On the Minor Leagues

Contemporary Christian Music is a genre comparable to professional football, where there are no minor leagues. You’ve either made it or you haven’t, but you rarely move from one group to another. Group turnover is rare; it is more common for a group with differences to simply disband.

On the other hand, Southern Gospel is more like baseball, where we have a minor league system. We have the local, the regional, the semi-pro, and the professional groups. In Southern Gospel, a typical career path that ends in a professional group will involve a few years spent in at least two of the three lower levels.

Some view this as a flaw in our genre, but I view it as a feature of this distinctively American genre of music no more troublesome than minor leagues in that distinctively American sport. It’s just part of the American way that hard work can bring you to the top, and that success rarely happens suddenly, from being in the right place at the right time without having made any effort to get to that place.

Time would fail me, of course, to tell of all the Southern Gospel legends who became legends over time. Since it is basically all of them, with few exceptions, it would be a waste of time to point out a few individually. (Those few exceptions were usually people like James Blackwood, Howard and Vestal Goodman, or the Speer Family who spent years with their group as a local or regional group before the group made it to the major leagues.)

Why is this?

When a major group hires a singer, they have a vested interest in finding a singer who will stay around for ten or more years, to establish name recognition with the fans and to have the faces on their CDs consistently be the faces seen on stage. How do they find such singers?

They could hire singers who have never traveled with a group. But, if you think about it, it makes sense for a group to hire someone who has spent several years in a less popular group. A major group will seek a singer who can step into his role and already be experienced at blending smoothly. But even more importantly, major groups want to hire singers they they can count on to stick around for a while. Singers who have spent several years in the minor leagues typically know by then if they are cut out for a life on the road, and are ready to step into the spotlight of being a member of a major group.

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4 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. Daniel, I love the comparison you’ve made between southern gospel and CCM. I think you’re exactly right in that analysis, and this kind of insightful thinking/writing is why I check your blog regularly. I’m certain you’re correct when you wrote that major groups want to hire someone who will stick around for awhile, and I think you’re correct in pointing out the farm league comparisons where the potential major group members get ready for the big leagues. It’s ironic, then, that so many times these recruits from the farm leagues don’t stick around in the “major group” for more than three albums . . . .

  2. I would think that a reason for the low turnover in a CCM group vs. the high turnover in a SG group has something to do with the amount of time on the road. The typical SG group tours Thu-Sun every week of the year except for a few weeks vacation. Then there are times when they are gone 20 days or so, for example a West Coast tour. CCM groups don’t have nearly as demanding of a schedule. I can see how that could get old really quick.

  3. Daniel – I see your point, but I think the comparison is somewhat flawed. I can think of a number of Contemporary Christian groups that started as the praise and worship band in somewhat larger churches. Singing together for multiple services every Sunday morning, and being asked to do special music for retreats, holiday concerts and other church activities tend to develop excellent musicians. So in that sense, churches are the ‘minor leagues’, but can often be more demanding than singing in a traveling group doing a set playlist.

    It is also useful to note that when CCM groups break up, the members end up back in the church as worship leaders – back in the ‘minor leagues’, so to speak…

  4. Bob, very interesting comparison. You’re certainly correct about some of the CCM groups. One difficulty, though, is that CCM is such a huge collective of styles that only one slice of the CCM pie fits what you’ve described. The praise/worship movement fits what you’ve described aptly. Maybe a few singer/songwriter types do as well. But CCM also has a ton of soloists and singer/songwriters (much more so than southern gospel), and a bunch of them are not involved in local church worship teams. You’ve also got the rock bands (and a whole range of diversity in style), which may form among friends in a youth group but are frequently not involved in organized worship. And don’t forget the bands that want as little to do with organized churches as possible (the “we’re just Christians in a band, not a Christian band” types). I’d be surprised if the “local church worship team as farm league for CCM” makes up much more than 10% of the overall CCM pie, so I’d say Daniel’s comparison is largely validated.