Sheep and goats

The GMA’s latest sales reports are of course the news of the day. And they really do put the never-ending “debate” about the future of sg into a simple perspective: smart music + smart (sophisticated) marketing = success. Notice that the music, no matter how good, does not of itself generate sales. And notice that marketing (more specifically, brand discipline) can more than amply compensate for the musical moments that are technically sub-par. That is, smart music doesn’t always mean well sung (but in Gaither’s case it almost always does mean well played, well arranged, and well produced). Example: I was once in a large Methodist church in Belleville, Illinois, back in the mid nineties when Vestal Goodman was really fond of making her entrée to the stage by showing up at the back of the concert hall with a microphone and belting out the chorus of “Revive us Again”: “Hallelujah! Thine the glory!” I happened to be two rows or so in front of her when she did this in Belleville (I think it was about the time she started doing it on the Homecoming videos too), and she was so warbly and off pitch I had to shift uncomfortably in my seat. But the moment was smart … the effect was electrifying as she swept past me in one of those outrageous gowns she wore, hand raised, hanky dangling, her all trailing clouds of perfume and glory. Smart. Music. Deprecate pop or country stars for their stage theatrics, but Vestal’s little trick was the equivalent of Cher being lowered to the stage on a trapeze swing wearing a ten-foot high feather headdress and a sequined onesy. Vestal’s marketability as much as her music is what made her such a star, made her death a national event to some extent.I had to chuckle reading what someone over sogospeluvers said about Gaither, that money isn’t his primary motivation. I understand what the writer means, and I mean no disrespect to him. But this kind of remark is illustrative of what will probably keep all but a handful of sg acts in the small-time world of envy masked as a purist’s commitment to gospel music unadulterated by “worldly” influences. You see, for a guy like Gaither, financial calculations are inseparable from questions of musical style, delivery, production, arrangement and so on. Don’t matter how good it is musically. If it doesn’t sell, it’s no good in any real or sustainable sense. That doesn’t mean, as another poster put it that, “sales” are “all that matter.” If that were the case, Gaither could probably make more money mass marketing the George Foreman Grill or selling Amway or Noni Juice. Gaither’s genius is not that he jettisoned a certain moral compunction that less successful businessmen and musicians still retain. It’s not that he’s simply a profiteer who happens to be a good actor and arranger (I doubt that’s true). Rather, his genius is that he conceives of and produces music that is, on average, technically solid and infinitely marketable. Sales matter. But they’re not ALL that matter if you want to be a successful musician.

So go study a Gaither concert set. Really watch it. Analyze it. Figure out what his priorities are from the choices he makes on stage and in the music. Here are a few: Gaither values broad Christian notions of community, heritage, and love over doctrinally specific (and often divisive) messages. This essentially ecumenical emphasis allows Gaither to thread disparate music styles and sounds together by organizing shows around touchstone moments: his favorite, I think, is a song like “Loving God, Loving Each Other.” No matter how little I think of Gaither’s voice, it’s hard to listen to and watch him sing that song without realizing how deeply he feels and believes in its meaning:

Loving God, loving each other
Making music with my friends.
Loving God, loving each other
And the music never ends.

It would be a challenge to fault a guy for being too worldly when he envisions this kind of intersection of music, community, and faith. Join this vision with his commitment to creating a dramatic experience that includes but completely transcends the average audience member, and you can begin to get a sense of why Gaither not only exists in a class all his own. He essentially created the league he plays in and dominates. So saying that Gaither helped grow sg is about as accurate as saying the Beatles or Elvis helped popularize rock n roll. Gaither didn’t “help” anything grow. As others like the GMA see us, he’s just about the only thing keeping sg alive right now.

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