Circularity; or, Southern Gospel’s Life on the Margins

Study different kinds of charts for any amount of time, and it becomes pretty clear pretty quickly that the form a chart takes and the methodology it uses is a product of its function (or should be), of what the chart is meant to accomplish. Charts spring up and take hold because there is a demand for the particular way of measuring songs’ success or popularity. Thus, unless there is a consistent and significant demand from stakeholders from one segment of the industry or another for wholesale renovations of sg’s charting system, things will not change. But it oversimplifies the issue and the problem to reduce things to the sloganeering of reform. There’s a real possibility and, I think, likelihood that the SN chart persists in its preposterous inaptitude because there simply is not a real demand within sg for the system to change. The roots of this complacency run deep, as I’ll try to show in the remainder of this post, but for one obvious measure of how deeply embedded the SN’s flawed model is in the fabric of sg itself, consider how willing everyone is to concede the chart’s several and significant flaws - and do nothing about it. Even the SN doesn’t even try to pretend the its chart accurately reflects what’s playing on sg radio stations. And it’s telling that instead of quietly going about the hard, thankless work of dealing meaningfully with the troublemakers and instituting the kind of changes that can safeguard against the manipulations that Ken Kirksey says he deplores, the SN spends its time thuggishly hectoring others (promoters one day, radio stations the next, website hecklers like me in between … who knows … maybe soon they’ll lay into fans for listening to music promoted by evildoers and the groups that hire them … oh wait, no … that would involve sacrosanct groups like the Hoppers … nevermind) - all in an effort to create the illusion of an ethical chart (”if we howl loud enough, maybe they’ll think we care as much as someone willing to actually fix the thing”). I say this is all telling because if there was any amount of healthy competition among alternative approaches to sg charting (and so the demand from within the industry for an accountable and a reliable chart), SN wouldn’t have time or the luxury to carry on with these narcissistic histrionics.

This competition is one of the big values in comparing sg notes with CCM. It’s not that CCM charts are flawless or that there aren’t problems with all the alternative methodologies. The helpfulness of the CCM comparison is that their charts are part of a broader network of music development and promotion that doesn’t rely on the imperfections and compromises that inevitably arise when you start trying to measure the performers’ “success.” The charts in CCM have a limited function - they don’t wag the industry’s dog, as sg’s chart does. And since no chart is perfect (and I’m assuming that charts are going to be around since human nature loves to compete and compare and take stock of one another’s work), seems to me there’s something to be said for the charts that are prominent in those music industries that are … you know, growing and stuff.

But there’s no real demand in sg for different kinds of charts, or even more than one chart, let alone one that gets the job done better than the SN’s. Why not? Well, that’s a complicated question. One place to start is with the obvious: there’s not enough sg business to generate sufficient demand. Almost every other form of popular Christian music has a much more robust and thriving industry than sg (one obvious indicator of this is the separate Grammy category for CCM, for instance, while sg gets folded into a hodgepodge catch-all of regional styles or diluted folk traditions that sell squat). The size and scope of these larger industries mean that no one group or bloc of players can dominant, run roughshod or generally control the direction and flow of resources and talent - they may exert undo influence here and there, but the size and scope of the industry as a whole create a give-and-take among competing interests, an informal system of checks and balances. And when it comes to charts, the interests of these various segments of the industry (promoters, retailers, artists, fans, label executives, and so on) are significant enough and sufficiently self-sustaining that they collectively create a demand for chart data configured in the variety of ways I talked about recently.

Contrast this to sg, in which there’s one primary vehicle for promotion and exposure: the SN. There’s one major event around which the sg world rotates: the NQC. There’s also a starkly stratified hierarchy of labels and distributors that - in intentional or unavoidable collusion with the SN and NQC - unofficially and probably not by design but very effectively regulate the developmental trajectories of all but the most independently minded groups and artists. On top of that, there are fans themselves, who, for the most, are highly deferential to the industry power structure and largely uninterested in second-guessing or challenging the way things work. So that if the Singing News says “You’ll Never Run out of Blood” is a No. 1 song, then that’s the way it is for most fans. That makes it a good song. These institutions, organizations and factions (and that monumental deference from fans) more or less cohere into a single established network of alliances and relationships. Given the centralized nature of this establishment, it ought to come as no surprise that a single, centralized chart dominates the industry since the “the industry” comprises such a relatively small group of people whose interests are intensely interconnected.

It’s not entirely true that Rick Hendrix is the lone rogue of radio promoters or that the chart problem could be contained if we were to draw a circle around Hendrix and the radio stations that have been influenced by him. In the Heirline debacle, for instance, Hendrix was joined in his efforts by Phil Emery (of DJ Man promotions), Dave Wilcox from ECC and then, later, Buffi Holland, also of ECC. But it’s illustrative of my point that the SN portrays this as a problem caused by people outside the fold, people not part of the insider’s club. This portrayal helps reinforce the idea that the establishment = the good guys; the bad guys = everyone else. Of course the problem with this depiction is that it’s just not true. Plenty of the “good guys” use Hendrix or promoters like him all the time (most notably in recent past, of course, the Hoppers, who retained Hendrix to promote their lackluster song “Jerusalem” to No. 1). And by all accounts, the establishment is for the most part content with the chart as it exists now (the SN is upset now probably only because Hendrix and his ilk aren’t making an effort to hide what they do, which in turn exposes the vulnerability of the chart and the morally compromised position of the SN). Disappointing as this is, it makes pretty good sense when you look closely at it.

Gigs, not sales, primarily drive sg. Exposure, visibility, and buzz get a group its gigs. One way to create and receive that buzz is by having hit songs. So, the cry from the artists’ circle to promoters is “get me a hit.” And this being the case, reforming the charts is not simply or only or even primarily a matter of rejiggering the methodology of the SN’s chart, nor is it only a question of actually doing something punitive to the problem children of the chart instead of blathering on with self-righteous indignation while doing nothing substantive to fix things. Since the chart is thoroughly enmeshed in the network of established interests that benefit from and rely on the compromised reporting system of the SN chart ( “Jerusalem,” for instance, would most likely have gotten nowhere near No. 1 if the chart was based on the number of times it was spun or the number of copies it sold), it’s probably not terribly realistic to expect the SN chart to radically remake itself into a more sensible and honest index of sg music. It would be like the left arm chopping off the right (which is not to say there isn’t enough rot to warrant some pruning for sure).

By now, you probably see how complicated this all gets - and how depressing it can be. Beyond the platitudes and the boilerplate from groups, promoters, labels and the media that covers the whole shooting match about how everyone is doing this for the glory of God etc, reality tells a slightly less made-for-TBN story. Which is to say, artists aren’t yelling “get me a hit” for the glory of God. First of all, there’s the appalling sanctimony of too many purists and conservatives in sg. These folks like to bring CCM in for a good thrashing fairly regularly, decrying CCM’s secularity (and the way they do business) as so much striving after filthy lucre of the world. But it’s hard to identify the kind of pervasive and intentional distortion of core industry data and book-cooking in CCM that plagues sg (it goes on, yes, but not in the serial and chronic ways that sg accepts as given). And too, for all the sg traditionalists’ insistence that classic sg is a doctrinally and stylistically purer form of Christian art and music than other gospel traditions and the whole of CCM (which is usually meant to take in anything not sg to begin with, excepting bluegrass) and that sg is the only Christian music primarily about the harvest of souls, it’s sg - and not CCM - that has over the last decade or so seen a dramatic decline in sales and a significant (if not quite as dramatic) drop in concert attendance. Most sg concerts these days comprise an ever-narrower group of the same faithful and predominantly Christian audiences.

This decline in sg is not, it’s important to note, some act of God or the result of tectonic plate shifts in demographics or markets beyond the comprehension of mere mortals like sg bidness leaders. The decline of the sg market in recent years has been for the most part a product of trends in sg (mis)management and business administration. An anecdote may suffice: back in the mid 90s, a top-tier sg quartet went from a major Christian music label to a label specializing mostly in sg artists. The group was, reportedly, unhappy because the major label didn’t have enough (or many, anyway) sg acts on its roster. At the time of the switch, the group was in its prime and selling roughly 75,000 to 95,000 units of product of year (a decent number), so the group commanded considerable bargaining power with the new label. Eager to score a major sg act, the smaller label gave the group an outrageously low buyback rate on product - that is, the group paid comparatively nothing to buy table product from the label to sell at concerts (in fact, the label may have even lost money on those initial projects). On top of that, the group got a sizeable signing bonus (which, unlike an advance, is independent of how much you sell). What’s extraordinary and instructive about this story is not that the label actually capitulated so much, but that the group was eager to sign with a label that, at the time, had nowhere near the distribution network of the group’s previous recording company. So the group went from a label with a worldwide network of distributors to a parochial label that focused primarily on mom & pop shops. Today, the group sells less than 30,000 units a year.

I tell this story because I think it illustrates a pervasive mentality in sg (the mentality both of the group and the label that took them on). I’ve called it small-timerism before and that’s probably not inaccurate. But whatever you call it, this kind of thinking values short-time gains over long-term growth strategies, sacrifices strategic positioning and investment in future expansion into adjacent markets and potential exposure to previously untapped groups of listeners and consumers, for more clout in the rarified and confined world of establishment sg, where everybody knows everybody else and no one new gets to come in unless they ingratiate themselves to existing authorities. It’s unclear to me where this attitude comes from. Did groups like the one I describe cut their noses off to spite their faces in an irrational response to external market conditions and pressures (and kind of panic reaction), or were they acting on some other, more mystifying and privately held rationale that really didn’t have much to do with sound business practices? Frankly, I’m not sure.

What is clear is that sometime around twenty five or thirty years ago, southern gospel began precipitously declining as a dominant form of Christian music. As I’ve written before, “when GMA was established in 1964, there were groups and artists who self-identified with the tradition, growing out of southern white, male quartet music, [that] would later become widely recognized as southern gospel … But what we call southern gospel today was in 1964 most widely understood to be simply ‘gospel,’and - this is key - it was the CCM of its day.” But by the nineties, as new forms of Christian music that adopted secular styles and co-opted non-religious forms of entertainment began to crop up and flourish, gospel music found itself getting marginalized from mainstream Christian entertainment and treated by the larger Christian culture as quaint regional acts or ethnic traditions. It is primarily the work of revisionist historians within sg over the last few decades who are responsible for the now-prominent myth of a self-contained “southern” tradition of gospel music that has always identified itself in contradistinction with the broader world of Christian entertainment and secular society (rather like Southern Baptists’ claims in the Trail of Tears that an unbroken line of descent reaches from Christ to the First Baptist Church of Valdosta). But interesting as I find all this, the historicist’s fantasy of an uninterrupted remnant of pietistic gospel-music purists persisting with no interest in the “worldliness” of contemporary Christian entertainment is a response to the decline of sg, and not itself a cause.

For a cause, I think we have to look to a variety of factors. Perhaps one factor has to do with plain ole shortsightedness. The rise of CCM was not itself a death sentence for gospel music, and it declined as dramatically as it did at least in part because no one in leadership positions understood or took seriously the rise of alternative Christian genres. So sg found itself left in the hands of men (and they are always men) who had no experience with succeeding in a competitive market or in running the show when things were on the skids (success and dominance had just always felt like a birthright). Certainly, by the way they behaved in the late eighties and early nineties, people in sg (excepting Bill Gaither) seem to have had no inkling that sg needed to rethink its approach to things in order to survive in an era when gospel was not the most popular form of Christian music entertainment. And even Gaither’s approach didn’t so much rethink things as capitalize on the very fact of sg’s being an increasingly outmoded form of music in the eyes of contemporary culture. The Homecoming Friends concept reinvented sg’s aging stars into neo-legends in their own time - a strategy that, while it turned out to be infinitely self-sustaining as a music franchise, relied from the first more on nostalgic reenactments of sg’s past success than its future. That’s why Howard and Vestal sat up front in the wingback chairs and hot new acts like the Martins had to climb down from the back of the risers to do their numbers.

Perhaps another factor feeding the propensity to withdraw and encouraging the self-defeating isolation of sg has to do with the conservative evangelical tendency to promulgate narratives of crisis that in turn justify pulling up the draw bridge and instituting secret handshakes and ever more stringent proofs of authenticity in order to mark the good guys from the evildoers. In this line of thought, the world is going to hell in a handbasket and ignoring the message of the gospel in sg music, so sg must close ranks, circle the wagons and drive out the heretics and apostates … at all costs, including the long-term viability of the music itself.

I’m sure there are other possible factors, but whatever they are (and I’d be happy to hear others if you have any), I don’t tend to buy the theory that the blue-hair explosion is primarily to blame for sg’s decline. It’s true, new fans have not replaced older fans at anywhere near the rate the latter have been, uhm, leaving the scene, as it were - but this is, I would argue, largely due to an institutional failure within sg to fully realize or acknowledge what was happening to the industry and develop a shift in the course of business that would help sg remain competitive in a tighter market. Whether the failure was one of ignorance or intentional neglect, it is a damning dereliction whose legacy we’re still grappling with: namely, a dramatic diminishment of southern gospel’s relevance as an expression of evangelical life and faith.

I want to be clear that when I talk about repositioning and strategizing, I do not mean to say that the music itself must necessarily change, though the natural development of a vital artistic and religious tradition like sg inevitably involves stylistic innovation alongside the preservation of classic or traditional forms. The number of young, new artists in sg proves (to me anyway) that it is and can be inherently appealing to younger audiences and that the music has (potentially) an exciting future - without requiring artists to pander to secular whims or sex up the music or whatever purists are fond of misleadingly suggesting when they’re trying to find excuses for why it’s bad to be responsive to contemporary audiences. What I am talking about is the industry’s intentional failure and refusal to alter methods of marketing, promotion, and positioning to attract younger fans - on the stupid and spiteful premise that committed Christianity means brittle inflexibility, that fans ought to come to you if you’re singing “for the Lord.”

It’s this smugness that makes me downright nauseated when I hear some gasbag get on stage at the NQC and carry on haughtily about how sg is the one form of Christian music that’s about reachin’ a lost and dying world with the message of Jeee-suzz etc., as if everyone else singing Christian music is a Judas or worse. If the measure of success in religious music is how many people the music is converting to Christianity (and I for one do not think this is what it’s about), then sg is an embarrassment to itself and the kingdom and cause of Christ it swears fealty to. Because if you’re a sg act, chances are you’re singing to the same Christian folks year in and year out, more or less, while those worldly debutantes sangin that new-fangled CCM are packing out places several times the size of the typical sg venue, often full of new fans who didn’t arrive in an RV covered with bumper stickers that say “If God is your co-pilot, switch seats” and “Follow me to the NQC.” There’s nothing at all wrong with a fan base that’s aging and Christian, and any sg artist that ignores this demographic is sure to fail. But if you sing to the same bunch of died-in-the-wool Christians night after night, can you really claim to be primarily about reaching a lost and dying world?

No matter its origins and self-defeating illogic, clubbish cliquey thinking has come to define sg. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say roughly two-thirds or three-quarters of the people, groups, organizations and institutions that comprise sg think this way. In this context, it ought to be easier to understand why sg has, as a business, been a race for the bottom in the last 15 years. As sales declined, labels (I hesitate to speak of any real A&R infrastructure) and the promotional side of the industry have aggressively expanded their business to attract and burn through scores of mediocre, small-time, and ultimately unsustainable acts that have more enthusiasm than talent and showmanship. Meanwhile, artists and groups have increasingly resorted to glorified homemade recordings (table projects) and other cost-cutting measures: having group members or other downmarket talent who can be had on the cheap to write all or most of their songs (even if that group member isn’t Rodney Griffin); using cut-rate and/or inexperienced producers and musicians for recordings … this sort of thing. Corner-cutting like this has lowered costs, no doubt. But in the process, it’s also lowered the quality of the projects themselves and sg overall. The point in this new mercenary phase of sg bidness is not primarily to produce good music that is artistically and economically viable in a competitive market, though of course good music has survived all the same in some cases (even if not to the extent it would have under other conditions). Rather, the primary point is to give the same aging and shrinking network of fans a reason to spend another $15 at your product table the next time they see you (a friend of mine told me of a sg legend who, when asked what he thought his group’s next project ought to include, looked around at the product table and said, in all seriousness: “I think maybe we need a project with a green cover … none of our other recordings have green on the cover and that would really stand out from the rest of the projects”). Margins, not volume, is where money is being made in sg, a sure sign of trouble in a business that rises and falls (or ought to, anyway) on a growing fan base.

Before you think I’ve gone completely off the map on a rabbit-chasing excursion, we’ve actually never strayed too far from the issue of charts all the while, because profits made on the margins by artists relying disproportionately on gigs and not sales for their lifeblood gets us right back to the question of the industry apparatus that enables groups to churn through dates and projects. And for a vast majority of groups, the beast that needs feeding (with a No. 1 or Top 10 or even Top 40 song) is the SN chart. The image of the serpent eating its own tail comes to mind.

The take-away truth in all this is, I think, not so much that the chart needs changing. It does. But if by “changing” one means cosmetic alterations (kick a few stations out of the chart; ban a promoter; whatever) or changes to the chart without any thought for the practices and habits that surround it, it’s probably not worth the bother. Any changes would only matter if they result from other structural alterations and fundamental improvements in other areas of the industry (artist development, product marketing, music promotion, and stylistic positioning, to name a few). If we could get to a point where the chart was really and truly “fixed,” it would mean all those related issues and more important problems were being scrutinized and their underlying assumption challenged. In that sense, the chart is everything … and nothing.

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