Music industry professionals packed a dimly lit New York restaurant one evening this past March to hear gospel music diva CeCe Winans perform. The event announced the release of Winans’ second solo effort, Everlasting Love (Pioneer Music Group). While music industry parties are a regular occurrence in New York, the decision by the label’s parent company, Pioneer Electronic, to debut its new, high-profile, multi-genre label with a gospel artist was unique. In an era when rock, country, R&B and hip-hop rule the charts, Pioneer (distributed by Atlantic Records) decided to enter the market on gospel’s growing popularity.
That launch strategy is an example of gospel music’s phenomenal growth and strength. Over the past five years, new artists, a new attitude and a new sound have pushed gospel recordings up the charts. Such self-titled albums as Kirk Franklin & the Family (GospoCentric Records), God’s Property (B-Rite Records), as well as the compilation album WOW-Gospel 1998 (Verity Records) have racked up previously elusive platinum sales–1 million units each.
Perhaps the clearest statement of its swelling popularity came earlier this year when the Gospel Music Association in Nashville, Tennessee, announced that gospel (a.k.a. contemporary Christian) is the fastest growing genre and the sixth most popular form of music, beating out jazz and classical. It used sales figures from SoundScan, a computerized retail tracking system that supplies the data for most of Billboards charts.
Gospel sales first began to be tracked in the fall of 1995. According to SoundScan’s first comparative sales report, 6.7 million gospel records were sold last year, a 32% increase over the 4.5 million units sold in 1996. A 1996 report by the Recording Industry Association of America showed earnings of $538 million, up from $381 million in 1995, a 41% jump.
A number of factors are contributing to gospel’s growth. Improvement in the production quality of the music, more upscale marketing and packaging of the artists and their albums, more favorable demographic and sales research, and better record distribution have all made an impact on sales. Buoyed by these factors, a burgeoning number of entrepreneurs are forming new businesses. From management and marketing to television shows and record labels, gospel music is ripe for opportunity. While drawn by the chance to promote a spiritual message, gospel insiders admit there are unique challenges to working in a business bound by both a spiritual directive and the instant gratification of the entertainment industry.
THE GROWTH OF A GENRE
If most business ideas started on a “wing and a prayer,” gospel music was no exception. “If you were doing a live [gospel] album seven years ago, you’d pull a production truck up to a church, and you’d have a recording for $3,000,” recalls Brian Spears, president of Crystal Rose Records in Detroit, whose roster includes Donald Lawrence and the Tri-City Singers. “Then you’d spend three or four days in the studio mixing, and for a few thousand more, you’d have an album,” he adds.
When BeBe and CeCe Winans recorded their debut album, I Owe You Me, for