37 years ago today, I did my first concert as a “professional” Gospel Pianist. It surely doesn’t seem like 37 years ago. March 7, 1981
— Gerald Wolfe (@geraldwolfe1) March 7, 2018
Although he got his “official” start in 1981, it was in 1986, the gospel music world as a whole was introduced to a young pianist with a dynamic voice named Gerald Wolfe when he took over pianist duties with the Cathedral Quartet for Roger Bennett. Two years later, Gerald embarked on a solo ministry, and in 1990, launched what would become one of the most highly-regarded trios in modern southern gospel music, Greater Vision.
In the 30+ years in the industry, Gerald has seen quite a bit of changes in gospel music, both positive and negative. I reached out to Gerald recently to discuss his views on the current state of the genre, including the internet, recording techniques, and the ever-popular “are you traditional or progressive?”. You can read his thoughts below.
KYLE BOREING: First of all, thank you for taking the time for this interview.
Let’s start with the biggest question first. Compared to when you first entered the industry, what do you consider to be the greatest addition or improvement to the industry?
GERALD WOLFE: The greatest addition has been the availability of the internet. It has exposed the music and message to people all over the world, who otherwise, would have never heard it.
It’s also been the greatest blunder, because we still haven’t learned how to effectively utilize it, or how to properly “police” ourselves, in regard to what we allow to be made available on the “world wide stage” of the internet. Far too much of what is available doesn’t represent the Artists or the music in the best light.
KB: Let’s talk about the Internet. There have been some artists who have definitely benefited from the tools and exposure the Internet brings, but there have been others who have not only seen their profession/ministry harmed, but in a few cases, their personal lives have been negatively impacted. Granted, we can’t make anyone do something they don’t want to do, but do you as a group manager have rules in place for Greater Vision’s members regarding online activity?
GW: All the guys on our bus are well-past 21, so they already know what is good and not good about the internet. They don’t need written rules from me. Bad decisions will always have bad consequences, just as good decisions yield positive results.
KB: When you entered the industry, it was much easier for groups to “control” their public image, as publications were limited to print magazines like the Singing News. Today, everybody and their brother has a social media account that is immediately accessible, and blogs abound where news, opinions, and even rumors, can spread like wildfire. Has the world of the internet done more harm than good to the SG industry in your opinion?
GW: In the big picture, I think it’s done more good than harm, but it’s certainly done plenty of harm, in my opinion.
KB: Let’s shift gears a bit to the studio. Recording techniques have also changed a bit time. Digital recording has enabled artists to spend less time in a studio (and as a result, save money), but some have complained that digital technology has made some recordings sound artificial. What’s your take on recording then vs now?
GW: I’m not a big fan of 100% digital recordings… I never have been. I miss the “warmth” of analog recording, and, believe it or not, I miss the shortcomings of analog recording. I’ve always loved the process… working on it until it’s the best it can be… rather than cutting, pasting, and over-tuning. I’ve been involved in recording for so long, that I can easily spot tuned and phrase-matched vocals, and for my ear, something is lost in that process… most often, the feeling, the emotion, the natural phrasing, and yes… the mistakes.
KB: I couldn’t agree with you more on the recording techniques (analog/digital), but looking at it from a purely business perspective, digital recording definitely has its cost-saving benefits. I’m guessing the decision regarding recording techniques comes down to budget restrictions (it’s definitely more expensive to spend weeks in a studio getting parts exactly right).
GW: Unless artists have home-studios, I don’t think recording is less expensive today than it was twenty years ago. Studio rates are about the same, but engineers and musicians are naturally more expensive now, compared to twenty years ago. Some may be able to do a project faster, digitally, but we actually spend the same amount of time on a project now, as we did when we started. Two days of tracking, two days, or more, on vocals, one day of overdubs, a full day of orchestrations, and usually five days of mixing, then mastering. Our latest project, “Still,” actually cost around $10,000 more to record than our “Far Beyond This Place” recording from 1998.
KB: As a follow-up to the recording techniques – digital distribution is a beast in and of itself. Fans love it, because it gives them instant and inexpensive access to new music, but artists feel a major sting due to the incredibly low payout. This format, however, does not seem to be going away any time soon, and most artists seem to be taking the mindset of, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” The RIAA even recently (and somewhat begrudgingly) allowed digital sales to count towards record sales certification. Gospel music, however, is of course hesitant to change. We have one reader in particular who is not afraid to let everyone know that he absolutely will not “go digital.” The last couple releases you’ve worked on (Greater Vision and Second Half Quartet) have not seen digital album distribution. Have you seen any difference in sales numbers (positive or negative) with this decision? Do you think digital distribution will ever be a viable method for gospel music?
GW: There’s no question that digital streaming is “not going away.” It’s actually becoming more and more popular all the time, and MOST of our music is available through streaming services, like Apple Music, Amazon Prime, and even Spotify. I believe, based on the reports I see, there are actually more people listening to Gospel Music now, than ever before… and that’s great! However, the reason our most-recent recording is not available in those formats is purely monetary.
It is impossible for us to hope to recoup a recording that cost us more than $40,000 to produce, when the average Pandora streaming royalty rate is now $.0011. At that rate, our entire 12-song recording would have to be listened to 3,030,303 times for us to only break-even on the cost of recording… not to mention writer and publisher royalties. (That’s 36,363,600 song streams!) Only after those numbers had been reached, would we realize any profit which could be used to fund our ministry. Because of that, my position has been to release our recordings to streaming services, once the production budgets have been recouped. Do I think it’s the best long-term solution… No… but it’s the only one that makes sense to me, on paper, under the current circumstances. Ultimately, I think the way we do recordings will change.
I can imagine a not-so-distant future where we will not do 10 or 12-song recordings, but rather 3-song sessions, which will be released digitally. Then, months down the road, after we’ve completed 3 or 4 of those types of recordings, we can release a CD of the 10 or 12 songs, for those people, like myself, who still enjoy a better, non-compressed audio listening experience. Or, for those who prefer a “hard copy,” with liner notes and credits, which can be physically stored… in the event that the internet ever crashes, or a favorite digital streaming service goes out-of-business. I’m “old school” enough to not fully trust “the cloud” to store all my favorite music.
In answer to the other part of your question, we, like every musical Artist and record label in every genre, have seen a dramatic decline in retail music sales, especially in the last five years. However, that decline hasn’t been so drastic in our “live concert” CD sales. We still sell almost the same number of CDs on the road as we did ten years ago. So, in the big picture, I believe Artists will figure it out as time goes by, but I am concerned about record labels, long-term.
When other Artists and Listeners tell me “all the major (secular) Artists put their music out there for everybody to hear, and so should we,” I try to remind them there is a vast difference in the number of people listening to secular music, versus Gospel… since we know that even Gospel Artists and fans often listen to secular music.
I also remind them that when a secular Artists’ music revenue goes down, they raise the ticket prices for their live concerts. It’s very typical to pay $60, $80, even $100 or more to see a major secular Artist in concert, compared to the $18 average ticket price for a multi-group Gospel concert… not to mention the $3 per person average “love offering” concerts, which far outnumber ticketed Gospel concerts by at least a 10:1 margin.
In other words, it’s completely unreasonable to use secular music as a measuring stick in a debate about Gospel music digital streaming.
KB: One more question, and it’s one that gospel artists have been dealing with throughout history…There seems to be a perpetual argument in gospel music regarding traditional vs progressive. Greater Vision has always come down on the more traditional side, and you’ve been seeing lots of success with the Hymn Sing events, which are obviously more traditional in nature. Is this a conscious effort on your part, or is it just the result of where you feel most comfortable?
GW: There’s certainly no argument to be had with me on this subject, since everyone seems to have their own definition of “traditional” and “progressive.” Honestly, the terms are all over the map, always have been, and always will be. I’ve always called what we do “traditional” Gospel music, but I have encountered quite a few people through the years who say we’re “progressive,” because we use sound-tracks, or because we use drums on our recordings.
Without a doubt, the best advice I was ever given became my one of my most-often-quoted quotes… “Always be yourself. That way, you won’t have to remember who you were next time.” I’ve always been comfortable with who I am, and what I like, and I’m not easily swayed, enticed, or intimidated by something that’s different. So, the short answer is… It’s not a “conscious effort” on our part… It’s who we are.
I want to thank Gerald Wolfe for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer these questions for MusicScribe. You can get the latest on Greater Vision at www.greatervisionmusic.com.