Commercial Success vs. Staying True to the Vision

From time to time, I talk to artists popular enough that they could easily land a label deal, but have chosen not to do so. One of the most common reasons given is that they want to stay true to their artistic vision for the group. They recognize that label execs tend to have a good feel for what will be commercially successful; they know that if they do the songs the label wants them to do, in the way the label wants them to do them, they will probably become more successful. But they have a specific concept of the direction they want their group to go, and they would rather go in that direction with less commercial success than (in a term I’ve heard several use) “sell out.”

In my view, if an artist’s concept of the artistic path they want their group to take is sound enough that I have become a fan of the group in the first place, then I have no problem with them taking the path less traveled toward success as an indie artist.

What do you think?

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27 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 do not feel that a group doing one or two “commercial” songs will cause them to deviate from their ministry goal. In today’s age, they need to pay the bills too.

  2. How about a complete album?

  3. If a group truly does have a long-term vision for themselves, the short-term means to that end might include “selling out” in order to get their name out initially. Particularly in Southern Gospel. It appears that a lesser known group can “get in” and “get out” quickly on a record label deal. (By quickly, I mean a year or two.)

    Most younger groups who think they have a unique vision for themselves are simultaneously singing Gaither Vocal Band cover songs and viewing themselves as musical rebels akin to the Rolling Stones. They can’t see or deny that there’s a certain degree of irony in that position.

  4. DBM,

    Actually, I’m not naming names, but one or two of the specific groups I have in mind are doing piano/4 guys/2 mics style classic convention singing. They don’t want to change their sound to a BF&A/Greater Vision/Triumphant sound, even if that might be what a label would prefer.

  5. I don’t think that those groups should change…I applaud what they are doing!

  6. I didn’t want to frame it as yet another traditional vs. modern debate, which is why I worded it like I did. But yes, a couple specific groups I have in mind have told me they’re avoiding getting a label so they can stay true to the classic 4-guys-and-a-piano-player sound.

    Of course, some groups (like the Inspirations) have the clout and product sales to pull it off on a label. But other groups don’t.

  7. I think it would be very discouraging to a group of people with a common vision of what they want to sing and how they want to sing it, to be told by someone else what is best for them. I wouldn’t want someone telling us what songs to sing, if we didn’t feel like it was something that would come from us or something that we couldn’t sing from our heart. It doesn’t take long for most singers that truly have a heart for what gospel music should be about to see how insignificant that industry ‘success’ really is. If you can: do what you feel that you should be doing, have enough notoriety to be paying the bills and are content, that’s about as successful as you’re going to be in southern gospel music. Name any “celebrity” in gospel music and then ask 10 people on the street today if they’ve ever heard of them. Most of the church concerts that are the bread and butter of keeping a group on the road consist mainly of people who never know that there is even an industry named ‘southern gospel’. When it’s all said and done we only have to answer to the Lord and ourselves. It’s a lot more satisfying to know you’ve done your best and be happy as opposed to put on something that someone else wants you to be.

  8. Roy Pauley has an interesting view on the effect of labels on SG in his recent SN article. He is correct on much of what he has to say. The labels do indeed push the groups to be more progressive, and I think this is very misguided. The lion’s share of the Southern Gospel audience is gray, it has been that since I was a teenage and it will continue to be that way till the Lord returns. As people age they tend to migrate to a more traditional format, and SG meets those needs very well for that segment. Trying to stretch to reach a younger audience might indeed bring in a few, but at what cost? Do we alienate our base to win a few? I don’t think so. I think the better approach is to show young people how cool great harmony can be.

  9. Congratulations, Daniel, on finding another hot button to get us all commenting on your issue.

    For most of us who have our being in the Christian music arena, this is a difficult determination to make. Often it’s a matter of survival. Many groups have set out with a purpose of ministry, only to find themselves in a financial situation that, if they don’t generate some funds, they are headed for oblivion. Goodbye ministry.

    When Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden, God told him, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” (Genesis 3:19) In other words, you’ll make it but it won’t come easy. Especially the start-up groups quickly find this to be true. So, many are forced to pay the bills by means of going more commercial than their original calling and plan intended.

    I have no issue with groups that must commercialize to make ends meet. That’s the curse that we all inherited as Adam’s descendants. But if a group is faced with pressure to record specific songs designated by their record company, and ones that the group doesn’t necessarily believe in, it would be good to know that many recording companies hold copyrights to songs that they also wish to promote. So pressure can be put on the struggling group to record tunes that they are not particularly drawn to.

    With the above in mind, I feel that I’ve been blessed to continue with the vision that our group, The Couriers, originally embraced. While there have been lean times for sure, the very God who beckoned us to begin our ministry has faithfully provided a way for us to continue toward our original goal.

    God never promised to make us rich and famous. And sure enough it didn’t happen. But the satisfaction of doing what we long ago committed to do, just can’t be replaced. Our concept is not for everyone, but it’s been fulfilling for us.

  10. Mr. Enloe and Mr. Harris, thank you both very much for your input here.

    I didn’t start this thread to push hot-buttons, but to have a level-headed, sensible discussion. I think that is happening. 🙂

  11. Would there be a large enough market for a SG label that catered only to the traditional 4 guys, 2 mics and a piano sound?

    Are we blaming labels because they are trying to stay in business by utilizing a more updated sound?

  12. Good question, and thanks for suggesting tomorrow’s post! 🙂

  13. This is my personal opinion. I think if a group in the Gospel industry is looking at Gods leadership when beginning a group, then if they do what God is leading them to do, then they will be successful. Listening to the Lord is so important.

    Yes, I think that a group can be successful without landing a record deal. However, the only way it would work would be some serious advertisement and promotion so that you could be booked for shows. I think a record company really helps out in that aspect. Surely as long as you have a good promoter, it would work.

  14. I wish you would name names! Sounds like music I would buy! Who besides the Dixie Echoes is doing this good stuff anymore?

  15. JImT, watch for tomorrow’s post. 🙂

  16. Well said, Ben, Neil, and JimT.
    Lables have already corrupted such a vast number of groups and their music that it’s absolutley sickening. And don’t think for a second that it doesn’t occur today.
    Some time ago I created a mental list of some groups that had changed their sound, dress, and presentation drastically, all of them moving towards progressive SG music, within the timeframe of just 1 project. I easily thought of nearly 3 dozen.

    [LIST EDITED OUT. – Moderator.]

    The majority, but not all, of these and other artists made this polar oppostie change after SWITCHING RECORD LABLES. Conicidence?? I don’t think so.
    It’s also rather odd that they changed shortly after releasing a “hits” or “greatest hymms and classics” type of project.
    But in the group’s defence, I think we may need to cut the artists some “slack” when we’re critical of their music changing. Because it may well not be their choice, but a misguided record company forcing it’s desires upon a group.
    My view of it all: as the old saying goes: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

  17. Susan,
    There is definatley a sufficient market to potentially keep the “4 guys and piano player” type groups thriving. At least in Ohio, what the common gospel concert goer supports the most is traditional groups.
    As another example, look at the existence and popularity of the Grand Ole’ Gospel Reunion.
    Fans seem to want to hear REAL harmony (a breath of fresh air these days), not computer tuned stacks.
    I can’t speak for others, but I personally am not “label bashing”, but am acknowledging the facts that seem to be “swept under the rug” and not talked about, often even ignored.

  18. There are certainly positive examples also. This isn’t a complete “doom and gloom” situation. Some groups have prospered after changing to a more country/progressive sound after all.
    Still some have changed to a more traditional route.
    The first example that comes to my mind is the Perrys.

  19. On #19 – Amen, brother!

    It was a simple acapella encore of “Who am I” that brought a previously only somewhat responsive audience to its feet the last time we both saw them.

  20. The issue is making sure the newer artist is not just a cheap imitation of what is already being provided. If the ‘4 guys and piano player’ groups are creating their own sound, then great, but if they are simply a cheap imitation of the Dixie Echoes, then no I would rather see the Dixie Echoes.

  21. Agreeded, Seaton.
    There is a very fine line between innovators and immitators.

  22. I think a traditional label is a fantastic idea. There are a lot of groups out there that still do this style of music very very well. Gerald Williams and the Melody Boys, and Southern Sound just to name a couple. I wonder if several of these groups went as a collective to an existing label if the could convince them open a label just for this kind of music ? Hey Homeland are you listening ?

  23. If the market is already there for that sound, then why haven’t the labels picked up these groups? The labels want to make money, it doesn’t make sense that they aren’t picking them up if there is such a large market.

  24. The Pfeifers were offered a record deal several years ago IF they would ditch the horns and adopt a country sound. They turned it down flat.

    I read an article that told abouy how Riversong had suggested to Gerald Wolfe that he start a group from the time he signed on as a soloist, but he didn’t do it because of the label as I’m sure you know.

    I’ve heard of labels suggesting to some groups that they go more traditional(pressuring male trios to add a base, for example), to others that they go more progressive, and getting individuals to change their image. A friend of mine told me that the female member of a family group that he knew was told that she needed to lose weight and get a more up to date hairstyle. She did it, but in spite of the group’s considerable talent, they never went anywhere.

    If I was in such a position, I’d be willing to listen to advice, but I wouldn’t do something that I couldn’t believe in.

    Susan, if I’m running a label, I might hesitate to sign a piano only group for the same reason that I’d hesitate to sign an a capella group….we probably wouldn’t sell many soundtracks of their songs! 🙂

  25. Grigs, now that is an answer worthy of a powerful label exec. Haha.

  26. everybody has their own will and loving money more than god sounds like the problem .making decisions with debt and bills to pay is to big of temptation for most people to overcome.the sad thing is that the people running around the country,staying in motels,driving a broke down bus and very little money to show for all their hard work and staying away from their families while their families grow up are the ones paying the price. not the labels who work out deals make tons of money and go home to their families. they drive the expensive cars and live in the big houses all in the name of serving god what a joke. don’t get me wrong we need money but why should the person making all the sacrifice have little or nothing to show for their hard work. it is the American way sign this note and work for nothing the rest of your life. we know the rich man went to hell and let Lazarus lay outside his gate how much more will all these record labels ,CEO company’s bankers false preachers,churches it seams to me they have done worse.where is the fear of god in what people do?

  27. Bobby, hardly anyone in Southern Gospel is getting rich doing this. Even among the top-level professional groups, a salary of $30,000 per year is toward the high end, something that few groups can offer.

    And if you have a wife and children to support, $30,000 might meet the bills, but it sure won’t cover a mortgage in a nice part of town. Though of course I won’t name names, I happen to know that quite a number of professional SG singers in the top groups on the big labels live in an apartment, and not necessarily ritzy ones either.


  1. » Could a traditional label make it? - [...] a comment on Tuesday’s post, Susan Unthank asks: Would there be a large enough market for a SG label…