City Paper is not for tourists
For seven months, 17-year-old Jonathan Slye has been organizing a massive, all-ages rock festival on his own terms. The gathering has an overt message, ticket prices are low, and he’s doing most of the work himself. It sounds like the noble fruit of D.C.’s DIY punk scene, but Jonathan is no disciple of Ian MacKaye. “I just have this passion,” he says, “for Christian rock.”
The inaugural Spring Jam Fest takes place May 14 at Bull Run Park in Centreville, Va., and it features 19 Christian acts across different genres. That includes two major Christian metal headliners who’ve experienced mainstream, secular success: P.O.D. and Head, the former guitarist of Korn. Jonathan, the son of a pastor, has gotten the word out, gathered sponsors, and figured out the logistics of assembling a music festival for thousands of people all while balancing his studies and basketball practice. There have been bumps, but not many. It’s all come together pretty seamlessly—and perhaps divinely, to hear Jonathan tell it. “I thought it was crazy, but I just kept running into the right people,” says Jonathan.
Christian rock has much more in common with the culture of punk rock than the fact that some of its practictioners sport tattoos and piercings. For teens like Jonathan, it can bridge the gap between closely held religious beliefs and adolescent rebellion. And in the D.C. area, where the Christian rock scene isn’t huge, there might be just one way to do something on the scale of Spring Jam Fest: by yourself.
But organizing a festival, even a faith-fueled one, isn’t cheap. Spring Jam Fest will cost about $70,000, and Jonathan’s family is footing much of the bill. They’re selling 5,000 tickets at $15 a pop, but if they don’t get rid of enough, they’ll be in very serious trouble.
“I got a call from a concert promoter in West Virginia,” says John Slye, Jonathan’s father and pastor of the non-denominational Grace Community Church in Arlington. “He said, ‘I’ve never talked to you before, I’ve talked to Jonathan, but I want you to know he’s more organized than most concert promoters I’ve worked with—however, you need to be aware of the risks.’”
High stakes aren’t just the salvation of sinners. “We have to sell at least 3,000 tickets, or we’ll go into debt,” says Jonathan’s mother, Krista. With only a few days left before the big show, they’ve sold around 1,000, but they’re expecting many people will buy tickets at the door. “There is no turning back now,” she says.
The 600-member Grace Community Church, to hear John tell it, is “a church for people who don’t go to church.” This week, its website contained a peculiar proverb: “Chillax -God.”
John founded it in 2000, when Jonathan was 7, following years running a window-washing company while also attending seminary (he only sold the business a few years ago). The Slyes have two kids and a dog; their home is warmly evangelical, adorned with Bible verses on windows and a large family portrait in the living room. It’s a nice life that the Slyes worked hard for—so why put it at risk for a rock festival?
Because Jonathan isn’t just precocious. He’s seen the light.
The seed for Spring Jam Fest was planted last summer, when Jonathan attended a camp hosted by the hugely successful Christian hip-hop artist TobyMac, formerly of the rock trio dc Talk. “It started when I was shown a verse, Romans 8:28, that talks about God’s purpose for your life,” says Jonathan. “I started praying over that verse every night, and I felt God was tugging at my heart to start a small Christian music festival.”
After returning from camp, Jonathan won tickets to several different Christian rock concerts in a short span of time—a fact he attributes to divine guidance. At the shows, he met several big players in the Christian-rock world, and he conceived Spring Jam Fest. Early on, Brian “Head” Welch—who left Korn in 2005 to play Christian music—was a supporter.
“[Head] heard about the event and was blown away,” says Jonathan. “He gave us a huge discount and said he was going to come play.” It was a huge boon; even without Korn, Head is still a big draw.
But finding an appropriate venue was problematic. After contacting several high schools and local theaters—none of which could accommodate the event—Jonathan asked his father to call up Bull Run Park, which is run by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. They turned him down. Then, according to the Slyes, Jonathan called back, poured out his vision to the events specialist, and landed a date.
Several weeks into planning, Jonathan asked Head’s agent, Ember Tanksley, about another band on his roster, P.O.D. Tanksley, who works for the powerful firm William Morris Endeavor, explained that P.O.D. typically charged around $20,000 for a show like this; Jonathan says he responded, “What about $11,000?” The offer made its way to the band, who ultimately agreed. “I believe in this kid,” says P.O.D. frontman Sonny Sandoval, who has never met Jonathan. “He’s got a heart like mine, and sometimes you’ve just got to go for it.”
All the while, the Slyes were unaware of the large scope of the event—and the large cost. In April, “I finally asked him to show me everything he’d done,” says John, “and I realized it was huge.” After looking at the contracts, it looked like it was going to cost about $55,000. “Now the total’s closer to $70,000,” says John. On a Monday morning, after looking at the contracts and riders in question, John gave Jonathan an ultimatum. “I told him he had to have $25,000 in the bank by Friday,” he says. It was the minimum necessary to put down contractual deposits. “I knew he couldn’t do it,” John says.
But by that Wednesday night, Jonathan told his father the money was in the bank. John could hardly believe it. Jonathan began reaching out to businesses and potential donors, sharing his ambition and his concern for the salvation of non-believing rockers. “One woman just gave us $10,000 because she was blown away by the story,” he says. (The big donor preferred to remain anonymous.)
There have been some hiccups promoting the event. Or, as Jonathan puts it: “There were tons of valleys while there were many mountains along the path.”
Their publicity budget is marginal—a few church volunteers have sent out emails, but there’s no money for a media blitz. So Jonathan reached out to radio stations. “It’s either too Christian [for secular stations] or it’s too hard for Christian stations.” Jonathan says DC 101 declined to promote the event—even through paid advertisements—because its annual chili cook-off takes place the following weekend. Jonathan reached out to Christian station WGTS-FM: “‘Can I do a short interview, do a promo ad, give you tickets to give away, anything?’…They wouldn’t even put it on their community calendar.” Calls to both stations were not returned.
An independent producer who works for CNN picked up on the story, and stopped by the Slyes’ house in Dunn Loring on a recent afternoon. Jonathan had just gotten home from school. “We could’ve paid for PR,” Jonathan told CNN’s Eric Marrapodi, “but we would’ve had to charge more for tickets, and that’s just something I didn’t want to do…I just want to bring in as many people as possible.”
Christian rock may seem corny to secular audiences, but it directly solves a social dilemma for a niche market. “For young evangelicals growing up in the church, you have two sets of peers: church friends and school friends. You get fed up with binary between goodness and coolness,” says Kevin Erickson, who studied religion and is now the director of the All Ages Movement Project, a network of DIY organizers. “All the middle and high school existential drama is heightened by wanting to be good and wanting to be cool at the same time.” While Jonathan attends a Christian high school, he says many of his friends are not evangelical.
Hard-edged rock bands that readily make their religious loyalties known can function as a bridge between virtue and pop culture. And it turns out the religious impulse isn’t so different from its punk parallel. “There’s an age for Christian music fans—and there was a similar thing going on at hardcore shows—where kids are trying to draw a line between their community and the community at large. People want to be on a team,”says Andrew Beaujon, the arts editor of TBD.com (and a former Washington City Paper staffer) who wrote the book Body Piercing Saved My Life, about the culture of Christian rock.
In a sense, Christian rock mimics punk’s opportunity for exploring a counter-cultural identity. “Evangelical culture has tried to tap into that social anti-establishment sentiment by making broader society the target of its critique,” says Erickson. That’s all well and good, but the conservative theology and politics beneath the music tend to complicate matters. “P.O.D. is a good band to look at; this is a band that has moved between the two worlds,” Beaujon says. “They were actually surprised when I interviewed them and asked about their song ‘Abortion is Murder,’ off their first record.”
But when it comes to evangelizing on stage, “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” says P.O.D.’s Sandoval. “I’m not ashamed of the things I believe in, but I’m not going to be tasteless either.”
The crowds at Christian rock shows tend to be young, and are mostly populated by the already-converted. The flavor isn’t necessarily evangelical. “I’ve always found there to be a lot more proselytizing at Fugazi shows than at Christian rock shows,” says Beaujon.
Although some of the acts at Spring Jam Fest are known for abrasive, pummeling sounds, Jonathan says the vibe will be rather blissful. “All the bands will likely say something about Christ,” says Jonathan. “And my Dad will be speaking for about 15 minutes.” While Christian shows primarily appeal to, well, Christians, Jonathan is fired up about reaching the lost; this is his earnest attempt to reach kids where they’re at. “We’re not going to be shoving Christ down anyone’s throat; I’m just trying to ignite interest,” he says. “I’m just hoping to rock with a purpose.”