What role does Christian media play in spreading the word about positive faith-based music, film or other arts? As we mentioned last month, Christian media has long been in the background of what is happening in the world. It has been criticized for its lack of quality, professionalism and relativity. Is Christian media really just ‘singing to the choir’ or can it make a difference in the secular world?
We take a look at these questions and continue delve into the heartbeat of Christian media in this installment. Southern Gospel artists comment on the present media condition and raise concerns of their own this month. Is it possible for the magazines, websites, blogs and radio stations that promote Southern Gospel to really reach their world with the Gospel? Should that even be their focus? What role does the ever-changing technology play in the industry?
Gerald Wolfe of Greater Vision, has been a fixture in Southern Gospel since the ‘80s when he joined The Cathedral Quartet. He has seen a lot of changes in the industry, from the time when the monthly edition of The Singing News was the only source of information for fans, to present day tweets of information that fans can receive on an almost real-time basis. Wolfe comments, “I think the media has been effective in what they have been doing for Southern Gospel. Of course it’s changing and moving away from print into Social Media. Our interaction within areas like Facebook has exploded over the past year, which is a great thing. It helps us interact with people in ways that if we had to use physical print would be very expensive, so that has been a good thing.”
“Print is diminishing, largely because of the economy. And it is true, younger people really don’t look at magazines anymore, they are used to reading everything on their Ipads. But people my age, and I’m not old, still like both. I like Facebook, I like getting instant information, but I also like a physical something to look at, that I can hold on to.”
The technology change has also had its downside to the industry. Wolfe says, “The record companies don’t have the budgets they used to have to spend, because retail is suffering. As digital downloads continue to grow, physical CD sales decline. That affects their bottom line, so they don’t have the money to spend on big media events anymore. The artists certainly don’t have it.” This could have been a factor in this year’s National Quartet Convention, which saw a slight decline in booth sales as well as in media events.
Wolfe also comments about quality: “In general, I think the media and websites like yours, as well as some of the blogs are good. Some of the blogs I don’t put much confidence in.”
“Candidly, I think the media could have a more positive spin, rather than critiquing so much.” Wolfe continues. “Not that albums and things don’t need to be critiqued, but the thing about opinion is: everyone’s got one. What digital media has opened up is the opportunity for everybody to share their opinion. With my generation of folks, anything you see in print is supposed to be the truth. So this person’s opinion that wrote a piece has instant credibility because it’s in print. It’s there on the screen so it must be true, whether an album is terrible or a group is wonderful, it must be the truth.” One person’s negative opinion stated as unequivocal truth can be harmful to sales for an artist and greatly effect their livelihood.
Wolfe states, “I think we need to be more responsible in what we are doing. Instead of looking at something through our own little vision, we have to look at it through the big picture.”
“There’s positive in anything that these artists do,” Wolfe earnestly says. “Surely you can find something good in what they are doing. It’s the Gospel. So whether it fits our particular style or taste, or whether we like that person or their suit or their hair, or whatever, surely we can find something positive to say about it. That’s hard for me because I try to be honest and when someone asks me for my opinion I try to give it. But I have to keep in mind all the time that people listen to me. They listen to you [the media] too and they read you. We have to be careful in the way we try to direct people’s thinking.”
Wolfe concludes, “We need to filter everything we have to say through the Gospel. That’s hard to do because we are flesh.” This is a comment that can be applied to everything that is said, whether by media or anyone else.
Michael Booth of The Booth Brothers, concurs and adds that attitude can make a huge difference in how items are presented to the world. Booth says, “I think the media faces the same battles that the musicians and singers face, and that is: to stay focused. It is very easy to go down paths that are unnecessary.” Michael Booth has also seen a lot within the industry in the many years The Booth Brothers have been on the road. He becomes very serious in discussing this topic.
“If it’s good, if it’s encouraging, if it’s loving – and that can be a rebuke also or even healthy criticism – then print it,” continues Booth. “I talked to one media representative and said, ‘Criticism is a good thing if it is done with a heart of love and it is accurate.’ If it’s not accurate and it’s not done with a heart of love, then it can cause confusion and it’s not of God.”
Booth concludes, “You need to understand that when you say you are involved with Gospel Music, in any form or fashion, you are representing Jesus Christ. It’s not something to take lightly. I don’t care if you are on stage or writing a blog. You are associating yourself with Jesus Christ. You don’t have to be perfect, but you need to be accurate.” Speaking the truth in love is difficult at the best of times, but media needs to ensure that sources are checked and that their readers are aware when something is opinion or fact.
How the media presents these facts can vary from a quick brainstorm on a Facebook status to a well-thought-out and researched feature article. However, someone, somewhere is judging everything the media presents. From punctuation and spelling to overall presentation and flow of information, the media should keep in mind its audience. On the web, that audience is everyone, everywhere.
Clayton Inman of Triumphant Quartet, has tried his hand at media recently. Inman has been an occasional columnist on http://www.sgmradio.com/ and admits that it isn’t as easy as it may appear. He compares the skill level needed for journalism to that needed for an artist in the industry.
Inman says, “Gospel music, first and foremost, is ministry. Secondly, it’s an art form, as is any other type of music. If we expect to take it to the world, it has to compare to the world; not in the way the artists live, but compare favorably to the world’s music, so that people want to hear it. In the same way, in telling about the music, the media also has to compete with the world’s media, to the same level of professionalism.”
“When you are writing, you don’t want to write to the gospel music fan if you expect to speak to the world about Southern Gospel,” Inman continues. “The world adheres to certain styles and they know what they like. If you are able to put your writing in a more contemporary fashion in a language they can relate to, they will show an interest in what you are doing. Then you are drawing the world into where you are.”
Attracting the world to what you do is exactly what Jesus did when He was on the earth. His words were not off-the-cuff but He spoke what the Father wanted Him to speak. He also started His ministry at the age of 30, when He was ready. Inman notes that some in media, like some in the music industry, perhaps aren’t quite ready for the world stage and should work at developing their talents further.
“There are a lot of super writers in Southern Gospel, but then there are some writers who don’t need to be writing,” says Inman. “You can tell by the way they write that they haven’t been doing it very long or perhaps haven’t tried to hone their craft. However, because it’s Gospel Music, it’s accepted. But that doesn’t help our industry.”
From his years of experience, Inman continues, “If we expect to reach the world and have them interested in us, to try to draw them in and present Jesus to them, our product has to compete with the world. Again, I’m not talking about the way we live, but our professionalism in the way we write or the music we perform.”
“Media professionalism can be seen in things as small as punctuation, the way you write, or the way you word a sentence. You can tell with some writers that it really isn’t their forte. Southern Gospel needs people who are professional writers that know Christ and know how to write well. That type of writing will get the attention of the world, drawing people to Christ and to Southern Gospel.”
Much has been said about how to expand the Southern Gospel audience, and Inman’s comments are well noted. One way to bring in listeners is to introduce them to the artists by professional media that gets their attention. Radio can also be included in this media outreach discussion. The hard-working radio deejays often struggle to keep their timeslots due to reduction in listeners.
Sheri Lafontaine is a singer/songwriter who also co-hosts a daytime drive program on WPOS in Ohio, called the “Ike and Sheri Show”. She speaks from the dual role of artist and media personality. “Let me just speak from experience with our station at WPOS in Holland, Ohio,” says Lafontaine. “One thing that Ike and I have done is that we’ve looked at all the Southern Gospel music we’ve received and only played the high-quality, commercial-sounding cuts. There is a huge difference between something that sounds like it was recorded in someone’s living room, and something that is has a professionally produced sound. There is no comparison.”
Lafontaine continues, “Also, quality of vocals is important. Quality means the world to someone who is flipping through the channels on the radio and stops at a Southern Gospel station. If we want to broaden our listening audience, these are things we have to do.” Production quality, good vocals and skilled musicianship are only a part of what makes a good Southern Gospel cut, however.
“On the spiritual side, we need to make sure the song has a strong message. If we don’t have a strong message we are like any other type of music out there. Make sure the words are good.” As a songwriter, Sheri is very aware of the power of words and is skilled in crafting a lyric. Her songs have been recorded by many artists, including Kim Hopper, the Whisnants, LordSong, Brian Free and Assurance, and others. This talented artists speaks from experience.
Lafontaine continues in her encouragement to the industry, both artists and media: “We love the fact that there are groups in this industry raising the bar of quality. If someone is flipping through the stations, they are going to stop at a Southern Gospel station when they hear good quality music. We know that because people are doing just that. It’s happening because the deejays and artists are taking it to heart. They are saying, ‘I will give my best to my King. I’m going to play skillfully on my instrument.’ It’s taken right out the Bible. So let’s take it a notch above and do our best for the Kingdom of God.”
As artists and media both work toward raising the bar of professionalism and the level of skill they bring to the industry, it is also heartening to hear that improvements are being noticed. The artists are beginning to recognize the hard work of the media and they are grateful for the added publicity. As fans feel more in touch with the artist, they will increase their support of the artists’ ministry. This connection is assisted by the media, bringing information to the fan and allowing them to get better acquainted with the artist and the music.
Scott Fowler of Legacy Five is an artist that appreciates what Southern Gospel media is doing to assist the artist. “I think you are getting our message to the fans,” says Fowler. “You are talking directly with the artists and allowing us to speak through the mediums that you have. You are allowing us to say what we want to say, and projecting that message to the people that we can’t meet.”
Fowler continues, “We can only be in one place at one time. The great thing about media is that you can be in the hands of whoever lets you in. You have an opportunity that we don’t have and you are gracious to us by allowing us to say what we want to say. You let us tell people who we are and what we believe in, and we certainly appreciate your contribution.”
Gary Casto of Tribute Quartet also appreciates the contribution of media and has positive things to say as well. “I believe that Christian media absolutely helps promote Southern Gospel. I don’t know if there is much more they can do than what they are doing.” However, Casto adds that there are some areas that can be tweaked to be more effective.
“I would like to see more attention on the internet when artists do national TV, to draw in our listening audience,” Casto comments. “When an internet site or magazine lets people know about an artist appearing on TV, or when the media encourages the listening audience to watch a particular broadcast, that is reported back to that network. The network or organization then realizes that the music has a large audience and they can then decide to bring in more artists.”
“A few people may already be watching a particular network and occasionally see an advertisement about upcoming Southern Gospel program and decide to watch it. But the fans of Southern Gospel are on the internet daily. If you let readers know that a broadcast is taking place, they can tune in. An increased audience will also encourage the decision makers of the network to schedule more Southern Gospel.” The circular effect of increased media attention is something that could be taken into account further by Southern Gospel journalists and bloggers.
Casto continues, “I think everyone is doing a great job and [the media] is doing a lot. We need to work together even more to let the world know more about us. I feel very confident in what [SGN Scoops] and the other media outlets are doing. I think it falls on the artists to direct their fanbase to the media outlets. You can let people know about the new material, the testimonies and the artists, but we need to do our job in letting people know about you.”
“As far as I’m concerned, if one artist succeeds, we all succeed,” says Casto. “We are all in the same business and working for the same goal: to promote our music and to further the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We all need to work together.”
“If it only changes one life, if only one non-believer out there watches or sees or hears it, it is worthwhile. We need to do everything to make sure that the world is told about our Lord and Savior.”
We appreciate the contribution and comments of the artists quoted in this segment! For more information, please visit their websites at:
Gerald Wolfe, Greater Vision: http://www.greatervisionmusic.com/
Michael Booth, The Booth Brothers: http://www.boothbrothers.com/
Clayton Inman, Triumphant Quartet: http://triumphantquartet.com/
Sheri Lafontaine: http://www.sherilafontaine.com/
Scott Fowler, Legacy Five: http://legacyfive.com/
Gary Casto, Tribute Quartet: http://tributequartet.com/
First published by SGN Scoops, November 2011. http://www.sgnscoops.com