Prologue: I brought back some kind of North Carolina head cold from the bloggers conference that has funkified me the last few days. Thus the lag in putting together some reflections on the meeting.
By now you’ve may had a chance to read other summaries of what went on at the Crossroads headquarters in Arden, NC, Friday. For all the significance imputed to this gathering, it was a fairly modest and inconclusive affair. This outcome seems about right to me.
I didn’t go with many preconceived notions about what would happen. That said, I also assumed that if the label executives who invited us were worth their salary, their invitation to talk about the future of southern gospel music with bloggers implied a certain amount of self-interest (a two-way street, that one; certainly I went for reasons that weren’t without self-interest).
I’ve never written very favorably about many Crossroads artists, and for that reason I suppose someone might convene a gathering like this attempting to curry favor or peddle influence. But to those people who think this was one big wet kiss from a recording company trying to make nice with the sg blogosphere, I would say that if a blogger could be bribed by a BLT and (in my case) a 36-hour stay in Fletcher and Arden, NC, his writing probably wasn’t of much solidity or worth to begin with.
Similarly to those who assume some concrete conclusions and “real answers” were arrived at in Arden and are now being nefariously withheld (what motive we’d have for doing this escapes me, unless the world is thought to revolve around Chris Unthank), I would only say that your assumptions bespeak a profound cluelessness about the way change, power, discourse, inertia and influence do – and do not – work, especially in Christian entertainment and gospel music. Speaking only for myself, I can say that, as someone who has a life and a career with no professional ties to southern gospel, there’s not much gospel music professionals have that I could be bribed with; and in turn, there’s not much I have to offer people so thoroughly enmeshed in and a part of the deep structures of the southern gospel music business and culture.
So much for the dark side.
No one who has paid any attention to gospel music in the last decade or so would have been surprised by what we discussed: radio, charting, distribution, labels, Gaither, digital technology. That sort of thing.
Conclusions? We agreed about a lot of things: the need for quality in music and production, the scourge of professional amateurs, the blight of so much of sg radio, the need for reform to the SN chart, the importance of supporting writers and other non-performing creative talent, Gaither’s profound effect on the music and the industry. I’m sure there were other things.
We disagreed about some things, too: I for one remain unconvinced by Crossroads’ claim that remaining two or more quarters behind on royalties payments is an unavoidable byproduct of a label’s vital role as a creative industry’s venture capitalist who must wait to see a return on its investment, and so sometimes get in arrears with royalties. Songwriters royalties are - or ought to be considered - expenses for the recording, just like studio players and production costs and graphic designers and the refreshments bill that can’t be deferred and otherwise put off. If the concern is that returned units might require adjustments in the payout, keep a reserve of a 20% and pay on the rest.
We also disagreed, if only implicitly, about what “quality” means. I confess I accepted Crossroads’ invitation in part because I was curious about a label that would sign both the Talley Trio and the Inspirations, Lauren Talley and the McKameys. I think I understand the logic by which this paradox might be reconciled: each artist does what he or she does in the way that he or she does it, in such a way that one is no better or worse than the other, only differently talented.
And I appreciate Crossroads’ effort to represent these artists for what and who they are and not make misrepresentative claims about their abilities.
But at the end of the day, there was – because there is – very little accounting for taste, or the pestiferous relativism lurking in that “to each to his own talents” rationale.
You may believe that the McKameys know how to sing well and choose not to. You may believe that they do indeed sing well but with a heavy mountain accent. Or you may believe that they sing often uninspired music out of which has occasionally emerged a song that comes to life in the vernacular style of Peg and her family. Believe what you will. The fact is they sell. So do the Inspirations. And southern gospel is and has been (and probably will continue to be) committed to this fact, and subsequently organized around the aesthetic vision of the average McKameys or Inspirations fan. The fact that other, better music exists within the domain of southern gospel is true only to the extent that it does so without unsettling the expectations or challenging the assumptions of the folks at Piska Heights Baptist Church.
Just as I am by turns fascinated with and appalled by the myriad effects of Bill Gaither and the Homecoming phenomenon on gospel music, so too am I sympathetic toward and impatient with a recording company like Crossroads. On the one hand, I do believe them when they say they want quality music. On the other hand, they represent the Inspirations. The Inspirations do many things well. Singing is not one of them. If you profess to be serious about serious music (that is, music that withstands artistic, and not just religious or theological, scrutiny), it is difficult for me to understand how you can also represent the Inspirations (Crossroads, needless to say, is not alone here; only the example nearest at hand in this conversation).
This doesn’t quite reduce to the ministry/monestry debate. But it comes close enough to suggest the intractable nature of the problem: the captains of the gospel music industry benefit in profits and prestige by the cultivation and support of artistically inferior music, and too many hide behind the pieties of ministry-mindedness to evade responsibility for their role in the mess.
Thus one of the more refreshing parts of the Crossroads conference for me was the open acknowledgement from the industry professionals in the room that they have at times in their careers all compromised their own standards for what gospel music could and should be (though to be clear, no record label people openly or implicitly disparaged their own artists in any way). As I have not yet attained to any measurable portion of perfection myself, I admire that honesty and their interest in persevering despite imperfect judgment.
At the same time, I’d be less than honest to say I’m not disappointed that people so smart, good, and extremely likeable as the Crossroads folks don’t – as I said at the conference – take more risks to move in the direction in which they themselves believe better music lies. There’s not enough challenging of their artists to defy conventions (put out a record full of songs that can last for more than a year or 18 months) or to cut against the grain (as one record label person suggested, put out an album with only five or seven carefully chosen tunes instead of 10 or 12). It’s hard to muster the energy to buck the status quo, and recording companies aren’t solely to blame. Times are tough all around and it’s easy to despair of change. Who can hope to make any real difference in the way things work when the odds for success are so bad? And yet, a force as elemental as a recording company has to shoulder some of the responsibility for - and the obligation to help reform - the mess things are in. Like I said, modest and inconclusive.
No one should expect all this ambivalence, or the forces that give rise to it, to be resolved in one direction or the other – not over the course of a Friday in NC, certainly, but really not ever.
Gospel music is a name and a set of socio-religious practices and musical conventions that support innumerably different ideas about big, difficult, important things like truth, grace, goodness, beauty.
I care about those things and so did everyone with whom I talked and laughed and argued and shared sandwiches and soda (the BLT was very good) in NC. And to care in this way, about these things, to any meaningful extent, and to act accordingly, inevitably this creates conflicts, failures, impasses, and quandaries, disagreements, different visions.
The best one can hope for, I think, or reasonably expect, is open dialogue across the boundaries that separate people. Cultivating honest conversation – even if it doesn’t issue in a five-point memo of bulleted action items – can only be a good thing, especially in a culture where open and honest dialogue is often tantamount to backsliding.Email this Post