TRIVIA: What was the first southern gospel album to be released on CD? Answer is below….
Last week, I wrote (rather extensively) about what I saw as a short-term gain, long-term loss in the argument over physical music sales vs streaming. If you missed that article, you can read it here. In short, I posited that artists/labels who insist on CD sales over streaming revenue are going to take a financial hit in the long run, as CD’s are a one-time income, while streaming is essentially perpetual, so long as an album is made available for streaming.
Today, we’re going to a little deeper into the reasons (other than financial) that might make labels (and moreso artists) afraid of streaming music over physical media. To be fair, at the end of the day, finances are still a factor in CD sales vs streaming, but I believe there is another aspect that not only strikes fear in an artist of any genre, but also rocks the boat of SG music as a whole.
To put this in perspective, whenever a southern gospel music fan speaks of this genre, the conversation usually revolves around artists. Visit any number of SG-oriented Facebook groups, and you’ll find photos, videos, and posts about SG artists. Very rarely do you see posts about songs, or writers, or arrangers (it does happen, but it’s nowhere near the frequency of artist-based conversations). Compare that to secular music, where most folks can name a song title, but couldn’t tell you who sang it necessarily.
This is why the CD model works so well for SG music. Consumers are not buying CD’s based on songs, writers, or arrangements; they’re buying a CD because of the artist. It’s brand recognition at its core (and part of why the Gaither Gospel Series/Homecoming videos were so successful during the late 90’s). It doesn’t matter if the product itself is groundbreaking; so long as the artist kept doing what the audience expected, they could keep selling CD’s.
Streaming throws this model on its head. Consumers have virtually limitless options now not just for artists, but for songs. Albums have been replaced with playlists made up of a multitude of artists and songs. The emphasis is no longer on brand recognition; it’s about making a quality product (in the form of single songs) that can compete with all of the other quality products that are just as accessible.
This is actually great news for lesser-known artists who are looking to gain exposure. More and more artists are getting noticed based on the quality of their music rather than name recognition. In fact, I have discovered quite a few artists I never would’ve otherwise known about just through browsing and listening on Spotify. Most streaming services also offer “smart playlists,” that take what you’re listening to and offer similar-sounding artists (well-known or otherwise), leading to even more discovery.
This has to scare the “established” artists who have, up to now, relied on their name recognition. No longer can they get by on being able to sell a CD because people know who they are; if their product (read: individual songs) cannot compete with other artists in SG (or other genres for that matter, as streaming is all-emcompassing), they run the risk of not getting any streams.
And I hate to say it, but there are quite a few CD’s I’ve heard over the last few years that seem to fall into a trap of stagnation. Artists who have seen plenty of success over the years are happy to just keep repeating the same formula over and over. Again, for their core fans, that’s what they want, but for such a large platform given by streaming services, it’s not enough. 10-20 songs that all sound the same are going to result in maybe 2-3 of them being streamed, and the remaining ones being ignored, which means less income.
In fact, some artists seem to have adapted to this concept by releasing albums with only 6-8 songs (yours truly included), making a conscious effort to cut out the filler songs and instead putting their efforts into releasing a smaller selection of higher-quality material (although, in my case, “higher-quality” is debatable….)
One could make the argument that the anti-streaming artists don’t WANT the larger audience afforded by such platforms, or at the very least, don’t want a DIFFERENT audience. Why put all that work into creating something bigger and better when the smaller, core audience has been happy to buy whatever they put out, regardless of whether it sounds just like the last several albums they’ve released (I mean, that audience has done just fine sustaining their career up to this point)? If they try something new, they run the risk of not only missing the target as a whole with the larger audience, but also alienating their current audience. Why rock the boat?
To be fair, similar arguments have been around for decades (just ask The Oak Ridge Boys!), and have been frequently used by smaller churches who don’t see a need to grow and adapt to draw in newer, younger members. “We always done it this way, and we ain’t gonna change just so we can attract a few worldy young’un’s who would just do things THEIR way!”
Now it’s not a secret that SG is a niche genre, and as such, kinda plays by its own rules when compared to mainstream music. It’s full of collectors who take pride in their decades-old vinyl collection and boxes of video footage. Most die-hard fans would just as soon obtain an original pressing of a Blackwood Brothers RCA album than get a digital remaster of it via iTunes – that’s just how the genre tends to operate, and as I’ve stated in previous articles, so many SG albums were produced independently that just obtaining master copies is nearly impossible, let alone securing distribution rights for them. Unlike secular mainstream music, you don’t have major labels with decades of masters that can easily be digitized for streaming and a legal department handling clearance.
Again, to be fair, I have been pleasantly surprised at some of the older SG material that has indeed surfaced on Spotify over the years. Several of the Kingsmen’s table projects on their own Heavyweight Records label are available, as are a lot of Skylite (to varying degrees of quality, based on the master source). I’ve even recently seen a compilation of Kenny Hinson features recently. Most of these have been added to my playlist rotation – again, a source of income for the source holders that otherwise may not have been obtained.
But the past is the past, and we’re looking at what the future of SG will hold in terms of how it’s consumed. While vinyl is definitely making a comeback in recent years (and, for some unknown reason, cassettes), the predominant method for obtaining new music releases for casual listeners is streaming. Refusing to release music to the platform (even in a limited capacity) is like refusing to release CD’s in 1995. Why alienate such a growing (and instantly-global) market? The answer, apparently is short-term gain. But, as I stated in my previous article….there’s a long-term loss at risk.
Eventually, I believe that southern gospel music will be left with no other choice but to begrudgingly climb aboard the streaming train. With physical media becoming increasingly sparse in general retailers (even Lifeway’s music department has shrunk considerably to only a few shelves), it’s only a matter of time before consumer demand for streaming product will force SG artists to join the club. The question is, will it be too little, too late?
TRIVIA ANSWER: Most research indicates that the first southern gospel album to be given a CD release was the Cathedrals’ Master Builder in 1986 (Riversong CD08510). This was just TWO YEARS after the first commercial CD release in the United States, and only four years after the first-ever commercial CD release in Japan in 1982. See, SG hasn’t always been behind the times….