The internet and gospel survival strategies

A sidebar discussion emerges from within the number-crunching conversation that DBM started. Reader Jim writes:

I work on the retail side of the industry and one of the questions about SG music has always been about what percentage of album sales happens at retail and how much is sold at concerts. A good example would be the Hoppers new CD, The Ride - as far as I know not available in stores unless they deal directly with the Hoppers. I’m sure internet sales are booming - now you don’t have to wait for the artist to have a concert in a town near you, you can just click ‘n buy.

There are several different issues bound up in all this: table vs retail sales, e-commerce, and the growing independence of artists from labels and record companies. Table sales are difficult to track and a wobbly measuring stick anyway, since most sg artists have to “buy” their own product to sell at the table from the label - which is one of the many reasons why so many artists (the Hoppers and Gold City, just to name two) have begun releasing projects (mostly) independently.

In this emerging paradigm, the internet is indeed the great leveler and barrier-breaker for the common consumer that Jim suggests. And internet sales for independently produced albums – like table sales – come with much higher margins for the group.

But the hidden costs are less legible (or maybe ledgerible, if you’re into accountancy humor). Southern gospel is, by and large, not a growing market. When a group cuts itself loose from an established label and its distribution network and goes it alone, artists are essentially doubling down on their existing fan base, betting that devoted fans like Jim or RF will find them on the internet or stock up on product at that annual swing they make through Bluetick, Kentucky or Cornpone, George or wherever.

This may well work out in the short run and/or allow the artist to make enough money to survive, if not thrive. And many gospel acts are content with that, for a number of reasons. But long-term, such a strategy sacrifices (or at least destabilizes) the ability to grow the market for your music and product (and by extension, white gospel more generally). By cutting themselves and their product off from retail outlets, established distribution lines, and publicity networks, independently produced groups further increase their isolation and decrease the kind of visibility necessary to make and keep new fans (this is the problem that the American Gospel Music concept attempts to address, at least theoretically).

This is not, I should hasten to add, a love note to recording companies and record labels. The old-media model of top-down contracts prohibitively limits artists’ rights to their masters and contractually obliges artists to dig themselves into a hole of debt with the label that they can never recoup through retail sales. This means groups are more inclined to play to their base, recording largely safe music that will please the core fans who show up to concerts faithfully and buy whatever’s new on the table, so long as the music’s familiar and easily recognizable. Furthermore, the visibility and positive exposure that come with a label deal are usually zeroed out by the disincentives built into the majority of today’s recording contracts.

In a not-unrelated trend, southern gospel retail sales have headed downward for years now and show no signs of reversing, which has led groups (like the Hoppers) to focus on maximizing profit in the short term. No one can really blame them, but neither can one expect this cobbled-together solution – forged in the pinch of dwindling demand and a saturated market where mediocrity is the coin of the realm – to hold up as demand for southern gospel music continues to tank and more and more artists try to increase their margins by going independent and provisioning their product direct to consumers online.

I nurse along a few guarded hopes that vertical integration of the sort Gaither has pioneered and perfected can be adapted by the best and brightest for the smaller scales on which most gospel music artists live and work, and/or that labels will retool their operations to be more flexible and provide a la carte services to groups who want to produce their music (semi-)independently. Groups have been doing a little of this on a limited basis for years now, most often when it comes to hiring PR mercenaries and advertising hit men to run their tunes up the charts (separate from publicizing their music more generally). And though the Crabb Family’s attempt to build a vertically integrated empire failed, it wasn’t because the idea was bad.

In the more perfect world I’m imagining, a group like the Hoppers, who have the know-how and experience to produce their own music in the studio, would record an album and administer rights and royalties themselves, buy duplication services from the most competitive bidder, provision digital downloads themselves (or use a contractor), and contract with a label (or again some other contractor who might spring up to take advantage of the opportunity) for access to distrubtion networks. Obviously, not every group will be cut out for this kind of complex operation. But that’s sort of the point. Of the things gospel music could use, a good herd culling has to be among the most urgent.

Not least among the ideal payoffs of this system is that the fittest and most capable artists have the freedom to make better, less focus-grouped, more unpredictable and exciting music. And the only thing - or one of them anyway - that’s keeping all this from happening is the apparently undiminished demand for crappy gospel music.

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  1. eve wrote:

    I would not call the Crabb Family failure on any level. You obviously don’t have “real” information. The facts of their success are very private and will stay that way. Their succes has only begun. They are all in their twenties and say no on a daily basis to more opportunities than most groups have in a lifetime. They are not spin masters, none of them are. They are truly the most private people I know. Their hardwork tactics implemented by Kathy and the ability to connect with people have built these kids a platform that will serve them for the rest of their lives, all of them. If they had a music row record company (I am sure that is something they already know), they would have made the transition. However, contracts are the biggest roadblocks in an artists career. Sometimes the road to freedom is a drastic decision. Yes they want to do what they do, but believe me, there are MANY things that you will never read. I am not a Crabb, but I have a very close view.

  2. KB wrote:

    I work for one of the largest Christian retail chains in the nation, and I can tell you that, in every store I’ve been in within the chain, southern gospel takes up no more than 4 shelves (as opposed to two isles worth of contemporary). I worked diligently for a year with several distributors to build up a decent selection of SG material, but in the end, we were lucky to sell half of it. And the majority of the material was indie stuff that places like New Day or Central South simply put in stores.

    In a way, it’s a vicious circle. The market is so small (and so isolated) that it is virtually impossible to sell SG in stores (unless you’re Alan Jackson). I’d say that once every quartet, there will be ONE SG sale emphasis (and usually, it’s Gaither). Otherwise, they throw it on the back shelf and say, “it’s over there.”

    The biggest advantage to retail is impulse buys (people come in looking at what’s new, and they buy whatever looks/sounds good). If you take CD’s out of retail, you lose that possible impulse buy that you otherwise could have had.

  3. CVH wrote:

    I have to laugh; AFL is becoming the ’six degrees of separation of the Crabb Family’.
    I don’t think there’s been a post lately that doesn’t include them in one way or another. Hallelujah :)

    On the subject of sales and marketing of SG I believe one of the biggest factors that has had a negative impact is the tremendous diversity of styles that are pushed into retail by record labels and distributors. While more variety may be good for the average consumer of Christian music, the SG portion of the market has suffered.

    Thirty years ago you could find an album by J.D. Sumner & The Stamps next to one by The Archers next to Richard Roberts next to The Kingsmen. (RR…kind of creepy, but…) There wasn’t as much diversity, the number of record labels was fewer and the consumer was older. Today most bookstores are limited in what they can order because of corporate chain ownership or what distributors carry. The consumer is younger and their taste generally trends toward CCM or whatever’s current on AC Christian radio. Even given the factor of geographic regionalism, I’m amazed at how little SG is available through retail.

    Understandably, Christian consumers will take advantage of any medium to obtain product. Table product is great when a group is around your area but absent that option, online sales from a website or downloads are often the only way to get what you want. The old models of music sales have all changed and SG is slowly evolving as well. Whether or not this has any significant impact on the quality of the music being produced is up for debate, but surely there will always be fans willing to lay down 15 bucks or more for what they want.

  4. LSJ wrote:

    I’m on the same level as KB. I used to work at two national chain retail music stores concurrently: one secular and one Christian. (I actually worked in the store with the most DVDs in the nation.) The secular store had a Pop/Rock section anywhere from 80-120 feet filled with CDs on both sides (approximately 4,000 total), plus an additional section half that size. The “Christian” section (which eventually became labeled the “Religious” section) held at most 800 CDs. Calling our company about Southern Gospel issued a response that was either “You mean the Gaithers or the Martins?” or “I see Yolanda Adams, the Winans…” The same was true of the Christian store, which, like KB mentioned, had four rows of SoGo, which included 50 copies of the newest Alan Jackson or Randy Travis, and a couple copies each of the newest Gaither Homecoming Series. As a result, our SoGo sales kept dropping (despite a SoGo crazy manager who kept as much in stock as possible) which told our company to give us fewer SoGo–definitely a downward and disappointing trend.

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