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.Email this Post