BET's popular music competition show "Sunday Best" has signed on as the presenting sponsor for Live Nation's first major U.S. gospel tour, the King's Men. Last month, the tour's performers - Kirk Franklin, Marvin Sapp, Donnie McClurkin and Israel Houghton - appeared on ABC's "The View," which dedicated its July 24 show to a gospel brunch theme. Both moves point to the game-changing potential envisioned by the tour's principals.
"It was the right time and the right guys to create a special event that's also an exciting opportunity," Live Nation senior VP of live touring Kevin Morrow says. "This is like Springsteen, McCartney, Prince and Elton hitting the road together."
Franklin adds, "This tour can become a new business model for inspirational entertainment...doing for the music industry what Tyler Perry did for Hollywood: bringing to light an underserved and untapped audience."
Kicking off Sept. 16 at the Comerica Theatre in Phoenix, the King's Men will travel to 16 cities including Los Angeles, Dallas, Miami and Chicago before ending their run on Oct. 14 at the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The venues range from 6,000- to 12,000-seaters. Ticket prices run the gamut from $80 for a special meet-and-greet incentive to discounted group rates of $25-$35. Present at every date: Christian humanitarian organization World Vision, the tour's official charitable partner.
To build awareness, the King's Men and their teams are reaching out to ministers and churches across the country, aided by customized videos about the tour. Key gospel and spiritual conventions are also targeted. The King's Men will guest on the Sept. 2 finale of "Sunday Best," which is hosted and executive-produced by Franklin. During the weeks preceding the tour, another BET show, "Lift Every Voice," will air episodes spotlighting each of the King's Men.
The tour took root after Franklin invited Morrow to attend gospel's Stellar Awards last January. "I told him I thought this genre could be taken to another visual capacity if given the opportunity and support," recalls Franklin, who recruited the other singers.
As a former manager of gospel act the Blind Boys of Alabama, Morrow is no stranger to the genre. "I'm a huge fan of its unbelievable voices and inspiring messages," he says. "This match-up will draw not just gospel fans but R&B and other genres as well."
Musically, the King's Men symbolize gospel's versatility-traditional, worship & praise and contemporary fused with R&B/hip-hop and rock-and crossover appeal. Collectively, the quartet is responsible for 19 No. 1 albums and 13.7 million in sales, according to Nielsen Christian SoundScan, which has tracked sales at Christian bookstores since 1995. For the first half of 2012, gospel/Christian album sales have held up well in the face of a 3.2% decline for the entire U.S. album market, and overall made up 6% of total U.S. album sales in 2011.
Noting that the tour's mainstream exposure on "The View" is "something we normally don't get," a senior executive at a gospel label agrees that having the King's Men perform in major venues "opens up the opportunity to touch fringe gospel fans and gain a new, larger audience."
But he adds a cautionary note: "Ticket prices are a main concern. And there's some apprehension that Live Nation understands and supports our media gatekeepers in properly promoting locally as well as nationally. That said, I - as well as artists and executives I've talked to - are excited."
So is Franklin. "This has been my job since day one, getting people to open their eyes," says the singer/songwriter, who last year staged the Gospel Comedy tour with radio host/comedian Steve Harvey. "God willing, this tour will allow us to bring gospel to the table in a big way."