American Gospel Music
That’s the name of a new franchise being promoted by the NQC and Christian Music Presenters to remake the white gospel music landscape. It’ll be unveiled, I gather, at NQC next month, but the idea has been bouncing around the inboxes of southern gospel via a somewhat loosely written but ambitious proposal for “a new brand” of southern gospel music – a franchise, in the business sense of the word – “that would be available only to upper-echelon artists, the best quality recordings, the best quality events, yet unavailable to artists, recordings, and events that do no meet high standards of quality.”
If I were a PR writer working for NQC I’d probably call this a bold initiative, and it does think big, which is both insightful and commendable. There are a lot of moving parts to this thing, but the basic objective is to grow the fan-base for southern gospel music primarily in large protestant denominations (mainly, it seems, the Southern Baptist Convention) and in the process combat “The Problem” with southern gospel, which is that “The Southern Gospel Music brand has become irreparably tainted and damaged by the custom recording industry and years of producing poor quality products under that brand. The ending result is a climate whereby doors are closed to the upper echelon professional of our industry because of being lumped together with the poor quality of the custom recording amateurs.”
In order to be a franchise member, artists would have to pay about a thousand dollars a year in franchising and other administrative fees (and concert promoters, magazines, radio stations, and other related enterprises would have to pay from another fee schedule to be officially certified as AGM approved), meet certain criteria primarily based on numbers of fans a group sings to each year and how much they sell (certification requires a concert review in front of 5,000 or more people; must perform in minimum of 15 stages a year; minimally, 15,000 units of product must be pressed each year etc), and – perhaps the most, uhm, innovative plank in this new platform – artists will be spiritually certified by CMP staff.
Having undergone this approval process, franchisees — some of whom may be invited to buy non-contolling interest in NQC as well — would then be part of an elite group of “upper echelon” (that word gets used a lot) artists whose membership would set them apart from the big hair and Tammy Faye stylistics and PTLs and spiritual charlatans and religious hucksters that any fan of gospel music or TBN is familiar with. I gather from what I’ve read and heard that the goal here would be to create a menu of top-notch acts that could be shopped around to denominational leaders who would in turn endorse that roster to and for big metropolitan and suburban Southern Baptists churches that don’t typically invite southern gospel acts. “Get the approval of the approvers,” essentially. NQC would be the primary owner of the franchise and in turn outsource administration of the franchise brand – selecting, screening, and maintaining a roster of franchise artists – to Christian Music Presenters.
Where to begin? I’m not sure, not least of all because it’s not all clear to me this thing is getting much traction or that the “critical mass” of 10-12 artists that Clarke Beasley, vice president of the National Quartet Convention, thinks is necessary to launch the brand will solidify around the idea in the coming months (I’ve heard but can’t confirm that the Kingdom Heirs and the Pfeifers have expressed the most interest). Beasley – who has answered all the questions I’ve asked of him with patience and thoroughness – told me that the plan was presented initially to record companies and talent agencies, and they in turn identified a core group of artists whom each talent agent and label “believed would qualify under the criteria listed.” That yielded something like the following roster:
Brian Free (BFA)
Daniel Riley (GC)
Ed O’Neal (DMB)
Jody Brown Indian Family
Karen Peck (KPNR)
Les Beasley (FB or maybe not, since LB’s also the president of NQC)
Libbi Stuffle (Perrys)
Lily Isaacs (Isaacs)
Mark Trammell (MTT)
Michael Booth (Booths)
Ray Reese (KM)
Ruben Bean (McKameys)
Scott Fowler (L5)
The first place to begin, after reading this list, might be to say that “quality” is itself a slippery term on which to hang such a big enterprise. Or, as I said to Beasley, “With all due respect to their faith and commitment to gospel music, how can you talk about quality and standards of musical performance and then include, say, The McKameys” (or for that matter, the Pfieffers)?
But there are several larger problems of logic in the proposal that I want to focus on:
Logic problem No. 1: The NQC corporation as an arbiter of “quality.” The 14-page AGM proposal devotes extensive space to summarizing a market research report done in 1999 that focused in part on sg. The report is fascinating and baffling in many respects (and I plan to write more about it later), but it does get one thing right: NQC, the event, is an anthropological dig of southern and rural religious culture. The market researchers (who clearly weren’t familiar with gospel music) wrote in slightly appalled and shocked terms about the poor quality of sound and dress and stage presence, the unattractiveness of many performers and vendors, and the general “flea-market” tendency of the whole extravaganza. Harsh, you might say, but fair enough all the same.
So how can the corporate entity that allows, controls, and – by annually inviting plenty of low-quality, poorly dressed, unattractive and untalented performers with no stage appeal back to NQC and the NQC main stage year after year – how can the corporation that controls NQC be the solution to a problem represented and embodied in the convention? With the AGM franchise, NQC seems to be saying “the fleamarket (which we run) is a huge problem … and we have a new solution!” Huh?
When I asked Clarke Beasley this question, he replied: “If what you are saying is that the NQC should be careful about what artists they put on the main stage and should make sure that the vast majority of artists that appear on the main stage are top-tier, upper echelon artists, then I say point well taken, and I think you will see the NQC demonstrate a commitment to that in the future.”
Well, that wasn’t exactly what I was sayig (I actually wish NQC would boot all the junk peddlers out of the exhibit hall and prohibit anyone with a blinking device of any kind appended to their clothing or with more than one spritz of “better than brand name” cologne and perfume from entering the building at all). But no matter. Time will tell, I suppose, and I hope NQC is serious about ramping up quality and shutting out the no-class hacks and amateurs (there is a push at NQC right now to put “top-tier” acts at all the major entrances of the exhibit hall to essentially hide the money changers). But the NQC fleamarket makes a lot of money for its owners, and a cynic might say that AGM in its early stages looks like a way for the left hand (NQC) to create a problem that needs to be solved by the right hand (AGM).
Logic problem No. 2: “The Church” is clamoring for top-tier sg acts. The AGM plan study seems to assume “the church” is this monolithic thing that thinks and acts in unison and that it’s just waiting to book GV and L5 and the Martins for Sunday Morning worship if only these groups had a bureaucratic mechanism to certify them “clean” and “pure” and “good” and disassociate them from the detritus of the custom-recording, fried-chicken-bucket-passing crowd. But this is being terribly naïve about how entrenched and strongly protected Sunday morning worship is in the lives and culture of evangelicals. The quality problem may be one part of the issue, but surely another part is that mainline evangelical churches hold fast to the primacy of the “preached” rather than the “sung” word and consider it a denigration of the Lord’s day to put a group of sangers on the podium for a fee and thereby forsake the preaching of the word etc.
Beasley says he has no illusions that sg will be the only music presented as part of Sunday morning worship, but he does think “it is an achievable goal that we can become a more significant component of Sunday morning worship. LifeWay Christian Resrouces, which services 46,000 Southern Baptist churches as well as other mainline denominations, has done a survey of a significant sampling of the churches they service and the results expressed that there is an appreciation as well as an open door for traditional, harmony oriented, Biblically narrative, evangelicalistic music.”
Ok. But you don’t have to doubt the Lifeway survey to also see that evangelical churches are trending in the opposite ideological and theological direction from southern gospel. SG is still largely about the blood and the cross and visceral unworthiness of the self for Christ’s salvation. Mainline evangelicalism may be politically sympathetic to same red-meat causes that get a gospel audience on their feet, but theologically and culturally these churches are becoming, as a friend of mine put it, “more user friendly” in a way that makes sg an unlikely candidate for front-and-center bookings. User-friendliness accounts for the decline of Sunday evening worship services, for instance, in many large suburban and metropolitan congregations. This is not just a response to shifting cultural values and priorities among church members; it has also meant the loss of the primary time slot for sg acts to get into churches. A franchise like AGM can do very little to reverse or otherwise affect these trends.
Logic problem No. 3. Artists will want to pay for spiritual certification. Enough said.
Logic problem No. 4: It’s all in the name. Or, as a friend of mine put it: “We have to change our name, eliminate the word southern, because it carries baggage. Southern fried chicken is still selling. Southern Living Magazine is growing every year and sold across America. Three Presidents in the past 30 years have been southerners. The word “southern” isn’t our problem. If the Kansas City Royals changed their name to the Kansas City Winners, they’d still have a 50-110 season. To take from that great American philosopher, Forrest Gump, ‘bad is as bad does.’”
I don’t want to suggest there’s nothing redeemable in the AGM idea. But broadly speaking, AGM might be described as the wrong solution (a franchise) to the right problem (sg is losing market share all the time). White gospel music is in decline for a host of socio-cultural, historical, and demographic reasons that in large part can’t be changed. A pure-market economist might even say that what AGM and others identify as the main obstacle to industry growth and expansion – amateur custom recordings – has been the market’s natural way of responding to the declining sales and sagging, graying concert attendance. After all, custom-recording artists appeal to audiences that, on the low end, wouldn’t be inclined or couldn’t afford to attend “upper echelon” concerts and so might have otherwise gone untapped as a market.
Indeed the more salient view of things might look at sg, not as a tiered series of “echelons” and levels, but as a range of more or less creative and successful responses to the exigencies of the market. Custom recording is one response and it is, in its way, successful –because there are unsophisticated people willing both to make and buy that music. But so too is the Legacy 5 model or the Greater Vision model or the Ernie Haase model, or until is implosion, the Crabb model, or the Gaither Model a response to market conditions.
The success of these latter models suggest that there already is an “upper echelon” of artists succeeding pretty well, thank you very much. That doesn’t mean the ambition of getting gospel’s best talent into big Southern Baptist or non-denom churches isn’t a worthwhile or profitable initiative, but then again Gerald Wolfe is already doing that at FBC Atlanta. And the Hoppers and others have played the Southern Baptist Convention annual meetings. Perhaps these groups and others could save their AGM franchise fees and spend the money on a plane ticket to Nashville, hammer out their own recording and distribution agreement with the SBC’s Lifeway bookstore unit, and be done with it (which, I gather, has been an idea under discussion in some nascent way not so long ago).
To do that would be the very beginnings of a vertically integrated business model. And maybe in the end that’s what AGM could or should or will end up being: a Gaitherlite group of quality artists with their own dates and projects and distribution arrangements that harness their collective power and take advantage of cost savings and efficiencies that come with vertical integration. But from what I’ve seen so far, I’m not at all convinced – and neither, from what I can tell, are many artists – that it will make much sense (common or bidness) to inflict a business model on an affiliated range of horizontally aligned artists and other industry services – and ask them to pay for the privilege of the infliction.
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