As 2020 album soars, The Grand Collective takes off

Amanda Riffe, singing with the Worship team at Chapel on Monday, is one of the most noted performers on Canyon Worship 2020. (Photo by Matt Nykamp)

By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau

Canyon Worship 2020 is reaching all corners of the Christian music scene, and now Worship Arts students at Grand Canyon University have yet another way to collaborate.

In fact, they don’t even have to be on campus this semester to be within reach of The Grand Collective.

Put it all together, and it adds up to more milestones for the GCU Recording Studio.

Start with the Canyon Worship numbers. Dr. Jason Hiles, Dean of the College of Theology, reports that the number of streams for the five albums and one EP of students’ written-and-performed songs figures to reach a half-million before the end of the 2020-21 academic year.

“We’re being picked up in places where, before, no one had heard of us,” Hiles said.

One of those places is Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI), the performance-rights organization for Christian music. But here’s the catch: CCLI reached out to GCU, not the other way around.

“It’s kind of a big deal that they reached out to us,” said John McJunkin, the Recording Studio’s coordinator and a veteran of the music industry.

Amanda Leininger

CCLI is what worship pastors use to pick out material for their services, which means that songs like Amanda Riffe’s “Be Alright” and Amanda Leininger’s “You Found Me” are being played everywhere.

They’re also being watched and heard everywhere.

The “Be Alright” video has had more than 1,800 views on YouTube and has been added to Spotify playlists and blogs with followers that exceed 250,000.

The “You Found Me” lyrics were added to the same playlists and blogs and have gotten more than 130,000 views on YouTube.

While Hiles emphasizes that the albums are produced for the benefit of the students’ music education and not to drive sales, the international appreciation of their efforts is an added benefit. He credits the efforts of Dr. Randall Downs, Worship Arts Coordinator, for both the song selection and the successful marketing.

Dr. Randall Downs

“He just has an ear for songs. He senses quality at a deeper level,” Hiles said. “He’s been in that space where he’s promoted, he’s worked with a band, he’s published music himself.”

Downs, in turn, credits Marketing with Wisdom, a Christian agency he was turned on to by Geoff Hunker, producer for the Canyon Worship albums. Downs has been on two podcasts this fall and hopes to be on more – with students next time.

Everyone in the program agrees that it’s not as if Canyon Worship 2020 outshined its predecessors. It’s simply a matter of GCU’s light becoming continually brighter.

“There’s going to be a snowball,” Downs said. “This year, we’re generating more traffic than last year. You’re retaining fans and you’re gaining new fans with each album.

John McJunkin

“I think as our reach expands, every album is going to be a snowball. It’s just going to get bigger and bigger and bigger as far as the fan base and its reach across the globe.”

Or as McJunkin put it, “The word starts to get out. People start to get familiar with it – ‘Oh, here’s that Canyon Worship record, another one this year. Let’s go check this one out.’”

And now students have a new project to check out: The Grand Collective, expected to be published by next spring, will feature new arrangements to original hymns, such as “How Great Thou Art.”

The student organizers originally thought about having “Canyon” in the name but decided to differentiate it to avoid confusion with Canyon Worship.

“We thought, ‘Oh, we’ll just take the other half’ of Grand Canyon,” said senior Joseph Vaught, the Worship Arts major who’s leading the project.

Joseph Vaught

It’s an idea that has been percolating in Eric Johnson’s head almost since he arrived at GCU in 2015 to manage the Recording Studio.

“I have always wanted to do a project that was student-led, student-driven, student-produced, student-engineered and student-published,” he said.

“It’s not the Canyon Worship album. The Canyon Worship album is an exclusive project. There are auditions involved. There’s a song-selection process that it goes through. And then it’s produced by a couple of guest producers that we hire to come in, and the students get to work with those producers and gain professional-level experience. They see us every day, so bringing in someone from Nashville is kind of a buzz and everyone loves it.

“The Grand Collective is meant to be an inclusive project. In fact, we’re trying to make it as inclusive as possible by inviting all Worship Arts students to participate in some capacity.”

Not just students, alumni, too. Desiree Aguilar, a star of the first Canyon Worship offerings who graduated in 2018, is on the executive leadership team Vaught put together. Also on the team are Johnson and students Nicole Raum, Taryn Nellermoe and Saiki Roy.

Desiree Aguilar

There also is a marketing and social media team led by Canyon Worship regular Elaina Marchegger, but she’s directing her on-campus team of students from her home in Lake Tahoe, where she’s spending the semester.

Even the student submissions are coming from far and wide. One of them was by a student who is studying online from Hawaii, so Vaught’s team is trying to figure out how to hook him up with the student artists when they record the song in the studio.

The songs are in the audition phase. Once the list is finalized, a band will be chosen and the artist who arranged the song will be the producer. Some of the producers also might be part of the band.

“It’s not like one person’s project; it’s kind of like a Worship Arts student body project,” Vaught said. “It’s very unifying. The goal is to unify as many students in the program as we can get involved.

“The nature of things right now is isolated and promoting distancing. We try to do a lot of events to do student engagement, but that’s looked a lot different this year. We have a project that gets the students together.”

But it’s not as if the Recording Studio is quiet. Hardly. McJunkin’s master project list is just as full as it was a year ago, usually with three or four recordings in a normal week. “We’re rocking and rolling,” he said.

Which is exactly what he loves about his job.

Eric Johnson

“We don’t like to work in a vacuum,” he added. “We like to have the engagement of the students. That’s one of the big blessings of this position for me – working up here with people. The recording industry is a people industry, and that’s one of the things I love the most about it.

“Even when you’re working with someone remotely, it’s still human engagement. We just prefer for it to be in person.”

Johnson feels the same way. The pandemic and music haven’t exactly been best friends, but he and other industry professionals are determined that this song will have a happy ending.

“Music has to survive,” he said. “When churches have pivoted away from meeting in person and they’ve pivoted over to doing livestream production, almost overnight the production teams of these churches had to become livestreaming experts and recording experts because a lot of churches began prerecording their services.

“And so the idea of recording and preproduction and post-production has just exploded as a means of pushing content to the masses because we are being told by society that we are no longer allowed to perform in front of people or worship together.

“God will be worshipped. We will continue to worship Him.”

And at GCU, it will be done in various ways with one constant – student collaboration. It’s all about the harmony.

● Watch Worship Arts students perform in the Songwriters Showcase, which will be livestreamed at 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 14.

Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].


Related content:

GCU Today: Canyon Worship finds God amid struggles of 2020

GCU Today: What's new? The talent at Songwriters Showcase

GCU Today: First on-campus Canyon Worship Live is a big hit


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