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David Staton: Can You Handle It?

Written by Staff on April 9, 2015 – 2:50 pm -

David Staton

David Staton

Southern Gospel Music: Artistry vs. Variety Show

When I was originally asked to write a monthly article, the good folks at SGN Scoops wanted me to write about issues that I think artists and industry leaders need to address. This is a biggie that I’ve wanted to address for a while. My roots are in this music, but through the years, I’ve been fortunate and blessed to step outside of Gospel music and work with some of the biggest names in secular music. I’ve been very blessed to have so many artists from so many genres record music I have written. I’ve been produced by Michael Jackson’s producer, worked with some of the best in Country music, and been able to produce singers that influenced me as young artist.

I’m not telling you all of this to brag about my accomplishments. I want you to know that what I am going to talk about in this article is something that my experience qualifies me to talk about. What I am about to say is not just my opinion; it is truth.

For years, Southern Gospel music has fought for its place as a genre in the world of music. I’ve seen the frustration within the industry as Southern Gospel was snubbed by major awards shows such as the Grammys and even the Dove Awards. I have talked to artists in Southern Gospel, who for the first time in their career are struggling to get quality dates and sell enough product to warrant a record company’s involvement. I’ve seen the artists try to evaluate the problem and the focus or blame always seems to be on anyone and everyone except themselves. The churches only want praise and worship music, the record company didn’t get their song high enough on the charts, and the fans don’t seem to care if the music is good or not. I’m going to focus on what the groups, singers and industry leaders need to take a hard look at. I believe the content of this article is a critical part of the Southern Gospel music survival kit. I really hope you can handle the truth!

If you’ve ever been to Branson, MO, or Pigeon Forge, TN, you will see a city full of theaters that offer variety shows of all kinds. Billboards line the main highways and they all have one thing in common. They are all covered with people that you’ve never heard of. In fact, any one of those singers may be seated next to you at a restaurant, and you would not know who they are. The only thing that might make you recognize them would be if they have their shiny, over the top stage costume on that no ordinary person would ever wear.

I worked in Branson for a year, and it was enough to make me realize that if I stayed there, I would lose any identity I had as an artist because the only kind of entertainment that Branson seemed to offer were variety shows. In a variety show, you have your comedian, your slapstick humor that seems to work with any crowd, and music that they know will work because most of it has been a hit for an artist, past or present.

A variety show, while entertaining at times, is NOT a musical genre. It’s a show that is filled with humor, themes and music that has been proven to work in front of most any crowd. Because of the guaranteed reaction of the proven material, the talent level becomes less important and there is absolutely no room for any kind of individual artistry.

Branson and Pigeon Forge are not popular towns for songwriters, because none of those theaters will take a chance performing a new song that hasn’t been proven to work over and over again. Artistry and creativity is not a necessity for a variety show. Variety shows are most popular with older crowds because most seniors don’t listen to the radio, and they don’t really care who they are listening to as long as they hear and see a show that makes them laugh and enjoy themselves. This is the demographic of Branson, MO and Pigeon Forge, TN. While you may hear some great singing in these destinations, you will rarely see an original artist.

Let me give you a real life example of what I’m talking about. This is something I experienced first-hand. I was singing with a group called Priority. They had been the host gospel quartet at the popular Silver Dollar City theme park for two years. They had developed a show that worked, but they understood that they had buried any and all creativity as an artist to do what they were doing. They did it because it was safe. Each singer was paid directly from the park and there was no risk. We did a show that the people loved. In fact, during the one year I was there, we performed in front of a million people.

Record companies and management firms in Nashville work hard to get their acts in front of a million people, but exposure means nothing if that audience only sees what they can see anywhere. We did all the things that would get an immediate crowd response, whether it was an old hymn, or a joke that they’d heard a million times and still laughed at. We played it safe. To those million people, we were just one of a hundred groups in Branson that did, “Just A Little Talk with Jesus,” and “Amazing Grace.” The individual singer or the group as a whole was a nameless, faceless entity, known as a variety show. Priority was made up of really talented guys, and they knew they wanted out of the variety show business, and that is one reason they hired me. They wanted a sound and songs that would bring them back as an artist.

During our time at the park, I wrote a song called, “Every Knee Shall Bow.” We decided to stage it in our sets. It went over like a lead balloon. Was it because the song wasn’t any good? I don’t think so, because later, that song would be nominated for a Grammy Award by a popular artist. The simple truth was that in a variety show setting, there is no room for artistry or originality.

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Can You Handle The Truth?

Written by Staff on August 22, 2014 – 10:55 am -

David Staton

David Staton

By: David Staton

Surely You Know Better!

 

I have always been amazed how many church people can compartmentalize their church life from how they live their lives Monday through Saturday. I have been in ministry all of my life and I’ve also worked secular jobs during many of my years in ministry. I will probably speak for many folks in ministry in this article. I am going to address a few issues from many different views concerning business and ministry.

My dad always told us kids that if anyone tries to get you to ignore common sense in anything, we should stay away from that person. There have been times when I ignored what my dad taught me, and I can tell you that I have regretted every one of those times.   He always told us that God created you with a brain and if you don’t use it, you will live a life with a lot of regrets. Your brain is what allows you to make important choices.

How do we choose to follow Christ and live according to the scriptures? You have to use the brain that God so wonderfully created and placed between your ears.   Common sense is not living a faithless life, it is using wisdom based on biblical principles and learning from past mistakes.   I heard a great preacher say once that those who won’t listen must feel. It’s the difference between foolishness and wisdom. What you are about to read is based on common sense, biblical instruction and what I have had to feel.

First topic: Recording

This is directed to gospel artists everywhere. The average budget for a recording by a major artist is anywhere between $20,000.00 and $40,000.00. With any recording project, time is money. When you see someone advertise that they can produce a 10 song project for $2950.00 and it will compare with anything on the radio, surely you know better! When you get in the studio and realize your budget recording only allowed enough time to get three songs done and now you have to come up with additional money in order to finish 7 more songs, surely you knew better.

Then when a radio promoter tells you they can take your demo quality recording and get you on the charts, surely you know better! And on the occasion that someone does manipulate the charts and gets that demo quality recording on the air, please know that the entire industry and most fans knows better. If you were in any other genre of music, it wouldn’t even enter your mind that such a scenario could be possible. But somehow, since this is GOSPEL music, we open the window and let common sense sprout wings and take off.

To all of my artist friends, surely you can hear the difference.   Surely you know better. If you don’t, I’m telling you with all the love I have for you and gospel music, you may want to consider a different way to make a living.

To all of my radio friends, surely you can hear the difference.   Surely you know better.

If I’m wrong about the last two, we are in really big trouble.

 

david staton two2nd Topic: Live Dates

This is for my fellow artists who are struggling and those who consider themselves leaders in the gospel music industry. If Macintosh / Apple Computers didn’t set retail prices and just gave away their products for whatever people thought they were worth, do you know how much that iPhone 5S, iPad or mac laptop would be worth? You guessed it, nothing. Then imagine the board of directors and stockholders of Apple sitting around a conference table as each one gives their opinion on why the company is about to go bankrupt.

The first one says, “I think it’s because there are too many little computer companies with inferior products that is killing our industry.”   Another says, “I think we just need to make more products.” Another says, “I think we should train these smaller companies to make better products so there wouldn’t be so much junk in the marketplace.” Someone speaks up and says, “Forget the laws of supply and demand and let’s just work harder and make more products.” Each one gives their opinion and no one even addresses the fact that Apple has stopped setting a retail price on their technology and they are giving away their products. The obvious problem never gets addressed and Apple continues to give their product away. How can anything that Apple creates have any worth if they keep manufacturing with real numbers, real overhead but they only ask for donations?

If you are or have ever been a leading artist in our industry and you can’t figure out this little parable, let me just go ahead and say it. STOP SINGING FOR FREE! Why should anyone go to NQC or any other promoter’s event, stay in a hotel, pay a ticket price and have to buy food when most any of the artists on these events will be somewhere this year within an hour from my house singing for a love offering? Does that mean you will work less? Probably! But when you do work, there will be some worth and value to your music and what you do. I’m amazed that this has gone on for so long and everyone is still wondering why the crowds are getting smaller. YOU’RE GIVING AWAY YOUR PRODUCT! Not many people value the music and what you do. How can it have worth?

Now, I know I’m going to get comments from the spiritual elite that will want to talk about how these artists need to sing for the right reason and preach about the artist’s lack of faith while ignoring their own lack of responsibility. All of a sudden, their spirituality just asked someone to ignore common sense and do something stupid. If you have six guys who each have families, riding on a bus that blows out $100 bills from the exhaust pipe, how can you ignore common sense and lose money? Surely you know better!

To the pastors and promoters who book these artists in their church or at their event, surely you know better. Even if the artists don’t own a calculator to figure their real expenses, you have a responsibility for any ministry that is coming to minister and edify your church. I realize that the default response is that if the artist is right with God, they’ll just drive blindly across the country and hope and pray that someone at your church cares enough to invite folks to come to this free event.

I would love to know how 1 Corinthians 16 gets ignored in all of the planning. If you’re going to take a biblical position on this, don’t just pull the lack of faith card; let’s look at real biblical instruction. The apostle Paul told the church of Corinth to do what the Galatian church did. Paul told them to take up multiple offerings the first day of every week and set aside some so they wouldn’t have to take up an offering while he was there.

david staton threeIn other words, don’t burden the folks who are visiting the night of the event to take care of the ministry coming in, set the money aside and plan ahead! The need should be met before the bus gets fired up. If there is a debate that singers are really ministers, then you should really examine the ones that are and bless them like they will bless your church. I have been on too many buses that have travelled for 20 plus hours to get to a date that is only guaranteeing them a love offering that night and refused to get them a hotel room.

My first thought is shame on the artist for neglecting common sense and putting your families at risk because you have not put any kind of value on what you do. After we arrive at the church and there’s only 50 people that show up, my second thought is shame on the leadership of this church for putting no value on this ministry or the event itself. It’s not worth more than a collection that night and it’s not even worth putting some effort into trying to fill the seats.

The gospel has more value in a third world country. You don’t have to bring a sound system, lights or even a singer. Just show up with some bibles and people will literally risk being tortured or killed to hear the gospel. Why do ministers who sing or preach have such little value to the American church?   Someone has to put value on this if it’s going to last. So I say to both the pastors and to the artists, surely you know better!

I’m not trying to place blame on the artists or the churches, I’m just saying that we all need to wake up and use some common sense. There are thousands of part time, regional artists who don’t do this for a living that will sing for free and that’s fine, but if you are a professional artist and you devote all of your time and money into your ministry, there should be a difference between you and the artists who do this as a hobby.

The difference should be apparent in the quality of the music, the vocals and your overall presentation of the Gospel should be so powerful that it’s obvious that you have worked and perfected what you do. All of this should make churches want to work toward an event where no financial need is left unfulfilled because you have made sure that no spiritual need is left unfulfilled that night.

For the artists who feel like this should strictly be entertainment, I applaud you. There is nothing wrong with Christian entertainment. In my opinion this should have a ticket price and if it’s worth the ticket price, folks will show up. If not, you need to up the entertainment value by maybe making the music worth the price. If you think that people will pay a ticket price for a generic concert that most regional artists do, well…surely you know better.

To anyone who is wondering what the difference is between music ministry (which does have an element of entertainment value) and strictly entertainment, surely you know better!

David Staton is a monthly columnist with SGN Scoops digital magazine.

This column was originally published in April 2014 by SGN Scoops.

For current SGN Scoops issues visit http://www.sgnscoops.com/


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