Piracy in Southern Gospel

This month’s interview doesn’t focus on one artist. Instead, we take a look at a problem that many artists confront—illegal sharing of their music. I contacted several Southern Gospel artists for their views on the issue, and I’ll let them explain how illegal file sharing impacts them in their own words.

I asked the artists if they thought that audio piracy was a major problem in Southern Gospel. All the artists who responded agreed that it was a problem, but they also concurred that it is not as big a problem in this genre as it is in other genres.

Daniel Ball of the Ball Brothers said: “I’m really not sure how big the problem is, but I do know there is a problem there. We have had people at the product table tell some else standing at the product not to buy a cd because they will “burn” them one. (This has only happened a few times, and it seems the people had no idea it was wrong).”

Gerald Wolfe of Greater Vision said that at this point, the problem was not as much a financial problem as it was a spiritual problem: “I don’t think it is a ‘major’ problem yet, financially speaking, but any time Christians are involved in illegal activity, I think it is a ‘MAJOR’ problem, from a spiritual point of view.”

Legacy Five’s Scott Fowler agreed, saying: “I don’t know how prevalent audio piracy is in our business, but I assume it will only get more pervasive as our audience embraces current technology. With the advent of mp3 players, iTunes and computer technology, it is certainly easy to do. Audio and video sharing is a copywrite infringement and illegal. As such, people should not participate in it.”

I asked the artists how they felt about people sharing clips of their music. Scott Fowler said that sharing “a clip of a song or video” didn’t personally bother him, though “sharing a song in its entirety is wrong.”

Daniel Ball actually encouraged it, provided the person asked permission first: “If someone asks permission to post clips, we always say ‘yes.’ It’s free advertisement.”

Gerald Wolfe, however, took a somewhat different approach. In response to a question asking if it made any difference to him if fans shared a clip of a video or song, he said: “The short answer to that question is ‘yes,’ but the entire answer is that my opinion of it doesn’t matter. It is a question of whether or not Christians follow the guidelines of Federal Copyright Law concerning transmitting material that is protected by the Copyright Law. Christians are admonished by scripture to obey and follow the laws of the land.”

Though it might appear that Daniel Ball and Gerald Wolfe gave opposite responses, there is one point worth keeping in mind. Ball directed his comments to fans posting song clips with permission, while Wolfe was referring to unauthorized distribution of song clips.

I raised the issue of unauthorized video sharing on sites like YouTube. Though the issue of unauthorized music sharing has been around for several years, the technology and infrastructure to enable unauthorized video sharing is somewhat newer.

Daniel Ball said that since the Ball Brothers weren’t yet selling a video project, video sharing hadn’t been a problem for their group yet. He added that groups “need to be careful to find way to use new developments such as ‘you tube’ to our advantage.”

Gerald Wolfe, on the other hand, has encountered some problems with YouTube. He said: “A few songs from one of our DVDs had been posted on the website without proper licensing, and I had to ask the ‘poster’ to remove them from the site. After I explained the copyright issues to him, he quickly and gladly removed them from ‘You Tube.’”

I also asked the artists if they thought video and audio piracy affected their group, and if so, how. Scott Fowler summarized the impact clearly and concisely: “There is not a gospel artist on the road today that could stay there without their merchandise sales. If there were no road sales….there would be no groups on the road. It is a big part of our budget.”

Daniel Ball agreed, though the Ball Brothers haven’t seen as much direct impact yet. He said: “Anytime someone illegally copies a project instead of buying it, it take money directly out of the artists pocket. Not to mention songwriter, publisher and record company. I don’t think we can measure the impact it’s had on our group because we’re fairly new. In other words, we can’t compare sales records with before and after the digital music revolution.”

Gerald Wolfe gave an extensive answer to this question. While it is a little too long to reproduce in its entirety, here are some of the most pertinent excerpts:

I believe every group, soloist, record company, songwriter, publisher, and ultimately every lover of Gospel music is effected by the illegal sharing or copying of music. I really believe that most people who participate in illegal sharing do so out of ignorance of what they are actually doing. Most people don’t think they are “stealing” by uploading or downloading music without paying for it, or by copying a friend’s CD or Video. If they really believed what they were doing was wrong, I don’t think they would do it. After all, most people who listen to Gospel music are Christians, and they know that stealing is not just illegal… it’s just simply wrong….

Most people never think about how much is involved in putting together a professional recording and how many people are depending on the sales of the CDs and DVDs for their livelihood…. Artists, or their respective record company, invest tens of thousands of dollars before a CD is ever produced. The studios, engineers, musicians, and producers are all paid “up front”, before a recording is ever completed. Then, photographers and graphic artists are employed to put together a CD or DVD cover. After that, the recording goes through the “mastering” process, which adds additional cost to the production budget. All of that happens before ONE CD is sold. The manufacturing process is the last stop before the CDs or DVDs are ready to be sold. When all is said and done, tens of thousands of dollars have been spent, but nothing has been sold.

The artist or record company now has product which can be sent to retail stores or sold on the artists’ product table at their concerts. Honestly, most Gospel artists depend HEAVILY on their product sales to meet their budgets. Without the sales of CDs and DVDs, I don’t know of too many artists who could stay on the road. I know we couldn’t.

He added that many songwriters depend on royalties for their livelihood, and they don’t receive any royalties when their songs are illegally distributed. He said that even if there is no intent to steal, this is stealing. He said:

If I borrow a person’s car for a year without their permission and even though all I do is drive it… I don’t sell it to anyone else, or rent it out… I just drive it… I think I would have a hard time convincing a judge, or anyone else, that I didn’t steal the car. That same reasoning applies to illegal sharing or copying.

The challenges presented by the era have forced artists to be innovative in coming up with ways to make the actual CD more valuable. Daniel Ball mentioned that one of the things the Ball Brothers has done is improving their CD inserts: “One thing that we are trying to do to combat that is offer a higher quality cover with more information on the inside. If a person “burns” the cd, they will be missing the extra pictures and info on the inside of the cover.”

Illegal file sharing is here, and it’s an unfortunate side effect of the digital era. But although this article focused on some of the problems, the digital era also offers artists many opportunities. I have personally purchased quite a few projects after hearing sound clips that I would not have otherwise purchased. Although Southern Gospel faces many challenges in this era, there are also many opportunities to spread the Gospel in new and innovative ways through digital media.

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18 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. Great article on an important and relatively brand new problem/situation. Digital media transfer can indeed be an important asset to the spread and increase in popularity of Southern Gospel–indeed, to strictly avoid utilizing the new technology would be an exercise in active extinction of the genre. But, the price of illegal downloads and sharing is formidable.
    Perhaps more articles like this will raise the issue and make people aware of the impacts involved.

  2. Very good article Daniel.

  3. An interesting interesting note: one of the most frequently asked questions SoGospelNews receives is where can people download free southern gospel music. Of course, we try to inform the individual of the fact that this is copyright infringement.

  4. That’s a shame.

    Are there any quality Southern Gospel acts that offer free downloads of one or two singles? I notice this page on the Dixie Echoes site: [EDIT, 11/8/10: The link appears to be down, and has been removed.]


  5. There are too many details to get into in a comment section, so I’ll make an effort to post a more extensive response to this article at Musicscribe in a day or two.

    To be brief, I’ll just say there is ignorance of the law on both sides. Some of the artists quoted above appear to be saying certain forms of fair use are illegal…for example, posting a short clip on the internet for the purpose of comment. This is a completely LEGAL use of copyrighted material, for which no royalty is owed.

    On the other hand, there is obviously a lot of file trading going on that isn’t legal. To what degree this is hurting artists and songwriters is probably impossible to pin down.

  6. Another aspect that comes into play is the fact that many early projects that were released in a group’s career, are no longer available. New folks to Southern Gospel, or people that want to collect, have a tough time finding these projects and may resort to a file-sharing program or just ripping someone else’s copy.

  7. I agree with everyone that copying creative works without permission is a spiritual matter.

    Many of us in our 50’s and over have grown up in the evangeical church where the mentality was that the “in name of Christian love” was plentiful and covered all our transgressions with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
    Often times, we would shrugged off our lack of responsibility to do the right Christian thing because our brothers and sisters in Christ would show the grace of God and “understanding” because we are Christians.

    My father’s lawyer told me bck in the 60’s that believers in Christ never lie, they do not tell the whole story.
    They can use Christian rationale to justified their actions.
    A perfect case of rationale is that I burn this CD so I can worship the Lord in my car while going to work.
    Many times, Christian have to balanced the line between sitiuation ethics and state of well being of “by the grace of God it could be me.”
    I have seen, first hand, many situations where a caregiver, with limited funds, burns a CD to allow a person in a restricted medical situation to hear the Christian music.
    I truly believe the above situation, in a singular instance, is a judgement call between that caregiver and their relationship with Jesus Christ.
    The problem is that situation could be a sign of a habit that is use in other part of the life of that caregiver.

    I applaud the artrists that are involved in this discussion.
    Songwriters and the singers are reluctant to bring up this situation about piracy.
    They are supposed to be spiritual and not to discuss anything regarding money because some would call it greed.
    Yes, they are God’s servants but God hasn’t called them Home yet.
    They still have to make a living here on earth.

    Do not be fool. Piracy is a serious and wide spread situation in music today.
    Christian have a higher calling and are accountable to God for their actions.
    Therefore, piracy is a much more serious situation for believers in Christ.
    The Bible staes in no uncertian terms “Thou Shalt Not Steal.”

    Let me direct you to this link that was in the news on February 13, 2007: [EDIT, 11/8/10: The link appears to be down, and has been removed.]
    And this one on November 12, 2007: [EDIT, 11/8/10: The link appears to be down, and has been removed.]

  8. AMEN!! I have heard of many artist who have had their product conficated by the copyright agencies simply because the singer did not pay the royalties.
    And to open another ‘can of worms’, churches break the law when portions of a copyrighted book are quoted in the bulletins. Same rules apply to chiors, when sheet music is duplicated so that all chior members can have a copy.
    I’ve heard countless stories of how someone supposedly can avoid the laws, eg: if you make less than,say, 500 product, or if you don’t sell it in bookstores. All these excuses are not accurate, one is breaking the law regardless.
    I would have a CD for sale by now for my trio IF copyrights were not an issue. We’ve done all the studio work, but funds have so far come short to pay the royalties. Sure, I could sell some illegally, but it’s wrong. And it’s not worth the risk of a costly lawsuit.

  9. Excellent article, Daniel!!!! Like DBM, my comments are too many to post in your comments section. I’ve posted my thoughts on the SG Critique site.

    Thanks for posting this!!!!!!!!! I hope people will open their eyes and see that Piracy is really hurting artists and their ministries……….

  10. If the entire SG industry didn’t lag so far behind the rest of the music industry there would be fewer problems. I’m not looking for free downloads, just a place where I can buy a Top Ten song for .99 or so, like I could if it were a pop or country song on iTunes or Napster. By not having this available piracy is encouraged. Who wants to pay $15 for a CE with two good songs and a bunch of junk? I’d bet the artist would find a lot of willing takers if they would make single songs available for download for a charge. I don’t know if the blame for this belongs to the record companies or the artists.

  11. this has been a bad thing to deal with and i feel will continue to some extent,but if one is truely the christian they clame to be ,then they would not do such a thing. my spiritual conscience would really get to me,not to mention the LORD!

  12. To Jim T in post 11. You can find a number of songs on http://www.emusic.com. Daywind, Crossroads, and others have posted music there. You get a free trial period with 25 downloads, and then you have to purchase a subscription. But the site has a decent SG selection, and the rates are not that bad. The cheapest plan, I think, is 30 songs a month for $10. You can pay more for more songs, and the price per download goes down if you choose a more expensive plan. I’m just mentioning the site here because I have really enjoyed finding a way to legally download some SG and classical music. Most of the Daywind stuff is over a year old, and I do wish they would post more to the site.

  13. JimT (post 11):
    Actually, I’ve bought a LOT of southern gospel from iTunes. Just in the past month I’ve downloaded some Dove Brothers, Kingdom Heirs, Brian Free & Assurance, and Legacy Five.

    Now, if you go looking in iTunes Music Store for Southern Gospel Music, you will get poor results looking by Genre. You’d figure that it would all fall in a logical Genre like Inspirational, but unfortunately much of it is miscategorized. I’ve seen some true Southern Gospel Quartet albums miscategorized as Blues, for instance. That is why I search by the group name.

    Pardon me while I drag out my soapbox for anyone who is willing to listen to me ramble…

    One problem with a lot of artists who don’t move to digital distribution is that they believe that if they distribute their music as files, this somehow is going to ignite a wildfire of copying and sharing because it is ‘so easy’. Never mind the fact that the effort to copy digitally-distributed music for your friends is no different than the difficulty in copying tapes in the 80’s and CDs in the 90’s and today, but the producers and artists are not well-enough versed in the technology or non-RIAA-biased statistics to realize this.

    I would be interested to see a blind survey of concert-goers sometime to determine the benefit of digital distribution to the average quartet. I would guess that for every one person who will buy a CD, there are 8 that will not because there are not enough of their favorite songs on the album or there are too many unknown songs on the album and that makes them uneasy with spending $15-$20 for the CD. I would also guess that, out of those 8, you’d find at least 3 or 4 that would be willing to buy their favorite songs by that group digitally at a cost up to $1.40 and out of those 3 or 4, I’d guess that 2 would see themselves as likely to buy as many as 15 or 20 songs from a single artist like that. In my book, some sale is better than no sale at all, so even if every digital buyer only bought one or two songs, as long as there was enough sales volume to warrant the sales effort and cost (which is minimal), I’d say some sale is better than no sale at all. And again, for the ‘oh no, the person will share the file’ crowd, it is truely just as easy and likely that someone will copy/share their CD they bought from the table (as Daniel Ball’s comment potentially suggests in DM’s article). In fact, I myself would be more afraid of copying a digitally-downloaded file and sharing it than I would a CD. There’s a certain anonymity to buying and copying a CD, but the digitally-downloaded file is, in a way, linked to your name when you purchase it.

    Of course, that is a LOT of guessing, but it is worth some thought by those artists who are hesitant to enter the world of digital sales.

  14. I can see both sides of this argument. In the end, I think this needs to come down to one simple question…is Gospel Music to become more like the World or more like Heaven? In a way, I do not feel that Gospel music (music for and about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ) should be viewed as a business or even as property for those creators of the music. After all, it’s not going to be about money or property in Heaven. So why should one make it about money and finance and business and livelihoods here on earth, too? You can’t take it with you to Heaven. If the music belongs to or is the property of anyone, it is God’s. God inspired and allowed the writers to write the songs, the singers to sing the songs, the record companies to produce the albums, etc. I personally feel that this should not turn into the same argument that is used for “worldly music.” I shudder at the thought that Gospel singers would put themselves before God…”make money off of God…” and some of those very same artists even sing about putting God first before anything else…yet when it comes to their music and sharing…”Nope, don’t do it, we’ll lose money.” It’s almost like putting strings on the Great Commission…go out and tell…yet they’re saying “I’ll go and tell if it fits me financially.” Heaven forbid!

    We all have lost friends and family members…many lost people won’t go to Gospel concerts…another pet peeve of mine is the word “concerts”…is this about entertainment or about reverently worshiping, thanking, praising, and sharing the Lord and all that He has done for us…I feel that a very large number of soloists and groups started with the right intentions…but now their focus has changed to entertainment and how much can I make out of it. Back to the sharing of music thing, if I were to hear a good song that I felt spoke to a specific need of a lost friend or family member, I would seriously ponder sending them the file of the song or words of the song and have them listen to it or read it as “just a song that they might enjoy/like”…and as a result, their heart may get unhardened, and they might just have a spark of desire to get saved as a result or at least talk with me or with someone about what they’ve heard.

    Yes, this nation and others have copyright laws, but if every man, woman, boy, and girl were saved and were to abide by the teachings of the Bible, there wouldn’t be a need for such laws. There would be no stealing, nor would there be the greed and pride that is so rampant in the Gospel Music industry. I know it takes finances to reach the world…even those here in America…but Paul reached many thousands of people and eventually lost his life here on earth as a result of his lifetime of faithful ministry. He didn’t have an air-conditioned bus or the niceties of making money off those he came to reach with the Gospel.

    A humbling experience happened just this past week. The Allen Family was at our church this past Wednesday night just to go to church. They were asked to sing a few songs, and they also had a table set up outside in the foyer. They didn’t have set costs on any of the items on their table…it was by donation exclusively. $1 or $100, you could have it. Nor did they ask for even a love offering. That was truly putting God first…knowing that He would provide for their every need no matter what. And with 8 children to feed and support, that spoke volumes to me! I wish more groups would put God first and let Him control their “finances.”

  15. Just an added clarification on my views, I do not support the sharing of albums or tracks on file-sharing programs or on fansites. Nor do I support those oddball companies who re-release albums they have no right to re-release. Then again, that all goes back to the music “business,” which, as I said in my previous post, doesn’t seem much in line with God’s plan. No matter who makes money, be it the group, the company, the writer, whoever, it won’t go with them to Heaven, and it’s important for all Christians (and non-Christians) to realize that. And a previous poster is correct in saying that a song cannot save anybody. But as a somewhat recent #1 song Greater Vision recorded tells, “you helped Me plant the seed,” sharing a song with those lost souls whom you are concerned about and love could very well be one of many seeds that ultimately will help lead them to Christ, and while illegal in the eyes of this world and many artists, I do not feel that God would frown too much upon one’s genuine efforts to lead lost souls to Him via whatever means, with no strings attached.

    Another blog entry refered to what will happen to SG Music when Bill Gaither retires. It’s almost silly that that dialog was even opened, as Gospel Music does not rely on one man to survive. Sure, more people may have been exposed to SG Music as a result of Gaither’s videos, but going back to a previous poster’s message on this board, music does not save anybody. It may be a seed that opens one’s heart, but nothing but the blood of Jesus can save anybody! A preacher can’t save you, a sermon can’t save you, a singer can’t save you, a song can’t save you…good works can’t save you, being a good moral upstanding person can’t save you…only He can. SG Music needs a REVIVAL not centered on persons, groups, personalities, money, the past, etc…the focus needs to get back into the Bible and its teachings, and most certainly on Jesus.

  16. I agree illegal copying of digital files is wrong but I also agree with some of the other comments about making more single digital downloads available. Crossroads, Daywind, and others have gotten the ball rolling but they need to offer more than they have. If a group produces great music, I would be willing to download the whole album. Maybe not in its entirety the same day but I love southern gospel enough to keep going back and I have done this in the past on eMusic and iTunes.
    I usually end up downloading the whole albums of some of my favorite groups eventiually.
    I say, if it”s done professionally and has all the ellements that it takes to be a good song then I will download it no matter if it’s the first or the last song on the recording. I would hope that southern gospel groups have enough pride to put out the best possible recording wether it’s the first or the last song on the album. Todays southern gospel groups are so professional and polished that I haven’t come across a bad album lately. Keep up the great recordings and I will keep buying them.

  17. I’m glad the preacher doesn’t charge me to listen to his message, though I willingly give 10% of my income to him.

    I’m also glad the church doesn’t charge me to listed to them sing songs, or even record them singing if I so choose, even though I willingly give money in the offering plate above the 10% listed above.

    I understand the singers/writers/etc have to make a living and that the workman is worthy of his meat, but it seems somehow wrong to accuse someone of “stealing” or even breaking the law for copying/sharing/whatever things of a spiritual nature. I mean, whoever heard of someone in trouble for stealing a bible? Oddly enough, Jesus said “You have made my house a den of thieves”, and he was talking to the SELLERS…

  18. I find the last few comments sad, perhaps with good motives, but misguided. To those of you who want to give free songs to reach the lost, what is wrong with your paying for them to do so? Would God want you to steal to reach people? Would you steal Bibles to give away? What if someone took your paychecks and used the money to reach the lost? What if they took your houses and used as homeless shelters? After all it is all God’s and you can’t take it with you.


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