Disintermediation, part 1

GMA week is coming up soon and it’s got me thinking a lot about sg within the larger contexts of Christian music, and so about the the macro movements in music entertainment (As an aside, I can’t say I have high hopes for this year’s SGMG GMA week southern gospel event. The past few years have been so dreadful. But with Judy Nelon in charge this time round, it ought to be at the very least better.)

I guess in these sorts of economic hard times it’s easy to make grand pronouncements about fundamental realignments in The Way Things Are. But it’s still hard not to look at the state of southern gospel as an entertainment industry and see that many of the mainstay institutions and much of the core infrastructure are being profoundly realigned. Some of the main factors caught in the flux:

  • Status quo record companies that tinker at the margins with their business model but whose survival still relies on providing intermediary production and duplication services that are increasingly unnecessary or obsolete in their traditional form.
  • NQC – just take a look at this year’s line up. For reasons I’ll discuss below, NQC is no longer the weather-making force it once was. Gaither had to be effectively bribed to come back after getting the highhat from NQC several years ago, and membership on the board (and an ownership stake in the convention) doesn’t appear to hold the same allure it once did. Scott Fowler recently sold his NQC stock and is no longer a board member, and it will be interesting to watch the shifts in power and influence that will attend the process of replacing him (Fowler sold his stock to Stewart Varnado) and any other members who might be poised to  liquidate their stake in NQC.
  • Singing News – it’s is now a glossy pamphlet … advertising is way down as per most print publications, and though demographics probably insulate the magazine from the apocalyptic decline in subscribers that traditional periodicals are experiencing, it’s hard to not imagine subscriptions are down and declining at SN too. Meanwhile Salem stock is in the basement and the magazine seems actually be disinvesting in its website. Since Jim Cumbee left Salem, there’ve been noises about a group of sg investors trying buy the SN back from Salem, but there doesn’t appear to have exactly been a line of willing backers waiting to get in on the fourth decade of a dead-tree magazine with an aging subscriber base. Though the SN will probably be a round for a while yet, and could obviously still find a buyer, it’s demise in its current form is more than likely a matter of when, not if, at this point.
  • Status quo booking agencies
  • Unreconstructed radio charts
  • Artists who are increasingly unwilling to surrender the same portion of their brand and profits to intermediaries whose business model – providing radio-to-retail artist management – hasn’t been fundamentally redesigned since the middle part of the twentieth century. Even in a patriarchal culture like southern gospel, the days are just about gone when artists willingly give up as much of their intellectual property as they traditionally have in exchange for a recording contract from a wise old industry forefather. As one top-tier artist told me recently, “We can do all that ourselves now.” It’s mostly irrelevant whether they actually can or not. The fact that they think this and are willing to act on it is what matters.

Underlying the deterioration of these elements is the emergence of new media and their effect on music markets and content delivery. Direct to consumer is the coin of the new realm, and it’s difficult to overstate the shift that this new model represents for sg, whose reliance on older models is not just a product of inertia, but reflects a cultural predisposition to venerate established traditions and practices as something like a form of piety.

There was a time not very long ago when one guy – Maurice Templeton – owned a substantial portion of NQC stock, owned the Singing News, and owned the destination cruise line in Christian music.  Astride those three entities, he and interests loyal to him were sufficiently powerful that artists more or less had to meet the terms he set or influenced – had to drop everything for a week and go to NQC, had to do his cruises, had to pay the SN ad rates – or else face a silent phone, downticket billing at major concerts, and loss of support from the network of backscratching people and groups that steered business toward each other.

And now? Templeton’s gone, and though his departure did not by itself solely cause anything, it is emblematic of - and coincided with - the rapid decentralization of the sg industry in this decade.

For artists, the decentralization of power and influence in the post-Templeton industry means they’re far less afraid to say no, far less likely to be wary of making decisions that let them retain more control over their money and intellectual property. I don’t mean to sound like some knee-jerk populist here. Artists enabled the dysfunctional, exploitative system that they increasingly claim to chafe under, and in many cases, they only think they now what they’re doing on their own.

Indeed, this congenital amateurism is one reason the Templeton model thrived for so long. Looked at one way, he was good not only for the continuity of all the enterprises he influenced and kept going in the industry, but also for the artists whose contracts and masters and fear of falling out of favor helped prop up these special interests.

One could debate whether or not Templeton was too powerful. But I’m more interested in the way his power - and the image of him as a powerbroker - helped hold things together, as is the case in any system with highly centralized power and massive wealth concentrated within a very tight cluster of dealmakers.

Many artists - almost a generation, in fact, maybe more - behaved not unlike the last few generations of conservative Christian voters: aligning themselves against their economic self-interest with a power structure that distracted ordinary folks from the redistribution of their money upward by keeping the focus on ideogoical issues related to shared religious and cultural values (and no, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many sg types are conservative Christian voters or that southern gospel’s socioeconomic structure should for so long have mirrored broader patterns within American Christian conservatism).

Some artists I’ve talked to think things are unraveling now, and insofar as the old system probably is giving way to something else, that’s no doubt true. But given the chronic decline the southern gospel industry has experienced for the past 15 odd years, it’s hard to see how this is an inflection point of any kind. Rather, it seems that the most recent wave of decentralization within the industry brought with it a delayed recognition of what’s been afoot for years now. In this,  sg echoes the current socioeconomic situation at large: in both, we see a fairly recent and rapid collapse of unstable and unsustainable dynamics that for so long were mistakenly thought to be invincible but were really paper giants.

So what’s next? I’ll tackle that in another post soon. But for now, it’s enough to say that the future looks not all bad for artists who end up establishing largely disintermediated relationships with loyal fan bases.

In the jargon, these groups of fans are known as “tribes,” and in the sg of the future they may draw significantly from the traditional sg crowd but, with the help of new media business models, will also bring in a lot of people who are there for the artist’s personality and community and who don’t buy in to the wider sg culture and industry and won’t be only or even primarily about music. Artist management gives way in this new era to tribal management.

In addition to displacing the album as the basic unit of exchange, this trend will also mean, among other things, that music from within the stylistic sphere of sg will become a more deeply subcultural genre - maybe even sub-subcultural - that fragments into a series of loosely connecting fan groups (this is already happening, actually).

These subcultures may intersect at events like NQC or Homecoming, but they’ll probably increasingly drift away from each other and exist primarily as distinct entities with their own orbits and dynamics sustained in virtual communities – a development that will make them both less vulnerable to broader market shifts and more easily overlooked  by the average outsider who only knows how to look for familiar entry points (concerts, retail, radio) that we’ve traditionally associated with a genre of music like “southern gospel.”

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  1. Extra Ink wrote:

    I am agreeing with you on most of these points. I sat in a a little mini lecture by Canaan’s Dave Clark at a WAJ in Hendersonville about a year ago. He indicated an interest in selling the artists’ name recognition to boost public interest. In fact, he said that Canaan would pursue that angle in the future. In other words the artist himself would be the “brand”.

    You are spot on about he diversification of SG…reminds me a lot of what has been going on in country music for a long time. You now have everything from George Jones’ traditional sound (McKameys, Inspos) to Big & Rich (Crabb Revival) and umpteen sub-levels and sub-genres within the country scene. An optimist could view the diversity as healthy and ultimately productive artistically & monetarily for the genre. A traditionalist could view it pessimistically and see it all as the beginning of the end of great country music.

    The problem is that I don’t know where I stand on any of it. I like a lot of the old style stuff, I like a lot of the new style stuff, but I’m not sure I like it all being under the same umbrella. I really cannot explain why.

  2. Tim wrote:

    I see another genre within a genre. Bluegrass Gospel. With artist like Doyle Lawson, The Primitives, The Isaacs and some others. This style closely appeals to those that follow the Mountain Gospel of The McKameys and Inspirations yet brings in fans of Traditional Country and secular Bluegrass. At the same time Gold City, Booth Brothers, Triumphant, Dove Brothers, Talleys etc… keep working to expand SG. Look at it like this. Country music is bigger now than when it was primarily a Grand Ole Opry driven genre. If we keep encouraging diversity, we will continue getting the benefit of expansion

  3. Charles Brady wrote:

    Print is leaving faster than the Pony Express!! It is a big deep hole that sucks in tons of capital. And capital is something hard to come by these days. The end of this year should bring some interesting revelations!!

  4. Kyle wrote:

    The problem with expansion in Southern Gospel is that there will always be a group of die-hard traditionalists who insist that anything other than a piano and two mic’s is the devil…..

  5. Irishlad wrote:

    Just bought the Le Fevre qt cd(Nothin’ but good)and i think it showcases the way sg is heading. Know something too? It wasn’t half bad at all.It really does look like(to me at least) sg has a fairly healthy future.

  6. Aaron Swain wrote:

    #5: I really liked it as well, because it was something different. I let my friend who is something of an SG historian listen to it, and he made the comment that it sounded like an Imperials project.

    Take what you will from that; I thought he was referring to the fact that it atypical of the genre.

  7. GospelMusicFan wrote:

    Yes, commentator #4 stated it well about printer is leaving faster than the Pony Express.
    The only problem is that the internet is feeding the world of procrastination.
    Most everyone is spreading out too thin creating and maintaining various places on the internet.
    Some content has you wonder if the owner of the site are discouraging business for their services which I do not believe is the case.
    Some SG places on the internet are horror shows.
    Its is has been stated that quality is better than quantity.

  8. cdguy wrote:

    Aaron - #5 - I’ve not heard this project yet, but I had the same response as your your friend to their previous cd “Total Praise”. It made me think this group is to today what the Imps were in the late 60’s-to-early 70’s.

    And that ain’t a bad thing.

  9. Part-timer wrote:

    I appreciate your analysis of art and industry and always get something from it.

    However, I’m more than a little offended by your arrogant condescension toward the voting habits of millions of Christians like myself.

    It is true that social issues (abortion mostly) are an important reason I choose oconservative candidates. But that does not mean that I check my brain or my pocketbook at the polling place door.

    You seem to think that I am so “distracted” by the mean old abortionists and those marrying gays in San Francisco that I get the vapors and don’t notice anything else. Please.

    You may know (you may not) that the top half of earners in this country pay almost 96 percent of ALL the taxes collected by the U.S. treasury. I’m unsure how that means my money is being “redistributed upward.” Seems to me to be the other way around.

    My household is not in that top half, and yet I still think that segment is paying more than its fair share. And maybe I’d like to work so that I can be in that top half, and I’d like to keep more of what I earn when I get there. Perhaps that is the reason for my conservative economic views. Perhaps we “ordinary folks” are a little smarter than you think we are.

  10. WA wrote:

    Part-Timer…a big Amen! How true. Actually, the numbers are these: the top 20% of earners pay 80% of the total taxes. When you extrapolate the numbers even further, the top 5% of earners pay an exorbitant share of taxes already. So, call it what you wish, what this new “government” is doing is pure socialism.

    And please don’t worry over the condescending remarks here…any of us who aren’t completely liberal - both on social and economic issues - are fairly always belittled. Take it as a badge of honor! We know which “side” usually resides on God’s side in matters like abortion, same-sex marriage, etc., and that’s all we need.

  11. j-mo wrote:


    I think the vast majority of people here know what side God is on regarding abortion, homosexuality and all the other stuff that people less conservative than you are supposedly “for”. I think any reasonable person can see that the disagreement within this group is less about sin or not sin and more about how God wants us to deal with it.

    It gets very frustrating how the most conservitave people here seem to always think that if someone disagrees with their policies on something, then that person is automatically “for” whatever is being discussed.

  12. WA wrote:

    j-mo; Don’t know what you mean by “all the other stuff…” I responded to Part -Timer’s post, and only the two things that they mentioned. As for the disagreement within this group, I’ve found that the occasional arguments have concerned both what is or isn’t sin, and how God wants us to deal with it. Sorry, but I honestly found some of your post confusing to understand, so I’m not sure I’m answering your concerns.

    It also gets frustrating when any who hold conservative beliefs are lumped into a monolithic group, belittled, at times scorned, etc. I can’t speak for any other commenter here, but I try not to go beyond the bounds of what is actually being discussed. I enjoy good dialogue, other points of view, and hope that I’m respectful of them. Where my line will need to be drawn in the sand will only and always be when the words of God are ignored or worse, scorned.

  13. Tom wrote:

    I’m not overwhelmingly concerned about the realignment of “tribes” or new methods of bypassing the traditional record companies. But as a fan and a music collector, I am curious/slightly concerned about the new forms of media and the future of the relationship between fans, artists, and ownership of the musical product.

    Perhaps, since I’m approaching 40, I’m too out of touch with the wave of the future. But I am both an historian and a fan, and I like my “artifacts.” That is, with a collection of thousands of LPs, cassettes, and CDs, I’ve invested a great deal of money in building my collection. I “own” the hard copy products that I’ve purchased–that is, I am free to sell any of those items to anyone else at whatever fair market value we might agree upon. Theoretically, I could liquidate my collection and recoup my investment.

    I admit that I much prefer to hold a CD insert or a vinyl album jacket in my hand, and that may simply prove I’m getting old. But I’m more interested in finding out how the trend toward digital downloads might affect a fan’s “collection” in the future. If an album is released only as a digital download, will I be able to trade it fifteen years from now? Or will the internet eventually lead to EVERYTHING ever recorded being available from somewhere as a digital download, making my collection a curiously quaint museum with no resale value? At this point, I’m quite reluctant to purchase anything as a digital download–I want something tangible that might be able to hold its value in the future. Am I the only one who feels this way?

    Also, to #9 through #12: You are off-topic. Go away.

  14. WA wrote:

    Thanks for a good Saturday morning laugh, Tom. Very appreciated. “Go Away?” Nah. Been here since near the beginning. And we were actually on-topic. And on a topic quite exceedingly more important than the fact that you prefer holding a CD in your nearly 40 year-old hands. Thanks for that, though. We all care.

  15. Irishlad wrote:

    Tom,keep what you have,by the time you’re 70 DV it’ll be worth something,perhaps not in monenary terms alone.

  16. Tom wrote:

    It’s irrelevant whether I like to hold CDs–although I do. But there are important issues that arise out of these industry shifts that matter, I would think, to artists as well as songwriters. The realignment of music industry forces–especially the trend away from do-it-all record labels toward do-it-yourself independent releases–raises questions about protecting copyrights and controlling distribution of music. In the past, at least theoretically, a record company would have assumed the responsibility of making sure that bootleggers don’t infringe on copyright issues (http://averyfineline.com/2008/10/14/benson-bootlegs/).

    It would appear to be more difficult for individual artists to police this area for their own small handful of independent releases. (And certainly one could question whether the big record labels are actually paying enough attention to this at the moment, given the issues raised in the previous link.)

    How will these issues play out regarding MP3 downloads in the future? Who will own distribution rights to an MP3? If I buy an MP3 download for 99 cents, shouldn’t I be able to sell it to someone else for whatever price we agree upon, so long as I don’t keep the original MP3 file?

    Perhaps the simple-minded fail to grasp some of these questions, but I suspect that artists and songwriters will care.

    And to WA (#14), the forum for your personal approach to theology and hermeneutics is Doug’s previous blog entry, which is largely a gift to you and your friends (http://averyfineline.com/2009/04/01/tears-of-a-clown/). Those of us who are actually interested in sg will thank you for staying there.

  17. Extra Ink wrote:

    Tom, I am with you. I like buying the whole CD. I open up the liner notes and read them before I start listening. Yes, there are still people like us out there. Many of us.

    Digital downloads of individual songs rob the listener of hearing the entire body of work in order (if they are cherry picking songs for the download), looking at the liners and seeing when the songs were written, who published, etc. Basically, it comes down to a difference in taste….the crowd who just wants to grab the 99-cent song and download it to their computer and move on versus the traditionalist like you and I who want to see the full package.

  18. WA wrote:

    Well, I might surprise you, Tom, as I’ll respond to your post (#16). Actually, I am most interested in certain aspects of what you discussed. Some years back, you can imagine my surprise when a friend called me to ask if I was aware that my latest CD had been downloaded onto Napster, and had already been downloaded in its entirety hundreds of times. It can indeed be difficult to police such things. While it was very annoying, I’m thankful that my products are sold around the world, and that that didn’t break the bank. I felt violated to a degree, to be honest. All of these years later, we still function in gray areas; areas that definitely need to be addressed and clarified. You mentioned paying 99 cents for a download, and then sharing it with others. But is that ethical, Tom? I have yet to see the proper language on that to know definitively. And in that, Gospel music is lagging. I don’t know if you are involved in sgm in any capacity other than a buying fan. I am involved in it, and that’s why I read this blog.

    You will see that I did indeed post on the previous thread. In this thread, I did respond to another comment, as once again, conservative voters were portrayed in this blog by Dr. DH in what some might consider a negative light. In no way did I intend to hijack the comments, and don’t feel that I did. And with that, I’m done.

  19. quartet-man wrote:

    That leads to another interesting question about music in the future. Now decades in past the beginning recordings or even those of the fifties, we can find used records and discover the music, collect it etc. What happens decades in the future to those who want to pick up music by “older groups” of those times? Will mp3’s still be available for download, or will they be “out of print?” Will people be able to burn copies for those people who can’t find the music then, or will players even be around to play the format or blank media they are burned on? Even with CD’s the players are a lot more high tech than phonographs are to repair, but then again maybe then they won’t be as technology advances.

  20. Markp wrote:

    Typical doom and gloom post with no suggestions or thoughts about ways to improve what the author thinks is wrong with or killing this industry. I guess I still have no reason to come here. I would have been better off using the 3 minutes it took to read this post to take out the trash.

  21. Irishlad wrote:

    #6. Back to “nothin’ but good” initially the Imps most certainly came to mind ,but something about the voices and harmonies niggled me,then it clicked. It sounded just like a cross between GVB’s New point of view and One x 1,very Larnelle Harris/Michael English,and that was 25 years ago,however,MLFqt’s still managed to sound sg.Obviously someone in Canaan knows what their at.

  22. Aaron Swain wrote:

    #21: Now that you mention it, it does sound similar to that era of the GVB.

    I know there was some skepticism in the blogosphere when Canaan signed MLQ; they were an OK group with very little under their belt to speak of, save for the LeFevre name. I think the “Nothin’ But Good” release really surprised everybody with those sentiments.

    The group is well on their way to the top of SG if they can keep going in the direction they’re headed.

  23. Irishlad wrote:

    Charged up as i was over the MLFqt cd i followed them up on youtube,there they were belting out old Gold City numbers like ‘when i get carried away’.boy was it fresh. New blood works wonders,Gus(i know he’s not new) and the other guys put a spin,perspective call it what you like sg will never die if that standard stays. Btw the bass is v good,i iheard him hitting a G1 or maybe a F1 on Rain at 3.20. Maybe Jowox or Randysing from youtube’ll pitch in with the pitches.

  24. Aaron Swain wrote:

    He is a very underrated bass. A lot of people don’t like him for some reason; I know at NQC I highly recommended to an SN Forums friend to buy the “Nothin’ But Good” project and she said Stacy Bragg (the bass) was the weak link of the group and he didn’t blend very well. I told her the new project would prove her wrong.

    IMHO, the group has one of the tightest blends out there.

  25. Me wrote:

    Stewart Varnado??
    What a JOKE!

  26. sandym wrote:

    I would think that finally having a young person involved with nqc would be a good thing. someone from this generation, who might have a clue of what’s going on in todays industry. quite a change from business as usual.

  27. LaShay wrote:

    #25 - Do you mind telling the world why you think Stewart Varnado buying NQC stock is a joke?? I’d like to know. Do you have some sort of beef with him? Or did you once sing with the DE and leave and now you’re jealous?? Let’s hear it.

    You probably aren’t aware that he’s one of the most hard working young people in SG. He successfully promotes several major concerts during the year, promotes a cruise and does a heck of a lot more than people see. OR, maybe you are aware of those things and you’ve got some sort of personal problem??

    Whatever the case may be, if you think you can do the job better… buy him out. Rake up some money, buy SV out of his stock and see if you can do better. Don’t just talk trash without being able to back it up.

  28. brandonl wrote:

    #27, Way to go! I wasn’t aware that Stewart promoted several events and a cruise, but I do know that unlike most any young person in this industry, he has picked one group and stayed put (over 10 years or so i think) and if the statement by #25 was because of his playing, all i can say is that the fans have nominated him for favorite pianist/musician for nearly the entire time that he has been in Gospel music, and check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3bUu-yz4rLM and tell me how his playing could be a joke? Any other pianists out there today toting the mail with just a piano and no soundtracks for their group at every concert? i don’t think so.

  29. soldier wrote:

    I’d like to know why Doug insists on making himself look stupid by saying the NQC is “no longer the weather-making force it once was” when attendance last year was probably the highest I’ve ever seen it.

  30. Wade wrote:

    soldier… think what Dr. DH was meaning was it used to be a group had to go to the NQC because more than half of their annual dates were booked there from different promoters and big churches.

    Now groups leave in the middle of the week and REALLY used to empty out when the awards were held on Thursday Night.

    You do not even have to go and you can still be viable the way things are booked now.

    So while there were many ppl there it is not mandatory to be @ the SGM Flea Market. Especially when groups started loosing money to be there because they did not take a Fri or Sat date or the NQC did not book a major group for what ever reason but would instead put some regional NOBODY group on the line up.

    That was when I quit going. Early in the evening on the front part of the week looked that that pay for play thing that used to be in chattanooga that is now in gatlinburg.

  31. wackythinker wrote:

    soldier — There used to be a lot of synergy, when NQC, Singing News, and the cruise/tour company were all owned by the same man. The 3 promoted each other.

    And for most of the history of NQC, people couldn’t find large multi-artist events several times per year, like they have seen at Gaither Homecoming concerts the last several years, the Gatlinburg Gathering, et al.

    That synergy doesn’t exist any longer with NQC. So, the opinion of some is that NQC doesn’t hold the “power” they used to have. That may be a correct assumption. Even if attendance numbers look good, that doesn’t mean it’s still the driving force it used to be. Personally, I still enjoy going. With all it’s faults, you still get great entertainment for your dollar.

    The largest sg organizations today with any kind of synergy would be Gaither and Salem. And they do business together to create even more synergy. They’ve both also received a lot of negative attention here, and probably because they have achieved some level of success in our market, even if some of that success may be on the decline.

    That’s just some of my thoughts, anyway.

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