Chapter 22: Penetrating the Secular
While Kerry Livgren and others were crossing over into gospel territory, there was not much movement in the other direction, though it was still dreamed of. Christian musicians still pondered the same question which they had for years: Why can't we get a hit on the pop charts?
One obvious answer was, no perceived need. The secular was quite happy with the music it was pumping out, and there was no desire for preachy songs and singers. The attitude of the secular was evidenced at a radio programmers' meeting at a Billboard magazine-sponsored conference on gospel music. The truth cut like a knife, but it was the truth: Unless it was sellable music, Christians were told, unless its quality was on or above par with secular music, no matter how sincere the intent of the artist, they didn't want it. In other words, there was very little sympathy or tolerance as was the case in the gospel-music work on the inside.
John Young, as early as 1976, was telling Christian broadcasters at the National Gospel Radio Seminar that they were going to have to stop comparing themselves with and competing with each other and using their success in that as a gauge of effectiveness. In order to make an effective impact in the secular marketplace, whether it be for ratings, advertising, sales, or recognition, it would have to be done so extraordinarily that the secular moguls and business leaders would have to take note and act, or at least react.
Likewise, in the Christian music field, the albums and tapes, the songs, and the artists would have to excel in talent in such a way as to almost catch the secular industry off-guard, with its defenses down.
Perhaps it was the conversion of Dylan, the abundance of ''born-againism'' in the press, the crossover of other artists such as Johnny
Rivers and Kerry Livgren, or the God-oriented hits of Paul Davis and Neil Diamond which began to spark that interest. Maybe it was the Grammy show of 1980, which was so pregnant with gospel influence. It could have been the wooing of the gospel record companies in an attempt to get noticed by the secular record industry and be treated more fairly. Whatever caused it, there began to be an increased secular interest in gospel music by the early eighties.
Gospel music was being touted (by the gospel industry) as ''the next frontier'' of music, paralleling the growth of country music a few years earlier. Figures on the sales of gospel music as a piece of the music industry pie showed an increase in its share. The Gospel Music Association produced a film to draw attention to the potential of gospel music as a growth industry. Major network TV programs and investigative reports dealt with the ringing cash registers at Christian bookstores (still not called book and record stores except in a few cases). Articles in the major secular trades started looking hard at attractive dollar figures representing gospel music sales potential in the midst of a financial crisis for the overall recording industry.
All the hoopla and somewhat evangelastic dollar reports on gospel music managed to draw the attention of several major secular labels for either teaming up with gospel record labels or starting their own.
It wasn't the first time it had been done, though. The initial try at secular distribution or production of gospel recordings on gospel labels, other than in black music, had come back in 1974, when the American Broadcasting Companies organization purchased Word Records in Waco, Texas. When that buy was made, both critics and supporters of the move watched with interest.
In the long run, however, those involved in the secular end of things showed little or no interest in promoting the newly inherited product. In all honesty gospel music, as late as the midseventies, was nothing short of laughable in most secular minds. It still evoked stereotypical visions of poorly produced, backwoods recordings not fit for distribution, even though Word, Light, and a few other labels had made considerable inroads in upgrading the sound of gospel music.
Thus, getting distributors within the secular companies excited about gospel music was an uphill battle. Gospel records were generally left at the bottom of the promotion stack when records were pitched to radio, and the great Christian hope of crossovers into the secular realm flashed brightly only on a few occasions, usually with generic songs which could be considered religious or otherwise.
Word ultimately found out that the best way to handle things
was to distribute their own product. While Word stayed under the ownership aegis of one of the ABC divisions, they were given the freedom to handle the distribution through channels as they saw fit. Their success in doing so was quite notable, and Word maintained a strong profile in the gospel-music field.
MCA Records was the next company to have a go at recording and selling gospel product. The secular company reestablished the old Songbird label (which in earlier years had carried mostly black gospel acts) and set up its offices in the Universal Tower in California. Artists signed to the MCA Songbird label included B.J. Thomas, Fireworks, Dan Peek, Roby Duke, Little Anthony, B.W. Stevenson, and several MCA country artists who would record gospel albums for the Songbird side.
One of the most noteworthy and memorable albums to come from MCA Songbird was Brand New Start by Mylon LeFevre and Broken Heart, which marked his return after more than a decade away from Christian music albums. TV entertainer Barbara Mandrell, who gave gospel an extra boost in the marketplace by featuring a regular gospel-music segment on her weekly television show, was the last performer to have an album on Songbird, He Set My Life to Music. Upon its release, news reports were issued announcing that the fairly young label was being shut down. In an article about the closing featured in CCM magazine, Jim Fogelsong, the president of MCA Records Nashville Division, said, ''We have found that gospel's a totally different record business than the record business MCA is in, and we haven't found a successful way to make it tick.''
In spite of the MCA Songbird closing, a distribution agreement made with Sparrow Records for swapped distribution of certain MCA and Sparrow product was kept, assuring that the MCA Songbird albums would still be available, at least until stock ran out or demand was down.
The year before Songbird's demise, CBS Records had entered the gospel-music field by establishing Priority Records. First gleaning gospel product from their existing catalog, it wasn't long before considerable new product was being recorded for the label. The lineup would ultimately include B.J. Thomas (his third gospel label), the Cruse Family, Cynthia Clawson, rock legend Johnny Rivers, Bob Bennett, Patrick Henderson, jazz fusionist James Vincent, Carman, and others. Priority showed great promise for the future, with high-quality, well-packaged product.
In a surprise move Priority's doors in Nashville were closed in July 1983, some eighteen months after they were opened under the direction of the CBS management. The explanation for the sudden
shutdown came in the form of a press release from CBS/Records Group. ''We just weren't selling enough records,'' it said, citing the move as ''a matter of sheer economics.''
There was speculation that the move came when Dick Asher, a man instrumental in the establishment of the gospel label, left the CBS company. After that, some people theorized, there was little or no interest at CBS in continuing what had originally been proposed as a four-year project.
Buddy Huey, who had headed up the Nashville operation for Priority, said later in a private interview, ''I was saddened that there wasn't a way to keep Priority going. It didn't make sense because we had far exceeded our expectations.'' After the closing, the artists, just as in the case of MCA Songbird, had to go in search of a new label on which to record their product.
In one other experiment in secular/gospel joint distribution, Light Records, Ralph Carmichael's label, also announced a pact with Elektra-Asylum Records for distribution of certain Light product to secular outlets. The agreement, however, was short-lived. By 1984 the only secular/gospel distribution agreement still in effect was between Sparrow and MCA. Other labels got their product into the secular outlets through large distributors of recorded product.
Part of the reason for the dismantling of secular gospel labels and dissolution of distribution pacts was probably a disenchantment experienced by the secular executives. The reports given to them about gospel music had signaled a lucrative future, in the midst of a waning record market. But by their own admission gospel-music sales were foreign to them. Or perhaps the market just wasn't big enough to capacitate so many labels.
If there was any prime candidate for crossing over into the secular market as an artist, it was Amy Grant. Her career history was a remarkable one. When only fifteen, she took a tape of some songs she had written and recorded for her family and a friend to her Sunday school teacher, Brown Bannister, who played the songs for Chris Christian, a producer and talent scout for Myrrh Records.
''I was completely shocked,'' Amy admitted a few years later regarding her signing to the label. ''I was flattered that Chris liked the music, but I never expected to get a recording contract as a result.''
While still in high school, Amy spent much of her fifteenth year working on her debut album, which included seven of her own songs. The ''recording thing'' was all new to her, to the point that her embarrassment about singing before a studio microphone led her to
request that the studio be darkened during some of her album vocal sessions.
After the album was released, Amy's popularity quickly flourished, mostly on her own strength and merit, without the help of much initial extraordinary publicity. Most likely it was because of the lack of many young, new influences in Christian music at that time that she was received so well. The musicians of the late sixties and early seventies were maturing, more or less taking their music styles along with them. Ironically there had developed a sort of generation gap within contemporary Christian music. There was little new music for the younger teens and adolescents.
The Nashville teenager provided that music. Not only did she please the young people, who could readily identify with her; her wholesome, clean image also hit well with many older parents who had always been somewhat suspicious of any of the new contemporary Christian music.
It wasn't long before Amy's personal management and her record label began plotting a well-orchestrated career, ironically even before she herself knew for sure whether music was indeed in her long-range future. But within a few years the course was clear. Through her extraordinary ability to reach virtually all ages of gospel-music fans, and through the continued promotion and sales strategies of her management and her record company, by 1983 Amy had become probably the most popular Christian female vocalist in the country. Her Age to Age album stayed at the top of the album sales charts for twenty-two months consecutively, replaced only by her own sequel, Straight Ahead, released in the spring of 1984. By that time, Age to Age had sold more than five hundred thousand copies and had earned a gold record. In the same year, as sales soared toward platinum status for one million copies sold, she packed out concert halls during her album-preview tour, which included two sold-out performances at the famed Universal Amphitheater in Hollywood.
As her remarkable career continued, rumors began circulating that Amy was considering going secular, crossing over where other Christian musicians and singers had only dreamed of going. Many of the musicians who had previously eyed crossing over into the secular, though, had changed their attitude by 1984, either viewing such a crossover as unattainable or spiritually compromising, or at least having the potential of being so. Many of the secular musicians who had come from the other direction couldn't understand why someone would want to get involved as a Christian in the pop-music business. There was even some speculation as to whether or not the
secular music business would even allow it to happen to any measurable degree. Christians performing in their own territory of music was okay, but when a Christian started making noise in the secular, would it be allowed?
But the idea was still toyed with by some Christian musicians, whether in pipe dreams or as tangible goals. Gene Cotton had crossed over in the seventies and had a few hits. Andrae Crouch had recorded an album for Warner Brothers. The question still taunted and frustrated some Christians in music: Why can't we have Christian music on the pop charts? Why can't we have Christians record pop hits for the pop charts, even though the songs are not religious in and of themselves? If the lyrics are true, if they're about truth, aren't they really a Christian?
As her management continued to plot her career, with one gold record and two more gold and a platinum on the way, Amy was about as close as anyone to finding out if it could be done.
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