Zoe Records taking gospel mainstream

Denise Roberts talks to the founder of UK gospel label, Zoe Records

Isaac Odeniran describes his advent into business as unconventional. It happened shortly after July 1990. He explains, “The Lord appeared to me and said ‘Go and do this.’”

Isaac obeyed and set up Zoe Records in 1999. In the 13 years since its launch, and despite digital changes that have seen more losers than winners in the music industry, Zoe Records has emerged as an award-winning name in the field. It has 10 full- and part-time employees, and is the first UK gospel music label to receive a Dove Award, a groundbreaking achievement both for a UK company and a gospel music label holding its own in the mainstream.

The company has an active involvement in community life, encouraging new talent with Zoe Nights, a monthly event that brings together different flavours of gospel artists – from hip-hop to reggae – in a bar.

Isaac also puts on the Commercial Sense Project, an annual conference of the same title as a book he authored. It teaches on the history and business of Black gospel music from beginning to today.

Last summer, a grant from the Olympic Lottery Distributor funded a vocal singing and songwriting project, where street artists showcased their work at the University of East London (UEL), the 02 and other venues.

Isaac is no business novice; he was already running a successful property portfolio at the launch of Zoe Records, and has a background in accounting, business administration and marketing.

By his own admission, he doesn’t have a musical bone in his body, although he did sing in the church choir years ago. What he does have, however, is plenty of conviction that what he is doing is the will of God. He also has an attitude uncommon in the industry today: investment first, returns second.

“One of the problems [with the gospel music industry] is there is no record label in the UK willing to put investment behind the artist, and until we can do that to the point of sowing, there will be little growth – the Bible says whatever a man sows, he reaps.”

He believes, “We need to come to that place where gospel artists can make a living making music” – a vision that helps him see past UK borders and into African, American and Asian markets to “expose [artists] to different territories.”

However, if we are to boost supply and demand, investment is also necessary on the part of the church community, to the level that “when you call someone to minister at your church, or when they create a musical project, you put value on it”.

That said, Zoe Records produces music for “gospel music lovers – not just the church”, hence the events beyond its walls. Although there is an evangelical touch behind that, Isaac is astute: “Some of the places we go are not pro gospel, so we’re not forcing it down their throats, but saying that gospel music is an art form which can help young people through issues like gun crime and gangs; they can see positive role models as artists; they can learn at their feet. The message in the music will speak for itself.”

Despite its divine origins, it would be naïve to believe that the success of Zoe Records hasn’t been without challenges, but Isaac says, “If God calls you to business He will back you up, so when there is trouble on the left and on the right, and you’re facing business challenges then He is there to support you and to give you the Word to go through; to say, ‘Rise up and drink: just another corner to turn’.

“However, it is one thing to be called by God but another to be ready through knowledge, business acumen and financial skills; if you don’t have them, then get people who do.”

Visit www.zoerecords.co.uk for more details

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