Back in 1995, before Jesus-rock seeped into mainstream radio, contemporary Christian recording artists NewSong had an idea: host a ticketless concert at a venue other than a church and see if people, other than just parishioners, showed.
The band anticipated a crowd of maybe 1,500 for its first Winter Jam in Greenville, S.C. When more than 6,500 people packed the arena, an annual tour was born featuring top Christian acts and evangelical speakers, all for $10 at the door.
Winter Jam 2012 arrives today in Tampa, with host NewSong welcoming headliners Skillet (a recent crossover success) and Sanctus Real. Also scheduled to perform are Building 429, Dara McLean, Kari Jobe and Peter Furler. Illusionist Brock Gill and speaker Nick Hall complete the lineup.
The Times spoke with Billy Goodwin, founding member of NewSong, about keeping the tour relevant.
Why the ticketless concept?
From the beginning, we wanted to try and remove any barriers that would keep people from coming. Music is really the language that speaks to the kids, and the message in our music is consistent: Jesus lived and died for us all. If people come to our show, we're not going to turn them away because they can't afford a ticket. We think it's important that people hear what we have to say.
Every year, the concert lineup is different. How are acts selected for the tour?
It's a combination of things. Recording companies let us know who the new artists are they think would be great, and we try to find out who is creating the most buzz, to get those people to headline.
This year's headliner, Skillet, is popular on both Christian radio and rock radio. Do you think crossover artists attract a more diverse crowd?
Absolutely. That is one of the things that excites us about them. People from outside the church will come because they just love Skillet. Then they get to hear great music and a great message.
NewSong formed in 1981. Does touring with cutting edge artists help keep you current?
Yes. We all jam together on the tour. Every Sunday we have Jam Church, and a different artist leads praise and worship. We try to stay current musically, and it definitely does us good hanging out with them (the other artists).
Who are you most excited about on the tour this year?
Our new speaker, Nick Hall. I'm excited to see how the crowd reacts to him.
What do you like about performing in Tampa?
It's warm here. We do a lot of shows up North, so it's a nice change on a winter tour, and we can always expect the place to fill up.