Gospel Rises Again

These soul-filled sounds aren't only lifting up spirits, they're raising new business opportunities

Sparrow Records (distributed by now-defunct Capitol Records) in 1989, they did it on a $40,000 production budget. That was less than a third of the $150,000 then typically allotted to produce new R&B artists. “When Sparrow took the album to Capitol, we thought they would tear it apart,” says CeCe, noting that financial constraints often caused the production quality of gospel projects to fall short of what other genres were creating. However, Capitol was impressed by the contemporary-sounding songs, which were conducive to radio airplay on a variety of station formats.

On the heels of the Winans duo’s secular success was Take 6 (whose first album produced the hit single “Spread Love”) in the late ’80s, and more recently Kirk Franklin and God’s Property. These artists proved that gospel could successfully compete with other music genres for radio airplay and consumer dollars.

“It wasn’t until the record companies realized that [gospel] could be very lucrative that they decided to get behind gospel artists and [develop] them like anybody else,” says CeCe, whose new album debuted in the No. 1 spot on the gospel chart. Production budgets have now increased substantially, averaging about $100,000 for established artists. And many of the bigger gospel artists are enlisting the services of high-priced producers and songwriters for their projects, which command even higher budgets.

Equally important has been revamping the images of its artists. These days, artists such as vocalist/songwriter Yolanda Adams, whose style drew attention when she braided her hair and donned sleek, cutting-edge fashion, and God’s Property, who outfit themselves in such hip-hop fashion staples as Nike and FUBU, are redefining what is “acceptable” fashion for gospel artists.

Adams, one of the first artists to challenge the traditional thought of how a gospel artist should look, says she found that fans responded to her style. “We got feedback from record stores where people looked at the album cover for More Than A Melody and said, ‘Wow, who is this, what kind of music is this?’ They’d pick up [the album] just because of the picture, so we know packaging is important.”

Teresa Hairston-Harris, publisher of Gospel Today and Gospel Industry Today magazines, says artists’ performances are also helping to revamp the music’s image and add to its appeal. Previously, gospel artists were reluctant to dance onstage, but the rules are changing. “The performances are much different now than 10 years ago,” says Harris. “There’s choreography and staging; it’s unashamedly entertaining.” Last year’s “Tour of Life” road show, featuring Kirk Franklin, Yolanda Adams and Fred Hammond, had a staging that cost $125,000–an unprecedented amount for a black gospel tour.

While visual repackaging and a few key artists have piqued the interest of major record labels, it took both an increase in sales and favorable demographic research to convince them to invest in gospel music. A 1996 study by New York-based Interep Research found that 50% of gospel radio listeners were 25-44, the prime demographic that accounts for more than 59% of all record sales.

These trends have prompted many

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