PT groups and the survival of the genre

Writing that post on The Eddies, I was reminded of an email exchange I had with a friend recently. Thus my friend:

For a lot of different reasons, most of the concerts I’ve attended of late have been those of part-time groups. The weekend warrior types. To borrow the favorite euphemism of the Baptists - the bi-vocational ministers (of song). I was thinking about this as I was reading Ben Harris’s comments as far as teases go. Because part-time groups interest me greatly. First of all, most of them kinda KNOW that the chances of making it big are probably not that great. So most likely they are singing and playing for the sheer joy of making [good] music, maybe thinking they’re making a difference ministry-wise, and maybe indulging their hidden desire to be adored by at least a handful of devoted locals. And they definitely run the spectrum from an ensemble best heard VERY occasionally during the special music portion of a country church service to polished professionals that run circles around the full-timers. The polished pros normally know their stuff, care more about their blend and vocal control than about matching suits or a fancy bus. Some of them have buses but they are 25-year old Eagles that have been paid for rather than the latest Prevost. Some of them even - gasp - have a band.

And the truth of the matter is that I’m thinking maybe they’re the key to the survival of the genre. If you think about the fact that in a struggling economy headed south very quickly where gas is over $3.00 a gallon on average and food prices are skyrocketing, etc., people are definitely much more in the mood for a love offering event than a big ticket price. Especially if they pay the ticket price and get an average to less than average performance. Even more startling was that I recently attended a ticketed holiday event for a part-time family group (definitely one in the class of the polished pros) and their attendance was four times that of a love offering concert two nights later for a full-time well-known family group with a string of hits! The most striking thing about these two events were that both groups used some of the same tracks for a couple of the Christmas songs and the part-timers definitely sang circles and then some around the full-timers.

There’s a lot to agree with in this post in the abstract. And I even think my friend could be right about PT groups and the survival of the genre … if the genre is only to survive meaningfully in the four or five states surrounding Tennessee, where my friend lives and where there is an inordinate amount of PT talent circulating in the downmarket, custom-recording, and part-time system. The Childress Family, of Shannon Childress fame, is a good example of the kind of top-notch PT group that is probably only possible within a few hours’ drive of Nashville.

But in places like Florida, where there’s a thriving audience for sg (at least during the snowbird season) but not enough of the right kind of artistic culture and religious tradition to generate good and regionally visible PT groups (or in Missouri, another state I’m familiar with, where there’s plenty of PT groups but not very many of the quality my friend describes above), a southern gospel genre built on the backs of weekend warriors would mean a dramatically contracted scope and scale for gospel as a musical and artistic tradition, not to mention as a valuable form of religious expression. And that seems to me a bad thing, assuming the only other alternative isn’t for the music to cease altogether (and I’m assuming that’s not the case, hard times though these may be for sg).

My own sense is that sg will continue to limp along and maybe even thrive in a few cases, but the gap between the those groups that are perceived to be elites (for instance, GV, BB, L5) and all the rest unevenly talented groups that continue to be taken seriously will grow wider economically, with a few groups like the Perrys and Gold City in the middle. Gaither, of course, and his heirs (at this point, namely Mark Lowry) seem well positioned to carry on with the mass-market commercialization of what probably ought to end up being called something like adult inspirational or inspirational gospel or something other than southern at any rate. Or so says the great Carnack on this fine Friday morning.

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  1. Ben Harris wrote:

    Since my name was mentioned and also the name of The Childress Family, I just had to leave a comment. First of all, The Childress Family from Madisonville, KY, in my humble opinion, are the finest mixed group going today, period! They are very talented, gifted musicians and singers, and their presentation in song is as close to flawless as mortals can be. They also live the life each and everyday and they can make those ole glory bumps run up and down my spine quicker than anyone I have heard. It is a shame that such talented people are not promoted by those in power of SG events. If the people of NQC, and various concert promoters cannot see the need and the long term benefit of bringing groups like the Childress to the attention of all fans in SG Music, then they are doing our genre a disservice. It seems that many in power would rather not give anyone new an opportunity to be heard, and in fact, there are times when I feel the opposite is true, that it is a wall of resistance that is meant to keep those unknown but very talented people from ever being heard. Good quality musicianship and vocals makes every one better, for it causes all of us to work that much harder to perfect our craft. Folks the Childress Family are the real thing. There is not another SG mixed group on the planet that is any better, if as good.

  2. Curt wrote:

    I agree with you Ben. The wall that is up in our industry is a huge one that seems almost impossible to scale. Only a hand full of people are truly interested in helping groups “Break In” to the industry.

    I can think of a couple of up and coming groups that deserve a chance on some major platforms. “The Living Waters Trio” and “The Oxendines” are two of my favorites. These two groups have been singing for several years and their voices are so mature and polished. I would love to see these two groups go to the top.

    I have never heard the Childress Family but you have peaked my interest. I will check them out today.

    Pray for the full time/weekend warriors!

  3. C.W. G. wrote:

    Wow - those are very high recommendations for sure. But, until the PT groups start paying the promotion bills with increased attendance it just doesn’t pay a promoter to use them in concert venues. It would be like trying to sell the whoever band instead of Garth Brooks to a C & W audience.

  4. Ben Harris wrote:

    C.W.G. I don’t disagree with you, but including some of these groups with a well known name is smart in the long run. Just recently the Florida Boys retired, and not too long before the it was The Cathedrals. If we keep excluding those great groups that no one heard of, we will continue to lose SG groups without them being replaced by quality groups. I think all promoters have a moral obligation to help the genre continue on, not just for the immediate.

  5. ST wrote:

    My question is can part-time groups be main stream groups? For instance, the group has radio success and all over the media and obviously have a good sound; however, they only do limited dates.

    I know in secular music they release CDs, get hit songs, and then tour. But what if they only do a few dates instead of a 9 month tour?

    Here in this post we’re talking about weekend warrior groups, but what if the group only does 10 or 20 dates a year - yet they have radio success and media success?

    Would not the professional groups who do 200 dates a year feel short-changed? I would feel like selling the bus, getting a job, and doing the same as long as I felt my music was successful in reaching people. Would this increase attendance because the concerts are so rare? But can the radio audience be a different audience than the concert audience?

    I realize economics come into play here. However, do you think sg genre is headed in this direction?

    I know I’m asking a lot of questions, but it is an interesting concept that I have no answers for. I’m simply wondering what others think.

  6. 2miles wrote:

    I’ve always wondered why more Gospel Groups didn’t do “Tours” instead of going out every weekend…If I remember correctly the Hinsons did this when they made their comeback before Kenny died…I’d rather Gold City, Kingsmen, Booths, etc…do 20 dates a year as part of a tour with a live band, etc. than be out there every weekend singing off of soundtracks…How feasible is this? I realize money is an issue….but isn’t it always? Wouldn’t it make more sense to find a “real job” (no disrespect intended) for 9 or 10 months out of the year and then tour for a couple with an act comparable in size and excitement to what the secular world has…I think this could be done…but I’m an admitted nobody so I don’t have a clue if this is possible…Any one out there think it could work?

  7. Al wrote:

    The dynamics are changing in the definition of “Pro” and “PT”. There, hopefully, will be the GV’s, etc. always! Because of technology and cost of travel, the “PT” (regional) groups have more opportunity than ever if they present a professional program. There is still a demand for well done SG music. Good business people can make a regional group work (with the Lord’s help). Bad business practices and poorly done music are the reason many regional groups do not make it. Whether anyone wants to admit this, we are in a free market society, even in SG. Good product (concerts and recordings) and good business practices most times will be rewarded with some level of sucess.

  8. Alan wrote:

    Doug, I think your friend was onto something when he said what he did. But in a sense, hasn’t it always been this way? A lot of concerts feature 2-3 groups of weekend warriors, who have the chance to sing, sell product, and set the stage for the marquis group(s) that follow. It rounds out the program, and is a win-win all the way around. But this one thing is true; with diesel fuel at $3.45 and unleaded gas near $3.00 per gallon, there’s about to be a major shakeup, and with a few exceptions, there’ll have to be. To park the bus and fly isn’t a viable alternative, either, as the airlines have passed the extra cost of fuel right along to those of us who fly with them all the time. We’re entering a time when many groups and/or soloists have to rethink the way we do business. Personally, by the time 12/31 arrives, I’ll have been away from home nearly 9 months of this year, and my travel costs will total up to be a lot more than most people earn in a year. Into this gap, why not promote local talent? People will still hear some good music, and receive a blessing. And ultimately, isn’t that what it’s all supposed to be about?

  9. Jay wrote:

    I agree, to some point. But, last year, I tried to help one of these groups that you mentioned break into a new area. I was more than willing to take a chance on them. I had admired them for several years, but when I heard them again at NQC in ‘06, I decided to schedule them for my area for September of ‘07. I also had plenty of money set aside to more than take care of them. They obviously didn’t care enough about adding to their fanbase, or to try to make this date sucessful for themselves. Long story short, they canceled on me a week or so before the date - stating that they didn’t have another date in the area.
    We usually have tremendous crowds, and my people buy like crazy. Yeah, they lost out - BIG TIME. I just put that $$$$ back into the budget, and will use it on someone else next time. I just don’t get what they were thinking….

  10. Ben Harris wrote:

    Jay, we have traveled to do dates when we had nothing else around those dates at all. Unless it is sickness or death, if we promise we are going to be somewhere on a given date, we are there, period. I don’t like canceling dates thats for sure, and we don’t do it, its just bad business.

  11. Robert wrote:

    I promote concerts in my area and I use PT groups to open every concert. In February I do a concert with just PT groups performing. I have found that the PT groups ministr to the people more than most of the full time groups. There are many PT groups that have as good of a group, song and voices as FT groups.
    I would encourage anyone that attends concerts to look up PT groups that are prefroming in your area and attend one of these concerts. You will find many of them singing in Churches in your on Sundays.

  12. ST wrote:

    #11 Robert - Your comment reminded me of some statements I have heard from several Pro SG artists. As I sat on their bus with the group I was with and a couple of other Pro group owners they looked out across the football field as a few local / regional groups opened up the singing. Here’s what they said: “If these part-time groups would just go home, we could make a living.”

    Though I did not say nothing, here’s what I thought. First, you used to be a part-time group! Second, if it wasn’t for the part-time group drawing the local crowd, I wonder how many would be sitting in those seats to listen to you.

    I agree with you that some part-time groups have more God on their ministry than some of the pros.

    I also heard another promoter recently say that he brought in the Pro groups just because that’s what sold the tickets. However, some of the other groups he used was for the purpose of true ministry.

  13. A. Nonymus wrote:

    Re: Posts 11 & 12
    If some of these pro groups that think they’re the be all-end all for SG music would fold up and get real jobs, or at least bring their egos down several notches, Southern Gospel Music might be an enjoyable field to work in. I’ve worked some big time dates with booked with some big time groups, and I’ve witnessed first hand how some of the groups would rather slit your throat than your group get a bigger reaction from the audience, or make a dime less than you do at the product table and its sad. Really sad.

  14. Dean Adkins wrote:

    “There are many PT groups that have as good of a group, song and voices as FT groups.”

    Yes, but those bad PT groups that sing on and on and on and….can sure turn a lot of people off.

  15. Robert wrote:

    Dean. I always have seen and heard in person the PT groups I use. I don’t use a demo cd to base my decision on as you can’t get the feel they have for the ministry by listening to a cd. They usually get 25-30 minutes to open. FT groups get the rest of the evening. Concerts usually last three hours plus.

  16. Curt wrote:

    I was very disappointed to hear that they cancelled on you.

  17. SGM Fan wrote:

    It is a sad day when part time groups are considered to be a possibility in the survival of any musical genre. There are part time groups or acts in any aspect of the music industry, but it definitely feels like we have more than our fair share in Southern Gospel. I have had the privilege to travel both part time and full time. I agree that there is some tremendous talent out there in the part time groups. I also feel that the “Pros” have the responsibility to step it up and present a program and atmosphere that most part time groups would not be able to match. I traveled with a group for a short time that was part time, yet I dare say that their is not a full time group on the road today that could match the vocal quality and excellence these guys presented. A professional group, in my mind, should be at the very top of their craft. That is what they do to make a living. Here are the biggest problems I see facing most professional groups today.
    1. 200+ dates a year just to meet the bills. No other industry has top artists performing so many dates for so little compensation. There are many genres that have relatively heavy travel, but that is usually in a summer or spring tour with very few dates outside of that so time can be spent recording a quality project to be released with the next tour.
    2. lack of quality. The sound that professional groups are presenting has not changed or improved significantly since the early to mid 90’s. In some cases quality has started lacking.
    3. Changes in Personnel. Lately it seems that every time a group is on the brink of actually gelling and learning how to actually perform together, someone leaves.
    4. Oversaturation. Because there are so many groups (full time and part time), Southern Gospel events are no longer that at all. In many cases you can hear the same full time group in any given area at least 2 and in many cases 3 or more times a year. Secondly if you have part time groups that are constantly in the area and they are as good as the full time groups, then who is going to spend money to see the full time groups.
    Can Southern Gospel survive? Yes. Even with gas at record highs and expenses through the roof, if Southern Gospel artists will take time to re-evaluate how they do business and work to perfect their craft, they will be able to survive. Take the time to produce quality projects. Recording 10 songs vocals in 2 days is cost efficient, but in many cases leaves results that are less than desired. Evaluate marketing strategies. Professional artists need to gear their program toward making it an experience that people want forget. Many people have mentioned the ministry aspect in this topic. Ministry should be a big part in what artists do and be the primary reason for doing it. Many artists have lost sight of that, sad to say. That is definitely an area that needs to be addressed. When people come to church, which is where most Southern Gospel concerts take place, they are looking to experience God. If professional artists are going to call themselves a ministry, then they need to allow God to use them to make the atmosphere conducive for people to have that experience. In a sense, “God, work through me.” “Here I am, use me.” If an artist is their for any other reason, then they should be referred to for what they are. No more than entertainment that happens to have a Christian emphasis. After all, ministry is so much more than singing songs that talk about Jesus. If an artists comes in as a ministry, they are in effect worship leaders. Just a few thoughts. I love the fact that there are so many part time groups and wish them all the best of luck. I just feel that the “Pros” need to step up and give the industry something to survive on.

  18. GospelMusicFan wrote:

    Poster #17 is on the right track when writing during item 4 about the business part of singing.
    In busines it is called sharpening your pencil to meet your goals.
    In the spirtiual realm, it is called good stewardship of what God has given you at your level of ministry.

  19. Jamey Lutz wrote:

    The Childress Family ministry to us is considered “Full Time” but we have full time jobs also. Most of the full time groups have other means of income in addition to there ministry. In todays rising economy the added income has become essential just to survive. We must pray for all our ministry friends that “God will supply all our needs thru his riches in glory.”
    To Ben, our true friend “Thank You” for the kind comments. Its friends like you that makes life’s journey and ministering of the gospel a lot easier.

  20. DD wrote:

    Interesting post by #19, I’m part of The Pathfinders. We recently received a great review by Daniel Mount on our latest CD and he used the term “regional group” to describe us. We too consider ourselves as “Full Time” with Full Time Jobs as well. We travel from from Ohio to Florida to Arkansas and are still considered regional. We feel our talent is good enough to perform on stage with the “Pros”. Recently it seemed the “Pros” (BFA and FB) felt comfortable enough to sing in a church we minister to, in the middle of no where South Carolina for a love offering, only a couple weeks apart. So are the PT’s taking money away or are the Pros just hanging on.

  21. ST wrote:

    What about groups who used to sing FT that are now PT? For instance, Tony Gore puts the old group together only on certain occasions. Now it looks like RAC are going to do limited dates. Is PT the new FT? Do you think NQC should require groups to be FT or do a certain amount of dates before allowing them on main stage?

  22. cdguy wrote:

    The original post talked about PT groups in the southeast, but there are a lot of PT groups in the midwest, as well. I sang in a group in Indiana for several years, and there was a GLUT of wannabe’s, doing exactly what’s been described here — singing and ministering in churches, school auditoriums & gyms, county fairs, lions clubs, etc. And just like the FT groups that graced the same venues, some were very good, and some were not. Some really ministered to the people, some did not. But they all had the same love for the music (and hopefully love for the Lord) as the full times.

    I remember one little community center we used to play in northen Indiana (about 3 times each year). It was a community carry-in dinner sponsored by a rural church. They would usually have fewer than 50 people, but the love offering was generally more than a lot of churches of 200+ would give on a Sunday morning.

    I don’t know about PT groups being the future of the industry, but just about every FT group I can think of started as PT. And most of the individuals in FT s/g ministry today started with a PT group. It’s called “paying your dues”.

    Kudos to those “weekend warriors”!!!

  23. Gradie Hartley wrote:

    With $4 diesel fuel and a saturated SG market, don’t be surprised to hear of more fulltimers cutting back. Simple economics: supply and demand. When the supply is up the demand will go down. When the demand drops so does the price. Like any other industry, the creme will rise to the top and develop a product that is preferred to their competition. Which in turn, will result in busier schedules and more CD sales (only the strong survive). Run of the mill groups with nothing special to offer will not be as busy.

    Most everyone can tell you the demand for SG is down a lot right now. Whether it’s the poor economy or failure to provide a quality product, people aren’t flocking to what SG has to offer. I think it’s a great eye opener for those of concerned about the future of gospel music to ensure we do the very best we can to change this. We can no longer stand still and expect God to bless it just because it’s gospel music. We have to provide something that people will enjoy. So much is done in gospel music that’s so amateurish and silly…and it’s usually pretty easy for newcomers to see through it.

    For instance, if a DJ introduces a top 10 song and the graduate of a 5th grade music class can tell you it’s not musically correct, a person that is listening for the first time turns a deaf ear to SG it makes the whole industry look like a joke. It happens everyday.

    I’ll quit, my soapbox is about to cave in.

  24. SGM Fan wrote:

    #19 and #20

    I think the definition of full time needs to be looked at. My definition of a full time job is that it is the primary source of my income. “Full Time” is in many cases is used instead of “Professional” to describe those groups that are doing this for a living. You also can’t qualify yourself as a full time group because you happen to venture more than 500 miles from home base 2 or 3 times a year. There are plenty of regional groups that travel fairly heavy schedules. Furthermore, if I have a full time job that is not the primary source of my income, then I evaluate whether to continue it. Now as a second or part time job, the weight is not as heavy for my dependency on its income. In your cases, you may travel in many different states. The bulk or majority of your dates are within a certain radius of your home base, usually less than 500 miles. That is the main reason you would be described as “Part Time” and or “Regional”. Keep up the good work and maybe you will be able to be considered full-time oneday.

  25. Leebob wrote:

    It is the local PT groups that are opening up new doors every weekend to churches that once were not open to this particular style music. When we go out and sing and have teenagers look at our table it is because something different than what they are already hearing on local CCM has been presented to them. Do we reach every teenager? I seriously doubt it. But we do introduce them to national groups and encourage them to go to national events when we know about them. Cross promoting is usually not a very popular thing when working with limited numbers but get this: we are interested in promoting the music, NOT OURSELVES.

    Yes there is a wall in the industry but there is a bigger wall within the churches built by younger music ministers who have turned full table on SG. Remeber the 80s when music ministers did everything they could to keep CCM out of the church. It is payback time now because those same “deprived” children of the 80s are the worship leaders of the 00s. They are ready to deprive the rest of the church. Furthermore they have created two churches within the same walls by having a “contemporary” service and a “traditional” service.

    The PT groups are now at the point of having to scale these walls and open up “new” music to old churches. Maybe we should campaign it like this: Discover Southern Gospel All Over Again.

  26. Andrea Sizemore wrote:

    I don’t know if they are FT or PT but I was in Pigeon Forge the a couple of months ago. My husband bought tickets for Country Tonight Theater. The show started at 7:30 and as the curtain was opening, the emcee announced Young Harmony. My husband and I both were completely surprised. They did 20 minutes of Gospel music and brought the house down. I had never heard them live, but really enjoyed what they had to offer. Is this something that other groups are doing now? I know that the Kingdom Heirs and Signature Sound are doing it, now Young Harmony, do you know of any others? They must be making pretty good to keep doing this. I think they announced that Young Harmony was scheduled 3 days a week at Country Tonight in 2008, I am not certain about the others. Anyone know more on this?

  27. jb wrote:

    I really don’t think that it matters. When we get to heaven, God is not going to ask us if we were part time singers or full time singers, just if we served Him, however, I agree that full time means that it is your main income.

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