Ear trouble

A while back, I mused suggestively about how sg needs a high-profile and serious songwriter’s contest (alongside a high-profile and seriouly updated talent contest). This was not what I have/had in mind. Three things occur to me. One, just what in the world is the International Southern Gospel Music Network, other than the umbrella organization under whose name a songwriting contest solicits entries and charges people a $35 entry fee per song? Is John Darin Rowsey the sole judge of this thing? If not, who else judges the contest? Are the only people who get feedback on their songs the winners? And does the feedback (which you can hear some of by clicking on the 2004 contest winners link at the bottom of the page) really amount to John Darin saying astoundingly vague and underwhelming things like “the song had a strong lyric” and “the melody and the lyric and everything went together well and that’s so important” and “a really good hook” is … you know, really good and stuff? Really? This may be the only webpage that you read in its entirety and feel like you actually know LESS than when you started.Two, the contest organizers and administrators need a good thwacking about the head, neck and especially the ears. I know sometimes the worst thing about holding a contest is having to pick a winner, but if these songs are the best of the contest, it might be worth rethinking the whole enterprise - assuming it’s about music, which it may or may not be (see point three).

And three, there’s got to (there simply must be) a more concerted effort within southern gospel music to cultivate first-class creative talent. I’m sure the contestants who entered this ISGMN thing did so in earnest and full seriousness, with a honest desire to leave their mark on Christian music. But the fact of the matter is, these songs are middling to poor, at best. That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be recognized. It just means they ought not to be part of a (relatively) high-profile contest tacitly supported by one of sg’s major labels, Daywind. If Daywind (or any other serious music label) was run by people who actually thought these kinds of songs are award-winning in any real sense of the word, the place would have been belly up long ago. Then again, the contest’s goal is song publication, not song recording. Publishing a tune like this means it will likely get stuck in the back of a songbook full of cut-rate music vended to who knows how many different people whose use of it will not make one iota’s difference in the future of sg. Now, that kind of publication may make the publisher a lot of money, maybe even more than they might make on a typical sg project (that’s probably not a small part of the reason why Eddie Crook Company is now accepting unpublished songs), and clearly somebody’s making some money somewhere off this $35-per-song entry fee. But let’s not mistake this with supporting southern gospel music, no matter what those eight-second soundbites from Karen Peck, Jason Crabb and Gerald Crabb say on the ISGMN website.

The worst part isn’t that this contest recognized these songs. It’s that this is one of the few contests exclusively devoted to sg songwriting. Forget about all the reasons you can come up with why this is so and focus on the fact that it is the case. I realize there are many aspiring sg writers for whom it probably is a big and tantalizing deal to have a shot at “an opportunity to co-write a song with John Darin Rowsey at Daywind Publishing in Nashville, Tennessee!”, get the song “published by Daywind Publishing” and “receive a cash prize of $300 to help with travel expenses to Nashville!” (as the ISGMN promises its first-place winner). But I can’t help thinking that a contest with this kind of prize is aimed at a certain segment of well-intentioned but naïve writers who read about this talk of Nashville! and Daywind! and cash prize! and immediately start replaying the trailer to their favorite fantasy film: slipping a demo tape to someone “at Daywind Publishing in Nashville, Tennessee!” and ending up on stage at NQC next year.

But of course the operative word here is “fantasy.” One of the first lessons of songwriting should be that this kind of “all sizzle and no steak” form of creative development is not the first, or second, or maybe even third best way to go about establishing oneself as a serious songwriter or getting cuts on serious projects that people will want to buy. If there’s going to be any serious cultivation of creative writing talent in sg, we could do with fewer of these ISGMN outfits and more top-notch clinics like the Write About Jesus conference that songwriter Sue Smith puts on every year. Take a look at the faculty at this thing (and ignore that sophomoric webpage design … perhaps soon Smith will take her website presentation as seriously as she takes song writing). Then look at the workshop schedule. Then go look at the way the talent competition is structured (hint: notice how the emphasis is on finding a good song and not just picking a grand-prize first-place go-to-Nashville-Tennessee! take-home-the-washer-AND-dryer-and-kiss-Bob-Barker-before-moving-into-your-deee-lux-apartment-in-the-sky WINNER). This is the kind of extended, intensive format in which a songwriter may start down the path toward serious songwriting. And it’s precisely the kind of thing that sg needs more of, not just as a way to bring the general standard of quality up, but as a way to return to southern gospel the relevance that comes from creatively superior, artistically coherent music.

That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with enjoying 25 minutes of the Inspirations endlessly encoring “I Just Want to Thank You, Lord.” But though sg has always had trouble distinguishing between the quality of music and the intent of the performer, it does seem that people are becoming less willing or able to make qualitative judgments about why it is that what works for the Inspirations or the McKameys is not necessarily the benchmark of excellence for your average aspiring sg artist. Southern gospel in general has a very low threshold for what it will take seriously, and when it does take something seriously, it doesn’t take it seriously enough. Instead, real questions of relevance and artistic development and sound business models (even for ministry-minded artists) just get covered in a shroud of platitudes about praising the lard and other lame attempts to pretend a good lot of what’s being sung and recorded is not musically and artistically inferior. The problem isn’t that no one in sg knows that the future has got to be built on sturdier stuff than, for example, “His Love Ran Down the Cross.” The problem is that not enough people are willing to say so and too many people who know better are simply giving themselves a pass because … well, they can (I mean, does a songwriter like Gerald Crabb really realize the kind of signal he’s sending by endorsing something like ISGMN?). So who’s going to start creating the kinds of infrastructure that it takes to build that better future? Put another way: who’s going to establish the sg-centric equivalent of Write About Jesus?

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