Bloggerheads, post-mortem

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.

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  1. Joshua Cottrell wrote:

    I be totally wrong on this but this is the way I see it when it comes to as you say “take more risks to move in the direction in which they themselves believe better music lies” :
    I see all these groups trying move to the progressive side of southern gospel music, but what keeps happening is they slip and fall. Take for instance, the Crabbs, started out pretty traditional, even record a bluegrass album, get popular then start ‘Blur(ing) the Line(s)’. What happens, the progressive concert tour gets cancelled and the Crabb family retires as a group. Next, the Mcrae’s, (I was there when they first started touring with Mark Lowry) basically no more daring than Jeff and Sheri Easter, then they go ‘POP’ and now they have to combine with another group to survive. Same is being done with Lordsong currently (I know, it is family at least).
    I think the phrase that should be used in these record executives offices should be ‘keep it simple, stupid’. I do not listen to anything other than Southern Gospel music and when someone tries to sell me something that does not look, taste and smell Southern Gospel, I don’t buy it.

  2. gc wrote:

    I am with you about enjoying SG but you and I are in the minority. These companies are trying to find a way to do it better and I give them credit for searching for some answers. The retail breakdown in Christian Music really tells the tale of SG. We (SG) need a shot in the arm and find someway of moving this industry forward. I applaud Crossroads for allowing their ego to say, we don’t have all the answers and we want to know what other people in all areas of SG think. Hopefully, working together will be a positive resource for crossroads.

  3. Trent wrote:

    The least they could have done is fly Martin Roth over here to participate.

    I’m just wondering….they didn’t offer all of you orange Koolaid with that BLT, did they? Just kidding.

  4. Rod wrote:

    SG WILL DIE…Unless we move to the same production, radio, and marketing standards the secular music business has. What kills me is these die hard SG’ers saying if it doesn’t look, smell, or sound like SG then forget it. Maybe that’s why contemporary (Which by the way Bill Gaither practically single handedly funded and almost invented himself) and Praise and worship is so popular and SG isn’t. You can say it’s of the devil or it’s too rocky/popish (read psalms 150). How many SG songs have crossed over to secular??? Isn’t that who we are trying to reach? I can only Imagine was a phenomenon in Pop, country, and popular secular music a few years ago and reached people that SG or for that matter “Christian music” would have never reached. Guess what??? They had hundreds of thousands in Production, marketing, etc. to help make it happen (The song’s not bad either :). The point is we have to present ourselves just as professional as the secular Music world like it or not. You want to reach the masses? You want SG to make a splash and an impact??? MAKE GOOD QUALITY MUSIC…The time for MEDIOCRITY is gone.

  5. dd wrote:

    My feeling is that Crossroads is, in their own way, trying to be progressive and assessing the situation as it stands. Do i believe they have made great strides thus far (don’t forget JBIF),no. But they have the bidness knowhow, it just needs to apply to other areas. Whether that can happen by “osmosis” or by the painful word known as change. Which as Avery put it, IS hard when you see that something has to change but has worked so well in the past.

    i think of Bro. Ralph Sexton who is in Asheville, he said (and i’m not accurately quoting obviously) The world will spend $500,000 to a million dollars just on a minute of a music video to put into the minds of America’s young people; and we come to church and give kids broken crayons, and uncomfortable pews to sit in and say,”Well that’s the best that God has to give.” i believe the same applys to southern gospel music. We have to see past our hearts and see what the world sees when it looks at sg. We may have the
    VERY best of intentions and we may be in God’s perfect and HOLY will, but the fact remains, we HAVE to get better at what we do. (as Avery eloquently puts it) How you present yourself means everything. Flipping the channel on the t.v. or the radio, how pleasant to the ears is some of the music we put on the airwaves to other people? i think we have to ask ourselves this, to take a third person p.o.v. It certainly behooves us to count the cost and as a result may be the defining factor for some groups to pursue excellence on a level they may not be able to attain. But man there are some awesome groups out there!! We have a wealth of talent to look at now and build a tower of strength from.

  6. Rod wrote:

    AFL…Here’s something to write about since we are discussing the rise and fall of SG music. How can men and women (mainly men) be husbands and daddies when they are gone 275+ days a year. this should be a quite exhilerating blog.

    By the way i’m hooked and I been out of SG music for ten years. Love the honesty of your blogs..REFRESHING!

  7. jb wrote:

    There is nothing better, anywhere, than Southern Gospel music. My son is turning 21 this yr. and he is hooked. He has always listened to it and my husband and I were raised on it, but, our son has been bitten and wants to sing. The amazing thing is, he can sing and he can even sing “parts”. It does a parents heart good when your son comes home from college and wants to go up to the church and practice till midnight or later. There’s nothing wrong with other types of music, however, SG is just what it is….. Southern Gospel ! We need to leave it that way.
    I too appreciate your comments Avery.

  8. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    Rod wrote:
    “MAKE GOOD QUALITY MUSIC…The time for MEDIOCRITY is gone.”

    I agree, Rod. It all boils down to that.

  9. Ron F wrote:

    Ive always been a Crossroads Fan but lately some of these independent artist they are putting on their Disc kinda scare me. Some of them cant sing at all.

  10. Daniel J. Mount wrote:

    Rod–You said: “How can men and women (mainly men) be husbands and daddies when they are gone 275+ days a year.”

    You’re right. It’s hard to understand how men can pull it off, but it is even harder to understand how a woman could pull that off. :o

  11. DM wrote:

    All bloggers need to have a get together at NQC.

  12. GospelMusicFan wrote:

    What is the difinition of a blogger to be inclusive at NQC?

  13. Rod wrote:

    Daniel…According to my wife they couldn’t unless the children and husband traveled with them. this would make a great controversy, I mean discussion :)

    I would be interested how theses artist reconcile this spiritually, emotionally, etc.

  14. SM wrote:

    Funny story–took a listener call last week while I was playing Gordon Mote’s version of “Old Gospel Ship” (great radio song…) who proceeded to tell me that it wasn’t southern gospel. When I the caller for a definition of what he thought was southern gospel, he first got upset–for whatever reason–and then cited local/regional bluegrass groups as examples.

    Doug hit on the personal preference concept during big “quality” debate, but I wonder how much of the problem lies in the fact that the genre is getting pretty broad. I don’t know that a split would be good, but sometimes it is a little confusing and frustrating to have the Talleys, Inspos, Crabbs, McKameys, and everything in between in a single genre.

    Given the fact that a) record companies must produce things that sell and b) audience attitudes and preferences are as wide and varying as the Crabbs & the McKameys, I can’t think of any strategies for a record company to survive that doesn’t involve a stylistic buffet approach (which is probably why I didn’t survive as a marketing major in college). The laissez-faire approach only works as well as the consumers who determine what survives and its obvious sg consumers either don’t know the difference or don’t care between designer department music and cheap knockoffs.

    I hope that made some point. Otherwise I wasted another 15 minutes at work.

  15. Rod wrote:

    The time is wrong on the postings…You guys working on that already??

  16. Daniel J. Mount wrote:

    GospelMusicFan–if I was coordinating it, I would invite the SG bloggers I knew about and also welcome anyone who made significant contributions to a Southern Gospel website and considered themselves a blogger. This would especially hold for a meeting somewhere like NQC where there is plenty of space.

  17. Elisabeth wrote:

    This is a pet peeve issue that has nothing to do with the topic at hand. Let us all remember to correctly use the subjunctive case. Example: “If I WERE coordinating…” as opposed to “If I WAS coordinating…” I had to get that out of my system. Thank my 7th-9th grade English teacher for that anal-ness (is that a word?). LOL!

  18. Dean Adkins wrote:

    Re Post #17:

    I wish you had also mentioned to vs too, you’re vs your, and their-there-they’re misuse.

  19. Montana Man wrote:

    Rod, times may be GMT, which is Greenwich Mean Time in England. Right now, it’s 3:18 a.m. March 13 there (standard time) while in Montana it is 9:18 p.m. March 12. Clocks in planes generally run on GMT.

  20. Rod wrote:

    Thanks Montana Man I figured they were here and not in England or Greenwich or someplace mean :)

  21. not a grammarian wrote:

    How about peaked vs piqued (different post)

  22. quartet-man wrote:

    Regarding grammar, how about lose vs. loose. :) I saw a man who I thought was sure to lose his hair. Sure enough, he turned loose of his hair. :)

  23. RF wrote:

    Grammar aside, I can’t help but wonder why Crossroads had the summit and what they hoped to gain from it. I’m confident they won’t do anything to improve quality–the Inspos and McKameys and any number of other groups sell so well that won’t happen. If they would just let the people who do have talent shine–give them the same chance as those who do not (I could name several here), it would be a huge improvement.

    A lot of great music is never heard because of groups who are popular but not good. I listen to Enlighten on XP a lot and some of the stuff is unlistenable (if that’s a word). I have to wonder who in the wide, wide world of sports is doing their playlists.

  24. RF wrote:

    I meant XM. Long night.

  25. JW wrote:

    I’m no Inspiration fan, but actually I really like the McKameys. Not saying they are the greatest singers in the world, but when does being great singers mean you are the best?

    Just my off the top of my head criteria is a group has to have a mixture of good songs, at least be decent singers, and a little genuine charisma/stage presence at least. I think the McKameys qualify as a quality group in my opinion.

    There are just way too many variables why SG isn’t selling tremendously. My #1 reason is the SG industry and SG groups need to have respect for the audience as goal #1. You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all of the time.

  26. Rod wrote:

    RF proved a point I made posting #4…If you guys don’t like music…
    The music lover from another genre is definitely not going to like it. Complain all you want but it’s not going to change. I am of the persuasion that groups like the Mckameys, Cooks, Inspirations shouldn’t even be categorized as SG music or even played on SG radio. Don’t get me wrong these people might be great people but they cannot SING. You guys talked about YH winning a dove Nomination…Two of the three groups I listed have also. Maybe the industry needs a good church split. :P

  27. gabriella422001 wrote:

    arden is just the place you stop for gas between hooterville and ashevegas, why would anybody meet in ARDEN???

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