For the first time in his 30-year career Christian music icon Michael W. Smith has signed with a new label, exiting Provident Music Group to ink a deal with Capitol Christian Music Group, formerly EMI Christian Music Group.
“When you’ve been with a family as long as I’ve been with Provident, it’s very difficult to leave, so I don’t take it lightly and it wasn’t a rash decision,” Smith tells Billboard exclusively. “[Provident Music Group president/CEO] Terry Hemming is still one of my best friends, but I think every once in a while – especially if you’ve been doing it as long as I have – sometimes it’s good to have a different set of ears just to have another shot at it.”
Smith began his career as a songwriter, penning songs for Amy Grant, Bill Gaither, and Sandi Patty before releasing his Grammy nominated debut album The Michael W. Smith Project in 1983 on Reunion Records. (Over the years, Reunion became part of Provident Music Group, Sony’s Christian division.) In the 90s, Smith became one of the Christian format’s first crossover artists with hits such as “Place in This World,” which peaked at No. 6 on the Hot 100, and “I Will Be Here for You,” a No. 1 AC hit. The three-time Grammy winner is also known as one of the key architects of the current popularity of worship music. A noted composer, he’s also released two acclaimed instrumental albums, including his most recent project, 2011’s Glory. Smith has charted 29 albums on Billboard’s Top Christian Albums chart, including 13 No. 1 titles and 25 that placed in the top 10.
Smith’s new record deal actually started with a publishing agreement. “We began talking to Michael several months ago about working with him as a songwriter,” says Capitol Christian Music Group president/CEO Bill Hearn. “Since that time, we developed a publishing relationship with Michael where we are administrating his back catalog of songs and we’ve done a new co-publishing deal going forward with him for future songs.”
Smith has spent the last two years touring extensively abroad and initially planned for his first Capitol Christian Music Group album to be a live recording of worship songs recorded in Brazil, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka and other countries. “We’ve changed directions,” he says. “Instead of the live album, I feel like it is time for new songs so we’re in the midst of pulling together songs and we’re raising the bar pretty high. We probably [listened to] 50 songs and there’s only three that have stuck. Great songs are hard to find. I’m just trying to find something that moves me.”
“He’s such an amazing communicator,” Capitol Christian Music Group president Peter York says of Smith. “And he came to us with a real desire to have a collaborative effort. I feel humbled that he would want to work with us and incredibly excited. He wants to write a lot of songs and have an impact with this next record.”
Smith has been working with Capitol Christian Music Group’s director of A&R Chris York [Peter’s son] in looking for songs and writing for the new project. “I’m really stretching out. I’m writing with people that I’ve never written with before,” Smith says. “I’m going to write with Isaac Slade from The Fray. He’s been a fan of mine for a long time and we stay in touch. I’ve written with a guy named Seth Mosley that I’ve never written with before. Seth and Kyle Lee, one of our writers at MWS Group, and myself wrote a song called ‘Miracle’ and that’s the one that raised the bar. That’s the one that’s got everybody pretty excited.”
Smith says he’ still considering using live tracks he recorded on the world tour as bonus cuts in different territories. “Brazil will probably have three or four bonus cuts that were live recordings from Brazil,” Smith says. “I think you’ll see the same happen in Australia, Malaysia and Singapore. That’s the approach we’re taking at this point to be able to have something special for those countries.”
Smith’s new project is tentatively slated for spring 2014. “Our goal is to release it in March of 2014 in time for Easter,” says Hearn. “What got us the most passionate and excited about this relationship is Michael came in and wanted to collaborate with us as a team. He wants to put his team of Greg Hamm and Chaz Corzine around my team Peter York and [head of publishing] Eddie DeGarmo and their people to make the best possible music going forward and that really gets us fired up. We’ve done deals in the past where an artist comes in and hands us a record and says, ‘Here’s my latest album. I want you to go out there and sell a lot of them.’ We’ve done that before, but it’s not really where we shine. Where we shine is when we can work hand in hand with an artist and partner with them on really bringing the best out of each other.”
Capitol Christian Music Group’s most recent success story is Amy Grant. After 30 years with Word Entertainment, she signed with EMI CMG in 2007. The company revitalized her catalog, selling nearly two million by issuing compilations and a new Christmas package. In April, Grant’s first album of all new songs in a decade, How Mercy Looks from Here, debuted at No. 1 on the Top Christian Albums chart. “Obviously I watched that from a far and to see what they were putting on the table,” says Smith. “I don’t know how they could promote the record any more than they did. They have a great team and I’m very impressed.”
Hearn is excited about their future with Smith. “I think we can get Michael W. Smith back on the radio,” he says. “The Christian market is still all about songs and still about whether or not you can put a song on the radio that pulls the heart strings of the Christian community. Not that radio is the only answer, but it certainly is a very, very pivotal element of our marketing mix.”