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.Email this Post