SGMade him an offer he couldn’t refuse (I of II)

My posts on SGMA and Dollywood have brought some provoking responses, which I’m going to try work through here for the sake of the discussion.First SGMA and Charlie Waller’s arrival. One reader described Waller as the poor man’s Bill Gaither, the way he aggressively works the gospel “reunion” concept. Before you either blast me or start smirking knowingly, wait. Because when you think about it, choosing Waller precisely for this reason makes a certain amount sense even if he weren’t an insider’s insider. If the sg establishment is really serious about competing with Gaither, Waller’s experience makes him a pretty smart choice. He knows how to put together solid events of different size (though of far less varied appeal). And giving him the SGMA influence and resources to round up artists and brand more “reunion” concepts and merchandize all now tied in with SGMA Hall of Fame is probably the best way to go about nipping at Gaither’s heels. Perhaps this means we should be bracing for The SGMA Hall of Fame Series: Living Legends, Volume I.

Another way to put this: SGMA can essentially co-opt Waller and his productions under the SGMA brand and thereby tap into some of the money now going Gaither’s direction. After all, Waller’s nostalgia tour is an entirely different species than Gaither’s. Where Gaither is all glamour and gloss, Waller is all sepia tones and just-us-folks. Which is to say, the market for reunionizing and homecoming is probably not as well articulated (read fragmented) as it might be. A not insignificant portion of Gaither fans could probably be coaxed away pretty easily to the slightly more intimate GOGR approach that emphasizes classic sounds as well as classic faces or the progeny of legends. The added bonus to this approach, from SGMA’s end, is that one of the very appeals of the brand - intimacy and informality - automatically means lower overhead than transporting a stage full of high-maintenance Homecoming friends from city to city along with the equipment and personnel in tow for a top-end televisable production.

The problem with this GOGRized strategy (as is the case with so many sg strategies) is that it is, by at least a coupla readers’ estimation, about 10 years late to the party (I disagree only to say more like 15). The possibilities for carving out specialized niches within the homecoming phenomenon would have been a lot easier in 1994 than it is today. Gaither has just absolutely flooded the zone, in the jargon. The ecological equivalent here is probably clear-cutting. High yields while the harvest lasts, and total desolation when it’s over. He’s produced and sold top-notch memorial tribute videos on most historically noteworthy groups (Statesmen, Stamps, Blackwood Bros., Goodmans, Cats, etc.), he’s now reaching out to traditional (that is, black) gospel and evangelistic traditions (T.D. Jakes, most prominently), he’s gone to several international venues, including Jerusalem, and he’s got David Awesome Phelps. Who and what is left? Well, plenty, probably, but not with enough drawing or selling power to sustain a franchise of any longevity.

On the other hand, if Gaither is on his way to full sg-outcast status, maybe Waller (with the official SGMA branding) can pick up some of those pieces and assemble events and products. Waller has, as I’ve said, a solid reputation of putting together solid events. I remain skeptical of a Waller Revolution, if only because what I’ve seen from Waller has been way too provincial - musically, culturally and geographically - to make any serious mark that would ultimately improve the state of sg as an artistic form (check out the graphic at the top of this page if you want an encapsulation of what I’m talking about). There is, to be blunt, no gender, cultural, ethnic or stylistic deviation to speak of in Waller’s line ups to speak of (thumb through some of these pictures … you’ll see what I mean and you can probably hum some appropriate background music to go with it). If all your sense of what the sg demographic is like comes primarily from the SN letters to the editor, well, you’ll probably want to argue with me. But you’d still be underselling the variety of perspectives and tastes in sg.

And second (since the geniuses that comprise mainstream sg journalism won’t think to ask), there’s the question of the Grand Ole Gospel Reunion’s future. Waller is clearly a promoter, and has a pretty valuable franchise in the GOGR. He obviously garners strong ticket sales, and plays the cd/video marketing angle presumably well. He is
also presumably getting a piece of the Quartet Legacy Tours he produces (think Dove Brothers). Pretty clearly, there is a solid niche for GOGR (which is not the same thing as a dominating focus for sg).

So to get to specifics: Assuming Waller maintains controlling financial and managing interest in the GOGR franchise during his tenure as SGMA executive director, does a conflict of interest come into play? I know, I know … call me crazy for even asking such a question since sg is basically one big case study in self-dealing (just the most obvious example: Waller’s boss at SGMA, board president Maurice Templeton, also owns the main news and media outlet in the industry - SN - and sits on the board of the NQC). Nevertheless, I persist in asking. Will Waller’s SGMA position allow him to leverage better terms in booking groups for the GOGR? Are SGMA mailing lists used to promote or solicit ticket sales for GOGR? Might an SGMA event be scheduled on the same weekend as an event by a rival promoter of GOGR? Will SGMA-controlled artifacts and memorabilia be at Waller’s disposal for his own promotion/production events? Or will GOGR essentially get absorbed into SGMA (Waller brought his key support staff with him from GOGR to SGMA, which suggests to me he’s putting his best eggs in the SGMA basket at least for now). Nobody knows and nobody is likely to find out until long after any potential conflicts are well on their way to being standard operating procedure. But still …

The best answer probably would be a joint venture agreement between the GOGR and SGMA, in which Waller exchanges his promotional abilities for the ability to market, manage, and profit off GOGR with the added tentacles of the SGMA behind it. I concur with one of my readers, who said he would have preferred a savvy recording executive in the job, but druthers notwithstanding, having a promoter with Waller’s skills at SGMA will doubtless be a boon to sg, if he fully uses his skills to beef up the promoting angle of genre in general and not just boost the nostalgia niche. I would be more assured that he will take a wide-net approach if there were more obvious guarantees that his job is to help the industry and not just the kinds of angles that he worked before he got bumped up (by what standards, for instance, will his performance be judged?). Yes, yes … private business, not beholden to every schmuck with a webiste etc etc .. no matter, I guess the best way to find out about these questions is to see if his GOGR competitors feel better or worse served by Waller at SGMA in a year or two. It will indeed be interesting to see if Waller markets himself as bigger than the SGMA or not.

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