Star Search, again

Serious reader DG joined McCray Dove in writing separate, spirited restatements of Dove’s basic message-board position on the absence of stars in sg, which put in mind of a few more words about the issue. But a line or two by way of preface first: This is a hugely complex and multifaceted question that is not easily or quickly reduced to a simple formula for how to make a star. Star-power is a kind of harmonic convergence of factors that varies from person to person and, apparently it doesn’t go without saying, can’t be nailed down in a matter of a few sentences (mine or anyone else’s). That said, in corresponding with Dove and DG and in thinking about this issue at more length, I’ve tried to isolate some key factors that are in play.

Complicated and shifting aspects of a music market. This is why it’s inaccurate and mostly useless to measure a “star” today by the standards of 20 or 40 years ago. Mainly, there’s the problem of the change in the nature of sg itself and the living and spending habits of sg’s target audience over the past twenty or so years. Forty or even twenty years ago, the bread-and-butter crowd for sg quartets had to choose from far fewer major, full-time groups traveling in the same areas on a regular basis than they do today. What’s more, those same fans today have far more ways to spend their free time and money (and, on average, have more money) than they did in, say, 1975. I’m NOT saying there are necessarily more groups now than there were then; I’m saying more groups travel more widely than was true 50 or 30 years ago. So it’s possible (and, I think, likely) that the overall sg fan base has increased in the last few decades even though attendance may be decreasing (which certainly seems to be true anecdotally), simply because the number of people out there hustling for gigs and sets has outpaced the growth of the fan base.

False correlation between star and talent. The trouble with the star discussion as it developed on the message boards is that it implies the ultimate proof of talent and effective ministry is 15,000 people in the seats every night. Bluntly, that’s preposterous. Someone who packs that many people in may likely have to be a good performer, but there are plenty of examples of people who are considered stars and yet are thoroughly untalented as singers (Bill Gaither comes to mind). Either way, it’s completely untrue that the reason for the lack of “stars” in sg is because nobody in the current crop of performers has yet managed to reach a certain level of musical ability.

A bad case of stage eye, or performer’s myopia. This is why it’s inaccurate and mostly useless to measure a “star” today by the standards of another genre. The star = drawing power formula falsely frames the issues solely from the view of the performer, who is more likely to assume success is a matter of raw numbers and ticket sales (this is where the Garth Brooks analogy usually comes in), as opposed to viewing the issue from the fans’ perspective. Fans are more likely to accord star status to someone on a much more subjective basis. That is, performers can be stars in the eyes of a devoted core of fans long before fame or notoriety arrives for the performer or group.

The risk of becoming a star. In one sense, for people to believe you are a star you have to act like one long before you actually ARE. It’s chicken and egg: To some extent you have to be willing to bank on the likelihood of your ultimate success as a star by slowly phasing out smaller dates and less showy venues at the same time that you insist on increasingly large up-front fees independent of ticket sales - all without actually being a superstar yet. “Stars,” after all, of the traditional variety don’t perform at small or even medium-large churches (only megachurches with their mega-crowds) or other non-major venues, and certainly they would never play a gig without a large advance fee. Which is all a way of saying, to a certain degree, you have to create some of the conditions of your own stardom, which is much more of a risk than most people are willing to take.

All this suggests to me that the absence of groups or performers who can draw big crowds on their own means not that sg is in a tailspin or that all this Chicken Littling is in order, but that we’re in a transition period, a time when one generation of stars is dying away and another is still emerging. No reason to freak out, as far as I’m concerned. That’s just the way history and time work.

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