Disintermediation, Pt 2
A while back I tried to provide a survey of key shifts in the structure of the southern gospel music industry that appear to creating an opening - whether it’s an an opportunity or an abyss remains to be seen. In this post, I want to think through some of implications of those shifts on the way music is produced and delivered.
The entities of power/control that we discussed in that earlier post gained their positions of power in the past purely by concentrating income (NQC, SN, Singing at Sea) or appearing very successful (thus the southern gospel bus fetish). Put these interest together and you’ve got what Crossroads exec Mickey called a “tinkertoy” a while back, and its endurance has relied on an intricate web of power sharing and trades (e.g., a label trades ad dollars for space in the SN; or, by cajoling its artists into selling subscriptions).
The deep and wide matrix of deals and understandings within this paradigm represents power-centers sharing and bargaining for control of finite resources while still always attempting to increase their own position – thus the particular flavor of sg politics whereby the Disharmonies get a spot on the NQC mainstage and Mike and Kelly Bowling are selling last year’s table project out of a trailer behind the horse stables at Freedom Hall. This whole system of power, however, was built on the foundation of fan/buyers whose interests have become, over time, mostly ignored. And once the ice begins to crack – that is, once the product is disintermediated from the network of interests and powers that have historically been seen as essential to the creation and sale of fans’ favorite music – these fans have pretty much zero reason to remain loyal to the power brokers. Nor do the brokers to each other. It’s everyone for himself (this, I would submit, is not a small part of the reason that someone like Scott Fowler, golden child of the Old Way, would jump ship mid-career on NQC) .
Of course technology plays a role here. When an $18.99 CD can be shared with a hundred friends, you can just hear the ice cracking. But it’s a mistake to “blame” technology, as so many people in sg reflexively do. There’s something much more powerful going on here and it is obviously a culture-wide phenomenon. Consumers and fans (aka the masses) coalesce around the innovators and entrepreneurs who inspire them and take them where they want to go, or give that impression anyway. Successful companies and organizations exploit and try to regulate this natural phenomenon – if they’re smart, anyway.
Consumers tolerate these entities as long as they seem to enhance the flow of that inspiration. What I was trying to outline in that earlier post were the dynamic factors whose movement is creating a system-wide paradigm shift in gospel music (this is happening across American popular culture, but in a variety of ways that is unique to the subcultural pockets that comprise the whole).
So, a great deal of instability in the industry arises from fragmenting power bases. Artists and other insiders used to know which butts to kiss to get ahead (and conversely, those with power used to know when they were getting their butt kissed and when they were simply showing their ass). Now, not so much. In the process a lot of creative energy and talent and possibility is being wasted because it’s divided - and its force scattered - between elements of the old and new. The new - whatever that turns out to be (and I won’t lie to you: I have no real sense of what that will look like … only suggestions and possibilities) – is and will be created by those who can step out of their assumptions and inhabit the possibilities of what they can build (in other words, these sort of in-between times don’t guarantee success to those who slavishly imitate the people who succeeded before them). The next batch of people who really succeed will be the creative, inspiring types who are willing to create the communities in which they want to matter and succeed.
This is where the tribal nature of new media culture comes in. An example: Janet Paschal. She’s a useful case study both because the changes in her career – from Nelonette, to Swaggart soloist, to Gaither favorite, to mega-Christian everywoman – have been a decent bellweather for the changes in Christian entertainment over the last 30-odd years, and because she seems to be creating for herself in these recent years an artistic identity and economic model of success as a Christian entertainer that intuitively grasps and exploits the possibilities of new media and digital culture … in a way, she’s a good example of post-gospel artistic success.
She’s been revered for years for her musical ability and the aura of talent and grace that seems to trail her like clouds of glory. But if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that she’s been positioning herself to an entirely new audience by cultivating a following among fellow cancer survivors and their families. This site is the hub of a much larger “tribe” (in the parlance) than her music fans were or ever could be if she were to stick solely to gospel and inspo music. By capitalizing on her following as a kind of ecumenical inspirational spiritual leader, she certainly seems to be setting herself up as a sort of guru with a really good singing voice. I’ll leave it up to you to infer from this example the many variations that could exist even across a fairly small genre and industry like sg.
To be honest with you, I can’t say this whole janetandfriends thing is really my bag. I am a cancer survivor, but Paschal’s music isn’t mainly meaningful to me as a musical expression of my oncological experience (for that, one would need to start with “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and move on to a little Rage Against the Machine). Rather, my interest in this latest phase of her career is in what it suggests about the future of gospel music and Christian entertainment.
Tribal marketing theory likes to advance the idea that “tribes” are a new phenomenon in cultural organization, but I think with time, distance and sufficient data, we’ll see that tribal approaches to marketing are more adaptations of existing structures. Notice that in the Paschal example the main elements of the new tribal strategy are descendants of many of the same factors that were key to the old model in gospel music and much (if not all) of Christian entertainment: religious music, showmanship and charisma, a little cult of personality, a brand, and a devoted fan base that sees their purchase of the musical product as an investment in something much larger than music.
Sure, the new model relies on clusters of fans that are much more ephemeral and temporary, but Paschal’s approach nevertheless takes the traditional elements we’re all familiar with and digitizes them and recalibrates the mixture of brand and religiosity so that the ecumenical religious themes of her music serve to reinforce the sense of a survivor’s community (instead of the other way in the old model, which would said, “I survived cancer, you survived cancer, let’s all come together and if any of you survivors out there don’t know the Lord, why don’t you come to Jesus tonight?”).
Instead of mainly concerts and table product, this new model is built around a menu of events that are just as participatory (or give the illusion of being as participatory) as gospel music concerts and culture have always been (or seemed to be). It’s just that there is more variety and turnover in the programming: Keynote speeches, weekend retreats, in-person and online seminars, interactive conference calls, audio books online in installments, and of course more music.
I wouldn’t swear by this, but from what I’ve read and gather, no one seems to really care all that much that the music is practically free, at least compared to the old model (a cd or coupon for online downloads is just as likely to come in a complimentary gift bag or as a incentive to purchase some other “life experience” product as it is sold at a store of some sort).
A lot of artists and groups have, whether knowingly or not, been doing some to alot of this to varying degrees of success for some time now. What’s largely been missing from these efforts is an awareness that music matters less in this new model that the context of the music and what is built around it. Selling music – or using music to sell other products – funds the perpetuation of the community. Particularly in sg, the idea that the music is subsidiary to anything is next to blasphemy, but to deny it is just to delay your professional funeral (which, come to think of it, is not a bad description of much of the sg industry these days … delaying a funeral).
Record lablels, booking agencies, radio, fan mags, NQC /Homecomings, retailers, distributors, etc. They’re just not the necessity they once seemed to be. Direct connections to followers? Indispensable. Knowledge of how to do this or – and this is key – ability to find someone who can make these connections happen? Invaluable. (From what I can gather, Crossroads and Vine Records are providing a lot of support for Paschal’s new approach.)
So really, “disintermediation” is kind of misleading. Middle men (and women) aren’t going away, unless every artist suddenly becomes some kind of omnicompetent lord of life (fat chance). But the function of the middleman is changing drastically and will require drastically different on-board professional attachments than most artists, sg executives and other non-creative personnel come equipped with from a lifetime of growing up musically talented and having an addiction to diesel fumes (which is the main training required for a lot of work in gospel music).
Though I’m enough of an inside-baseball guy to be fascinated by the economics, sociology, and culture that all this entails, I confess to some sense of nostalgic loss for the realization that the live concert experience that first transported me beyond myself in bursts of glorious harmony and musical light is destined to be displaced or at least transformed – if not completely eliminated - in the change that’s afoot. And I find the inevitable fragmentation of the tribal model a bit dispiriting for the way it inadvertently encourages us – as so much new media does – to insulate ourselves in ideologically or experientially purified environments.
Then again, tribe management is just a clever way of redescribing niche marketing, and we know from experience and history that just about the time the system seems to be fracturing into a gazillion little pieces of disaggregated clutter, someone (like Gaither or Garrison Keillor or Barack Obama or whomever – my list is not meant to be exhaustive or exclusive) comes along and makes a career out of collecting and showcasing a collection of varietals as one unified product. The more things change and all that.
For bloggers and other paraprofessional observes, these are the sorts of times one lives for: to see who gets it, who doesn’t, who stumbles on to the next big thing, who makes a killing living off the rump of disgruntled traditionalists who refuse to embrace change. And ideally, of course, some good music will get produced along the way.Email this Post