding theme
of the O2 event was that of being of ‘one accord’ in the ‘Body of Christ’. By
performing together and being led by transnational evangelical stars, Hillsong
London, HTB and Jesus House London positioned themselves, their actions and
the event in relation to local and global Others while grounding themselves in
‘unity’ and the ‘local’. To do this, differences were acknowledged and even
celebrated. Through style, each church positioned itself as a distinct community
with a distinct brand identity. For example, participants associated Hillsong’s
brand with the broad evangelical Christian values that framed the event, while
also understanding it as a unique body with its own values (e.g. ‘excellence’).
Because it has a strong brand identity, participants in the O2 event already knew
what to expect from the ‘Hillsong’ worship experience. Furthermore, the strength
of the emotional connection that participants felt with others in the brand(ed)
community had an effect on their ability to worship. This led to a situation in
which some people were able to participate and others were not, suggesting that
while branding may be a medium through which the sacred can be experienced, it
may also be an impediment to it.
In chapter four, I considered Hillsong as a transnational networked community.
It was in this chapter that music and branding were most explicitly and intimately
associated with experience, as the experience of the ‘Hillsong Sound’ and the
Hillsong brand were posited as one and the same. The ‘Hillsong Sound’ connected
participants’ ideas about the times, places and people they associated with the
Hillsong network with their own embodied experiences of the music. Similar to
participation in the imagined and imaginary community of the Body of Christ
explored in chapter three, the ‘global’ and ‘local’ dialogue explored in this chapter
also revealed the Hillsong brand to be a locus of experience. However, the
discursive frame was different. In addition to culturally based associations – for
example the idea that London is ‘edgier’ than Sydney – the spiritual efficacy of
the music was grounded in ideas about the anointedness of Hillsong’s music and
musicians. Although Hillsong’s music is arguably ‘the same’ in terms of
instrumentation and tempo in worship services in all of its churches, the music is
an ‘associative enhancer’ that effects the ways in which participants experience
the music and facilitated the embodiment of brand associations that afford the
possibility of a sacred experience.
In chapter five, I focused on the interaction between the brand and the individual
in the co-creation of branded meaning and experience. It is at the individual level
where the work to ‘personalize’ Hillsong’s brand meaning, and thus realize its
spiritual efficacy, occurred. This work was done within the framework of
Hillsong’s corporate culture. Hillsong’s corporate culture was shown to be neither
monolithic nor ‘Taylorist’. On the contrary, each stakeholder exercised his or her
agency to maintain and embody the values that he or she associated with the
Hillsong brand. This was as true for worship leaders, who must ‘really worship’ in
order to lead others, as it was for other participants, who must ‘learn’ to worship
through education and practice. Through ‘corporate enculturation’, Hillsong’s
brand worked in a ‘post-Fordist’ way, mobilizing the individual in a brandscape
that provided branded material and a branded cultural context in which actions
occur and subjectivities are formed. The brand was prescriptive, as it reproduced
itself through the actions of participants.
The case study of this thesis has been Hillsong Church, its music and its
marketing. However, the thesis itself is not really about the church, evangelical
Christianity or indeed religion at all. Rather, it is a meditation on the relationship
between the mechanisms of industrial cultural production and the subjective
experience of Truth, and an exploration of music’s role in that experience. With
this in mind, then, I would now like to try to tease out a few ways in which these
threads can usefully contribute to thinking about the study of associations between
music, marketing, meaning and their application in a wider social context.
Hillsong is a social system; it is a collection of multiple, overlapping, amorphous,
mutually-intertwined associations between and among participants, their values
and identities, that are always in dialogue with each other, affording conceptual
frameworks that themselves are multiple, overlapping, amorphous and mutuallyintertwined. What makes Hillsong unique is the way it perpetuates itself using
musical branding to weave the connective tissue that binds participants together in
and through a lifestyle that is its branded soundtrack.
Much of the discussion in this thesis has been about the value of values. Concepts
of value imply the notions of good and bad. Underlying the dialogue between
good and bad is the ever-present spectre of power, a negotiation of systemic
hegemonies and individual agencies. In post-enlightenment culture, different
concepts of power are valued differently. For example, ‘rational’ thought is
usually prized while ‘emotional’ decisions are often devalued, and the ‘freedom’
of the individual is (at least discursively) afforded higher status against
‘hegemonic’ systemic and institutionalized forces. Anna Nekola (2009) brings to
light an important point about Protestant identity in relation to music, namely that
the discourses about the appropriate styles and uses of music that framed the
‘Worship Wars’ between evangelical Christians in the second half of the twentieth
century were a manifestation of the age-old conflict between agency and structure.
To this insight, I would add that post-modernism has increased the inward
awareness of this conflict; in an age of relativity (Latour 2007) and reflexivity
(Giddens 1990; 1991), we are painfully aware of the contradictions that we live
daily. For Nekola, this is the heart of the Protestant dilemma. This contradiction is
also precisely what branding feeds on. As I pointed out in chapter two, branding’s
efficacy arises from cultural rupture. It affords continuity to otherwise
discontinuous elements, including discontinuous experiences of the self. In other
words, branding relieves the cognitive dissonance that people feel in their
everyday lives. Perhaps this is the reason why religious branding is so effective:
the brand condenses otherwise disparate, even contradictory elements into a
‘single’ post-modern and post-Fordist gestalt of associations. The value of the
brand is that it provides (post)modern ‘Truth’.148
Truth through branding, though, is paradoxical. On the one hand, the ability to
share ideas – to communicate – is one of our most advantageous traits. Our
collective wisdom is seemingly limitless, and the Internet has provided what is
perhaps the greatest opportunity yet to harness it though ‘crowdsourcing’ (Howe
2008). By harnessing the social power of the Internet, in conjunction with other
media both ‘new’ and ‘old’, branding could provide a mutually intelligible
medium through which the diversity of ‘the crowd’ could be leveraged to attack
some of the world’s most vexing problems. On the other hand, the ‘father of PR’
Edward Bernays was convinced that the crowd is inherently stupid, and that the
greater good can only be achieved by controlling its fickle machinations.
Significantly, he sought to do this through techniques that marketers have
borrowed from and improved upon ever since he began developing them almost a
century ago (Tye 2002). Branding, then, also presents a real threat, especially as a
political and ideological tool. This paradox presents a dilemma in religious
contexts. On the one hand, branding can help bind participants to a group and
provide an anchor for identity. Membership in a tightly-knit group (such as a
religious group like Hillsong) has been shown to provide a measure of
psychological well-being (Galanter 1989), something I saw many times during my
fieldwork. On the other hand, against the backdrop of religious extremism, serious
questions should be asked, especially with regard to critical thinking and the
emotional fervour that these groups can engender. Returning once again to the
Or expediency, depending on your point of view.
case study, I offer two examples of branding’s influence. The first is one in which
branding benefits both the group and the individual. The second offers a
pessimistic view, demonstrating that even well-intentioned branding might have
undesired effects if it binds the participant ‘too’ closely to the brand. I conclude
with a reflection on branding that presents it in an optimistic light, as a potential
agent of societal change. Both of the following examples are based on the notion
of a value exchange in play between the organisation and the participant.
Steven Brown, in his introduction to the volume Music and Manipulation,
suggests that ‘control is driven by exactly the same social and economic functions
as use, and works to achieve behavioural control in a similar manner’ (Brown
2006: 12, original emphasis). In other words, the control process works through
use, and vice versa. In terms of branding, the value for both parties lies at least
partially in control. Hillsong’s brand is multivalent – a structural, social and
cultural associational gestalt, at once enhancing spiritual and psychological value
for participants (both individually and as a group) while simultaneously increasing
the economic value of the organisation through donations and product sales. The
revenue thus accrued can then be reinvested in the organisation and its
participants (as well as in more marketing, which may reinforce value).
The marketing and critical perspectives on branding differ in the position each
takes with respect to the value of hegemony relative to the values that underpin
capitalism. The marketing perspective sees the social order as (at least potentially)
valuable for all participants. In contrast, critical theory’s Marxist lineage predisposes it to questioning the values that are assumed a priori in capitalist
exchange. Hegemony works below the line (to use a marketing term), and
therefore the critical perspective holds that the value participants ‘think’ they are
receiving may be at best ephemeral and at worst detrimental. In other words, the
value of the social control exerted by the brand is ultimately a function of the
values that frame a worldview. What, then, is the potential ‘evangelical efficacy’
of Hillsong’s branding? Does the brand exert hegemonic social control, and if so,
who ultimately benefits from it? As I hope this thesis has shown, a nuanced
analysis of this reveals a constellation of symbiotic relationships and fluid
processes. Participants are mutually entwined in multivalent network-based value
exchanges that, as the two examples below show, are potentially beneficial, but
may also be harmful.
Example One: The Group and the Individual
Charles Galanter (1989) suggests that the psychological benefits of shared beliefs,
reinforced by sacred experiences, contribute to the cohesiveness of charismatic
groups. The psychological rewards that individuals enjoy when they feel that they
share the same beliefs as others binds them to the group (and also enhances the
psychological distress experienced when leaving the group). These rewards are
further enhanced if accompanied by a sacred experience. In my interviews with
Hillsong’s members, many spoke about the psychological rewards they
experienced after coming to Hillsong. For example, Waithera, a thirty-year old
native of Nigeria, found a new social network through the church in the wake of a
painful divorce and subsequent identity crisis:
So I’m doing all this soul searching, and – it’s that feeling, I don’t know if
you ever get it, it’s that feeling you want to know who God is – who is he,
why am I here? – I was finding it really hard with the marriage and stuff,
because I was kind of drifting and Sid wasn’t drifting with me, and that was
making me kind of sad.… So I go to London and I’m on the Internet
checking out Hillsong, and it was like, mmm, not bad.… So I went for the
3:30 service, which is usually really cool, and I sat with all of these girls
who were on the same team as me, and the music began and I was like ‘this
is awesome, this is me. I can wear jeans, I can dress like I want to, and I can
listen to my kind of music, and still get to know God!’ Wow, I couldn’t
believe it, so I’ve been there since. And you know what, this is like the best
thing ever…. I wish many people could understand it. That would be just so
good, because there’s so much – life’s just gotten better for me. I’m not
bitter, there’s no kind of emptiness, you know? (Interview with author, 16
For Waithera, the value of the Hillsong brand is tied up with the interpersonal
associations and relationships that she has formed. She is now a youth worker in
the U.S., having a renewed sense of purpose through the church.
Waithera could be considered one of Hillsong’s ‘satisfied customers’. As a youth
evangelist, she is a spokesperson both for Hillsong and for evangelical
Christianity. A satisfied customer is ‘twice’ valuable to an organisation because,
first, they are more likely (in marketing parlance) to be loyal customers, and
second, they are more likely to evangelize for the organisation and its values. In
an age when advertising is becoming less effective, word of mouth has been
proven to be the most effective marketing tool. This is true for both commercial
and religious organisations. In a religious context, Poloma and Pendleton found
that transcendent experiences, which are viewed as ‘proof’ in charismatic belief,
led to satisfied participants, and that they were a major factor in the expansion of
the Assemblies of God in the United States (Poloma and Pendleton 1989). In
brandspeak, the value that participants find in the brand is valuable to the brand.
Galanter uses different language, but makes a similar point, in his systems
approach to charismatic groups:
In looking at a system, we do not first ask what motivates an individual
member to act. Instead we say, ‘How are the group’s needs met by the
overall behaviour observed in its membership?’ (Galanter 1989: 11)
Taking Galanter’s viewpoint, the benefits of musical branding at Hillsong can be
understood primarily on the group level – it is a way of communicating through a
web of associations that ensures the long-term survival of the organisation by
promoting social cohesion and providing individual benefits. These dynamics are,
of course, not unique only to brands. Indeed, this thesis has argued that Hillsong is
a social system with dynamics comparable to those in Galanter’s study. Galanter’s
study was about cult dynamics. This is not, of course, to suggest that Hillsong is a
cult, only that the dynamics in play are similar to those Galanter studies, and to
those that create any social system. The difference between the social systems
Galanter studied and Hillsong’s is that the latter exists in and as a hyper-marketed
brandscape in which music is one of the important and ‘charismatic’ elements (in
both Galanter’s and the Weberian sense). Thus the branded music approach to
studying group dynamics offers particular insights into charismatic processes that
may be more ‘mainstream’ than those studied by Galanter.
Example Two: Creating Zealots
Branding’s efficacy lies in the emotional associations it engenders. As we saw in
the preceding example, and as has been shown throughout this thesis, these
associations are valuable to all participants. From this view, the more a participant
is emotionally invested in a brand, the better. However, brands and branding have
‘dark’ sides; the mechanisms through which they provide value have the potential
to be subverted, or, as in the case presented below, to spin out of control. It may
be that, in some cases, ‘brand loyalty’ and the feelings it is associated with may go
too far. As noted in the introduction, Patrick Hanlon (2006) claims that if a
branded organisation possesses all seven pieces of his ‘primal code’, it can create
‘zealots’; people who feel ‘intuitive visceral connections’ (Hanlon 2006: xii) to an
organisation, but more importantly to the organisation’s ethos and the belief
system that it engenders. Could Hillsong’s use of the ‘primal code’ create
‘zealots’? Could Hillsong’s members be, to borrow Martin Lindstrom’s (2011)
The marketing practices of branding are increasingly being used in political
campaigns to instil fervour and create a sense of community in nation building
projects (Moor 2007: 136-140; Olins 2003: 148-169). In both political and
religious contexts (which are often intertwined), too much ‘zeal’, or at least the
appearance of a lack of critical thinking, can be problematic (e.g. Noll 1994) if not
outright dangerous. In a ‘lifestyle’ driven world, where brands are used to ground
actions in, and construct, a post-modern ‘Truth’, can branding go too far? Can
musical branding, neo-Platonic-like, engender or even become ideology? Is the
brand ideology from the outset? Some of Hillsong’s stakeholders have concerns
about church marketing. One is David, a committed team leader at Hillsong
London who spends all day Sunday at church and usually one or two other nights
of the week at church events:
[The marketing] has in a lot of ways been one of my issues with Hillsong, in
that I hate it when people talk about church as a brand. Especially when it’s
coming from the pastoral team, you know, marketing it. I’m not saying that
marketing is a bad thing, it’s just labelling it as [a] brand…. What I’ve
found with Hillsong – it’s not just Hillsong, it’s other churches as well – is
the fact that… people get to a point where all they’re about is church, not
the Church. (Interview with author, 11 June 2012)
David’s point is that, in creating a deep attachment to Hillsong Church, Hillsong
may be, paradoxically, drawing people away from its stated vision, which is to
build the Body of Christ. It is a common criticism that seeker-churches validate
themselves through numbers (Sargeant 2000). In seeking numbers as a proof of
‘anointing’, they take their eye off the ball. However, there is again a paradox
here, as the very act of building the Church involves evangelising. This is parallel
to the conundrum Hillsong faces in relation to its need to market to a transnational
audience through star power, yet at the same time deny stardom (chapter two). To
be fair, Hillsong London’s pastor Gary Clark often reminds people that all one
needs is a good church, not necessarily a Hillsong church. Indeed, as Hillsong’s
General Manager George Aghajanian said to me, ‘There’s lots of great worship
out there. It’s just, I suppose our thinking is if we can contribute to part of what
God’s doing in this area of worship and resource the church at some level then
we’ve done what God’s called us to’ (Interview with author, 28 September 2011).
According to David, though, some participants don’t understand this:
People just go on about Hillsong and talk about the church they belong to.
And it’s almost as if – and it’s probably not intentional – but it’s almost as
if, ‘my church is better than yours, my worship band is better than yours.’
And there’s no integration with the rest of it. Just like if you had a child and
you wanted to home school it but you still want to integrate it with society.
You’ve got people who are part of Hillsong who are not integrated. They
don’t want to integrate with other believers. There’s this thing that they
suddenly develop. When they first became Christians, ANY other Christian
would do! Any Christian anywhere would be someone they’d want to have
food with or hang out with. And then suddenly they grab a hold of this
brand, and they get taught or get to understand that we know things better
than the rest of the world does. (Interview with author, 11 June 2012)
As noted in chapter two, part of Hillsong’s strategy, shared by the larger Christian
culture industry, is to create alternatives to secular lifestyle activities, especially
ones that involve social interaction. Participants are encouraged to have coffee
with each other before and after services, go to the cinema together, and even live
with each other, which is facilitated through Hillsong London’s housing
connection service, ‘Living in London’. On the one hand, this helps mediate the
tension of being ‘in but not of’ the world by affording them the opportunity to
engage in everyday activities with like-minded individuals. It also gives the
opportunity to develop the intimate bonds that are more difficult to form in the
hustle and bustle of the Sunday service. However, because these activities are
associated with the church, and often other Hillsong participants, they are at least
self-referential if not outright ‘branded’; this bracketing off of social (lifestyle)
activity from other groups can be seen, at least by some, as ‘cultish’ (Galanter
Some, even inside the church, view the zealous attitudes of some Hillsong
members as a substitute for critical thinking. David continued:
[Some Hillsong participants think], ‘We have better revelation of scripture
than the rest of the world does’, and then suddenly it’s this ‘Hillsong thing’
to the point where you invite a Hillsong member to any other thing and they
won’t go, unless it’s endorsed by Gary Clark. They take it further to the
point where they join people in talking about or criticising a style of worship
– some people just think that Hillsong’s style is the way God intended it to
be. And if they find another style someplace else, they’re kind of like, ‘ugh,
they don’t really know what they’re doing, they’re not really in tune with
God’ because that style is different. So they take it further to the point where
they listen to another preacher preach and then go, ‘oh no, we don’t preach
it like that, that’s not how you should preach’ and suddenly Gary invites T.
D. Jakes to preach at Hillsong Conference, and they’re like, ‘Oh T. D. Jakes
is amazing, he’s a man of God!’ and they start buying his books… suddenly
it’s endorsed, and they start backtracking on everything. But that’s what
happens when people are backing their brand. That’s what’s happening with
a lot of people at Hillsong. They’re backing the brand. They’re for the
brand. They won’t let you say anything bad about the brand. I don’t care,
you know? Because a lot of people in Hillsong in particular, are just
jumping on whatever is said to them. And they say things at team meetings
like [Hillsong London pastors] ‘Gary said’ and, ‘Pete said’ and, ‘Luke said’
you know? They just quote. (Interview with author, 11 June 2012)
In the previous example, Waithera’s participation in the Hillsong’s brand
community helped her resolve emotional issues stemming from her divorce.
However, here, David is painting a picture of the brand as a resolution of
cognitive dissonance as uncritical thinking, a Gramscian understanding of
hegemony. As I noted in chapter two, Hillsong works to subject (its brand)
authority to the authority of God. But at the same time, this branding presupposes,
relies upon and reinforces its own spiritual authority. On the one hand, the church
has dropped the idea (at least publicly) of its music being ‘anointed’. On the other
hand, many of its participants operate under the premise that its music both flows
from and affirms God’s blessing on the church and its participants, without which
the music would not have its spiritual efficacy. Furthermore, in promoting its
brand community, Hillsong risks the situation that David describes above. This is
very much like the Pentecost event described in chapter three, where the brand
both defines and differentiates Hillsong, and thus is important to the transcendent
experience through its provision of added value. At the Pentecost event, the
participants I spoke to were most likely to encounter God during Hillsong’s
worship set. Recall Julie, who said, ‘It’s what got me saved, so I stick with it!’
‘Into the Maelstrom’: Education and Awareness (Discussion and Conclusion)
From the preceding discussion, one might conclude that branding is an insidious
form of mind-control. While this is a gross characterisation that even its most
ardent critics (e.g. Klein 2010) probably don’t really subscribe to (more
accurately, they view capitalism as the root of all evil and branding as an
outgrowth of it), their arguments show that branding is at the very least an
effective form of persuasion. This is because the goal of branding is always to
form, rather than to simply inform. In other words, branding seeks to shape
information in specific frames rather than simply leaving the information ‘out
there’ (as far as this is possible) for consideration. The difference between
persuasion and manipulation lies in who has the information, and what the intent
behind the communication is. Persuasion is generally understood as an honest
exchange in which the sender’s intentions are clear and open, and all participants
reap the rewards of the communication process. In contrast, manipulation is
generally understood as an asymmetrical exchange in which those doing the
manipulating conceal their motivations and perhaps some information (although
manipulative motives may not necessarily be ill-intended) (Brown, 2006: 21).
Branding is a bit of both. How, then, do we deal with this?
As marketers understand, everything in our environment is potential information.
The ‘world’ is media. Marshall McLuhan was concerned with the way each media
form – particularly the new electronic media of his day – acted on different senses
in different proportions to create ‘new forms of awareness’ (McLuhan and
Zingrone 1995: 3). A media gestalt, branding has the potential to do this in
unprecedented ways, and thus presents new possibilities for persuasion or
manipulation that may be both beneficial and harmful. For example, branding
could yield myriad benefits for the non-profit sector (Olins 2003). Yet it equally
has the potential to be misused, or as was suggested in the previous section, to get
‘out of hand’. McLuhan was keenly aware of the dangers of the new media of his
day, yet he also understood that it was here to stay, and it would become
increasingly prevalent in society. Thus, he advocated a form of ‘resistance’ that
was predicated on awareness of how it worked. In the preface to The Mechanical
Bride, McLuhan notes the sophistication of the advertising that was being
disseminated through new media:
Ours is the first age in which many thousands of the best-trained individual
minds have made it a full-time business to get inside the collective public
mind. To get inside in order to manipulate, exploit, control is the object
now. And to generate heat not light is the intention now. (In McLuhan and
Zingrone 1995: 21)
McLuhan called advertising (which is an element of marketing) a new programme
of ‘commercial education’ that is ‘much more expensive and influential than the
relatively puny offerings sponsored by schools and colleges’ (ibid.). But instead of
despairing, he asked, ‘Why not use the new commercial education as a means to
enlighten its intended prey? Why not assist the public to observe consciously the
drama which is intended to operate upon it unconsciously?’ (ibid.). He elucidated
this question by recalling the sailor in Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘A Descent Into the
Maelstrom’, who saves himself by studying the action of the whirlpool and by cooperating with it. The sailor used that which was set to destroy him to his
advantage, making it work for him rather than against him.
Heath and Potter make a similar point in their book The Rebel Sell: Why the
Culture Can’t be Jammed. While McLuhan saw the inevitability of mass media
and advertising, Heath and Potter see consumerism as a whirlpool that is too
powerful a force to stop or extricate oneself from. They support their thesis by
showing how countercultural movements that purport to disengage from or
otherwise undermine ‘the system’ actually reinforce it. Through the culture
industry, capitalism does indeed subsume everything; but if there ever was a ‘false
consciousness’, in Heath and Potter’s view, it is held by those that think there is a
way out rather than those who engage with it. Rather than try to opt out of the
system, they argue that it is far more useful to guide it from within through
In both McLuhan’s and Heath and Potter’s analyses, the answer is awareness, an
‘education about education’ and the key element that Gramsci argued is lacked by
the proletariat. For McLuhan and Heath and Potter, awareness is about
understanding how the system works. I would add to this by noting that an
awareness of how branding works is an awareness of ourselves. Underpinning the
relationship between the brand and us, the participants in the brand experience, is
a relative synergy of values. Therefore, brand identity is ultimately a reflection of
our personal and cultural values; brands and branding are about values that are,
ultimately, our own.
What does this mean for the study of music? Although music, marketing and
religion have long been connected in different ways, it is clear that marketing has
‘found’ religion, and religion has ‘found’ marketing, in idiosyncratic and
meaningful ways through the culture industry, and that music’s role in the
dialectic between the two has never been more apparent whilst simultaneously
more difficult to discern. This is apparent in the case of Hillsong, where integrated
marketing fuses music, musicians, church services, conferences, products and
spiritual pursuit into a gestalt experience that both encourages and relies upon
participation to produce meaning. Hillsong is just one of countless examples
where music ‘hides in plain sight’ yet is at the same time embedded ‘below the
line’. This suggests several interesting lines of inquiry for music scholars.
A notion suggested by this thesis, but not explicitly addressed, is the Weberian
concept of charismatic authority (Weber  1964). Studying the ways that
music is used in branded religious contexts such as Hillsong, particularly the ways
that different types of spiritual authority are invested not only in the music itself
but also in the musicians, leaders, and organisations associated with the music,
would have important implications beyond the initial field of inquiry. Following
this, there is much work to be done on the relationship between music and
marketing and Weber’s other classifications of authority, the traditional and the
This study has also suggested links between music, socialisation into ‘charismatic’
groups and psychological well-being. Further investigations along this line of
thinking, particularly if one applies the principles of charismatic groups to the
study of, for example, brand communities, could offer insights relevant to a
variety of fields, such as music therapy or medical ethnomusicology (e.g. DeNora
2013; Koen et al. 2008).
Finally, neither marketing nor its use of music as a means of communication
shows any sign of slowing down. Indeed, it is apparent that the global flows of
commerce and technology that are the focus of this study will continue to ‘export’
culture industry-based ideas and subjectivities to new ‘markets’; at the same time,
these global flows are intensifying in markets in which they are already
established. Awareness and education to promote awareness of these processes is
essential so consumers can make their own judgments regarding whether or not to
participate in branding, religious or otherwise. It is critical that music scholars
continue to monitor the use of music in the context of marketing and branding,
even as our work contributes to the evolution of the ‘branded sounds’ that we
study. This thesis is a small, context-specific contribution to the study of
marketing and the role of music in the branding process. Yet it is my hope that the
ideas presented in it are applicable in a wide variety of contexts, and that it will
inspire more diverse and wide-ranging ethnomusicological studies that take
marketing seriously as a integral part of the contemporary human experience.
It has been the contention of this thesis that musical, branded and religious
experiences arise in and as a web of associations that is a way we, as humans,
experience meaning in the world. We don’t just ‘know’ in one way. Rather, our
knowledge comes from our continual experience of ourselves in our
environments. Hillsong’s brand is the continually negotiated co-product of
participants who interact with each other directly or indirectly at different times,
in different places, and through different media. Part of this negotiation is related
to power – who has (and who is afforded) the authority to prescribe the values and
norms that are then contested, accepted and put into play either positively or
negatively in the negotiation of the brand. Ultimately, though, the efficacy of the
brand is drawn from the controversies and contradictions with which it is
associated and through which it condenses in participants’ experiences.
On 3 July 2012, Hillsong LIVE’s twenty-first album, ‘Cornerstone’, was released.
It subsequently reached number three on the U.S. overall iTunes chart and number
32 on the Billboard 200 charts in the US. These were not the gospel or Christian
charts, but the ‘mainstream’ charts that include mega-pop stars like Beyoncé and
Lady Gaga. It is not clear who is listening – is it simply that every evangelical
Christian under 35 is buying the album, or has Hillsong finally found that elusive
evangelical mix that speaks to the unsaved? What is clear is that, for some, the
integration of the sacred and the secular in a lifestyle proceeds apace. Music, as an
element of Hillsong’s marketing program, contributes to this process by
amplifying the effects of two powerful emotional forces: religion and branding.
In his book Shopping for God: How Christianity went from in Your Heart to in
Your Face, James Twitchell writes, ‘…awakenings are an increase in religiosity
because of new innovations in storytelling…’ (Twitchell 2007: 45). While
Twitchell is speaking of the ‘Great Awakenings’, the increase in religiosity that
occurred in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, his observation about
storytelling has implications beyond religion. Branding’s ‘modern turn’ was
predicated on the belief that the ‘crowd’ was easily influenced and controlled by
the ‘stories’ marketers ‘told’ in their messages. However, in the 21st century,
marketers realize that a brand’s story can be created and amplified by
communities of individuals. In these communities, individuals experience the
brand in a variety of ways, bonding emotionally with it (and each other), and
creating brand ‘fervour’. Returning to Twitchell, such an increase in devotion to a
brand can be construed as an ‘awakening’. As this thesis shows, music is an
integral part of the process by which such brand ‘awakenings’ occur.
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