The customer is always …

In an earlier post, I used a Gospeleer entry to explore some facets of economic populism in southern gospel. Here, I want to say a bit more about a related topic: aesthetic populism in sg.

By this I refer to that line of thinking that equates a thing’s popularity with its aesthetic/artistic value. Thus the Inspirations = popular, ergo Inspirations music = good.

But it need not be confined to such an easy target. Judging by the stream of mediocre music (whose flow is only occasionally interrupted by something insightful and exciting) that comes from most southern gospel acts these days, aesthetic populism is the operative mode of creativity in sg. Every time a songwriter or producer or performer or musician hears that nagging voice that says, really, ANOTHER cover of “Just a Little Talk With Jesus,” ANOTHER hook that rhymes “Cal-va-REE” with “you and me” … that little voice can be shouted down with the soothing old lie: nobody likes it but the people.

A version of this debate is going right now elsewhere on this site, with some commenters arguing that sg should stylistically move in the direction of the prevailing winds of country music, since that’s what the people like these days, and others (understandably) wonder, whither being led by one’s own lights?

Aesthetic populism is a syllogistic kissing cousin to Joyful Noise-ism, but more potent in a way, because the pietism is overlaid with a healthy dose of world-weary cynicism. So where the Joyful Noiser can run into a kind of utopianist pietism (everything done in the name of Christ is good!) that can turn off the religiously committed person who also values her reason, aesthetic populism signals its knowingness in that wry formulation: nobody likes it but the people.  (Bonus points if you refer to Rusty Goodman or whatever legendary figure to whom this axiom is attributed in southern gospel.)

In sg, you’ll hear this refrain often when a critique of form, content, style, or execution has been made. And if nobody likes it but the people, then that (in the populist’s mind) settles it.

Except of course American popular culture- secular and religious – is in some ways one fairly frequent testimony after another about “the people’s” crummy aesthetic judgment. John and Kate Plus 8, anyone? Those obnoxious blinking LED crosses at NQC? Jesus Got R Done t-shirts?

My point is not to hie myself to the ivory tower and preach down to the unwashed nabobs about their inferior tastes (you’ll have to take one of my classes for that! heheh). I like Golden Girls and Hee Haw and McDonalds french fries too. No, the point is that, at least as far as mass artistic or creative culture is concerned, it’s a balance between anticipating what your (potential) audience wants and judging what they might like to experience but wouldn’t have chosen by themselves, and sometimes (often?) the latter can and should trump the former.

But for some reason, even though we know empirically that the latter part of the equation is responsible for a lot of the best works of popular culture (John Lennon didn’t focus-group “Imagine” … “How Great Thou Art” wasn’t workshopped and poll-tested), “the customer is always right” remains a kind of sacrosanct incantation of late capitalism that gets whispered with ever more reverence over product development (and that’s what popular songwriting and album producing are, really, even and especially in sg) the more evidence that piles up to the contrary: in fact, the customer is often very, very wrong.

My suspicion is that business people/artists/executives like to fall back on the customer is always right when they’re too lazy, afraid, or unable to create themselves out of whatever rut they’re in. Thus, for instance, do we get “A Pile of Crowns.” Or, to shift industries, thus do executives from the automobile industry insist that it’s a folly bordering on insanity for car companies to make more fuel-efficient and alternative-energy vehicles. “American car buyers don’t want those cars,” they say, and point to the SUV craze.

Except that consumer taste doesn’t develop in a vacuum. In the car case, advertisements and other mass promotional campaigns have a huge, verifiable and transformative effect on consumer attitudes toward products. If automobile companies wanted to make fuel-efficient cars as attractive to consumers as Excursions and Escalades, they could (and would) do it. But change is hard, looking over the horizon even harder, and besides, a bird in the hand and all that.

In the case of music, all good artists encounter moments in their careers when they have (or ought) to leverage their credibility, fame, or connection with audiences to bring fans along with them to whatever new creative place their vision takes them. When they don’t, then the result is a world full of Kenny Chesneys,  half-sober Amy Winehouse imitators, and every southern gospel group (except the Dixie Echoes!) cueing up another pre-programmed encore of “Beulah Land.”

Or to put it another way: the customer may always be right, but sometimes they need help in arriving at that conclusion.

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  1. Daniel J. Mount wrote:

    I love A Pile of Crowns. Sure, the melody isn’t a big ballad or an uptempo convention tune, but the lyrics send chills down my spine. In a good way.

  2. Yeah... wrote:

    Do you know the old adage which states that if the reviewers hate a movie, you’ll probably like it? Is it too simplistic to say that some of that applies here?

    No matter how esoteric the words, and regardless of how edgy a CD project is, if the people don’t like it, it won’t sell. Note this from the essay:

    “My suspicion is that business people/artists/executives like to fall back on the customer is always right when they’re too lazy, afraid, or unable to create themselves out of whatever rut they’re in.”

    All of that may be true, but CD projects aren’t cheap to produce or market. If a few critics love it but the folks don’t, it will occupy space in a warehouse, and a lot of people are out a pile of money. It may be easy to fall back on what’s been successful for you in the past, but that doesn’t make it a bad thing.

    Yet, there will always be those select few in every genre of music who bring a new technique, vocal styling, or whatever to the table. Some will become the flavor of the month and others will find a permanent home. And they are the true artists. The majority, however, will stick reasonably close to what brought them to the dance, and if it pays the bills, it’s all because no one but the people like it.

  3. BUICK wrote:

    Doug, you make some good points. The temptation to equate popularity with quality and/or with God’s blessing bedevils the church at every turn. We often assume that whatever some church is doing must be right if the church is growing. “Mega-Church” has come to mean “Ultra-Church” in the sense that if the largest churches are doing a certain thing, we ought all to do it, too. After all, they are large and getting larger so God must be blessing them.

    This approach, however, totally overlooks the Biblical examples of remnants. It also ignores the checkered history of God’s people.

    Most of the Hebrews decided that the Canaanites were too powerful to overcome; but the majority was wrong.

    Most of the Israelites were unfaithful much of the time. That didn’t make it right…even when it was the vast majority among God’s own people.

    In Jesus’ parable of the two gates, the two roads and the two destinies, there were many who were wrong and only a few who were correct.

    Although it is tempting, we ought to resist the urge to assume that what the masses are supporting, God is blessing. The masses are fickle but He never changes.

    Having said that, I doubt very seriously that God prefers one style of music over another. He DOES care about the heart of the musician and why (s)he does what (s)he does. I imagine He cares about the accuracy of what is sung. (False teaching is still false teaching even when it has a good hook, a melodic tune and a catchy rhythm.) And I presume He cares about quality.

    But how do we define quality? Do we measure against some objective quality standard? Who calibrates those scales?

    Perhaps quality is doing the best one can with the gifts one has been given. If The Doctrinaires sing as well as the top tier groups but they are capable of doing much better, then it is not quality. And if the Pacemakers are pitiful but it’s the best they can do, then God is probably pleased because it is like the widow’s mite.

    Personally, I’ll probably not buy a ticket to hear the Pacemakers, even if they are sincere and doing the best they can. But while their sound may not please me, it is probably music to God’s ears.

    So, I guess what I am saying is that in a free-market economy, the people who buy the tickets or who give the offerings will determine which musicians stay in business. But God will probably have to judge the quality - because only He knows how well they could do.

  4. Casual Observer wrote:

    What an eloquent explanation of what Brian Free has been doing for the past few years, and what Jason Crabb is now doing…

    “In the case of music, all good artists encounter moments in their careers when they have (or ought) to leverage their credibility, fame, or connection with audiences to bring fans along with them to whatever new creative place their vision takes them.”

    It takes guts to follow your heart and your creative instincts in a cynical market. Here’s to to the risk takers among us!

  5. RF wrote:

    Just to bring up the question…at what point does something artistic become popular?

    For many Christians, it is virtually impossible to subtract their faith from faithfully judging music objectively. Of course, that’s a matter of taste, but will it ever come to the point when Christians as a group can hear a group or song and say that it’s really poor quality?

    My opinion is that anything really special only occurs accidentally in sg because the audience is so narrow minded that they cannot accept anything but what they’ve already heard.

  6. Kyle wrote:

    My brother and I just had this discussion a couple days ago. He reasoned that, in the end, you have to cater to your audience. As frustrated as I get at the lack of invention, experimenting, or just overall originality in today’s SG music, he has a very valid point: a typical southern gospel audience wants what’s familiar.

    Let’s use Gold City as an example. During the 90’s and early 2000’s, GC relied heavily on traditional music and harmonies. There was some good singing, but their arrangements, compared to the 80’s, were rather vanilla. There was little innovation; just straight ahead southern gospel. And they were consistently winning fan awards.

    Fast foward to the current group. They have a completely different song, noticably more country, and more modern arrangements and vocals, and audiences are pretty much split. Some love it, some aren’t too fond of it.

    I think it goes back to this very issue….

  7. the big dog wrote:

    From someone who teaches customer service - “The customer isn’t always right, but the customer is always the customer.”

  8. quartet-man wrote:

    I think if a lot of SG fans will accept change, they will not so much accept sudden, extreme changes. SG music IS different than the ’50’s. In the ’60’s instruments were brought in more. Eventually later orchestration was added.

    So, I think it comes down to gradual change. They might accept a little different mixed in, but not too dramatic and not too much too soon. It also depends on I suppose who does it and how it is done. If they love the artists, it might be accepted more. If whatever attracted them to the artist remains (or at least much of it) the might accept it.

    The point is (as has been already pointed out) ultimately you have to give the customers what they want or they bail.

    Recently I went to a restaurant that had millions spent to restore it to a good point in how it looked when it was started early last century. It had been closed for a few years due to the death of one of the owners who was the one who had been running it. Anyhow, visibly the restoration is awesome and likely no expense spared. But there have been some grave errors which make me and others not want to go back. At least not for the food. One thing that is important, but not quite as comparable to this discussion is that the prices for one of their main sandwiches more than doubled in price from where it was just around 3-4 years ago, to a price that is out of the market. A point that is more relative to this discussion is that they have changed and seemingly continue to change the recipe to the food. It wasn’t very close at all to what it was and wasn’t an improvement at all. I asked an employee from there who is online, about it. She says they have chefs not cooks and although they have the original recipe, they are experimenting around with it. When I had it, it was bland and missing the spices and sauce that helped make it so good. Another day, customers complained that it was too spicy. Here these bozos (and I use that term with affection ;-) ) are more interested in making their mark and flexing their creative muscles than in giving the customers what they want and already loved. People order this item (which has classic added to the name making people think they are getting just what they got before) and are substituting their own inferior creation / modification. This was pretty much THE sandwich that they are known for and was unique to that restaurant. How stupid is that? Even if the “chefs” think they have a better way, they aren’t catering (no pun intended) to their customers and are losing some due to it. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.

  9. quartet-man wrote:

    One thing I meant to add in my previous post was that if they want to create something different or a variation, let them call it something different. The restaurant has added new sandwiches to the line up, and that too is fine. However, the restaurant is a slice of Americana and even having “chefs” instead of cooks is akin to placing chefs in a diner or drive through. It doesn’t fit the need. It would be like placing a heavy metal band with the Isaacs or an accordion with Mercy Me.

  10. quartet-man wrote:

    Sorry, “drive thru”

  11. wackythinker wrote:

    quartet-man #9 — or putting Amy Winehouse with Gold City.

    Actually, these theoretical combinations sould like something some TV executive would put together for a televised awards show.

    And big dog is correct. They’re always the customer.

    I’ve contended for a long time that people’s musical tastes are more eclectic that most of them realize. If done properly, you can expose the audience to new things, if you do it properly. And most of them will like it. Not everyone will like everything, but most will like something they didn’t think they would like. Many may not even realize their tastes have been stretched, but that’s ok, too.

  12. quartet-man wrote:

    #11 WT, good point both on the combo and your comment about awards shows. I was thinking more like permanent groups though. :) I also agree that sometimes people will accept other tastes IF they are done right. That is the secret, do it right and probably gradually. In fact, maybe even only on part of an album. The Crabbs went too far too fast, and released something too far from their bread and butter and lost quite a bit of fans. Had they included a song or two on a project and a few songs in concert, they might have eventually gotten more of their fans there.

  13. onemadeupmind wrote:

    #12–Bull _ _ _ _! The Crabbs were on top of their game when they parted ways. Proven by the lucrative franchises of all the siblings. You will nev er convince me they lost “quite a bit of fans.” What survey’s and test focus groups do you base your opinion on?

  14. onemadeupmind wrote:

    “The Crabbs went too far too fast, and released something too far from their bread and butter and lost quite a bit of fans. ”

    I say Bull! You base your opinion on what study or focus group?

  15. quartet-man wrote:

    Ahem, uh made up mind, my opinion is based on many comments I heard made after they released their last CD. I never got it and it wasn’t due to the song selection, style etc. I just never got around to getting it. I intend to rectify that someday. Try not to get so irate over an opinion.

  16. onemadeupmind wrote:

    #15-”Ahem, uh made up mind, my opinion is based on many comments I heard made after they released their last CD.”

    5, 10, 100, 500 friends?

    I have lots of friends (you should see my facebook over 1000 by and if 100% liked or disliked anything it would still be a small portion of any market.

    Bottom line is from Crabb insiders (family) is it was one of their lowest budget and yet BIGGEST sellers. You should get it!

    One of the probs with SG genre is the tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater if we or a few of our friends don’t like it.

    People vote with their feet and wallets, and if the wallet is any indication, Crabb won on the last album.

  17. quartet-man wrote:

    I have nothing against them or the CD. I will try to get it sometime. Even if I do or don’t like it, I can’t speak for all. I guess I would have to see total sales for it to have an idea. They may have sold more, but how about total? Also, many may have bought it thinking they were getting a typical Crabb album only to get something that wasn’t, I don’t know. I guess the big thing would have been to see how many repeat customers they had if they had stuck together and remained on the same course. This wouldn’t mean new ones who liked the new music, but the ones who had been with them from before. This would be a better indicator on whether their changing so quickly cost them any fans or not. :-)

  18. Wade wrote:


    Got to side with 1madeupmind here… The Crabbs were rocking when they ceased being the original Crabbs.

    If you are doing as well as they were you are always going to turn SOME BOZO off.

    Surprised you are commenting on some project you do not even have!!

    The OAKS are still Great though!! We agree on that!!

    You are certainly entitled to your opinion, no doubt but state it as such and not..”…and lost quite a bit of fans.”… like you have some kind of hard data…

    IF…IF they did loose quite a bit of fans… they certainly GAINED MANY MORE.

    For the BOZO’s slamming Jason Crabb because he might not being doing 2 chords and a cloud of dust sgm… then God Bless their hearts!!! BOZO’s

  19. quartet-man wrote:

    Wade, I was just going from many comments I heard along the way, not personal opinion on the project. One can look at someone’s career or listen to people commenting on it and presume to have some idea of the pulse. That, coupled with the Crabbs separating after doing so would make some people think they were related. Maybe not, and I have no dog in the fight. Really though, I like them as people and some of their music, no harm or insult intended.

  20. cdguy wrote:

    I have some insider info on the Crabbs’ cd sales, too, and I can tell you “Letting Go” was not their lowest selling cd. Since it’s the newest of the “family” projects, it’s really still too early to tell if it will do what “Driven” or “The Walk” have done, but it has surpassed a couple of others, in a shorter amount of time.

    And by the way, is anybody these days really using the expression “Nobody likes it but the people”, besides our moderator?

  21. Howard wrote:

    This is an issue that makes it difficult to program SG radio. I am in the “Bible Belt” where change is accepted even more slowly. SG music is in a transition period. Gone are the classic male quartets, female lead vocalist that rely more on spirit than technique, and the hand clapping, do that last verse one more time mentality. With modern recording technology more artist are able to sing in tune (on record) plus with less variety in studio musicians (playing on these recordings) you get a vanilla, cookie cutter sound. Like it or not, it has given a more consistant sound. That does not make it right or make me like it.
    Most groups that send singles to radio have absolutely no name recognition. Because my audience does not hear the Spencers, Cathredrals, or other names they have heard of, they are not interested. Some of the classic names that are still out there are just “in name only” the group they used to be. The SG formula used in recording today is to have a song from one of the three or four good song writing teams, get that modern groove with the drums mixed up front, then add (somtimes over tuned)slick vocal arrangements. What is wrong with singing in tune and in time? This has to be a dangerous mixture that will send us all to Hell, according to some of my listeners. What do I do, change with the times and play this better polished music, or read the local paper and see the names of my audience as it slowly dies?
    It is also difficult dealing with all the independant song promoters that just can not believe you are not charting at least 50% of the 20 songs they ask you about. I get so tired of promoters taking money from groups that can’t even sing, then harrasing programmers. There are months I fill out one or somtimes two e-mail rotation charts for some promoters and that is still not enough. They still have to call me and go over it all again. Some groups have more than one promoter working their song, then there are group members, all calls for the same song. Multiply this by 250 songs and you can see why your friendly DJ is not always so friendly. ENOUGH ALREADY!
    Thanks for letting me get this off my chest. I still think I have the best job in the world and I don’t want to do anything else. I do not have a problem with major labels or artist. I think it is because quallity music does not need to be over-promoted.

  22. Wade wrote:

    Howard… Hope you feel better now!!! I understand how you feel…and maybe this will help!!

    Plus the BEST thing I ever learned was…

    JUST BECAUSE somebody knocks does not mean you have to go to the door & just because the phone rings does not mean you have to answer.

    If you are always answering and returning their calls they will continue to call. You are rewarding BAD BEHAVIOR… just like with a kid.

    My sister can’t figure out why her kids always SCREAM!! It is because she responds to it.

    You are right about song promoters…they are useless. I generally take the calls of the artist… but song promoters get VM ALOT!!

    Hope that can make you feel even better from here on!!

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