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.

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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.

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Comments

  1. SM wrote:

    Don’t let the aliens read this…they’ll put you in charge of their colonies (unless, of course, your dream is ruling an alien colony). Masterfully said, my friend.

  2. Greg Crowe wrote:

    NQC/AGM will not work because the buddy system willcome into play.They will enlist mediocre talent because they are attached to the board or invest and leave out others who would help further the quality of the organization.
    Any way you look at it, mainstream churches nor concert venues will except some of the SG artist.No matter how professional are qualified they might be.
    NQC is searching and this will not be the answer..How many marginal acts does Gaither carry?

  3. Trent wrote:

    In many ways, this whole AGM concept mirrors a college fraternity (”AGM” even sounds like a fraternity name). People in college fraternities hang out together, run in the same circles of friends, exclude others from their activities because others are not in the “club”, and just generally get to be snobs all the way around. It’s so elitist and condescending to those artists who are just as talented and anointed as they are who will not be invited or counted worthy of being in the club. There almost certainly will be a feeling of one-upmanship between one artist or group who is in the club and the artist or group who wants to be in the club but cannot get in for whatever reason.. Also, let’s welcome back the ’50s & ’60s competitive spirit between groups and the political jockeying that many groups will employ to get into the club.

  4. judi wrote:

    In addition to the flaws that you and others have pointed out, it strikes me that the anonymous author (or summarizer) of this research report is not all that credible if he/she is going to use words like “tambour” for “timbre.” Wouldn’t a knowledgeable researcher know how to spell a musical term if critiquing the musical style? There’s also a weird sociological cast to the whole thing. And, forgive my feminism but the misogynistic condescension of this observation: “for the most part the males were attractive and the women were not” leaves me speechless.

  5. Tim G wrote:

    You mean Traci Stuffle and Tony Peace are attractive, and Charlotte Ritchie and Sherri Easter are not? Wow! Wonder what bar those reviewers stumbled out of.

  6. Tara wrote:

    This whole set-up reminds me of stuff I got in the mail when i graduated from high school and stuff in college. The “you’ve been selected as the best of the best of america’s high school students, so buy this book with your name in it.” And people fall for it and send money in because they think they are special, but they really aren’t. You can now put the AGM “Seal of Approval” on your albums etc….come on, give me a break.

  7. CVH wrote:

    For over thirty years I’ve enjoyed (for the most part), participated in and at times cringed over southern gospel music. The AGM endeavor sounds like just another back-room attempt to gain credibility and create a ‘Good Housekeeping’ type seal of approval for its ‘certified artists’. I doubt it will succeed, not that I don’t think there shouldn’t be some kind of winnowing process to separate the good from the marginal and the truly bad. But that will only come when fans and supporters learn to differentiate between good art and bad art; want the odds on that happening?

    As the old adage goes, ‘there’s no accounting for taste’. Just look at the proliferation of relatively inexpensive electronic musical equipment for both playing and recording. Now any idiot can produce a CD, host a website and fancy themselves an ‘artist’. The problem isn’t limited to the SG genre, but it’s certainly prevalent there.

    Truly there are some outstanding writers, performers, producers and musicians in the field; they naturally rise to the top. And there will always be mid-level and low-end artists. To me that’s a given. You can’t stop people from creating bad art (especially if they don’t realize they are or have the good sense to stop). Nor can you stop people from listening to it and buying it.

    That’s why a concept like AGM, while it may sound like it’s designed to address real issues, is laughable. What group is going to consider themselves qualified to render artistic and/or spiritual judgement on anyone in the business? What statistical norm are they going to use to do a comparative analysis of a group’s music? What is going to be the objective standard for stage performance measurement? And spirituality? Are they going to question family members? Plant spybots on their computers to track what websites they visit? Are tongues ok or not? “What? In 1998 you sent a donation to Robert Schuller in a moment of non-fundamentalist clarity? Sorry, you’re not going to get the stamp…or maybe you will”. It’s preposterous.

    Others have already posted excellent comments on the subject. All I would add is that credibility is earned, not bestowed. Spirituality is not something that can be measured as succinctly as one can measure musical talent. A group is not like a cleaning product from Proctor & Gamble; and a seal of approval has only as much worth as those awarding it. In this case, for all these reasons and others, that worth is questionable at best.

    SG is comprised, as are some other genres of music, of a ragtag assortment of the good, the bad and the ugly. And in that, it is a reflection of all of us. Rather than embrace that, AGM is attempting to create an aura of respectability where it may not be warranted or deserved.

  8. Chuck Peters wrote:

    I like the carnival atmosphere at NQC.. It’s a circus.. I like the circus. Quit trying to fix SG.. It is what it is. ..and some of us like it. Many of us are still proud to say we like it. I would be suprised if this CMP/AGM venture is barely visible in a year.

  9. Grigs wrote:

    I’m with you, Chuck.

  10. fareed wrote:

    This is an excellent one.Its true that “The
    musicals
    performance ability ranged from extremely poor to excellent during the showcase offering”

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