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?

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Comments

  1. CG wrote:

    Amen!

  2. JimT wrote:

    Avey, this may be the best written post you have ever had, and it ranks up there with the most accurate!

  3. Rod wrote:

    Great commentary! TRUE! TRUE! TRUE!

  4. DM wrote:

    Benson Music Co.had quality albums on their Heartwarming label. Some of the music today would not make it. They certainly would not let the kids who runs the record table on the album covers.

  5. Kyle wrote:

    I still say that technology has made everyone lazy. Heavily-processed tracks and digitally-perfected vocals (which are often layered with “live” performances) have destroyed a genre that was once built on actual talent.

  6. bgc wrote:

    Good Post Avery!

  7. Practical Fellow wrote:

    Great commentary. There are several groups in SG who have such overwhelming talent and they choose such mediocre songs. I love the talent of the Ruppes (and some of their songs have been terrific), but mostly they fill their records with ballads that are blah and usually only have 1-2 solid tunes on each record. The Ruppes could be HUGE in SG and I think song selection is the biggest problem they have. Why don’t they have a better team working with them behind the scenes?!

    I think Avery really makes a good point: if a comparable artist to Karen Peck & NR in the country market chose the same quality songs and made the same decisions regarding the direction of the group, they’d only get one record with the label before they’d get dropped. What’s wrong with utilizing a team who can help you create one GREAT record every two or three years than having a flimsy recording annually? One great recording filled with well-written material could carry an artist easily for two years and take them to the next level and generate new fans and new market opportunities. Right?

    I could go on and on…

  8. CVH wrote:

    Thought provoking post. It seems that southern gospel has always been an entrepreneurial business. Thus the alpha-male out in front, organizing, hiring, firing, running the show.

    It’s just my hunch as I have nothing factual to back this up with, but I would guess that through the 70’s things began to get more competitive. Record companies were beginning to become stronger marketers; GMA was taking shape; the whole industry began going through a revolution. I remember one good regional group during that era that was on the verge of ‘going big’ (moving from their own custom label to a B-level national label, radio play, bigger shows) and they were intent on buying a Silver Eagle before the quartet convention. “If we show up in that old 4104 they’ll laugh us out of the parking lot.” Sure enough, they went in a beautiful new 1971 Eagle. Of course within two years they had disbanded but that didn’t stop the owner of the group from moving ahead with other ventures in and out of gospel music.

    I think in the last decade it’s become much easier for that same person - the owner/manager/overseer - to do the same type of thing. There are still labels, and I agree, most of the best stuff comes from those projects, stilted and formulatic as they may sometimes be. But doing your own thing has never been easier. It’s fairly inexpensive to produce an album; the use of tracks is more prolific than ever. I remember in the 70’s it was a big deal if a group closed with a song with a track - no stacks. Now they’re the show. And they’re so carefully and well-integrated into the production (think EHSS) that it’s seamless. As exciting? Not to me. Efficient and less costly. Duh.

    The internet and email make communication and sales marketing much easier and more productive. Who among us hasn’t purchased product from a group’s website, checked a schedule or received an update. In fact, one of the things I look forward to weekly is the update Gerald Wolfe sends out to fans of Greater Vision. It’s timely, informative and brings a greater sense of connection to the group even though I may only have the opportunity to see them every 12 - 18 months. They do an excellent job.

    Now does any of this make a marginal group better? No. But it makes good groups great. The right tools in the right hands can create something of substance and lasting value. In the wrong hands, it’s just more crap you’ve gotta wade through to get to the good stuff.

    I’ve been thinking lately that there are some parallels between southern gospel and NASCAR. It’s not a perfect, side-by-side comparison but both originated in the rural south. Both have simple roots and simple approaches (three chords and a cloud of dust, nonstop left-hand turns and a cloud of dust). And while one may have involved outrunning revenuers trying to track down moonshine (that would be NASCAR in case you weren’t sure), both are big on God and country, getting the crowd on its feet and rooting for your favorite. Both have become much bigger in the last decade; granted, NASCAR by corporate sponsorship, but both seek to retain their ‘roots’ image and ‘aw shucks’ attitude even while they struggle with the inevitable conflicts that come from putting a new business foundation under a structure that started out as an unpretentious shack.

    I think you’re right. Not many people have the patience to learn, not in our ‘hurry-up’ culture; not when there’s an opportunity to be had, right now! We have the mistaken notion that we can manufacture something great overnight without struggle or heartache. The one thing I think a lot of the newer groups lack is authenticity. I’m not questioning their motives, but so much of what’s out there these days seems unoriginal, shallow and superficial. Southern gospel may never have the growth spurts it has enjoyed on occasion in past decades, but even its steady, consistent growth is in question unless some things change.

  9. quartet-man wrote:

    Kyle hit one thing on the head. The ability to “cheat” in a way has made people lazy. Why do the work and improve when there is a quick way of masking it?

    Avery mentioned getting someone to consult. From what I have read, when the Oaks signed with the first gospel music exclusive booking agency, people were upset with them. Prior to that it was the honor system. People in the industry took this as an affront. I think some refused to work that way. However, the Oaks stuck to their guns as it being the only way to book them. Soon other acts followed. Too many people in the music industry don’t want change. This is true in secular too. However, I think the Christian music industry is even worse.

  10. Trent wrote:

    Great post, Avery. I believe a lot of things need to be re-thought in SG music, by radio, artists and record labels.

    First, we need solid southern gospel radio. We need stations that play top-quality music, whether these songs are generated from well-known groups or groups who are getting started, but already have a great sound (there are a few out there). Playing “name” groups because they have a name, but their song is mediocre & vanilla is unwise. Radio decision-makers need to really have an ear for a great song, then play it often. At the same time, they need to be so unpolitical that they have an ear for a stinky song and have just as strong ambitions to keep these type songs off the air. A real-world example is the Kentucky powerhouse SG station, WJCR. They are a 100,000 watt station that could be rocking their area with great SG music. Instead, they play three poorly-sung songs for every good one. They will play a great Three Bridges song, then three by the local yokel group who has chosen a weak song and recorded it even weaker. What happens? The flip-through listener stops and listens for 3 seconds and then keeps on flipping until they get to a country station that is playing something listenable.

    Secondly, I think SG artists need to re-think how they do business–drastically–to improve the quality of recordings. Here is what is happening, in my opinion. A large percentage of artists feel the need to buy a bus (which costs six figures and in many cases several hundred thousand dollars). This is the biggest albatross in the gospel music industry. Artists put themselves so far behind the 8 ball that they MUST work four nights a week traveling hundreds of miles for what turns out to be meager pay just to make the bus payment and pay for gas, food, and the other artists in the group. While I fully understand the benefits of comfort in riding on a bus, the benefits of saving motel bills & being able to carry your own food in your own refridgerator to avoid fast food stops, in most cases the bus is costing you much more than it is saving you financially (remember what you paid for it; remember the bus payment you are making every month). So how do you live as a top SG artist without a bus? You become selective about your dates. You take dates that pay a nice, even pre-determined figure (flat) that you know you can live on, travel selectively on, and make a great recording on. You don’t work four nights a week for peanuts, but you work two nights a week for good money. You drive a van for your two dates a week (you have already sold the bus). This process might require an artist to get a full-time job outside gospel music and only travel on the weekends (which will further relieve financial problems), but I guarantee you it will make your life more stable and financiallysound in the end. It will also give you the means to take extra time in the studio to make a top-drawer recording.

    Of course, if you take on a second job during the week, you wil automatically be ineligible for any Singing News fan awards (you’d not be considered “full time”), but that is a different subject altogether.

  11. Mike McIlwain wrote:

    I think we are all very familiar with someone who has done things much the same way Trent suggested. Trent’s approach sounds very similar to what Gaither has done. It looks like it worked out very well for him.

    I think far too many people in many different aspects of like care too much about looking successful instead of actually being successful.

  12. Mike McIlwain wrote:

    Ooops! I mispelled a word in my last post. The last sentence is supposed to read like this:

    I think far too many people in many different aspects of life care too much about looking successful instead of actually being successful.

  13. RobertM wrote:

    In an earlier reply, I made a commitment to return to this blog several times …the benefit of the doubt.

    Since the groupies have spoken (all comments are glowingly positive), I’d like to bring a different perspective.

    You imagine that the one who “fetishizes the idea of the artist as all-seeing, all-knowing soothsayer” is out of touch. Are you not able to recognize the MINISTRY aspect of any of this? In your post — as well as the ensuing comments here — it seems to be all about business, business, business.

    Karen Peck has a viable ministry for the Lord Jesus Christ, and she has the prerogative to do what she believes is honorable before the Lord whose music she sings.

    Granted, there are business aspects to any ministry, full-time or part-time, big-time or small-time. I would guess that some individuals/groups do sg solely for the business. But I don’t think you recognize that in many cases, the priority is honoring and obeying God’s direction for the ministry.

    “Southern gospel radio stinks…”

    Perhaps you’ve cut your nose off to spite your face. If you don’t like it, turn it off. Or better yet, listen to the message. My heart is often touched to trust the Lord in a deeper way than I did the day before. Perhaps if you listen — not with the goal of creating your next negative article, but of hearing the Gospel articulated another way — God will also touch your heart in an encouraging way.

    Regards,

    Robert

  14. Bob wrote:

    Robert,

    You have simply chosen to dislike Doug’s comments about anything. Therefore, your views about his writing will be forever jaded and misplaced here. Take your attitude and go over to sogospel. The Unthanks will treat you like a king.

    As for your comments about it not being a business - let’s be real. There is no such thing as any group that runs their business like a ministry. Were it a mnistry, there would be no money involved, just come and let us sing to ya for free wherever we are. There is not a group in the world that does not demand at least a love offering with a suggestion of how much should be given. I always love how a certain group gets mentioned as to how they are ’seriously in the ministry’ yet they are the one of the first to hawk about every kind of product they can find to try and make money.

    What exactly is ministry about that? You go only where people agree to pay you, you get there and constantly try to take more money from the people and then leave as soon as possible to get to the next gig and do it all over again. That is not ministry, it is a business. Look at the press releases. How many times have you read/heard a group owner say we “hired so-and-so to sing tenor.” Everyone in the ‘business’ treats it as a ‘business’ and therefore it is a ‘business.’

    And to finally set the record straight, THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH IT BEING A BUSINESS AND TREATING IT LIKE A BUSINESS!!!!! If groups like the Cathedrals, Kingsmen, Greater Vision, Gold City and the likes treated what they did as a ‘ministry’ no one would ever have known who they were. We would all still be singing hymns all day long (not a bad idea, actually) or we would all be hooked on P&W (God help us all!)

    The propagation of our music only happened because groups over the years did what they had to do to:

    1. Stay on the road
    2. Keep people fed and paid
    3. Keep songwriters doing what they do
    4. Keep Christians entertained

    The last point there is the most valid. What we do is provide Christians with music that they can replicate in their own Churches while entertaining them at the same time with wholesome music and lots of fun. At the same time - the music we sing challenges the hearts and minds of the people which is a great side benefit.

    Bottom line - this is a business - and if more groups truly treated it that way - and if the consumers of the music treated it that way - there would be fewer groups - and better groups for it. Gospel radio stinks because most of the radio stations are trying to please a few people in their communities who do not know music and just love old so-and-so and their local yokel music. The vapid repetitions of that music combined with the either non-existence or barely visible quality recordings and let’s not forget the local preachers who think they are regular Billy Graham’s equal horrible radio!

    I personally know a lot of folks in the industry - and frankly when many of them say ‘we are looking for God’s direction’ in many cases that means - ‘we hope God provides someone who is adequate, at an amazingly cheap price who will hopefully stay with us at least 2 years.’ The many second bananas in this business make peanuts - and how do any of the group owners get them more money? They tell them to go work an make their own recordings to sell at the table. They get them to go get a job working part-time for a record company or something.

    That is ministry? Working like a dog while the group owner drives a Navigator and live in a plush house? Hmmmm…..seems more like a selfish business move to me.

    That’s it for me…..starting to chase rabbits and I have nothing left to say. :-)

  15. RF wrote:

    If anyone doubts the purpose of this blog, Avery used to put on his masthead, “Southern Gospel for the Rest of Us.” Simply stated, it meant to ignore the ministry or the “he’s a good Christian Man” element and concentrate on the quality of music or the certain aspects of the business.

    If sg is/was totally ministry, we wouldn’t have had the Statesmen and more groups than I can mention and this genre would have died long ago.

  16. CG wrote:

    Bob,

    Sick ‘em! You said what I’ve just never taken the time to say (and probably did it better than I could/would have).

    I grew up in this industry. I have worked in this industry (both full-time and part-time groups).

    While I have seen many people ministered to with the message of the Gospel, I’ve always been blessed to work for folks who had a (God-given) vision to understand that, in Gospel music, without good, sound, disciplined, ethical BUSINESS practice, there will be no opportunity to minister to folks through quality Christian entertainment.

  17. TonyWatson wrote:

    Robert,
    I tire of this “debate” that seems to come up everytime something like this comes up. Why is it that we must differentiate between quality of music, quality of business and quality of ministry? Shouldn’t we be striving for the best of all of the above. I don’t think that anyone who is promoting good business practices and good advice and getting expert input into various areas of an artist’s ministry is saying to do that to the exclusion of good ministry.

    When they rebuilt the temple in the Old Testament, did they not do the best they had and make things nicer than their own homes? Did they not also seek the Lord’s guidance in this process. To me this is no different.

    While some artists may be gifted enough in some of the supporting areas such as song choice, image, financial dealings, etc. enough to handle them, there are probably others who would be better off leaving others do to the same . . . oh yeah, if they do that - they have more time to focus on MINISTRY.

    The problem, I don’t think, is not that artists are unwilling to get outside help but that they are 1) too poor to afford extra help or 2) have been burned too many times by song promoting charlatans and others who promised the world but did not deliver that they have had to depend on themselves and their immediate circle for helpful advice.

    The Bible says to “play skillfully” - I think that tells me that we need to do whatever we can do within the means we have in order to do our best music. It also says that whatever we do, we should do it as unto the Lord. That means good stewardship of our money, talent and time. Good business practices, which are throughout the Bible, are a part of that. Even the times in the word when people were instructed to select faithful men to help with the daily distribution of food, the business of taking care of needs, so that others could be devoted to prayer, is an illustration of this.

    As far as southern gospel radio - much of it does indeed stink and we should be ashamed (and many of us are). Though we are limited by financial resources, that doesn’t mean we should excuse poor on-air work or poor song selection in the name of “doing it for the Lord”. Not in the public eye, not on a regional or national scale. There is a place for all to do something for the Lord, but the national SG scene is not it for most people.

  18. Montana man wrote:

    Wasn’t the purpose of the first (southern) gospel quartets to sell songbooks for their publishing-house sponsors, and to organize singings so more people would need more song books? Ahhh, the ministry business.
    And don’t churches have a business side, with budgets, planned expenditures (such as support of missionaries and bible colleges), estimates and expectations of revenues (oooh, we’re talking tithes and offerings here). Building of buildings akin to buying of buses. Strategic plans for discipling of new converts. Having a business plan is not a sin.

  19. RobertM wrote:

    Oh well. There isn’t any way I can reply point for point to the replies against my comment.

    Suffice to say that I do not disagree with everything I have read on this blog. (For instance, I searched the archives recently for The Perrys, and Avery made a great observation about a bass guitar riff on a particular cut. I went back and listened to it — and he was right. That bass lick was top shelf.)

    This topic was calling into question an artist’s decision-making. Business or no-business, the ministry aspect should mean that the singer/group has a liberty (and, arguably, a responsibility) to obey God. If their decision-making is flawed, they will certainly pay a price down the road. But sg shouldn’t be about ‘great albums.’ (Here, someone will need to tell me that great albums are not wrong. ad nauseum.)

    I have not made up my mind about the author of this blog. Many articles, however, seem to be over-the-top negative. Maybe Avery believes that his borderline sg gnosticism (possessing the REAL knowledge) will lift the quality of concert entertainment, song selection, studio recording, and so forth. Maybe it will.

    Still, I think the ministry aspect is belittled. …And I’m not so sure that you’re correct about sg being nowhere without the Statesmen. (Mighty as they were.)

  20. RobertM wrote:

    With all respect, I would like to make one additional comment. Receiving compensation does not negate ministry value. Pastors nearly always receive some compensation for their preaching and other ministry activities. Unless you are LDS/Mormon, this is almost universally accepted. And, certainly, a laborer is worthy of his hire. …A position not without biblical support.

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