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.

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  1. Irishlad wrote:

    Disintermediation is a rather strange name for cutting out the middle man. Think a car manufacturer selling a car delivered to your door in a fortnight thanks to the internet in place of a network of dealers, or one college prof tutoring 100’s of students long distantance (again thro’ the web) instead of the likes of DH taking a class of 30. How this web based phenomenon impacts Sg,who knows? Watch BG perhaps. Srikes me a lot of guys/gals are gonna be out of work.

  2. Charles Brady wrote:

    If the digital age has done anything it has decentralized and devalued almost every industry it has touched. In a society that has assigned value based on the tangible, the digitization of products be it music or newspapers or magazines or stock trades or accounting or tax preparation has been almost impossible to monetize in any real sustainable way. In the digital world it is more for less at a breakneck speed. I don’t want a 100 album collection of LPs. I want something that will fit in my pocket and hold enough songs that I can listen to non-stop for the next 3 decades. Now if every fan with 10,000 songs in their Ipod paid for all those songs the industry would be doing much better than it is. Fact is that 1 CD per 100 families might be right on target.
    Radio, TV, Newspapers, Stock Brokerage Companies, Insurance Agents, Car Salesmen ( Think Carmax ) Bankers, Accountants, Record Labels, Recording Studio’s, Music Stores (remember those) Video Rental Stores ( Think NetFlix) Big Box Electronics Stores ( RIP Circuit City ) 24 hour film processing ( think 10 seconds) and the list just goes on and on…

    I think the next big wave of change that we will see is in the control of the artists/writers music by the artists/writers themselves. I think that ASCAP, SESAC and BMI have outlived their useful purpose and don’t even come close to resembling any type of fair distribution to the writers. With such small samples they don’t even touch the surface of what is really happening in radio today. It may have worked when a small handful of companies controlled all the music but those days are long gone and so is the relevance of companies that are still playing to the powerful few and not really serving the interest of the bulk of their members. People talk. People learn.

    So if you’re going to be kissing anyone’s tail these days you better make sure it’s attached to a brain that knows how to change and adapt at warp speed cause I don’t see the train slowing down for anyone…. Let’s face it… The old farts club is dead…. It is a new day!! And integrity and trust really do matter…. because if you don’t deliver and you can’t be trusted everyone and their neighbor will know about it before you can say I’m sorry! ( Just ask the CEO of KFC! )

  3. GospelMusicFan wrote:

    Evangelical Changes that Some Might have a Hard Time to Understand

  4. CVH wrote:

    Wow…I need to re-read this a couple of times but I’d say it’s a very accurate analysis of the current environment - the landscape of the evolving media culture and the evolution of one niche - southern gospel - within it.

    It’s more than a paradigm shift - that’s one of the effects, not the cause. The causes, as you state, are outside any one aspect of the industry. I’ve spent my career in the music business, radio and television and the same things are happening in all those fields. Even when you think you’re beginning to grasp enough understanding to develop a plan and move forward, something else shifts and you’re recalibrating again.

    Things will never be as they’ve been, which is inevitable. But the degree and scale of change enveloping the entire music/entertainment industry, including all genres of Christian music, is changing the playing field in such a dramatic way that we don’t even know who the new, powerful, dominant players are going to be. But we do know that their time will arrive (and could pass) much sooner than any of us expect.

    Excellent post. Gotta go now - I read it to Aunt Blabby and she’s fanning herself with the May issue of Guideposts and about to have a spell.

  5. JC wrote:

    Of course, things have to change, duh! I really don’t believe Janet was looking to get cancer, so that she could embrace this “new” form of marketing. Actually, that is quite ridiculous. She more than likely, like the Christian lady that she is, saw a need and wanted to help those with the same burdens she had and God had brought her through. Maybe Scott Fowler, after Roger’s passing didn’t have enough time to dedicate to NQC, maybe he needed to manage his group. Doug, you speak of one with knowledge but the truth is your words are hollow. You so sadly want the church that you have abandoned to embrace your lifestyle, that you tear down parts of Christian culture that you say you love just to make yourself feel better. How about taking some time with the God these people talk about, instead of relying on your God-given writing talents, and really seeking Him out. I do not doubt that you have been hurt in the past by the church, but the only time that it feels that God is hurting you if when you are not walking with Him.
    How did I get all of that from your latest post, I didn’t.

  6. Tom wrote:

    This is a superb analysis of what’s going on . . . I only wish we could have a better grasp of where things are going!

  7. soldier wrote:

    #5 JC, right on.

    DH has so much potential.

  8. Mickey Gamble wrote:

    First, Thanks to Doug and (most) others here for engaging this discussion. I think it is beginning to dawn on more and more of the Southern Gospel community just how much has changed and just how much change is going to be required.

    Probably a few of the readers here are aware that we, at Crossroads, have been pretty deep in sorting out a lot of this for 2-3 years now and are beginning to put a number of concepts and the tools that go with them into place. So, just for the fun of discussion on these subjects, I’ll throw out a few things to think about. And some of this may be a bit sideways from Doug’s analysis. Anyway, here goes with 3 related topics:

    1. On Tribes. Orthodox (if I can call it that) tribal social theory from the late 1990’s proposes that tribal groupings are in fact a “new” social phenomenon with no antecedents which have appeared precisely as a result of the breakdown of more solid and permanent social groupings that, in their own turn, grew out of the breakdown of the the strength and security of the extended family even earlier in the 20th century. Tribes are the current reaction to the enhanced alienation and disconnectedness inherent in the culture brought about by too many factors to talk about here. But, they (tribes) are qualitatively less structured, more focused, more temporary and, therefore, less stable than any previous cultural “attempts” to overcome individual isolation. The fanatic and continuous Cathedral fan of the 1980’s and 90’s is not the same as “followers” of janetandfriends who move in and out of the community as their day-to-day conditions change. A tribe that grows around a certain viral video may last just a few days but a fleeting “community” exists among those who are sharing the delight of passing it around.
    Tribes are extremely ephemeral unless some personality or other force moves in such a way to “lead”, organize, and/or extend the communal experience that pleases the individuals in the tribe. And there is absolutely no guarantee that this can be consciously done. Tribal loyalty is so “light” and suspicion so thorough that any hint of manipulation can be cause for immediate evaporation.

    So we have all this “background” to any attempt to “exploit” the situation and turn the phenomena into “tribal marketing.” Not easy. But possible. It requires first and foremost and understanding of this background. And that is just going to be hard for some in the SG world. And then, it requires a level of authenticity to which we are not accustomed in this business. And then, it requires a level of “conversation” to which we are not accustomed. And then, there is the “know thyself” part. Do I even know what my own vision for my life creation is and does that have the juice to even attract tribal followings? Can I trade the notion of ubiquitous fame for niche, but effective, fame. Testing out and comparing what I want to be doing as an artist with the desires of a “potential” tribe is an ongoing creative process.

    2. On Music. Doug seems to make the case (or fear) that tribal products can take precedence over attention to music. Inspiration from the music leads fan and artist to shift into getting inspiration from the other “products” which leads to a disinterest in the quality of the music on the part of both the artist and the fan. I would argue that in fact this is not a straight line sequence ending with ancillary products and other endeavors but a circle which leads the artist back to more intense and passionate musical creation based on the informed connections between the artist and tribal conversations. Since Doug correctly places the initial inspiration as coming from the music, I would agree and say further that if this goes away, so do all the other artist’s endeavors. The “celebrity” connection is always first and foremost, the music. Musical artistry remains the core of the process–it simply may be informed and funded differently.

    3. Disintermediation. While I agree that it would appear that such a “scattering” is indeed inherent in the current directions, it is extremely important to remember that we are in the midst of (rather than at the end of) a paradigm shift. I would preach often and long here that all these cool new concepts and tools are in a constant state of experimentation, shift, and change. None of them may be useful even a year from now. We do have a tendency to desire a new permanence that may or may not be forthcoming. Seth Godin talks (very sketchily) about a concept he calls “silos of tribes” which may indicate or point to a renewed aggregation of some sort. In music, that could end up being some kind of realignment of large scale groupings around something more like “experience” than genres. And, personally, I do think we will get to something like that. Sometime. But until then it is probably going to be as you said “Every man for himself.”

  9. Irishlad wrote:

    Imagine for a moment Ivan Parker being the male counterpart to Janet P,what direction could he take to reinvent himself? He’s firmly niched himself with the purple brigade, boxed in with no where to go. Well he did tone the mullet down a bit if you call that a try at differentiation. Before i bring the wrath of some down on me he’s actually a very congenial chap,just a bit old fashioned,but maybe in a smart way like Daniel O’Donnel or the Rev William McCrea.

  10. Lisa wrote:

    Just an observation that hasn’t been made yet…

    There is a sisterhood to be found in breast cancer that is seldom found in other forms. Part of that comes from the culture’s encouraging women to form the kind of connection with other women that is deeply empathic, especially in this kind of struggle.

    I am NOT a cancer survivor. I am a volunteer with “Look Good, Feel Better” and every single time I go–I am amazed at the courage and strength these women display.

    I see janetandfriends as a place where women who need a spiritual (not secular) place to connect. Not a bad thing, after all.

  11. David Bruce Murray wrote:

    We are increasingly moving from a society where most people look for someone else to give them a job to a society where people are forced to find creative ways to earn a living.

    That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

  12. GVBFAN08 wrote:

    WOW - Marshall Hall signed with Daywind! I just got this via facebook!


  13. Leadsinger wrote:

    That’s a great move for both Marsh and Daywind… and on topic I echo David Bruce Murray’s thoughts…

  14. Ben Harris wrote:

    The comment about Scott Fowler I believe is way off base. Most SG radio and SG labels don’t have a clue what the SG audience really wants. They keep pushing progressive hard, while the audience continues to dwindle. Give the audience what it wants and the rest of this will fall in place. SG management has and is doing a horrible job or knowing their audience.

  15. 4Given wrote:

    What makes the comment about Fowler off base??? I do agree that These labels (And Radio) just do not seem to know what the audience wants to hear. I buy a CD and there is a song that me and other people think would make a great single… But the song never gets singled, meanwhile the one that does dies out pretty quick. This is just IMHO but since everyone seems to have one I thought I would share mine…

  16. Wade wrote:

    Ben I have to agree with 4Given…sorry $Given… you are now forever soiled!! lol

    If some one prominent in an industry SELLS his share to THE BIGGEST EVENT in the Industry annually it does make ya wanna go HUH???

  17. Ben Harris wrote:

    MY comment was about:
    “Scott Fowler, golden child of the Old Way”

  18. quartet-man wrote:

    Part of singling (is that a word? :-)) is that people have different tastes in music. Sometimes they get it right, but very often I prefer album cuts to those released as singles. This goes with many groups including some of my favorites such as the Oaks, Cathedrals, Gold City (I think) and others. But, on other hands, sometimes others love the singles the best. Sometimes though I have seen that the singles released didn’t seem to do much for most people. I can’t think of an example offhand.

    On the opposite end, years ago the Oaks released “Change My Mind.” This was one of the very best songs on the CD, if not THE best. I think it only lasted 5 weeks on the charts and peaked at #70.
    Five years later, John Berry’s FAR inferior version of the song went to #10.

  19. ken wrote:

    Singing News Top 5,its the same ones every year no matter who and how you vote,maybe thats why the NQC has become stagnant,same ones sings,same ones get awards,guess it will never change,but it goes on and on and on.

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