As the faith-based music community gathers Tuesday night (Oct. 7) for the 45th Annual Gospel Music Association (GMA) Dove Awards, there’s more to celebrate than just the top songs and artists of the past year. Evidence points to businesses growing beyond music to incorporate film, live events and other revenue streams as Christian labels look for ways to battle declining music sales.
“What business are we in — are we in the record business or not?” asks Word Entertainment president and CEO Rod Riley. “We define ourselves as being in the entertainment business — recorded music is just one piece of our larger pie. We’re looking at the holistic approach to an artist’s brand: What happens with their merchandise? What happens with their touring? All of that puts us in the music business, not the record business. And the much bigger layer is the entertainment business — how are we involved with film? How are we involved with experiences and products that are in the entertainment category, but serve the Christian lifestyle?”
Under Riley’s leadership, Word has expanded beyond the core record business by developing a merch company and building an-in house booking agency that not only books artists’ tours but also events like the Girls of Grace conferences. “Five years ago, we bought the Breen Agency, brought that in-house and turned that into 25 Entertainment. And over the last couple years, we’ve moved that from just booking to also include live events,” Riley tells Billboard.
“We’ve also tried to live up to the name on the front of the building, which is Word Entertainment, not Word Music, not Word Records, [by asking]: ‘How are we partnering with the creative community to help bring products and experiences to the Christian lifestyle?’ We got into film a little over two years ago with Word Films. We built a merch company inside of Word, which has now become part of the merch company inside of Warner.”
Provident Music Group, Sony’s Christian music arm, has also expanded into film. “What we started doing eight years ago is trying to extend our reach to the consumers who are Christian music consumers and who also have an interest in products that impact their lives, and are centered in film and other forms of entertainment,” says Provident president and CEO Terry Hemmings. “So we’re growing the film business. We’re trying to add a number of releases to our slate. We will have shot two films this year for theatrical release, and we released one in the spring. We’ve got another coming out with Kirk Cameron for Christmas in a few weeks. That’s been a big part of our growth and our effort to address the downturn in music.”
ALTERNATIVE REVENUE STREAMS
Hemmings says they’ve also recently proliferated their publishing interests. “Besides the obvious — of growing the writer roster in general and publishing our signed artists — we’ve expanded our worship area,” he says. “We just added a marketing team specific to the worship segment of our publishing so we can do more to support the churches that are marketing their worship teams, as well as the writers that we have who are merely focused on writing worship music for the church or who are worship leaders teaching at conferences, etc. So we’ve staffed up there in an effort to grow that business.”
In addition to the three major labels in the Christian/gospel community — Word, Provident and Capitol Christian — the landscape is filled with scrappy independent labels such as Centricity Music, Fair Trade Services, Reach Records, Daywind Music, New Haven Records, Spring Hill Music and Gotee Records, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. “The two things that have hit our radar the hardest in the last twelve months are SoundExchange and AdRev advertising revenue,” says Gotee president and co-founder Joey Elwood. “They both have contributed significantly to our company, and I would guess to everybody’s company, if it’s happening for us. We’ve seen degradation in digital sales because we’re slowly moving toward the streaming world, but those two new sources of revenue have meant a ton to Gotee in the last twelve months.”
Riley says Word and its artists are also feeling the impact of SoundExchange. “The beauty of SoundExchange is that as they’ve collected the money, they are then splitting it out and sending a check directly to the artist, and a check directly to the record label as well,” says Riley. “There’s no other cost that comes out of that check, no other royalties, no other anything else. It’s coming into the labels as a profit line directly to us, and same for the artists. They’re getting it directly from SoundExchange into their mailbox.”
Elwood says AdRev has been beneficial to his company in multiple ways. “They have a very unique relationship with YouTube. They get in there, and they fingerprint music,” he explains. “So if somebody gets on the guitar and does an old Jennifer Knapp song on YouTube, they identify it through digital fingerprinting, and they basically put it on advertising boards. We pay the artist, and we collect some of the money ourselves. The whole world is out there using your music and playing your music, before it was just free. And now, people are used to advertising on the web, and I think what it’s done for us has been phenomenal, not only financially, but it also helps us identify how many times our songs are being played out there by people. It’s been a very great source of revenue, but also a great source of understanding as to where our music is being played.”
THE PEOPLE BUSINESS
Better understanding the Christian consumer and meeting their needs is a common goal. “One of the philosophies that we embraced early on was that we’re really not in the music business, as much as we’re in the people business. And if you take care of people, then you won’t have anything to worry about,” says Lecrae, who co-founded Atlanta-based Reach Records in 2004. “If you only focus on making widgets, then that’s really what you’re going to have to spend all your time focusing on. But we really want to focus on the people. What do people need? How are they communicating? How are they taking in music? How can we best serve them? So when you look at your job as more of a service to people and not creating a product, the experience is better for you and it’s better for them.”
Lecrae is one of the industry’s biggest success stories of the year. His latest album, Anomaly, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 last month. “I’m not opposed to the concept of the idea of creating music that is made explicitly for the Christian audience,” he says, “but we really have fought hard to make the music that does not dishonor the Christians who enjoy us and appreciate us, but at the same time, to be enjoyed by people outside of the Christian community as well. That’s a testament to just trying to be relevant in culture and making music that is definitely from the church, but can be acceptable for people in all walks of life. That’s a part of it, us fighting to be culturally relevant.”
Lecrae will serve as co-host of the Dove Awards along with with MercyMe‘s lead vocalist Bart Millard. “Bart is one of the funniest people I have ever been around,” Lecrae tells Billboard. “We got to bantering last time we were up there [presenting] at the Dove Awards and when the idea came around for me to host with him, I jumped at it because it makes so much sense. We have such a great chemistry together. He’s so genuine and such a great friend.”
The admiration is mutual. “It’ll be fun. Lecrae is one of my dear friends,” Millard says. “When we presented last year, we kind of went off the script — not intentionally — we were just being funny. People were saying we should do something together at the Doves — I never thought anything of it until they called and asked us to host this year.”
After moving to Atlanta for two years, the Dove Awards returned to Nashville in 2013, held at David Lipscomb University’s Allen Arena. This year’s show will once again be held at Lipscomb and will be broadcast for the first time on Trinity Broadcast Network. The show is slated to air on Oct. 12. (The pre-show awards ceremony and the Dove Cares Red Carpet will stream live at hearitfirst.com/live.)
“TBN is worldwide and their technology is bar-none,” says GMA president and executive director Jackie Patillo. “For the first time you’ll be able to watch the Dove Awards anywhere, on any device. You can watch it on your phone, your iPad. TBN has an infrastructure that is pretty amazing, and they share in our mission. So I am really pleased that they are coming along side us and capturing the Dove Awards.”
TELEVISION AND HOPE
Beyond Dove night, Patillo says TV has played a strong role in exposing gospel music the last few years. Mary Mary, Karen Clark Sheard and her family, and Ben Tankard are among the gospel acts who have reality TV shows. And contemporary Christian artist Natalie Grant is hosting It Takes a Church, a Christian dating show that is airing on the Game Show Network. GSN also airs The American Bible Challenge.
“Bravo is doing a show with Ben Tankard and his family,” says Patillo. “Ben has been a gospel artist, jazz pianist, and is a pastor in Murfreesboro, Tenn. His show is called Thicker Than Water and is a peek into this pastor’s family. The Sheard family has a reality show as well on BET. The black gospel music front is getting more TV action than ever.”
Patillo monitors such boosts in the genre’s exposure with an appreciative and experienced eye as she steers the GMA in the organization’s 50th year. It’s a milestone some industry insiders weren’t sure the GMA would live to celebrate, as the organization went through financial struggles a few years ago, suffering alongside the recession. These days GMA is stronger than ever thanks to Patillo’s leadership, the hard work of longtime GMA staffer Justin Fratt, and several new initiatives such as Band Wives, which hosts events and provides assistance to artists’ wives while they are on the road. “They’re emphasizing community more than ever,” says Millard of the GMA. “Just to see that kind of stuff start happening has been like a breath of fresh air. I think Jackie is the perfect person to be involved. She truly has the passion for it and somehow has the gift of how to cross over every label and every political agenda and work with people. So I’m excited where GMA is headed.”
American Idol alum Danny Gokey recently scored his first No. 1 Christian hit with “Hope in Front of Me.” He’s excited about being part of the faith-based music community and optimistic about the genre’s future. “The reason is because people want hope,” he says. “People are searching for more, and that never really gets old. You never have too much hope where people don’t need it. There’s almost always a lack of it. So when people are tuning into our stations, which play hopeful music, it connects them right away. I’m just glad to be a part of it because I’ve always wanted to mix hope and entertainment. That’s always been my thing.”
Mixing hope and entertainment is at the core of the Christian music industry. “I’m definitely not a ‘woe is me’ guy,” Riley says in assessing the industry. “If you look at just recorded product, then it’s definitely in a state of transition right now. But if you look at the larger scope of the ministries that these artists are involved with and the impact that Christian music is having on the world, I think we’re very healthy. To tie that all the way into the Dove Awards, that’s a small glimpse of we get on a night like the Dove Awards. Ultimately the bigger message that we’re involved with is bringing hope to the world. We get to see it in Nashville on one night, but it’s happening around the world every day.”