Being raised in church, I had the privilege of being exposed to gospel music from a young age, and began hearing of artists like Lavine Hudson, The Wades, The Inspirational Choir and LCGC, among others. Mainstream TV broadcasts, like ‘People Get Ready’ (which aired on Channel 4 from the late 80s through to the early 90s), introduced these acts to millions across the UK. During this time, Paul Johnson and The Inspirational Choir inked deals with CBS Records (now Sony Music Entertainment – current home to acts like One Direction); Lavine Hudson signed with Virgin Records (currently home to Emeli Sandé), and many other British gospel artists were gracing very large platforms.
With a weekly mainstream TV audience of millions, offers from major record companies and Top 10 chart hits, UK Gospel was certainly a force to be reckoned with. If we fast-forward to 2015, however, it seems we have taken quite a few steps back, in some regards. So the question is, where did things go wrong and how can they be made right?
Of course, we cannot discount the success since that time of acts like Muyiwa & Riversongz, Noel Robinson, Raymond & Co, and even more recently with Guvna B. However, if we are comparing it to the scale on which UK Gospel was recognised during the ‘late 80s – early 90s’ era, I can’t help but notice there has been a digression. The notoriety that the UK gospel music industry had among the commercial music industry was strong then, whereas today, it is non-existent.
One of the things I learnt working as a music industry professional is how rapidly the business changes – and continues to change on a daily basis. The rules of yesterday are no longer the rules of today. This ranges from (but is not limited to) release strategies, common contract clauses, chart rules, promotional methods and royalties, down to commercial musicality trends and styles. If you are pursuing a career in or related to music in any capacity, it is crucial you keep up with these constant progressions, otherwise it’s likely you will not get the reception you desire. This is an area where UK gospel music struggles.
It is widely known that gospel music is one of the most influential genres of music, and that some of the most accomplished artists in the world have strong connections to gospel music. Beyoncé, Brandy and Mariah Carey all list Kim Burrell and Karen Clark-Sheard as vocal influences, so it cannot be denied that the raw talent is there. However, anyone who knows anything about the 21st century music business understands it takes more than raw talent to be a successful artist and, in some cases, raw talent is not even a factor. In saying that, one of the most basic elements of artistry, that I, sadly, believe UK Gospel is yet to conquer, is producing good quality music.
With the exception of Roger & Sam’s ‘Live in London’ and Seth Pinnock’s ‘Midnight Oil: Live in Worship’ albums, I can honestly count on one hand the number of other good quality British gospel releases I have heard in the past 10 years. Many of them sound outdated, and lack creative writing and composition, especially in comparison to the US counterparts.
What acts like The Inspirational Choir, Lavine Hudson and more recent acts, like Raymond & Co, accomplished at the height of their success was outstanding, and has not been topped since. However, I think we can all admit that, since their day, the sound of gospel music has evolved.
An example could be Kirk Franklin. Most of you reading this will have heard the ‘Kirk Franklin & The Family’ album, released in 1993. Now take his most recent effort, ‘Hello Fear’ (released in 2011). I am sure you can notice some differences in terms of sound evolvement, which is why he has still been able to sell hundreds of thousands of records, and remain so relevant amongst gospel fans and his commercial audience. Remember his performance on the 2011 American Idol Finale, which had over 29 million viewers? If Kirk had continued churning out music that sounded just like his ’93 release, it is unlikely his career would have evolved the way it so successfully has.
There are many other crucial aspects I could and would like to address that I feel would contribute to a more progressive UK gospel industry, such as the importance of branding and brand awareness – something Guvna B is successfully pursuing with his ‘Allo Mate’ brand. However, I think before we are ready to move forward in addressing those, British gospel music has quite a bit to catch up on, and I certainly feel that includes the sound and style of the music.
I constantly observe and sometimes engage in conversations on social media about British gospel vs US gospel. I personally believe the reality is that people do not go out and buy US gospel and neglect UK gospel, because they purposely do not want to support it. They just simply buy into US gospel artists more, because they know it is going to be quality, and until we can start producing our music to a higher standard of excellence that can stand up against the quality of any other respected genre of music (whether it be US gospel or any other), we will forever be stuck under a glass ceiling.
Ryan J Bruce is the MD of Glocal World Entertainment. He is also an A&R consultant, and sits on the board of the BET Awards and The Recording Academy (GRAMMY Awards).