Interview: Dan Hubka of Family Christian Stores

by Kristy Quist

Dan Hubka is the music buyer for Family Christian Stores. Along with his wife and career advisor, Melisa, he is a member of Calvin CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich. We checked in with him to find out what part music plays in his own life and asked for some tips on finding Christmas music.

Q. You’ve been evaluating musicians for a long time. Are you a musician yourself?

A. I am not. I have always wanted to learn guitar; I took lessons for a little while but it didn’t stick. I really do not have the gift of musicianship, but I do know how to hear what good music sounds like.

Q. Has music always played a big part in your life? Did you plan to go into this area when you were in college?

A. I always expected that music would be a major part of my life. Like a lot of kids, I got my start in church choir and then school choir. I toyed with the idea of going into vocal performance in college, but once I got to college and heard how many amazing voices were out there, I knew that performing was not going to be a likely career path. Especially for someone who lacks rhythm and can’t read music! But still, music was important to me, and I never really put away the idea that it would play a part in my future. I always have a song in my head . . . and lyrics, well, they just seem to stick with me.

Q. Did you listen to CCM (Christian Contemporary Music) growing up?

A. Not really. Honestly, I didn’t really know that it existed. I was a fan of Take Six during my high school years, but that really was because I was involved in vocal jazz choirs. If you are into vocal jazz and a cappella music . . . check out Take Six, they are just amazing. The arrangements are so difficult. . . . I remember spending hours trying to figure them out. I didn’t really discover Christian music (outside of the church hymnal) until my freshman year in college. There was this lovely young Calvin College student who introduced me to the world of Christian music. I remember just soaking it up. It was so cool to find music that was relevant stylistically to me, that also ran parallel with my spiritual beliefs. Later, that same girl encouraged me to apply for a job at Family Christian Stores. I have been getting great advice from her for two decades now.

Q. Did you listen to secular music growing up?

A. I was a child of the 80s . . . and I loved it all (pathetic, I know).

Q. You must see a lot of musicians in your position. What concerts or performances stand out in your memory?

A. One of the highlights of my job is definitely the amount of live music I get to experience. Some of the most memorable moments are those that aren’t part of a concert performance. One of my favorite bands is Switchfoot. A couple years back their lead singer, Jon Foreman, put out a series of deeply personal acoustic solo recordings. I happened to be visiting Nashville, meeting with his record company, when he came to share the songs with his label for the first time. There I was, in a small conference room with Jon Foreman, and maybe five other people . . . listening to brand-new music. Jon was sitting there with a harmonica holder around his neck and a worn-out guitar. I remember him playing “Southbound Train” as if for no one but himself. I have been privileged to a number of moments like this . . . and they never get old.

Q. What's the most challenging part of your job?

A. Music is in an interesting place right now, and has been for the past decade. No one is quite certain what the future holds for the business and financial pieces. How can we best sustain the quality of music, and what does a retail solution look like in a world of digital downloads? The CD is still the biggest component of music delivery, but the percentages change every year. How will we receive music as a society five or ten years from now? Seeing into the future and finding that solution is definitely the most challenging part of my job. How do we collectively sustain a music industry? How are the revenues of music sales replaced? How do we value intellectual property? There are so many questions.

Q. How do you decide which music is right for the customers of Family Christian Stores?

A. Each store has a base level of product (the all-store assortment), but beyond our core assortment, the mix of music in each store is really determined by what customers are “voting for” with their purchases. If there is a particular store that does well with Gospel music, then that store will get expanded selections of Gospel product and so on. We are able to tailor each store to the needs of the customers who visit that location. There are always complaints about stock levels, and that is a problem that will never go away. There will always be someone who wants to buy something that you simply do not have in stock.

Q. Do you ever get complaints for including a particular album or artist in the offerings?

A. That happens too. It’s a delicate balance for sure. I wrestle with that a lot. There are some recordings where the lyrics aren’t overtly Christian (but certainly not offensive) that we choose to carry. Often in those times, these are artists that are outspoken about their faith and so it makes sense to include them in our selection. I don’t ever really want to get to the place where I am counting how many times someone refers to Jesus or the Scriptures on a CD in order for me to consider carrying the record. How many references is the right amount? Are four Scripture references enough for it to be considered a “Christian” CD . . . I honestly don’t know. I do know that when it is a “questionable” CD, I am going to get complaints either way. I will be either too liberal for choosing it or too conservative for not choosing it. I try not to let those thoughts play into whether or not I am going to bring a record in. Are you confused yet? I am not sure I even know what it takes now!

Q. Christmas music must be a huge piece of the Christian music business, and you probably begin listening to it while we are all thinking about our summer vacations. What new albums to you recommend for the season?

A. Yep . . . I start listening to Christmas songs in June (I am currently listening to music that is planned for the Easter season). I still manage to enjoy Christmas music in its proper season too. There are three new Christmas records this year that I am really enjoying: Snow Globe by Matt Wertz (Provident), The Heart of Christmas by Matthew West (EMI), and One Silent Night by FFH (Essential) have all become part of my updated permanent Christmas rotation.

Q. Which Christmas albums have stood the test of time for you?

A. Anything by Amy Grant. In fact, every year when I start thinking about Christmas (you know . . . way back in June), I put in Home for Christmas and A Christmas to Remember by Amy Grant (Sparrow). I usually follow that up with Russ Taff’s A Christmas Song record (Capitol). It’s a little too early to say that Sixpence None the Richer Dawn of Grace (La Face) has stood the test of time, since it is only three years old . . . but I really like that record too.

Q. You are alone in your car for a long drive, and there is nothing that you must listen to in your work capacity. What will you listen to?

A. Wow, that is a tough question. How long is the drive? So many choices. I guess I would probably start with Switchfoot’s The Beautiful Letdown (Red Ink) and then move into NeedtoBreathe’s The Outs iders (Atlantic). I’m not sure where it would go from there. Each day brings a different mood and a different song to sing. I have come to truly love so many styles of music . . . and there is great music in each genre. If the journey is long enough, it would probably end with some sort of 80s mega mix (it’s hard to run from your roots).

Q. Does your career ever mix with your involvement at church? Does Calvin CRC have Michael W. Smith come in for secret concerts? Do you sneak new songs into the liturgy?

A. That’s funny. I really appreciate Calvin church for what it offers musically. There is a deep tradition of wonderful music at Calvin CRC. I am not the least bit interested in changing anything about our current worship style. There is part of me that would love to bring in the occasional artist for a concert, but I haven’t come across the right circumstance yet to make that happen. We’ll see.

Q. How do you think music relates to an individual’s spiritual life?

A. I think we all have a soundtrack to our lives. There are so many different moods to music and it can meet you right where you are. We believe in and serve a creative God, who has given us this incredible gift of expression. A gift we can use to praise him, reach out to a hurting friend, celebrate, and grow. I can’t imagine a life without a song.