Concept Albums: Solving the 99-cent dilemma

Until iTunes, you had to purchase a $12-$17 CD to get the one song you liked. Now you can pay 99¢/song and get the song—or two or three—you really like.

Since iTunes, artists and their record companies have watched revenues decline as fans spend $1-$3 per artist per year/album cycle instead of $12-$17. Like other technology / paradigm shifts, it has been slower coming to Southern Gospel—but it’s now here.

Naturally, artists and labels have wondered how to get fans to continue to purchase the whole project. Some have tried only making the complete album for digital sale, but that method has failed. The only way to succeed, long-term, is to construct an album that fans find so compelling that they don’t want to settle for only the radio singles.

The solution is quite simple: Shift the paradigm to view an album as one coherent artistic piece instead of a collection of ten individual pieces.

It’s been done before. Of course, Christmas projects and tribute projects to another group are both concept albums of a sort, but one can only do so many of either. Here are a few of the more unique concepts I’ve seen:

  • Fictional narrative: Mark Bishop, Fields of Love, 2007. This is constructed around a fictional narrative of love, loss, and redemption set in a vague time/location in America’s heartland. Every song ties into the concept, and there is some spoken-word narrative.
  • Inspired by a modern book: 2nd Chapter of Acts, Roar of Love, ~1977. This was based on C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.
  • Inspired by a book in the Bible: Michael Card, Unveiled Hope, 1997. Virtually all of Card’s albums are concept albums, but this concept—a walk through Revelation—is one that could play particularly well in a Southern Gospel context, with our genre’s numerous songs about Heaven.
  • Inspired by a pilgrimage: The Kingsmen’s “Behold the Master Cometh” (Georgia Live, 1995) was inspired by a trip Eldridge Fox took to Israel. Fox set up the song so well, and it got such a strong reception, that it wouldn’t be hard to imagine a full project going over well. Apart from Holy Land trips, CCM has seen projects inspired by trips taken to countries where Christians are being persecuted, where there are major moral or social problems (e.g., human trafficking or third-world living conditions).
  • Inspired by a theme: Last summer’s series of Southern Gospel theme CD posts offers some ideas: Fatherhood, Martyrdom, Creation, the Wrath of God, and Family Heritage. One other idea, “exploring the miracle of our adoption in Christ,” was discussed in a translation series post, here.

Of course, simple and easy are two entirely different things. An artist who wants to construct albums that tell a compelling overall narrative can’t just wait till shortly before going into the studio and put out a general call for song demos. The artist must either invest the time to write / co-write songs, or invest the time to build relationships with songwriters whom they can approach for songs on a specific theme—well in advance of the booked studio time, to allow time for research and creativity to take shape.

Artists will always have superfans who will purchase an entire project. But if you want more fans to purchase entire projects, tell a compelling story that can’t be told in just one song.

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38 Letters to the Editor

Southern Gospel Journal welcomes letters to the editor. We will post the most thoughtful and insightful submissions. Ground rules: Don't attack or belittle groups or fellow posters, or advance heresies rejected by orthodox Christianity. Do keep comments positive, constructive, and on topic.
  1. I think I’d be less likely to buy a concept album than your typical SG project. Of course, I’m also probably one of those superfans you referred to in the last paragraph.

  2. A sure way to get me to buy a CD instead of download a song or two…how about picking good songs and making certain they are performed the best possible. Chances are, we wont be looking back on most SG CDs being produced today and find some “hidden gems”. In my perspective, it seems as if groups get a good sing or two (maybe even three if we are lucky) and then record a project with the remainder of filler sons. Songs they will never sing live, or aongs that are ataged just because our baritone (insert part here) needs a song to sing until his/her feature on the next project.

    I have a few projects in mind that did this for me. The Perrys “Look No Further”, KH “Going on With A Song”, Booth Brothers ( self-titled CD, first with Jim Brady), Hoppers “Power” & “The Ride”, Doyle Lawon & QS ” Help Is On The Way, numerous GC projects. I even own some CCM projects I feel the same about…MercyMe “Almost There” is an example. If you don own this one then you are missing out on a master class of a “project”. Great songs and the transitions between sings make it a must have. So to me it is simple. Make good music that I must have, even filler songs, and I will gladly for it over. But until then, thank God for iTunes that keeps me from wasting my money on a project wih a great sing or three.

    • I think you’re somewhat underestimating current CDs. 🙂

      Maybe some of the groups that were releasing power-packed CDs 10 years ago aren’t now, but there are still groups releasing really solid CDs today.

  3. Marty Stuart released an album around 1999 called “The Pilgrim” that gave a full narative, reportedly based on a true story. The CD included guest appearances from several country stars, and as a whole, told the complete story, while each song could work on its own merit.

    There are very few albums by any artist in any genre that I can say I haven’t skipped a song or two. I am, however, stickler for having a complete album. There have been VERY few times where I have purchased individual songs from iTunes or Amazon MP3. I never know if a song that, at first listen, didn’t thrill me, but after a few listens, began to grow on me….

  4. Don’t forget Rich Mullins’ _A Liturgy, Legacy, and A Ragamuffin Band_, based on the liturgy.

  5. Another interesting one is Andrew Peterson’s _Behold the Lamb of God_, which is an entirely fresh look at the Christmas story that tries to tie together the Old and New Testament in a cycle of original songs.

  6. …true, no doubt, but I was kinda hoping we could discuss Southern Gospel concept albums (or concepts that would work for a SG concept album) here! 🙂

    • But 2nd Chapter of Acts isn’t very “gospel-ish…” 😉

      And even though the liturgy is foreign to an SG context, a concept Christmas album spanning Old and New Testament isn’t necessarily.

  7. Lauren Talley’s latest album certainly qualifies. The project is a companion to the book, both of which tell the story of her battles & ultimate victory. In fact, she went to Jim Brady and gave him some of her writings to write a song, and he co-wrote the title track, “Songs in the Night.”

  8. Yup, the sure fire way to avoid people just downloading 1-3 songs for 1-3 dollars is by making more songs worth downloading.

    Albums like “Never Walk Alone” or “True to the Call,” or anything from the Tim Riley era of Gold City should not have much trouble with this.

  9. Don’t forget about the ‘freebie viewing’ of live performances that You Tube offers. That probably has some impact on dvd sales. Now you can watch your tv thru your pc. I know, b/c that is how I watched NQC last year. It was so much better than my lap top screen. But, back to the topic, I’ll bet You Tube has had an impact also.

    • True but YouTube can also have a positive effect on sales. Yes you can watch/listen for free, but often times (unless its from Dinana), its a pretty low-quality video. But its enough to where you want to buy the real, high-quality thing for yourself. I’d say a good chunk of my SG collection was bought because of something I saw or heard online.

      I would’ve never heard my second-favorite group if it wasn’t for YouTube.

      • …or psalmofpraise (Ellen).

      • Well, yeah, there are others too. But I mentioned Diana because she’s the one who “introduced” me to Tribute.

      • “I’d say a good chunk of my SG collection was bought because of something I saw or heard online.”

        Well. And that goes for my entire SG collection…

  10. First, as already mentioned, just find 10 great songs from somewhere. I think this dilemma is contributed to the fact that there are only a handful of great writers currently. The Marty Funderburk, Joel Lindsay, Rodney Griffin, Dianne Wilkinson, Joseph Habedank, Kyla Rowland, Chris Binion, Jim Brady, Gerald Crabb (if he still qualifies),Phil Cross, you get the idea. And over a period of time, even their stuff has potential to be “filler” material based on their name. That is not to be taken too critically…it’s hard to write over 2-300 songs without some of them sounding similiar or expecting half of them to be Top 10 singles. This generation of Southern Gospel will still survive with the classics, but a wider, more diversely creative and artistic aim among writers should be a goal.

    I actually believed I may have commented here before about the Concept album, maybe a few months ago. I have always thought that was a brilliant idea. IT does work for other genres, both secular, and CCM based. The patience the group would have to endure should be assumed.
    1) Groups usually put out a brand new recording per year, with an average of 8 new songs on every project. I don’t think it would be that hard to write 8 originals, and search the world over for 2 classics or previously recorded material to fit the thrust of your “concept” piece.
    2) Yet I could also see this as quite a task if you’re trying to make it “Pillars of Faith” esque in the terms of either Legend or Cult status. Something like this may need 2 or 3 years to evolve in the right chemistry. Given the fact that groups rely heavily on Product sales, they might not be able to go without getting something out into production at a quicker pace. Though I’m not trying to compare to other genres of music, but other non-SG artists only put something out every 3 or so years, and usually never throw something together in preparation for the studio (I realize this may not always apply, but believe it to be in the norm).

    3) Would a concept album hurt radio-play? I’ll be honest, I have the type of mind that would be more enthusiastic to buy something like this (and have) which is probably the rare in SG. But if the right amount of time is put into something like this, you could easily have 3-4 radio singles (well it better, or the Record Company won’t pick it up). I don’t think that it HAS to affect the artists air time so severely. Actually, it may enhance the buzz about the project if its marketed the right way.

    Once again, this isn’t something that could whizzed together in a few months. Are artists willing to be patient enough to have all songs connecting or pointing us to something? But as the paradigm is shifting in our culture, without adapting to its idealogies, morality, and belief systems, we can shift with them in the realms of creativity, artistry, musicanship, and business.

    • IBSR, great thoughts. You ought to have written the post!

      • naw, you let me have my opinion here and I’m content. you have a much deeper fan base. besides i don’t think we need another blog about southern gospel.

      • OK – and thanks!

  11. I see where you all are coming from. But I’ll just add a couple of thoughts from a different perspective.

    I think I spent (pre-marriage 😉 ) about the same amount of money or possibly more post-iTunes as I did pre-iTunes. Impulse buys definitely went way up. The difference was that this money was spread over a much wider range of artists than before. Little guys that previously wouldn’t have had a chance of my buying their entire project could now sell me a couple of their best songs. On the other hand, the number of complete projects I bought was normally restricted to a couple of favorite artists that I feel are worth collecting.

    I don’t know if this was true for other people or not.

    • I’m definitely more of an individual songs person. I will generally only collect the handful that I think are best, and I won’t shell out for a whole album unless I am really impressed by the clips or I think it’s worth reviewing.

      • I think both of you are correct. And it’s not really that different of a perspective. That’s normal for me too. But here’s to hoping artists would push the limit. I don’t mind a dud every now and then. But give me 8 or 9 standout songs, and I’ll buy your album.

        But regarding a Concept album…it was a theme or telling a story, you wouldn’t just want to buy a “piece of the puzzle”. You would want to see what the completed puzzle really looks like.

      • I’m having trouble thinking of even five albums I like that DON’T have at least one dud. But I don’t mind a weak song or two if the rest of the project is solid.

      • Ditto. (I love not having to use filler!)

  12. The Statler Brothers did two albums based on the new and old testament of the Bible. Each was a walk through of the testaments. They’re not albums to listen to on shuffle!!

  13. There are certainly some more changes to come in the way that marketing and recordings are to be done and groups and record companies are surely having ongoing conversations about this now as to how to address future trends. More and more groups are having downloads directly from their sites too – it’s where we live now so some are really embracing it.

    That being said – I don’t give a flip about any kind of “theme” on a recording project. I wouldn’t be any more inclined to buy it. Like others have said, give me 10 strong songs that I really want to buy – and likely I’m going to buy an entire project from my favorite groups anwyay.

    Keep in mind also that if groups are selling more by download, then that’s less they have to press and the cost goes down a little – doesn’t necessarily offset because you still have most of the production costs but it still has a small part to play

    I still think there will be a market for CD’s as people like to have something for the shelf and the liner notes and writer information and such, but I expect that will be extinct in time as well.

    • One reason I still like to have CDs is that it’s nice to have something that can be put in a player and shared easily with family and friends. If a bunch of you want something to work out to or sit around and enjoy over a coffee, that’s simple if you have a physical copy.

      Now, you could still burn a blank CD from digital downloads, but then it’s not going to be as easy to find if you accumulate a lot of them through the years.

      • You have to be adamant about having a stereo with a plug-in! 😀 Although that doesn’t help you at someone else’s house. There you’d need an adapter that transmits to FM radio, and I haven’t been able to afford one yet.

    • Tony said that simply because a project had a unifying theme would not by itself make it appeal more to him.

      I can kind of see both sides. I sort of see his point, because even though it’s nice to have thematic unity, it still doesn’t matter unless the songs are individually strong.

      • Ack, terrible grammar there, sorry. Rephrase: Tony said that he wouldn’t be any more attracted to a project if the songs had a unifying theme than he would be if they didn’t.

  14. I guess I’m too much from the “Old School” regarding downloads. If I’m going to put money on the counter (or on line, as the case may be), then I want to have something tangible in trade. Those long Texas drives become more bearable when I can load several C.D.s of my favortie artists and allow the things to play. I may have a mix of SG, country, and what my kids call fossil rock, but they are mine, and I can hold them in my hands.

    The preceding comments are worth about what they cost.

    • Yes, but I got a $40 refurbished Shuffle music player that holds about 15 hours of music. I don’t even listen to radio most of the time – mine is commercial free.

      (Not to invalidate what you’re saying, just discussing it. 🙂 )

    • Fossil rock.


      • i don’t support this idea of a concept album solely based on the fact that it would help solve the problem of digital downloads. i support it because i support music. i support creativity. i support, when deemed necessary…moderate change (notice, i did say “moderate”). If most projects did have 10 great songs, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. But this problem doesn’t just exist in SG, it is prevalent in other genres too.

        We could talk on this site or others about change in SG, but a lot of that conversation could largely remain subjective. Just because you were to do a non-traditional album does not mean you would have non-traditional southern gospel songs.

  15. Does anyone know if the other genres of music are having as big a problem with this as Southern Gospel? Or is it a bigger problem here because many of the groups we considered “upper tier” are still small compared with the upper tier in other genres, and consequently they depend on the their CD sales to keep them on the road? In fact, do any artists other than SG sell their own product on a table out in the foyer?

    • Yes, other genres do, including Bluegrass.

      I believe most artists in most genres, except those highest-tier sellers with a major label, sell product after shows.

      • Just to clarify: By “major label” I mean major as in one of the big four secular conglomerates, some of which have CCM divisions (and one of which, EMI’s Christian Music Group, distributes Gaither).

  16. BTW I did buy the Mark Bishop project (via Crossroads download) when it came out. There was quite a bit of buzz about it. Needless to say, the theme was not a reason to buy it…disappointment. I won’t buy another concept album just because it is so.