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Subtle Observations Underlying the Problems of a Southern Gospel Market

June 15, 2011

—– For those of you anticipating part 2 of The Cathedral Quartet series, stay tuned in the next couple of days.  It shall be ready this week, I promise…

I was on the lawnmower today thinking about various things and considering tactics on some upcoming posts as well as reflecting on past posts I’ve already conquered or seen conquered by other bloggers.  I’ve mentioned before that the question, “is southern gospel dying” always proves itself to surface.  But as long as we keep aging, I suspect it will continue to live on.  We could sit here for hours talking about what might need to change about our beloved genre, but I’ll refrain on that topic.  I want to make 4 arguments as to why southern gospel will always be treated as one of the least recognizable in the Christian music industry.

1.  Ticket prices.  As long as the mega industry looks at a style of music that only charges $15 per ticket…or (gasp), heavily relies on “love offerings”, we will continue to be overlooked on a big market.  Some of this responsibility is on us.  Not every fan or supporter fully realizes the impact and the voice we do have.  Paying for a ticket when your favorite group is within an hour drive is a very little sacrifice to sustain the integrity of the group and ultimately the genre.  In that realm, we have it easy.  Artists, not always.  You’d think we would take advantage of this dilemma as we also have decent accessibility to these artists, which is essentially a bonus.  This has mostly been hashed out on other blogs.

2. Cover songs.  What really spurred this thought was a combination of my last post on BF&A’s debut review, and two other posts I’m in the process of sorting out.  We all find it to be a radical thing when a southern gospel artist does an old Inspo, CCM, or P&W song that was popular 5-15 years ago.  We’re always curious and anticipate to hear the new rendition and arrangement.  And usually what was popular several years ago can be fitting to our genre as it currently is.  That’s just how little SG changes over time.  Nothing technically wrong with that.  It remains one of the reasons we love it so much.  But what I don’t see is artists in other genres covering southern gospel songs from years past.  With the exception of Gaither penned songs, and hymns, it’s very, very rare.  Yes, you have the occasional country artist releasing a collection of hymns or old southern gospel songs, but when Newsong, Brandon Heath, and Meredith Andrews start recording “Love Came Calling” or even “The Lighthouse”, we would see some interest and more respectability from other markets.

3.  Table projects.  I don’t know many other genres that release table projects as frequently as southern gospel.  Once again, another factor of why it is so compelling..  More music!!  But we all know table projects are usually cheaply made, less original, and less creative…and that’s fine.  I understand the animal.  Why not make a project where we can almost always sing along as soon as we spin it?  Because we’ll probably buy it…  Of course it also shows that because a group goes out to sing every weekend on love offerings and CD sales, another source of income is undoubtedly justified.  I’ve heard stories of how The Statesmen would pack an arena of thousands night after night in the 50’s and 60’s and sometimes have more numbers than popular country and rock acts.  Obviously southern gospel has lost its rock star status of that era, as the only enterprise that could come near to that would possibly be Gaither and his homecoming crew.  And Gaither doesn’t need to put out table projects.  Once again, this isn’t an indicator that southern gospel is dying, groups have been pumping out table projects for years…just proof that we need it to help survive financially.  Table projects seem to be both an enjoyment and a nightmare for the serious collector.  When Third Day begins to release table projects, we’ll know that ALL Christian music is in trouble.

4. Live Music.  I’ve been adamant against the use of tracks for every song.  But I have to be realistic, it’s not exactly economically feasible.  Canned music takes some of the “spirit” out of it, but with love offering concerts, lower flats, and higher gas prices, most groups couldn’t adequately stage a decent live band night after night.  What is surprising is the level and wide range of talent among some artists that don’t even play instruments they are capable of playing during the concert.  At least David Sutton has the harmonica in his pocket.  There aren’t many secular, CCM, or P&W concerts you go to, where there is not a band…unless it’s an all acoustic type of event.  Even most low-level rap artists have a live band on top of their mix.  Concerts can become mundane and overly robotic many times.  This does still appeal to many people…to which I sometimes I scratch my head, but I’ll take the stax and trax for a few more years.  Maybe the economy will be bad enough in twenty years that every artist, secular or CCM will not be able to afford a live band.  But right now, live bands don’t seem to do much for our current demographic…even if there was potential in the economics of that structure.  All opinions in this argument are completely valid…both pros and cons.  My only response is that it may contribute another reason why southern gospel music is virtually un-noticeable in the grand scheme of the Christian Music Industry.

These observations are clearly not the only factors, as I have excluded some key elements of the southern gospel village within the Christian Music empire so you can join in.  If you have other insights or opinions, feel free to strike up a conversation.


*Editor’s Note:  My intention is not to compare southern gospel to other branches of music, specifically, and try to size up against them or formulate a strategic plan to take it over.  The things that make southern gospel different, makes it special to us.  We want more appreciation and recognition for our efforts in the music biz.  But at what expense?  Sacrificing so many of the little intricacies that make it what it is in exchange for a bigger or better platform?  Or are we truly satisfied with our proverbial little fish in a big pond, as long as we can count on it not progressing above the means and foundations on which it was founded?  That perspective of thought is only what is intended in this particular post.

  1. The Statesmen/Blackwoods combo was a powerhouse, and a lot of that “rock star” atomosphere was due in part to the fact that very little evangelism was incorporated into it. It was straight up entertainment. Non-Christians could go to a gospel concert for the quality of music and entertainment value and not feel like they were going to be preached at.

    Once artists started emphasizing the ministry aspect, then “entertainment” became an evil word, and audiences began to feel that it was wrong to be entertained, and if we are being witnessed to (rather than sung for), why in the world should we have to PAY for it??

    Oversaturation may be another major part, but I think some people have it wrong. It’s not oversaturation of multiple artists so much as it is oversaturation of single artists themselves. One group will play within a 50 mile radius at least 2-3 times a year, and often times within just a couple of months. I know for a fact that Gold City was within driving distance of my home just a month ago, and will be again next month, at least one of which is a love offering. It’s spreading the artist way too thin.

    At least Gaither’s business model makes sense. Play a region (not just a city, but an entire region) once a year, and charge accordingly. By making yourself scarce, you can justify the higher ticket prices (supply and demand). Makes ONE project every 18 months, and put as much time and effort into that project as possible. Again, supply and demand. Make those “highly anticipated” press releases TRUE.

    Also, there is NO SHAME in finding additional work. How do you think Bill and Gloria do it? They have a huge business that runs many different branches: studio, video production, songwriting, publishing, even a coffee house!! Granted, they are able to keep their work within the industry, but still….”full time gospel singer” does not mean you can’t do something else on top of it. Venues/promoters should be begging the artist to appear, not the other way around. If an artist has to beg for bookings, then there’s something wrong.

    • Excellent insight and you’re right about everything, as usual. I didn’t want to go into the ministry < entertainment thing just yet, so I'm glad that you did. And as far as bloggers go, you're a rock star. Which means you might could use a little more "ministry" in your blogging…

      • I wouldn’t go that far, but thank you! And could you tell my landlord that I’m a rock star so they leave me alone? HAHAHA….

  2. Tough love. I like it. If we want Southern Gospel to survive, help it survive. The responsibility rests on the fan to buy music and attend concerts, and on the artist to perfect their craft and make great music. Good post, sir.

  3. I think that over this all is the prevailing opinion that southern gospel = old and boring. Note, I did not say “gospel.” There’s actually a pretty healthy market out there for black gospel and black gospel-styled worship, e.g. Brooklyn Tab and Israel Houghton. But southern gospel carries less respect and less favorable connotations in people’s minds. This means that artists who might actually make it in a contemporary setting, like Brian Free & Assurance or Sisters, are simply never heard of outside the SG circle because the genre as a whole isn’t even a blip on the average Christian music listener’s radar. Mention the word “Gaither” and a few bells may ring, but among the youth of today it may ring the, “Oh yeah, I think my grandma likes that stuff (eyeroll)” kind of bell, and nothing more.
    There are Assurance songs that wouldn’t sound out of place on my local contemporary station. From a stylistic perspective, that is. They would sound out of place in the sense that they’re good songs.

  4. Re: number 2

    Maybe you don’t consider it a SG song, but there is a song that has been covered by Clay Aiken, Kenny Rogers, Donny Osmond, David Archuleta, and Jessica Simpson that was written by two SG individuals. (Mary Did You Know by Lowry and Greene)

    But outside the SG circle, how many people know that the song was written by SG people? I’d say thats a problem with the SG market… theres minimal publicity and advertising.

    • I would consider it a SG song, but I always associate the writers with Gaither. As far as Elvis, I would go with you there, but SG was still more relevant in the views of other markets when Elvis was alive. And he’s been dead awhile, God rest his soul.

      • Yeah, that was my thought. People actually thought it was cool when Elvis did a gospel song. (Imagine that!)

        I’m not so sure his soul is resting right now, but we can always hope. [Cue annoying Rob Bell voiceover saying, “Elvis is in Hell? He is?? Someone KNOWS this for SURE and felt the need to let the rest of us know??”]

      • I admit, I laughed at the Rob Bell voiceover. I think he has become a pharisee of love, shaming it’s truth, wrath,and justice that should co-exist with it.

        But yeah, being an Elvis fan…I can only hope. His step-brother evangelist Rick Stanley swears by it..

      • Well put, my friend. Well put. “A pharisee of love.” I’ll have to remember that!

  5. Of course there’s always Elvis too…

  6. Hey, and Clay Crosse covered “Midnight Cry” on his debut album.

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