How do we measure success?

We all know that temporal success isn’t what matters most in the end. What matters is whether we are faithful to our calling, and finish the work God gives us to do faithfully. That said, provided we do not take them too seriously, discussions over temporal success can certainly be interesting.

Those of us who frequent assorted blogs and forums in this genre often see discussions about the success of an individual group. But the broader topic of how our industry measures success is far less rarely broached.

Here are some factors that are often considered:

  • Singing News Fan Awards
  • Radio Hits
  • Appearances at NQC
  • Appearances at large Gaither tapings
  • Appearances at other prestigious venues

Two more factors are less obvious and perhaps more intriguing:

Lineup stability. In our recent Bobby Clark interview, he shared a fascinating insight: “Success for quartets is measured by the longevity of singers who stay with a group and don’t seek greener grass with another group.” The more I contemplate it, the more it rings true. We tend to think of the greatest Gold City, Cathedrals, and Greater Vision lineups as the ones that stuck together the longest—and the fact that each group has had lineups approaching a decade in duration does, in turn, impact our views of the overall success of the groups. (This is, of course, not a measure of success on its own, since numerous unknown groups have stable lineups.)

Retrospective success of alumni. This is one I’ve discussed before, but it’s been over four years. While this is a factor that cannot be measured until a lineup or group has disbanded, it is one of the most telling measures of a group’s success. How successful were the group’s members after leaving the group? The current careers of Ivan Parker, Brian Free, Mike LeFevre, Jonathan Wilburn, and Mark Trammell play no small role in our view of Gold City, while the post-Cathedrals careers of George Younce, Roger Bennett, Scott Fowler, Gerald Wolfe, Ernie Haase, Kirk Talley, Danny Funderburk, and Mark Trammell play no small role in our view of the Cathedrals.

None of these factors, except perhaps the first in the bulleted list, is significant enough to define success on its own. Yet, cumulatively, the various indicators do add up.

Hat tip to two tenors who, in recent conversations, sparked the ideas for this post.

For more Southern Gospel news and commentary—follow our RSS feed or sign up for our email updates!

29 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. One major factor I think you missed is an artist’s reputation among fans – namely, their reputation for interacting with fans. If fans have a good experience with an artist at the product table or just interacting in general, they are going to tell people about it, thus generating word-of-mouth buzz and building (slowly but surely) more success.

    • That’s an excellent measure, but it’s very difficult to quantify. Even the artists who are masterful at connecting with fans might have an occasional fan who doesn’t want to wait in line, gets grumpy, and blames the artist, and even the artists who generally are reserved, keep to themselves, and don’t connect personally with fans will have the occasional one they connect with.

  2. How about a commitment to recording great songs?

    If an artist has a track record of looking for and using meaningful, long-lasting, well-written songs (including at least some from professional writers outside the group) on each project, that is a good sign of stability and success.

    You listed “Radio Hits,” and that is one aspect of it, but it’s not a complete picture. Some great songs never make it to radio, and some worthy radio releases never make it to #1 or even the top 10. Also, some artists do not receive the radio play they deserve, but they still record great songs that people request years later.

    • Good point on the Radio Hits. Many people would say that Gold City continued to have success after 2000, but their last number one song was “He Said” from over a decade ago.

      • Of course, a song doesn’t have to hit #1 to be a hit – if it gets up to #2 or #3, whether or not it hits #1 is as dependent on the strength and momentum of the songs around it as anything else.

        But that aside, Gold City did have a particularly strong run of radio hits in that era which they haven’t quite matched since.

    • How are you going to quantify great songs? 🙂

      Radio hits is one way. Songs one group introduces that other groups record is another quantifiable way.

      • With Singing News publishing 12 months a year, I would say it is harder to get a song to number 1. I think if a song hits top 20 at least it is a hit.

      • I take an opposite view. A song isn’t really a “hit” unless a number of fans can remember the tune well enough to hum it five years later.

        There are some songs in the Top 20 NOW that I don’t know well enough to guess at the tune.

  3. “…the post-Cathedrals careers of George Younce, Roger Bennett, Scott Fowler, Gerald Wolfe, Ernie Haase, Kirk Talley, Danny Funderburk, and Mark Trammell play no small role in our view of the Cathedrals.”

    I suppose, as that statement stands, that it is true. But, I would not say that our view of the Cathedrals would change in any way if none of those people had been successful post-Cathedrals.

    By that I mean that the success of that particular group was so phenominal, so big, that if not one member had gone on to great success that that would in any way diminish the group’s standing in our collective memories.

    I could say they same for the GVB. But, sadly, not for many other groups.

    • Actually, I think my assertion has some validity, and here’s why:

      For those Southern Gospel fans who got to experience the Cathedrals during their heyday, it wouldn’t have made any difference if every Cathedrals alumni got a job with an insurance company afterwards.

      But for everyone who has discovered Southern Gospel in the last twelve (!) years – a fair percentage of the fan base, actually (I’d guess between 25% and 40%) – it does make a difference. If our only exposure to the Cathedrals had been CDs, LPs, and fading VHS tapes, we would still have appreciated their legacy – but not as much as when we’ve seen Roger, Ernie, Mark, Danny, Scott, and others sing the songs that made them great in person.

      • “For those Southern Gospel fans who got to experience the Cathedrals during their heyday, it wouldn’t have made any difference if every Cathedrals alumni got a job with an insurance company afterwards.”

        Agreed. That was what I was trying to say, but you said it so much better.

        I got to hear them so many times during the Funderburk/Trammell years. What memories. The electricity in the air before the concerts even started was something to experience. I miss those days.

        And, you are right: If all the former members were now selling Amway, it would not in any way change how I feel about the group.

      • I completely get where you’re coming from. I, though, didn’t discover Southern Gospel until 2004 – a few months short of five years after their retirement. That’s why seeing Roger, Scott, Gerald, Mark, Danny, Ernie, George Amon, and Haskell sing their hits of yesteryear live has made such a difference in how I view the Cathedrals. (I’ve also met Bobby Clark in person, at a book signing, but haven’t heard him sing live.)

      • I miss them too! As well as that ‘electricity in the air’ feeling. I also remember feeling the same about the Happy Goodmans, Hinsons and Rambos even though I was so young I hardly remember their music. Make no mistake, the crowd was lively and the room was electic with excitment though, I remember that. Wonder why it is a little different now? I love the concerts I attend, but it seems a bit different. What do you guys think?

      • It depends on who you’re going to see.

        On the one hand, Legacy Five and Greater Vision have a somewhat more subdued, stately demeanor on stage (though not to the extreme in either department!)

        On the other hand, Signature Sound (like them or not), the Gaither Vocal Band (like them or not), and the Booth Brothers pretty consistently have some buzz and excitement in the air before and after concerts.

      • Woody Wright recently commented about the Oaks and the excitement they had back in the day. He lamented that there isn’t much of that today.

      • It might not change how you felt about the group, but I think it gives more validity to those individuals, and to the fact that George and Glen knew how to make some good hires.

        For a while, I think there was a revolving door of singers coming to and from the group. Somewhat like what we see Gold City get criticized for today.

        Lineups gained stability in the 80s and 90s, and those group members from that timeframe are the ones who are successful in the industry today.

      • If you’re talking about the early ’70s – then sure, I would agree with the comparison to Gold City today.

        I don’t think we could compare any post-81 era to Gold City’s speed of lineup turnover today – during that time period, they had two baritones, two pianists, one lead, one baritone, and three (or four) tenors.

        During Wolfe’s arrival and then departure, Funderburk, Trammell, Payne, and Younce were all steady players.

        During Young’s arrival and then departure, Trammell, Payne, Younce, and Bennett were steady.

        The only point post-81 where two parts changed hands within about a year’s time would be Funderburk/Trammell for (Young) Haase / Fowler.

        None of those approaches current GC levels.

      • Read my last sentence again. 🙂

  4. I’m old enough to remember going to concerts as a grade-schooler, and there were the Statesmen (Denver, Jake, Doy, Chief, and Hovie of course), and talk about excitement…the air crackled with it! And as mentioned, it was there for the Goodmans, the Hinsons, certainly the Kingsmen and so many others in the 70s and 80s and beyond (The Cathedrals are in a class all by themselves.) I think one thing that’s changed is the loss of live music. WAY back in the day, with only the piano, the vocals were out front, and there were no stacks or other bells and whistles, and you had to be able to just stand there (as Glen Payne would say), “flat-footed and SING”. And even when bass guitar and drums were added, the songs sung in concerts didn’t sound the same necessarily every time. And if Ronny Hinson wanted to stop the music and let the Holy Spirit move, he did that. I know that was one of Ernie’s goals with Signature Sound…to bring some excitement back to the stage without sacrificing the doctrinal content of the songs, and I think he’s done a spectacular job of that. Also, it helps to have someone in the group like Michael Booth or Jonathan Wilburn who is loaded with personality and charisma (or who is REALLY funny like Michael, and Sam Goodman, Wendy Bagwell and Dale Shelnut were)…very appealing to fans who just can’t WAIT till those folks get on stage. And I will stress again that “excitement” should always include the context of those special times when indeed the Holy Spirit DOES move in a special way onstage. When you really DO feel like we’ve “had church”. My my, but I’ve talked too much…just like a songwriter (haha). Great job, Daniel, as always…and very insightful comments by everyone. Blessings abundant…Dianne.

    • You have a great point . . . averaged out, I definitely hear more buzz and see more excitement before concerts with groups with live bands (e.g., EHSS, Kingdom Heirs, Dove Brothers).

    • Oh how I wish I could have heard the Statesmen live or the Goodmans!! The one group that I wish that I could have heard the most was The Cathedrals!! Just to hear Glen and George in person would have made me have one of George’s “Glory” spells!! Thanks for the post Mrs. Dianne! I always love to read what you have to say! I am a firm believer that live music brings some excitement that tracks just can not duplicate but I am afraid with the economy as it is, we will continue to see fewer and fewer groups with the live sound! However, the Kingdom Heirs will never stray from it (I don’t think) and they are one of the absolute best out there!

  5. Sorry if I take this in a little different direction, but success cannot be measured for any Christian artist until we are in heaven. Radio Hits and sales/awards mean absolutely nothing if lives are not truly changed for the better. That is hard to measure and i think that is why people look at other factors. The Cathedrals relied on a force much more powerful than they were. That is why they were successful. I pray that we stop mesuring success by the bullet list found above and start measuring it by the fruit of our labors. NOTHING ELSE MATTERS!

    • As I noted when I began the post, beyond the shadow of a doubt that is certainly the most important thing, which nothing else can surpass.


    • As usual Pat, very well said!

  6. In elementary school my teacher played a small trick on the class to see if we read the directions before taking the exam. As you can guess, I FAILED that exam. Daniel, I totaly missed the beginning of the post. You were absolutely right. I will go back to playing bejeweled now and leave the blogging to professionals. lol!!

    • Pat – no problem! 🙂

      Actually, your post did go further than mine, with the viewpoint that external measures of success don’t really matter at all – which is something I can certainly respect.

      (And I do promise that that sentence has been there since the beginning, and that I didn’t edit it in!) 🙂

  7. Great discussion. I do enjoy reading all the comments, but of course, when Pat Barker, or Gerald Wolfe, or whomever else comes by, it gets particular attention.

    Pat, I saw the Mark Trammell Quartet about a year ago. It’s time for another!!!:-))

  8. It’s funny that you bring up this topic this week, Daniel, because a promoter friend of mine who has concerts with what we would consider major artists has recently been gnawed on by a regional group manager who has a song that reached the top 80 and now thinks his group should be on said promoter’s concerts. I don’t mean to take anything away from a regional artist. I admire weekend warriors and respect their work. They take the gospel places that full-time artists with larger expenses sometimes cannot feasibly go. But one song in the top 80 does not a success make. My friend has a checklist he goes through when explaining to regional groups why he uses only major full time artists on his concerts. Has the artist or anyone in the group been nominated for a SN fan award? Does the group have a top 20 single? Do major promoters of large events (NQC, Bill Bailey, Twila Rohrer, Frank Arnold, Templeton Cruises, etc) normally use the artist? Have they been on a Gaither Video? Do they record on a major label? Are they represented by a major booking agency (Harper, BSA, Dominion, Artist Direction Agency)? Are fans in his area asking for the group to be booked on his concert promotions? These are just some of the criteria by which my friend uses when booking talent. And if a group can’t answer positively to at least some of these questions then they probably are not goign to be on his concerts. These are not all-inclusve, and certainly not indicative of God’s measures of success, but as a promoter, he feels he has to book the groups who are currently on top, and that the fans want to hear, or else they won’t purchase a ticket. I personally believe God’s measure of success is far different than what we are trying to label here. God is only impressed with his Son’s finished work on Calvary and whether we are in the center of His will. If we are, no amount of number one singles or awards will improve on that.

    • Excellent post – and well-balanced.