NQC 08: Getting on the mainstage

Perhaps no greater bone of contention gets chewed over year after year at NQC than the mainstage line up each evening, and inevitably the squabbling and discontent comes down to the newish groups who may have generated a lot of excitement but still don’t manage to get a mainstage slot, while a group like the Workmen, who sang execrably and had at best a regional following but good connections to the NQC board, ended up for years with a first-rate spot on the evening lineup.

So what gives? Most people are inclined, I think, to assume the most ungenerous explanation – self-dealing, score settling, cut-throat rivalries etc – and the clubby nature of NQC as a business organization only encourages this cynicism. But, as a friend reminded me recently, these sorts of situations are often way over-thought.

How does Frank Arnold decide who to book? How does Bob Brumley decide who to book?  How does Ray Flynn decide who to book?  There are no rules in any of this. Despite the persistent rumor/myth that there is some quasi-formula or notional criteria that NQC uses to make mainstage selections - like time on the road or volume of sales - NQC lineups are the process of the same sort of subjective decision-making promoters use to determine who they think their market will buy a ticket to come see (the only consistent criterion I’ve ever heard mentioned is that a group has to tour full-time, whatever that means). 

Of course no mere mortal gets to sit in on the who-will-get-on-mainstage-next-year meetings.  But if I had to guess, I’d say 85% of the decisions are no-brainers. Start with NQC owners: L5, GV, Kingdom Heirs, and so on (I don’t recall the full roster of board members off the top of my head). Judging from the schedule, NQC owners’ groups get three nights each. Then move on to the obvious fan favorites who don’t have a financial stake in NQC. These are the people selling tickets to events around the country (Booth Bros, Jeff & Sherri, etc.). That takes care of more than three-quarters of the lineup.

The last 10-15% is where it gets subjective. For example, it’s pretty common knowledge that Les Beasley had a long term, deeply connected relationship with J.G. Whitfield, so it shouldn’t have been a huge surprise to find Whitfield’s group on the lineup despite their modest renown and ability in the contemporary sg scene.

Similarly, Charlie Burke, if I recall rightly, has or had some kind of ownership interest in the Reggie Sadler Family, so no shock to find the Sadlers getting mainstage exposure.

What you think of this method of determining mainstage lineups is most likely a function of your place on the gospel music food chain. To the true insiders making these decisions, it’s just bidness. Not nefarious, not clandestine, just reasonable give-and-take among a bunch of guys who ultimately just want to sell tickets. To the average fan whose favorite group fails to make the mainstage, the process may take on a less savory tint. 

My own complaint is less about transparency, though I think the NQC junta board could improve its image a thousand percent if it’d realize you don’t have to be doing anything wrong to be perceived badly. Rather, I wonder about all the great moments we’ve missed by NQC’s tendency to wait and see if a new group pans out or not before putting them on the mainstage. 

Listening to the N’Harmony 2.0  cuts on the group’s myspace page, I was thinking how exciting it would be to see and hear a new young group like this on the mainstage at the peak of their debut buzz. But if history is any guide (L5, Mercy’s Mark, Mike and Kelly Bowling etc), a new group like this won’t get on the mainstage for at least a year after they launch professionally and sometimes more than that. It’s not that great music can’t happen from established acts. Which is too bad, because there’s a certain kind of moment that can be created when new or freshly recombined talent steps on the stage and nails it and just for a second makes everyone else around them look like also-rans.

I guess one way to look at it is that the mainstage is a rite of passage in a deeply traditional culture that values deference and playing by the rules over innovation and the buzz of the new. In this view, groups have to earn the right to appear there, pay their dues, prove their worth etc.

The assumption implicitly at work here is that NQC is a gatekeeper of quality, but if that’s true, their quality control mechanism is deeply flawed. Instead of spotlighting the best music, this proven-commodity approach to selecting mainstage talent winds up valuing a Darwinian survivability that in sg often has very little to do with musical ability or talent as a performer. There’s certainly less risk in selecting known quantities; the kind of fans who keep a group going for two or three years are the kind of die-hards who show up at NQC.

But imagine if the original Mercy’s Mark would have been able to do on the mainstage in front of 15,000-20,000 people what they did in that badly lit box of an expo ballroom in front of a couple hundred hearty souls back in 2004. Or Legacy 5 with Josh Cobb in the round at Freedom Hall instead of scrunched up on that small, shadowy east-wing platform in 1999.

Set aside what you know became of these groups ultimately. The question isn’t so much about whether an earlier appearance on the mainstage would have made an appreciable difference in the professional trajectories of these groups, but what breakout showstoppers on the mainstage would do for NQC’s image, transforming it from the assembly line of known quantities to the annual place to be if you don’t want to miss the moment the next big thing is born.

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  1. Chris wrote:

    I’ve already commented about this 2 posts back, but this is an appropriate place for this. It should be called the EASTERN QC. No one west of the Mississippi gets invited. In the past, a California group was on the mainstage. But one of the members was responsible for supplying all the pianos for the convention. I’m sure that helped get them there, but at least the West was represented.

  2. Sissey wrote:

    I thought Michael Booth was on the NQC Board as of Last year.

  3. Trent wrote:

    #1, Chris, you are talking about the Songfellows. See Avery’s comment about the Workmen…same concept. The group just wasn’t up to par with the rest of the main stage lineup. No offense against the folks in the group (I loved Bob Jones, Sr), but they just weren’t as strong vocally as most of the other male quartets.

    Avery, I’m with you, man. Of course, everybody thinks they have the meat and potatoes to be the next big thing, but I’d love to see some up-and-coming groups have a shot at it. The fact that I’m in an up-and-coming group also spurs me to say that, I guess. I’d love to see Mercy’s Well, the Collingsworth Family, the Childress Family, my group, and a myriad of others have a shot at the stage on a special night of the week next year. This would electrify the crowd in my opinion.

  4. PR wrote:

    There’s no need to rehash the regional versus pro argument, but as I sat in Monday’s artist showcase I was thinking of how some of the groups that took that stage like the aforemention Childress Family, a trio called Master’s Voice, and The Homesteaders Quartet would really infuse some new blood into that awe-inspiring mainstage. It’s always good to see and hear the “biggies” and I think it’s important to maintain some standards (albeit ambiguous to the casual observer) for those who get the shot to sing to “everyone”. Yet not attempting to expose “everyone” to some of these excellent unknowns who are great assets to the industry is just a shame.

  5. Tony Watson wrote:

    Michael Booth is not on the NQC board. He may be on the advisory board or whatever. They are, however, one of the biggest drawing groups currently in SG music.

    I don’t know the rules currently, but in the past, groups had to be in existence for a full year before they were allowed a spot on the main stage.

    I think the board does a great job of getting the best groups who generate the best response from the largest amount of people. That’s what makes a successful concert event.

  6. Leebob wrote:

    Chris - EXCELLENT POINT!!!! I am going to throw out there my whole thoughts on the NQC idea and philosophy as a whole.

    NQC, like everything else in life, is about who you know. More than anything else it is a money making venture. We have been invited a couple of times to go to some of the offshoot venues but time and financial constraints have kept us from it and I think we are probably better off for it. Our schedule is getting more full by the week and we haven’t had to have a overpriced booth at NQC to do so. We are better off financially at the end of NQC week because we chose not to go.

    I have said this many times, IF I ever go to NQC, it will be as a fan of the music who wants to enjoy it, not as a wannabe “supastah”. I hear alot of people bragging about having a booth at NQC. Another group that I respect and greatly admire spent $7500 in fuel, hotels, and fees to get the “opportunity” to sing for 20 minutes at an NQC knockoff. $60 in product sales later, I have yet to hear of one booking that they received from this. For the same money we can have a nice project and be recouped from table sales.

    We have no illusions of grandeur about going national, what we need to learn we do so while observing the groups I want to see in Terrell and Ft Worth, and we continue with our original purpose of bringing quality SG music to small and mid-size churches that cannot afford the price tag of the national groups. We have a seemingly unlimited supply of contacts and opportunities within a 300 mile radius.

    While I agree whole heartedly with Doug that an infusion of new blood would be refreshing, I think it is sad how many groups plan their whole year, financially and otherwise, around this one week and really not glean very much for their efforts. I just don’t think there is much logic behind the risk-reward factor.

    I would appreciate others thoughts that have actually been as to the benefit of going to NQC as a group.

  7. jbb wrote:

    So Tony, how did Southern Sound get on the stage? I understand you said “in the past”, and I know there’s no rhyme or reason to who gets on stage. SS didn’t do a bad job and I’m sure there are alot of other groups like them that could do well center stage. No disrespect intended. I’m looking forward tonight, after about 7:15.

  8. Brian wrote:


    I have been to the NQC many times. I could not agree more with you. My current ministry would not profit one thing by going and setting up a booth and watching people walk by. Not saying the following to brag but we had our transportation given to us this year if we wanted and a couple of showcases. But we really didn’t see the purpose other than just going to be going. We bascially said thanks but no thanks. While we appreciated the gesture and the confidence in us, it just wasn’t worth going still. We would have still wound up in the hole after paying for a booth in the back forty, food, lodging etc. I have found it much more enjoyable going as a fan and not as work. I had much rather just hang out with my friends. As I have told you before, we know our role and don’t pretend to be something we aren’t. No name dropping and inuendo to make you believe we are something we aren’t. We are what we are and strive daily to be what He wants us to be. And right now, thats not in some poorly lit booth watching people eat funnel cakes and waffle cones.

  9. Tony Watson wrote:

    #7 - the NQC Board makes all decisions regarding who gets on the main stage, who has showcases, etc. They literally “own” the convention and have financial interest in it. You would have to ask a board member what criteria they used for a particular group to be on the main stage. They have tough choices every year I know.

  10. Anthony Kees wrote:

    I hate to break it, but ever heard of the gospel mafia, that’s who decides it. with Les gone now, i’m not sure if it’s 4 or 5 now.

  11. Jim E. Davis wrote:

    Usually on Friday and Saturday evening we get to hear the winners of the talent contest at around 5:45 pm. Wonder if that could happen Monday through Thursday and we were introduced to at least one or two new groups in a preshow. That would give the board a chance to hear up and coming talent, experience the crowd response and make decisions on who could move to the main roster the following year.

  12. Leebob wrote:

    Brian #8….Thank you for your response. Maybe more groups would be in less of financial shambles if they would ask the best question ever when it comes to their financial situation and going to NQC.

  13. Trevor Haley wrote:

    Right on to those who mentioned the Childress Family. They are one of the most vocally consistent groups I have ever heard, and we have worked with them several times. They bring inspired songs and incredible vocals to the table. They were kind enough to allow us to record their song “Before I Called Him Father”, and we performed it on Monday night at NQC. I had a chance to hear the Homesteaders also on Monday afternoon for the first time, and was quite impressed - very solid sound.

  14. rodger wrote:

    N’Harmony 2.0 sounds like a force to be reckoned with, according to their sound clips. Better than 90% of the quartets out there. Solid line-up!, Fresh, Out of the Box!

  15. Daniel J. Mount wrote:

    #10–I believe Les Beasley is still on the board.

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