Approachability Vs. Marketability In SG

A favorite topic of SG bloggers, including myself, is the expansion of the SG industry.  It’s not hard to find our thoughts on “Is the industry dying?”, or “How do we make SG grow?”  In pondering such things, a different thought has occurred to me.  Is it possible that one of the things that we consider a hallmark, and unique aspect of SG, namely the approachability of our artists, is in actuality one of the things that prevents this genre from growing much larger?

Think for a minute about the secular music field.  When you think about the big names in secular music, especially today, they are all “celebrity” personalities that appear larger than life.  Jennifer Lopez, Beyonce, Carrie Underwood, Michael Buble, Britney Spears.  All these names conjure up images of red carpet events, paparazzi, and lifestyles that don’t have much in common with the fans who purchase the music of said stars.  A chance to meet one of these stars is the stuff of a big story on the local news, or maybe even the plot of a reality TV show.  Isn’t the whole concept of shows like American Idol transforming an everyday person into an instant superstar?

SG is different.  We pride ourselves on the ability to approach our artists.  Want to meet Brian Free or Kim Hopper or Michael Booth?  Then head to their record table after the concert and you can find them there an overwhelming majority of the time.  Part of the appeal of an SG artist is that they are “genuine, down-to-earth” folks.  To use the common colloquialism, they are “just good people.”  There is still somewhat of a sense of celebrity simply because they are performers, but the larger than life personas really don’t exist in SG.  Getting a chance to meet and have a conversation with our artists is a pretty common occurrence.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing.  After all, part of this is simply a function of the fact that SG music points to Someone much bigger than any of us, fan or artist alike, in Jesus Christ.  This is as it should be.  However, when it comes to growth of the industry and especially to those beyond the walls of the church, that’s not what draws.  People want the glitz, the glamour, and the “I wish I could be so-and-so for just one day” factor of celebrities.

So what should or could we do about it?  Maybe it’s just a reality of our genre that must simply be accepted.  I’ll confess I don’t have much of an answer right now, but if I get it figured out, I’ll let you know.  I’m open to suggestions…

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About Wes Burke
I'm a .NET developer and Southern Gospel music fan. Married with a wonderful family.

11 Responses to Approachability Vs. Marketability In SG

  1. But SG – regrettably? – isn’t big enough for more than one Bill Gaither!

  2. Wes Burke says:

    Isn’t interesting that the one exception to that rule – Gaither, is also the undisputed top dog in the industry in terms of sales? 😉

    • Chickens and eggs here… I’m pretty sure he couldn’t have acted like that in his early Bill Gaither Trio days. The huge hits and the sales came first here, I’m pretty sure.

  3. Steve Eaton says:

    The thing you need to realize. The biggest groups in this industry are those that are also the most approachable from a fan stand point. Sure, the Booth Brothers are some of the best singers in this industry, but they climbed the ranks in Southern Gospel by making themselves approachable to any and every fan.

  4. Ben Harris says:

    Just this past weekend I heard a complaint about a SG group who sang for this church down in Southern Florida. The pastor said they would not have them back because they did not have the courtsey to stay and have a meal with them after the service. And recently, I heard a complaint about a name SG group because they stayed on the bus until just moments before it was time to start the concert. I don’t think you can remove the closeness without destroying the fabric that holds it all together.

    If you want to grow Southern Gospel, do it by setting the musical bar very high, requiring labels, single promotion companies, concert promoters and the artists themselves to aspire, even demand, that they be musically capable, and be well versed on our rich history, enough to really know what gospel music really is in the first place. Learn to read music, learn how to sing properly, phrase correctly, and how to present a program that is both professionally entertaining and spiritually uplifting all in one. Set these goals, built around the genre we already have in place, and the fans will be there. Keep presenting musically challenged groups to a national audience as the best SG has to offer, and it will certainly die.

  5. K Payne says:

    Interesting topic. I think the marketability side of the business comes from making your music easy to listen to. Word of mouth does wonders when you have something that’s new and exciting. The approachable side of the business has alot of factors tied to it. Are the performers rested and ready to sing? Have they had a rough day or a long night on the road to get to the next date? Performers tend to get in the groove after a few days on the road. Towards the end of a tour (from Weatherford experience could be 4wks to 2 1/2 months on the road) a performer tends to just dial it in. Sometimes the last dates on a long tour can be some of the most interesting because you never know what will happen in a concert. Never take your fans for granted. They can get you to the top or they can send you to the bottom. Be humble and willing to meet and greet. You never know what good you may do by just talking to someone.

  6. I think it would be regrettable for SG to lose its approachability factor. It’s what gives the genre a lot of its charm. There’s something unhealthy and a little sad about the position of those celebrity types you were mentioning, who seem so far above the rest of the world that they’re almost put on a sort of divine pedestal.

    So I don’t think there’s anything SG should “do about it,” and as has been pointed out, it’s not a bad thing from a marketing standpoint anyway because the people like it. I think that a lot of the fans who currently support southern gospel aren’t the kind who would be drawn to glitz and mystery anyway.

  7. Wes Burke says:

    But Daniel, albeit tongue-in-cheek, brings up a valid point. Bill Gaither, and by the same token the GVB, have that “larger than life”, celebrity persona. Not to the extent of a Spears or Gaga or JLo, but much more so than the other names in SG. It’s also difficult to argue that in terms of the business side of the industry, they are far and away the biggest name in SG.

    Another thing I think some of you guys are missing is I’m trying to look at drawing new people in, not “preaching to the choir” so to speak. Folks who are unfamiliar with the approachability of SG because they haven’t experienced it or anything like it. Ultimately, I agree with Ben’s second paragraph 100%, you’ve got to put out a top notch product that encompasses both the entertainment and ministry aspects of this music, and by putting out top notch stuff, you can build that “star power” to bring new fans into the fold.

    Maybe this is another topic altogether, but I think Gaither’s TV presence has a lot to do with their persona as well. Sure there are SG shows on the religious channels like INSP, Daystar, and the like, but Gaither gets airtime on mainstream media, like PBS, and also on country TV. Remember he had a prime spot on TNN for years that really built his following. Maybe someone else needs to follow his example.

  8. Kyle Boreing says:

    Here’s a question (partially directed at Ben): How many groups release (at best) mediocre music, but make audiences feel like true friends? They play the crowd way better than they could ever hope to play a piano or sing. It’s like an untalented family member; you may not think they’re a great singer, but you’ll be at every show they sing out of support. These groups build up a rabid fanbase of “friends” who will defend everything they do, no matter now bad it is.

    How many times have we seen comments like this: “These are the nicest bunch of guys, you don’t know their hearts, etc., etc., etc.,”

    It’s a different form of celebrity – the kind where the fan views the celebrity as a friend rather than untouchable, which at times is WAY worse….

    • Right on the money Kyle, with the question. And what is ironic is that in many cases, the least friendly ones are those who are “mediocre”. The approachability is in line with the gospel and their mission to reach others with the gospel (or maybe they’re not even saved…they just like to sing). The marketability is in line with how they make a living. Some artists truly make a good living. But I guarantee you that $ is not the utmost priority. Doing what they love is their fuel, at least it should be. There is a balance, but as long as there is some entertainment methods in place, this will forever be a controversy.

    • It is a good question, and that’s certainly an observable phenomenon. Quality should never be sacrificed or held lightly, yet you do find fans willing to go (it seems) to the death in defense of whoever, mediocre though they may be. And any criticism you may offer is immediately taken as some sort of personal attack (though I must add that there are ways of offering criticism, and then there are ways of offering criticism, and I will leave it at that).

      But I think we should speak to the opposite danger as well, namely fans’ acting like they “own” the artists. I’ve encountered at least one who was holding a bitter grudge against a certain artist largely because she felt she hadn’t been given enough attention. It’s like that song: “Why he didn’t even shake my hand!” And perhaps you could say that’s a risk artists run through their approachability. Fans can forget that they’re being given a gift and start to get the idea that they’re entitled to whatever they want from an artist.

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