I came into the gospel music world as a publicist circa 1994. My first gospel PR project was the Grammy® Award winning Clark Sisters’ album Miracle—their first set without their backbone Twinkie Clark, who wrote, arranged and led most of their early music. It was the album to let the industry know whether Jacky, Dorinda and Karen would sink or swim without Twinkie, who had gone into evangelism during the time. I had a small but significant media address book I had compiled from my brief stint with Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign during my college years and my year-long gig with the 1993 March on Washington, where I coordinated media for civil rights icons Coretta Scott King, Rev. Joseph Lowery and the Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy.
When I started work with The Clark Sisters, I worked the phones like I did in my political life. I called up producer Yolanda Starks and booked them on “The Tom Joyner Morning Show.” I called up Sharon Owens and booked them on “The Arsenio Hall Show.” I called Terea Washington at the NAACP, which adopted the group’s song “Work To Do” as the theme for a national membership drive. The sisters also became spokespersons for the American Diabetes Association. All of these activities led to print articles in The Washington Post, USA Today and EBONY magazine. It was an excellent album and the media attention helped make people aware of it. It was a great introduction for me into how the gospel music business operated.
It was a very different gospel world at that time. A bona fide hit gospel album sold 25,000 copies and a blockbuster would surpass the 100,000 mark while a handful of eclectic acts such as Kirk Franklin, The Winans, Rev. F.C. Barnes & Janice Brown, BeBe & CeCe Winans, John P. Kee and Ron Kenoly would earn themselves R.I.A.A.-certified gold records with shipments of 500,000 or more.
There was no gospel radio singles chart to monitor radio airplay in those days. Often a whole album was serviced to gospel radio where a station in Washington, DC, might play a totally different song from the same album than the song that was popular in Dallas, TX. Billboard magazine didn’t create the Gospel Songs Airplay chart until 2005 and since that time, the gospel music industry has really become a singles-oriented industry. Prior to the singles chart, the gospel playlists included a range from traditional choirs and quartet music to the most contemporary artists of the period. Now, in an effort to attract millennial listeners and the advertisers that want their money, many gospel stations have abandoned new music by traditional gospel acts altogether in favor of a variety of contemporary sounds by younger acts.
The downside to this new trend is that in an effort to lure millennials with more modern music, some stations are losing their loyal, middle-aged listeners who are not in favor of Christian Hip Hop or music that resembles 21st-century R&B.
The gospel music industry has not produced many major acts to appeal to millennials of color who seem to be more infatuated with Beyoncé or Rihanna than with comparable gospel artists. Briana Babineaux is a beautiful 22-year-old millennial gospel wailer who is developing a Beyoncé-like following. She was discovered on YouTube almost two years ago and now has nearly half a million Instagram followers and a No. 1 album, Keys To My Heart, under her belt. However, the majority of her fans—including rap star Drake—are not churchgoers as many of them discovered her brand of gospel music through such hard-edged urban Internet portals as The Shade Room.
Physical album and digital musical sales are down across the board and streaming is on the rise. Digital technology has made it unnecessary to buy a whole album if you only want to obtain the radio single. On-demand streaming sites have also made it easy to avoid buying music in an era where everyone likes to save a buck. The gospel music sales picture we are left with now is one where we have numerous top ten acts only selling 5 to 10 thousand copies of a “hit” album. “Nothing is selling,” says one anonymous record label executive. However, many radio directors are complaining that a lot of the new music just isn’t good because the music is calculated to reach millennials who often like music for the rhythm over the rhyme. They say that a lot of the new music simply isn’t hitting the heart.
The millennial artists who tend to be the most successful are those with a song that listeners connect with on an emotional level. Anthony Brown & group therAPy’s “Worth” and Tasha Cobbs’ “Break Every Chain” have both touched heartstrings. The former has sold more than 150,000 downloads and the latter has sold almost 300,000 downloads in a market where people say gospel songs no longer sell. The guitar-toting singer Travis Green has sold almost 80,000 digital downloads of his self-penned track “Intentional,” which has also struck a chord with millennials.
It’s not only label artists who are soothing souls with their sacred sounds. Independent artists are getting competitive with the major record labels too. Bryan Andrew Wilson’s reflective ballad “Turning Away” sold more than 12,000 downloads with mostly secondary market radio airplay. The song “Nobody Like You Lord” by another indie act, Maranda Willis, received no significant radio airplay of any kind and has still sold more than 11,000 digital downloads. J.J. Hairston & Youthful Praise’s latest single, “You Deserve It,’ a soul-stirring ballad, sold more digital downloads in its first four weeks of availability than his prior three radio hits did within the same time window.
There have been a lot of changes in this Good News music biz since The Clark Sisters’ “Miracle” surfaced two decades ago, but one thing that remains true is that people will still buy what they want. It comes down to the song and the song has to not only be well produced but it has to really mean something to those who hear it. People can complain about records not selling and they can kvetch about streaming killing the business but when people are exposed to something they really want to hear then they support it. Look at Tamela Mann’s “Take Me To The King,” which has amassed more than 90 million YouTube views and earned her two gold certifications.
Lamar Campbell’s moving song “More Than Anything” has never been a radio hit but it’s sold more than 70,000 digital downloads and it boasts more than a million Spotify streams just the same. Artists who bring a fresh, dose of introspection to their music—such as Jonathan McReynolds (check his songs “No Gray” or “Pressure”)—are just the prescription the gospel music industry needs. “Just because you play it doesn’t mean we have to like it or that we have to buy it,” says one regular gospel consumer. The reverse is also true. Just because it isn’t played, is no guarantee that it will not sell.
Bil Carpenter is the author of Uncloudy Days: the Gospel Music Encyclopedia (Hal Leonard). His writings have appeared in scores of publications including People magazine, The Washington Post, Billboard magazine, BRE (Black Radio Exclusive) and Living Blues. He was also featured in the gospel music documentary “Rejoice & Shout” (Magnolia Pictures). Carpenter’s essay, “Searching for the Soul of Gospel Music in the New Millennium” is part of the Living Legends Foundation’s series on “The State of Black Music and Beyond.”