Nearly every album released today, whether it be via record labels or independently, is made available in some form of digital distribution, whether it be streaming services such as Spotify or download purchases such as iTunes. Some artists will do digital downloads directly (and exclusively) from their websites. It’s as common now as cassettes were in the 1980’s.
Some SG artists, however, are refusing to follow the trend. Greater Vision’s latest release, Still, has not been released digitally to date. The Mark Trammell Quartet hasn’t released any of their recent projects digitally (the last one available is 2015’s Rewind). The MTQ/GV hybrid group, the Second Half Quartet, likewise hasn’t released their second album digitally yet, either. There are other, rather prominent artists, who are also resisting any digital releases, preferring instead to either rely on concert sales and/or online & mail order fulfillment (Legacy Five’s latest table release, Faith & Freedom, appears to fall into this category).
While the MTQ is now distributed by their own independent label, and L5’s latest project is not (yet) distributed by a major label, the SHQ and GV albums have been released by Daywind Records, which has nearly all of their recent releases distributed digitally via Orchard Enterprises, so it appears that the digital resistance is not a record label decision, but an artist decision.
So I gotta ask – why the resistance? In the case of mainstream secular artists such as Prince or even Garth Brooks, I can understand the desire to control your distribution, with sales in the millions of units, but in SG music, I just don’t see the advantage to blocking folks from getting access to your music. Are physical product sales REALLY that much better? Are digital sales really hurting your overall numbers?
I’m not the only one to ask this question, either. Steve Eaton has brought up the topic on multiple album reviews, although his concern is more of being able to skip over the more mediocre songs in favor of the stronger cuts.
Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not oblivious to the impact that digital (and in particular, streaming) services have had on the music industry. It is not, however, something that is going to go away anytime soon. If anything, it’s getting more pronounced. If this report is to be believed, there are more folks streaming music than purchasing physical copies. So why would an artist shut out at least 51% of their potential audience?
Then again, this IS southern gospel music we’re talking about here. Cassettes were still made available well into the first decade of the 2000’s. The SG audience isn’t necessarily indicative of the music industry’s wider audience as a whole. The question probably should probably be, “How many SG consumers even purchase/stream music rather than buy a CD?” That 51% most likely is way lower in the southern gospel genre (I’d estimate roughly around 25%).
So that means that acts like ones mentioned above aren’t really shutting out half of their potential audience. They’re still reaching a pretty good chunk who would still purchase a CD. And in reality, the amount of money received from digital sales would be so low, comparatively speaking, that it wouldn’t be that much of an impact, financially.
That does bring up the OTHER question, though….what about the OUTREACH? Are artists potentially ignoring a ministry opportunity by not allowing their music to be heard on digital platforms? Granted, this is a bit of a cop-out, as an artist could just as easily give away physical product, or charge next to nothing for them, so while this may be a POTENTIAL argument for digital sales, I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a LEGITIMATE one.
Now, I have brought up the idea of releasing EP’s or partial albums to digital market, with additional material or “bonus tracks” only made available on physical product. This essentially would work as a “preview” of a larger project, enticing streaming listeners to want to purchase a full album. Some artists are jumping on the EP trend lately, but I’ve yet to see a digital-only EP, with a full-album physical companion release, although to be fair, Greater Vision DID make the title track from Still available as a digital single, so….baby steps…?
A more pressing issue, however, is the lack of retail availability for SG music. Family Christian Store, once the nation’s largest Christian retail chain, has shut down entirely. LifeWay is still open in some areas, but their SG selection is now known simply as “Gaither,” with one 4′ section of shelf space, so unless you find a mom-and-pop store in town, you’re pretty limited on finding SG music on demand (another reason that digital sales have been rising – the ability to get the music you want when you want it).
At the end of the day, I guess, if someone wants to hear the latest music from some SG artists, they’re just gonna have to go the old fashioned route of either going to a concert or ordering the CD directly from the artist. They may fork out more money than if they simply found it on Spotify or purchased it on iTunes, but if you want to hear it bad enough, that’s a financial sacrifice (and wait for shipping) you’ll be willing to make. And in a few instances, I have gone that route myself when I had no other choice.
And the artists, apparently, are aware of that.