The myth of the gospel artist’s omniscience
Daniel Britt argues in a recent musicscribe post that even though the quality of production and general professionalism of albums usually goes up when handled by a record label, there’s a slightly greater chance that custom recorded albums (aka table projects) will produce “variety and possibly a surprise-success.”
I’m oversimplifying his argument for the sake of brevity, so you should read the whole post to understand the fuller context of his remarks, which are worth reading. But I want to follow up on something I was reminded of in Britt’s discussion of how much control is or is not ceded to the artist in the creative process.
Specifically, I’m fascinated (and often appalled) by the sacrosanct status of the artist’s prerogatives in gospel music. Even though I’m sure there are plenty of artists who collaborate eagerly and productively with professional creative types (producers, arrangers, writers, engineers, players), the general trend in gospel music is toward the consolidation of power and control in the artist-owner-manager. This trend in turn seems to be in service of the image of the headliner vocalist who is also master of a musical empire in all its vast complexity. Not just creatively, but also financially, managerially, visionarily.
I know of no other genre that more fully fetishizes the idea of the artist as all-seeing, all-knowing soothsayer. From song selection, hiring, firing, to costuming, PR, and stagecraft, much of what we associate with star status in sg revolves around the assumption (based largely in reality, I think) that one’s favorite marquee performer is (or tries to be) a jack of all gospel music trades, able to make sound decisions about things far afield from the singing simply because they’ve sung professionally for years.
Which is true, if by jack of all gospel music trades we also mean “master of none.” My favorite example here is Karen Peck, though any number of artists would exemplify what I’m talking about (the Nelons, anyone? Mercy’s Mark?). In any other genre, a genuinely franchiseable talent of Karen Peck’s outsized ability and appeal wouldn’t be allowed anything like the free-wheeling authority that Peck wields in her group (I lay out my unified theory of KPNR here). There’d be a manager and a publicist and probably a staff producer (who most likely would work closely with a stable of seasoned writers) and A&R guy advising and consulting and generally strategizing and planning and working through contingencies in such a way that it would next to impossible to, say, fire a band, fill two of the three trio parts with singers who are either marginally talented or put on a short leash, and sing sets of full of tepid songs warmed up a bit at the end by a splash or two of “Four Days Late.” Do this in sg, and you’ll be treated like the gifted blonde love child of Celine Dion and Clive Davis.
Obviously some artists are genuinely capable of calling all the shots all the time. Even (and often) bad decisions artistically speaking can make money and/or make a person famous. And this is the point, really. In southern gospel it’s still possible for great talent to make a profitable career of shortsighted, artistically impoverished decisions that effectively arrest the artist’s artistic development and still be perennially celebrated as an anointed guru.
The beancounters and payroll people will protest: how are you gonna pay the bills for that band and the additional expenses on the road and higher salaries for better vocal talent on the kind of dates we play and the volume of product we sell? And the record label folks will wonder how they’re gonna find even more money to front to produce better (and, as I’ll suggest below, fewer) projects to a market that already struggles to support itself. At this point, of course, you can’t do any of this. Lean and mercilessly mean are the watchwords of latter day gospel success. Strike up the digital band.
But it’s precisely the inability to look simultaneously at the short and long-term that got us to this place.
It didn’t have to be this way – a glutted market, saturated by full-time amateurs on one side and, on the other, by many artists and groups of great but unrealized talent deployed in service of one small-bore, risk-averse move after another. Let the live musicians go, hire your sister, turn around that four-year-old hit an extra time or two - or until they stand up. If this critique seems harsh, it’s only in proportion to the squandered possibilities at stake. Because honestly, do you remember how good KPNR sounded back in the day?
More than a decade of this kind of artistic cannibalism industry-wide makes it hard to see how it could be any different. But squint into the looking glass and you can glimpse the faintest outlines of a world in which fewer, better artists survive and perhaps even thrive, even in the lean years, because they laid the foundations 10 and 15 years ago for good sustainable music – in the studio and on the road.
I don’t know if it’s possible to reclaim that lost world.
For one thing, southern gospel radio stinks, for the most part.
Artistically, the safe, small creative cycle is now the norm: recording a down-the-middle studio project out of which you hope to get two or maybe three singles every other year, followed by a custom recorded table project on the off year mainly so you can have something new to sell the folks at Piska Heights at your annual concert there. This is such an accepted way of doing bidness and art in gospel music these days that hardly anyone stops to consider how such a cycle is the sign of an artistic tradition in flight from itself. Finding enough churches and county fairs to fill a year’s worth of dates and sell hastily assembled product is now what most new groups aspire to.
Meanwhile, gospel music labels have more or less surrendered to the mercenary logic of the lowest common denominator. A&R operations have largely been scrapped altogether in sg, or else A&R duties scaled down and redistributed among other label execs who can realistically do little more than pay lip service to the idea. Of the few A&R shops that survive, most do so in name only. In reality, they often end up functioning as professional Departments of Ego-Stroking and Flimflammery, heavily invested in manufacturing the appearance of success and the trappings of accomplishment rather than the things themselves.
But I do think a smart, articulate, mercilessly honest and genuinely devoted student of gospel music could make a decent living as a consultant to the gospel artists who have real, cultivatable and bankable talent but not enough gumption or guts for the nuts and bolts of craftily managed and carefully strategized professional development.
It’d require the kind of risk taking that’s pretty scarce in gospel music: not only on the part of artists willing to defer short-term notoriety in the small pond of the sg circuit for investments in a multi-phase process of cross-market brand development, but also on the part of a consultancy staffed by people willing to live on Raman noodles and Always $ave Cola for quite a while in order to be highly selective about who they take on.
Like I say, though, this kind of nerve and commitment is scarce. Not least of all because who needs to bother with investments of this sort when there’re quicker bucks and faster fame to be made from the reliably low standards of contemporary southern gospel? If it ain’t fixed and still works, why break it?Email this Post