AGM and the NQC malaise
In anticipation of a big AGM push at NQC next week, I want to follow up on the AGM concept, which got off paper – however slightly – with the announcement of the Hoppers’ being signed as the first AGM certified artist. Next week, look for a Big Ideas campaign at NQC next week … talk of Carnegie Hall appearances, deals with the Southern Baptist Convention’s Lifeway retail division, and other sponsorships. Think Clear Cool/Big Ten/Blur the Lines version 2.0.
But back here on earth, let’s begin with the independent market research study conducted in 1999 that the NQC and Christian Music Presenters rely so heavily on to justify their undertaking to rebrand sg (you should also read some of the more insightful comments in response to the original post; this site is fortunate to have some very smart readers). The name of the research group is, evidently, super top-secret, and the parts of the report I’ve read are summaries, I gather, compiled by a CMP (at least I think that’s the way it is). At any rate, the study and the uses to which it’s being put in this AGM concept fascinate me, in part because the report offers a glimpse of how gospel music is viewed from the outside and also in part because of the way it’s been used in furtherance of the AGM concept suggests volumes about the true origins of the problem that AGM purports to address.
First, let’s get some representative example of the report out in the open. This in reference to the NQC, both evening performances and afternoon showcases.
The musical performance ability ranged from extremely poor to excellent during the showcase offering. It could be observed that on the same showcase that a poor performance would be followed by an outstanding performance and that the fan base in attendance seemed to be supportive of both performance offerings. (Which would lead the question; was the fan base being supportive of the poorly performing individual/group based on a shared faith-based brotherly love concept or was the fan base even able to judge for themselves the difference in performance quality.) The vocal ability of the more proficient groups was excellent in projection and pitch. However, the stage persona seemed lacking from all levels of performers.
In reference to both the daily showcase experience, as well as, the evening arena experience, a major disappointment was the almost total absence of live accompanying instrumentation. If instrumentation existed it consisted of piano (or electronic keyboards) drum-set, and maybe bass guitar. However, the majority of performers performed to accompaniment tracks. Often these accompaniment tracks were fully orchestrated or complimentary with stylistically appropriate instrumentation. The performers seemed to be proud of their tracks, as they would make statements like “Ya’ll just goin’ love these tracks,” “We just came from Nashville with new tracks,” and “These tracks were made in Prague.” Thus, the audience’s attention was drawn from the live on stage performers to a mental game of judging the performance by the quality of the invisible performers. For the presenting community this is a major, if not a total deal breaker, for this genre of music to be presented to the general concert patronage
However, the vocal ability and song presentation of many of these groups was at times magical. The groups that performed acappella proved by the audience, as well as, this observer to be breathtaking. The four-part male quartet and the three-part ladies trio demonstrated the most uniformed and maybe indigenous stylistic identification to this perceived style of music. The harmonic structure was primarily in traditional chordal progressions of major thirds and fifths; however, many groups performed (especially acappella) with a harmonic structures dominated by open fourths and opens sixths. The later stated harmonic structure can be paralleled to the indigenous stylings of the Appalachian region as historically noted in the writings and music of John Jacobs Niles. The mixed four-part quartets, usually family groups, did not demonstrate the same level of appeal as the male quartet. However, with this stated these family groups sang with purity in tambour and balance, which again was a reflection of the understanding of the Appalachian region musical style.
Some statements must be denoted about the costuming and physical presentation of the performers. For the most part costuming was over-the-top and demonstrated a lack of style and uniformity from one performing group to the next. With this said a few of the male quartets were tastefully dressed in matching suits; however, the majority of the male quartets were dressed in non-coordinating suits. Ladies might be dressed in coordinating dresses, (usually not very appealing) and/or no rhyme or reason to their presenting costume. Be it noted that the presenting costuming was respectful in nature and seemed to reflect the style of the attending fan base. The question of the attractiveness of the performers should be addressed. For the most part the males were attractive and the women were not. The average age of the performers in the daily showcases would have been early thirties and the average age of the performers in the nightly arena performances would have been early fifties.
There is a lot more but this is probably enough. The report goes on to recommend key changes in sg: “purging” the low quality groups (though no mention is made of who determines this and how); returning live instrumentation to the stage (hear hear!); improving stage presence (though again, no description of how or on what basis); rebranding the genre (the report recommends the names “Appalachian,” “Americana,” “Grassroots”); highlighting four-part quartets; and dispersing the music more widely within evangelical culture and life.
Obviously, there are some helpful insights here and I will return to those at the end of this post. But from what and how the authors of the report write about experiencing NQC personally, they appear to be from Mars writing to other aliens. If the same person who thought “all level of performers” at NQC lacked “stage persona” can’t and didn’t realize that “stage persona” (that is, showmanship) is a large part of why sg and NQC can be “magical” despite the variability of talent, then one has really very little authority on which to stake such sweeping judgments. So the question naturally arises in re AGM: is it really a good idea to base something like American Gospel Music – even if only in part and loosely – on a report and a recommendation that emerged from such a culturally ignorant and uneducated point of view?
Clarke Beasley, vice president of NQC, insisted to me that this report came to his attention only after an industry summit in Nashville earlier this year when the AGM concept first started to take root, and that it was only serendipity that the seven-year-old report expressed “concisely the sentiment of the SGMG summit.” Ok. But the fact remains that the proposal for the most ambitiously planned undertaking in gospel music since maybe Gaither devotes more space to this report than any other single source or point of reference.
Why? I’m not sure. The congruence between the report’s emphasis on “high quality” acts and the AGM focus on “upper echelon” performers may have given AGM’s salesmen a useful outside source to justify the more controversial parts (spiritual certification) or unpleasant aspects (annual dues) of the plan: see, a $3 million study says we should do some of these things so we must be right! $3 million can’t be wrong. There’s an element of smalltimer-ism in this attitude … the overeager desire to succeed by “big time” secular standards (all the while disclaiming any interest in secular success) that is, alas, all too common in gospel music.
Another possibility for the centrality of the market study – though honestly, that’s not really an accurate description of the report’s sg focus, since all the analysis was observational and informal and unsupported by primary data analysis – in the AGM concept may have something to do with CMP’s involvement in this initiative. This group didn’t exactly come out of nowhere, but they do seem like relative newcomers to the sg scene. That doesn’t disqualify whatever expertise they may have, but the bios of the company’s leaders suggest they have just a different enough background from the typical gospel music insider and enough expertise and training in religious music and the religious music business to give the AGM concept the sheen of freshness and insightful “outside the box” thinking (see look … this isn’t the same old thing … we’re partnering with somebody from outside the sg industry). At any rate, CMP seems to have created its place at the AGM table with their credentials and claims of access and by talking up and enticingly suggesting the blandishments of the untapped market of big denominational churches for sg acts.
Of course the risk here is that the dazzling visions and on-paper projections have warped the perspective of the plan altogether. Or, as a friend of mine who is familiar with the plan put it, “I know that these guys don’t know what they don’t know, but they think they know what everyone else doesn’t know, but we know that we know but they don’t.”
What I think he means is that these are prime conditions in which group-think optimism can set in. This market-research report is only the most visible piece of a patchwork concept that draws on a variety of loosely related business models and plans to create the perception of a possibility (a possibility that I’m sure the AGM folks really believe in, mind you) that will have difficulty ever materializing in reality.
In the end, what has been made of this report is as striking as what it says. Notwithstanding the report’s alien-like misapprehensions, I read the report and its withering critique of the NQC fleemarket and saw a fairly damning indictment of NQC leadership for its failure to innovate and really lead the industry by setting and shaping standards of excellence – its failure, that is, do more than capitalize on the existing biases and attitudes and practices of gospel music’s lowest-common-denominator. But NQC read the same report and saw a path out of a wilderness of their own devising. I read the report and hear the not-so-faint ring of another bell in the multi-alarm crisis that is NQC’s deterioration. After years of falling attendance (and no clear evidence NQC knows what to do about that), Gaither’s defection and continued success apart from NQC and the emergence of bonafide competitive events, the natural thing for NQC to do, one might think, was read this report and take stock, focus on the existing NQC flagship event. Instead, the response seems to have been to assert greater control: consolidate the first-rate talent under an NQC-owned venture that disperses NQC’s risk by having the artists themselves generate the revenue to sustain the enterprise. It’s enough to make one wonder if AGM isn’t at least partially a head fake to distract everyone from NQC’s malaise.Email this Post