Roy Pauley’s June column in the Singing News has all the makings of an interesting read: “Gospel Music’s Biggest Blunders.” And indeed it’s arguably true that, as Pauley has it, prematurely parking the Gospel Singing Caravan and consistently inducting gospel greats into the hall of fame posthumously have lastingly diminished the long-term viability of gospel music (I say arguably true because I don’t know enough history around the Caravan to say one way or another if Pauley’s right and in the case of the hall of fame, it’s unclear to me that the HOF’s role goes beyond the curatorial and actually serves to promote and grow white gospel music as a religious artistic tradition). I’m not sure these rise to the level of superlative failures suggested by his title, but they’re interesting ideas all the same.
That said, of course, two of the three “biggest blunders” in gospel music, according to Uncle Roy, happened before 1980. This is not terribly surprising. Pauley has little to say of interest or use about anything that happened after 1975 or so. And too, it is puzzling why, precisely, Doy Ott’s getting booted from the Statesmen in the mid-1970s counts as one of the most important missteps in gospel music. Would Ott’s staying have lastingly altered the landscape or prospects for gospel music more broadly? Pauley doesn’t say (maybe because it sure looks like Pauley’s getting less space in the magazine than he used to, or am I imagining things?). In fact, he actually makes a pretty strong case that the real blow to the “Statesmen magic” was Jim Wetherington’s untimely death in 1973 and the affect his death had on Hovie Lister. Contra his own thesis, Pauley’s treatment of Ott’s dismissal leaves the impression that firing Ott was just more unfortunate fallout from that earlier tragedy. But anyway … best not to contemplate the imponderable logic of serial nostalgia at work in Pauley’s “Opinion.”
Unceremoniously, then, let me offer a few contenders for a more comprehensive list of Gospel Music’s Biggest Blunders. Please feel free to add yours and/or quibble with mine, for I’m sure I’ll miss (or misstate) something. In order of historical importance:
1. Southern gospel’s surrender of its influence and active participation in the Gospel Music Association, which – lest we forget – was founded by what is today known so parochially as “southern” gospel. The old guard – represented most prominently by Les Beasley, who sits as a founding member of the GMA board but has little more than titular influence – couldn’t have stopped the drift toward more contemporary tastes that gave rise to CCM in all its variegated forms. But a savvier, less petty and more visionary leadership would have seen that “southern” gospel could play a profoundly important role in shaping Christian entertainment as the founding artistic tradition of GMA, and in the process elevate its own status in the bargain. As it is, sg is at best a quaint bemusement to GMA, at worst (and more often) the bumpkin brigade.
2. Southern gospel artists’ giving away their own farm to Gaither in the 1990s. There’s a lot to this issue that is both beyond me and the space I have to give it now, but with 15 or so years at our back since the Homecoming phenomenon took off, it’s pretty clear that the terms on which artists agreed to appear on the Homecoming tour and videos redounded almost without exception to Gaither’s benefit … and cut the rest of the industry entirely out of the bargain.
The basic deal, as I understand it, was this (please correct me where I’m wrong): Artists invited to appear on the Gaither tour and tapes signed a release that allowed Gaither and Co. to tape their performance and sell it (this is, by the way, the way things still are, with some minor variations; Gaither used to pay some travel expenses but no longer does so, for instance). In return, artists received the ability to buy finished Homecoming product at wholesale prices (the same as retailers receive) and sell it at their table. Gaither pays mechanical and what are known as “sync” royalties on all sales, but there is nothing paid for the performance, either live or on DVD sales. [Later note: artists who appear on the Homecoming tour live performances receive a modest flat fee for their appearance … thanks to TK for bringing this up]
This “deal” seemed worth it initially, on the theory that Gaither’s rising tide would lift all boats, that the exposure artists would get in the bargain would elevate their careers and cement their status in the broader world of Christian music, make them stand out from among the rest of sg. What you take be “success” will determine whether or not you judge the result to have confirmed or debunked that original theory. The Isaacs strike me as the best example of a group that parlayed their relationship with Gaither into real gains in audience, demographic exposure, and sales. EHSSQ may well follow, but it’s not clear yet that they can sustain their current level of success once the Homecoming umbilical chord gets cut. David Phelps certainly hasn’t, but then again he also seems to be doing ok on his own, too.
What of the rest? Setting aside the clutch of old timers whose careers were revived in the 5 or 10 years before their death, there are those artists who have come and gone from the tour with relatively little change in their professional trajectory (or disappeared altogether): The Hoppers, The Martins, any number of soloists. That leaves a handful of artists who have essentially arrested their own development in the first phase of things, with their attachment to Gaither, without ever trying to capitalize on that association and launch off anew and improved on their own. The Easters, Jessy Dixon, Ivan Parker, Lynda Randall. There may be others.
For the moment, I’m not interested in debating whether or not Gaither has been “good” for these artists’ careers (and of course it’s possible that any of these artists and/or others have their own, financially more equitable arrangements with Gaither). Nor am I interested in debating the fairness or the ethics of having artists, many of whom were under contract to non-Gaither entities, appear with Gaither for free – though that’s certainly a debatable issue (one of the more fascinating ironies of this situation is that in order for the labels whose artists were appearing for free on the Homecoming tour to recoup on the loss created by these artists’ Gaither appearances, the losing labels would first have had to sue their own artists for breach of contract, secure a judgment against those artists, and then go after Gaither for inducing the original breach – a scenario that required the labels to essentially cannibalize themselves in order to get at any portion of the profits their artists were helping generate on the Homecoming tour … obviously no one chose that route).
But for the moment, my interest is in the fact that artists signed themselves, their rights, and their artistic value as Homecoming performers – en masse – over to Gaither & Co. This sort of arrangement is all but unheard of, not just in the music industry more broadly, but in publishing, television, and film. And for good reason. Not only does it imply a fairly low estimation of what an artist’s contributions are “worth.” Practically speaking, it has had the effect within the southern gospel industry of vastly widening the gap between Gaither’s success … and everyone else’s struggle. Normally, with compiled work, one label or entity asks another for a side-artist appearance agreement – reflected in those “So and So appears courtesy of Such and Such” statements in liner notes when guest appearances are involved. In addition, the interested parties set up a 6-10% royalty rate, pro-rate it and divide it among the artists involved in the product. This didn’t happen here and the consequences have been vast, for everyone involved.
I can’t say for sure I would have done differently had I been one of the artists offered a spot on the Homecoming tour. More to the point, the lack of any apparent hesitation on artists’ part suggests just how badly the industry craved a savior or a life boat of some kind, even during what we now know was the relatively stable days of the early 90s, compared to now. Obviously, there’s a case to be made from an artistic/religious perspective that Gaither saved gospel music, and that he rightfully profited off a concept that was (more or less) his and that this is all sour grapes. But if Gaither did save gospel music, it was a salvation that arguably impoverished a good deal of the industry in the bargain, not least of all the artists who signed themselves away, as well as the other artists left out in the rain trying to convince audiences who became quicky accustomed to Gaitherized sg that what was left of southern gospel wasn’t all wet.
3. The industry’s cheap, orgasmic embrace of digital band tracks/eliminating live instrumentation from the gospel music stage. The trend in southern gospel toward preferring the appearance of sophistication to actually achieving real artistic excellence can, I would argue, be traced in large part to the disappearance of the live stage band (and this desire for the appearance of succes also probably accounts for part of what more secretly drove so many artists to take the Gaither “deal” above; this, we should note, leaves unsettled the question of whether Gaither’s “deal” to Homecoming artists was an exploitation of small-time performers desperate for the heat of brighter limelights or one of the smartest bidness moves in modern music-industry history). Artists still want to be taken seriously artistically, but nine out of tend of them ultimately decide it’s easier to make jokes about their band leader, Mr. Sony, and justify the corner-cutting by telling themselves that making a joyful noise on the cheap is still a joyful noise.
Artists aren’t only to blame because their labels have abetted the process. Imagine what it would be like if labels only invested in groups they believed in enough to send out on the road with a full band and backing vocal support. No cheesy bgvs from a can. No over-amped instrumental tracks. There’d be far fewer groups out there, obviously. But judging by how satured the market is with steamy crap, I can’t see a market contraction, spurred by a survival of the fittest and calibrated by the artistic judgment that could or should reside in every major label, to be a bad thing.
If you’re going to really take seriously what makes gospel music good, you’ve got to invest in the live experience of the music. … live bands are what make (or made) possible that excitement that comes from seeing the band leader count off to the rest of the band, of anticipating that last big drum kick when you see the drummer’s head go down and the sticks go up, of watching as Hammil or Rex or Tim Riley turned to the players to call the next tune and wonder … what will it be?
Contrast this expectancy and anticipation to the current state of static affairs: Even “live” recordings these days are almost always heavily mortgaged to canned band tracks (see BFA in NYC and L5 in Music City). It’s not so much that these recordings are bad (they’re not, actually); it’s that we don’t expect more of them to begin with.
Which is to say, the demise of the live band dragged almost everything else about showmanship and production – on and off the stage – down with it.
4. The NQC/Gaither Vocal Band split. It’s not the only reason NQC is on the decline. Even if Gaither were still coming to Louisville in September, the industry would have to grapple with the diminished prospects for white gospel music in Christian entertainment. But NQC’s inability to bring Gaither back to Freedom Hall is emblematic of the larger poverty of vision afflicting the industry’s flagship enterprise. By extension, this implicates the industry at large, which has too often valued blind loyalty and indiscriminate fealty to concentrated knots of power and influence over artistic integrity (see No. 3 above). Not to mention that in this case, Gaither at NQC is smart bidness too.
The best NQC has to offer us at the moment is the American Gospel Music undertaking, a puzzling fizzle of an enterprise that, even if it were to succeed, would only further erode the Quartet Convention’s integrity by casting all but a handful of NQC’s artists as – quite literally – spiritually and artistically unworthy to be associated with the NQC-backed AGM brand. Royght. Instead of launching an administratively bloated, cripplingly risk-averse attempt to replicate Gaither’s success at brand recognition, NQC should be doubling down on its core product - The National Quartet Convention - and doing whatever it takes to reassociate NQC with Himself. In this NQC’s 50th anniversary, it would be a fine year for a Gaither Homecoming Presents: A Half Century of the NQC, Live from Freedom Hall.
What have I missed?
*Edited for minor corrections
Update: David Bruce Murray makes a suggestion for an NQC/Gaither event:
If I were on the NQC board, I would try to set up a deal where Gaither’s film crew was in the building most of the week getting footage, from which NQC would receive a split of all profits. In exchange, I would let Gaither have a 1/6 share of the week’s ticket revenue, and he’d have complete control of the Saturday evening program…using his own artists just like it was a regular Homecoming tour event.
NQC is losing artists in the exhibit hall on Saturday night and I’ve heard attendance is down on Saturday as well. Fans are slowly realizing they don’t have the full benefit of meeting everyone in the exhibit hall on Saturday night, and let’s face it, the exhibit hall is as much of a draw as the evening performances on the main stage.
A Homecoming event on the last night of NQC would bring in new blood fans who might even make it a two or three day trip. Regular NQC goers would stay for Saturday night as well, because of the variety that a Homecoming event would offer.
Later Update: Another reads adds a blunder to the list that I missed:
I’d hypothesize that another mistake is the over-focus on radio chart success at the expense of sales success. The money and energy put into chart positioning stupefies me because anyone will tell you it’s completely unassociated with sales success. It really is a phenomenon unique to this genre. I could write a book on how this has hurt the business, but it might simply be symptomatic of the ego-driven nature of our business.
Even later update: An email this afternoon proposed a new blunder worth adding:
The Benson Co.’s campaign during the late 80’s and early 90’s to remove sg from CBA (The Association for Christian Retail). The effort to cut sg off from mainstream retail produced a kind of economic drought, creating the conditions under which the industry went looking for a saviour in the first place.