Songwriting and big royalties
The sales success that Signature Sound’s latest project is already enjoying has me wondering if there might be longer-term ramifications on the quality of top-shelf songwriting now that a group without a singer-songwriter on the payroll can pretty much name that tune when it comes to what they choose to record.
Here’s what I mean: We know that everyone pays lip service to the idea of selecting the best songs when it’s time for artists to record a new album.
And even though what any one group or writer or blogging blabbermouth means by “best” varies widely from person to person, songwriters and artists exist in a more or less symbiotic relationship. Songwriters have to temper their creative vision of the ideal song with the pragmatic reality that they’re writing for the stage, the recording studio, and the marketplace, while artists have to bring to their song-selection process an open mind about what kind of material a group’s talents and abilities can reasonably accommodate.
Artists doesn’t always get “the perfect” song they ideally have in mind when they start putting an album together. And the songwriter rarely ever gets a cut recorded that is arranged, sung, and produced exactly the way he or she envisioned things when the tune was originally written. But everyone comes out (more or less) happy in the wash.
There are exceptions and a few outliers, such as the creative mutation that has emerged from the fusion of Greater Vision and Rodney Griffin – Greater Griffin, one call it, a veritable factory of reliably familiar lyrics and melodies. But in general the southern gospel market is tight enough to keep the creative power fairly evenly balanced between supply (songwriters competing for cuts) and demand (artists looking for the best songs).
What happens, though, when that balance is disrupted by, say, the explosive success of a group like Signature Sound? There is persuasive anecdotal evidence from as serious and successful a songwriter as Marty Funderburk to suggest that since before Get Away Jordan, SSQ has already been generating royalties that can amount by themselves to as much as all the other royalties a songwriter earns, combined.
Obviously this means a dramatic increase in competition among the best songwriters for SSQ cuts. And as I’ve argued before, competition is not only good for, but essential to the longterm viability of a musical form (and songwriters deserve every penny they get in royalties; this is not at issue).
What’s unclear to me is at what point this kind of competition ceases to exert a refining pressure on the songwriter’s craft (bring only your best to the competition) and starts shading, perhaps even somewhat unconsciously, into a kind of unintentional creative pandering: Oh yeah, your idea for a song that features the bass and talks about his love sent from above on the wings of a dove …? Yeah, well .. uhm, sure, what a GREAT idea! Let’s write it! Obviously, I’m exaggerating, but you get the idea.
If SSQ is like a lot of gospel groups whose albums contain few standards and as well as new material (and I only use SSQ as an example, because they’re the only group I know of selling at a competitive level with Gaither these days), they will often consult closely with songwriters in the run-up to the song-selection process hoping to get “the best” new material for the group. No matter how committed a songwriter may be to his craft, the chance to get a cut on a project that will sell and sell and sell by orders of magnitude greater than almost anyone else in southern gospel has got to be an opportunity too good to pass up.
So do you pitch that song you really believe in for this group even though you know it’s probably not going to hit that sweet spot that the group has in mind and may get rejected or just passed over? Or do you swallow hard and write the (mediocre) song that you hear the group saying it wants even though you know it’s sub-par material and/or beneath the quality you yourself would insist on, all things being equal?
Maybe this a false choice. Indeed, sometimes what the group wants and the songwriter produces line up quite nicely. And anyway, these are all grown ups. While comparatively large royalties (in sg terms these days) is nice for writers who certainly deserve to earn more than gospel music averagely pays (or fails to), perhaps it’s not the kind of blinding blandishment for professional songwriters that I’ve suggested it could become.
On the other hand, sales of the kind Get Away Jordan is posting can be a powerful enticement, or as one songwriter with a cut on the album recently wrote regarding its Billboard-topping debut: “it makes me excited about future royalty checks.” And how.
In fairness, the writer, Jeff Ferguson, followed up by saying, “I’ve been so happy with the sales and the great recording of our song that I totally forgot about the money!” - by which I assume he meant he’s just been thrilled to be part of such uncommon success in southern gospel (and let me say again, before you start scrolling down for the comments button, writers deserve every penny in royalties and have every right to be excited about the SSQ sales). Certainly no gospel songwriter stays in the business if he’s in it only for the money. And the quality of some of the new material on Get Away Jordan is reasuring. Among other things, this suggests there’s probably not much to worry about.
And yet … every one of the countless TV ads out there featuring the company president who can’t act, isn’t photogenic, and has no clue how to read a teleprompter or seem even semi-human on television reminds us that the guy who writes the fattest check often finds everyone always already thinking the same thing as him, or singing the same tune. Certainly one gets that feeling with “Happy Birthday, Anniversary Too,” written by Ernie Haase and Benjy Gaither. Here’s hoping for less of this kind of Alvin and the Chipmunks music and and more tunes along the lines of “Beyond the Blues.”