Motown Records and EMI Gospel have entered into a 50-50 joint venture partnership to create Motown Gospel, Billboard has learned exclusively. The new label launches officially tonight (April 2) with a press reception and showcase at Los Angeles’ Arc Theater featuring performances by roster artists Smokie Norful, Tasha Cobbs, Tye Tribbett and Kierra Sheard.
Under terms of the joint venture, the team behind the former EMI Gospel — headed by president Ken Pennell — will still handle day-to-day operations, reporting to Capitol Christian Music Group president/CEO Bill Hearn. Hearn, in turn, will report to Capitol Music Group chairman/CEO Steve Barnett. Profits will be split between Island Def Jam/Motown and the Capitol Christian Music Group/Capitol Music Group.
Plans are also in place to staff up on the A&R front at the new joint venture. The first such appointment is Grammy Award-winning songwriter/producer Aaron Lindsey as VP of A&R. His production credits include the Marvin Sapp No. 1 gospel crossover hit “Never Would Have Made It.” The first new signing to Motown Gospel is fellow Grammy winner CeCe Winans, with a new album slated for early 2014. Rounding out the label’s 2013 release slate are new albums by Tribbett (“Greater Than,” June 4), Sheard (late summer/early fall) and Norful (fall). The Motown Gospel roster also includes VaShawn Mitchell and Anita Wilson.
Universal Music Group East Coast Label Group chairman/CEO Barry Weiss tells Billboard.biz the idea for the joint venture grew out of a conversation last November with Hearn while Weiss was in Nashville for the Country Music Awards. Universal’s acquisition of EMI had also just occurred.
“This is a great opportunity to create a fresh, new approach to gospel,” Weiss says. “We’re taking the pre-existing roster of the already strong EMI Gospel and will hopefully become a magnet for the best gospel talents in the world. And they will have access to the Island Def Jam promotion/marketing machinery, offering broader urban AC crossover potential and further opportunities and synergy between Motown Gospel artists and the Motown and Island Def Jam urban roster.”
“It’s going to provide a much stronger and experienced platform for our artists,” Hearn adds. “This initiative gives us the ability to serve our artists on a much broader level than we’ve been able to up to this point.
Hearn is a 35-year veteran of the contemporary Christian/gospel music industry. He formerly competed with Weiss in that arena as the latter helped build gospel label Verity Records during his previous tenure as head of Jive Records and Zomba Label Group.
The Christian/Gospel genre sold 22.9 million albums in the U.S. last year, according to Nielsen Christian SoundScan. The genre posted only a 3.4% decline in sales compared to 2011, a light drop-off given how other genres fell pretty hard (i.e., Latin down 17.6% and jazz down 26.2%). Almost as many Christian/gospel albums were sold in 2012 as rap albums (24.2 million). And Christian/gospel digital song sales rose 6.5% compared to 2011, totaling 34.4 million.
“I was given a mandate from [Universal Music Group chairman] Lucian Grainge that he wants our brands to be meaningful and powerful, not just logos,” says Weiss. “And this is a step in that direction in terms of fortifying the Motown brand in addition to what [Motown senior VP] Ethiopia Habtemariam is doing with new artists like B. Smyth and Broadway’s upcoming ‘Motown: The Musical.’
Tonight’s free showcase, presented in association with One Church International, begins at 6 p.m.
Additional reporting by Keith Caulfield.