Is freeness killing gospel music? by Juliet Fletcher

You may think this question is OTT, but it just expresses a deep unease I feel as I observe matters. Hopefully you will take time to read and think, because it affects all of us – those of us who love gospel and particularly those who make the music happen.

Of late, individuals like me, who are industry developers concerned with the longevity and productivity of our sector, are observing an increase in the number of gospel artists, promoters and record producers financially struggling to maintain their creative force and professional businesses.

In my own struggle to understand the reasons, I’m beginning to believe that FREENESS is possibly a real contributing factor.

The Scenario

For a while now, artists have been offering complete albums as free downloads, and non-charitable concerts or events are being staged without charging an entrance fee. Of course, it’s the prerogative of an artist to give away their music or to feature in events that don’t charge. However, I’ve come to a conclusion that there’s a genuine lack of awareness and education on the impact this may be having on the scene – both on the side of those involved in gospel music AND the audience they serve.

Who REALLY gives away FREE?

Sometimes what we see happening in mainstream music doesn’t mean we should just follow, particularly because our industry is not structured in the same way as others.

When pop artists give away music, it’s normally from a basis of success already gained and often where they are well established in royalty-generating streams of income. Even if, at the end of a giveaway campaign, it only produces a 10,000-email database as the reward, there is a definite plan to market to that database, which will probably add ten times the value to that artist’s profile, plus engagement with their fan base. In other words, it’s part of a strategic marketing plan. As the saying goes: ‘There is no such thing as a free lunch’. And I state this without any cynicism, because we are in (the music) business.

There are gospel artists giving away an album’s worth of free music, and they have no strategy that will help them connect to the people who sincerely love their music. Firstly, they haven’t registered their music with the correct royalty collection societies; they don’t collect contact details of the people who download their music, and even if they do, they have no genuine strategy for keeping in touch with their fans. Often their websites are out of date by many months, if not longer!

I’m not condemning free downloads, as this can be a very effective way to attract listeners – a point brought out by industry colleague Audrey Gray of AG Consultancy, who said: “it can be a great way for first-time artists to get their profiles up and off the ground.”

Artists like Guvna B and Ricardo RocStarr Williams have used free downloads to good effect, but it’s a delicate balancing act. Veteran musician and choir director of IDMC, John Fisher, is not a fan of free music: “I believe in buying an artist’s album. I do it all the time, because I know the hard graft and investment it takes. There is no better accolade to an artist than buying fully into their creative legacy.”

The WIN-WIN paying cycle

When an artist creates an album, booking studio time, securing a good music producer, hiring musicians and singers, paying the manufacturer to press CDs, and distributors and retailers to sell are all part of that which enables the artists to make back their initial investment so that they write the next album.

Then an independent promoter, who wants to bring the artist to an audience, stages a concert/event, normally they have personally raised the money to pay for all the aspects: venue, performers, marketing, equipment hire, etc. Their plan is to earn enough money to pay the bills, pay themselves and set up the next concert event – all for an audience that wants to see that minister of music on a great night out! That is the promoter’s business cycle; they have got to get it right, or else they’re out of business.

The audience/consumer – you and I – hear online or through other broadcast mediums and decide ‘I want that album or to see that person LIVE!’ For this, we pay an average of £10 per person – that is for the album or live event. I’ve described a simplified version of how our industry works – the cycle that keeps everyone in PLAY mode.

I recall some time ago that around 10 fairly high profile artists were giving their music away for free and, at the same time, another well-known artist was promoting their new album for a retail price. It wasn’t intentional but they were not happy, and neither was I. I truly felt it for them, as sales fell well below expectations during the critical period of new release.

As options increase for how we utilise our spare time and spend our available cash, ‘the Christian pound’ is in demand more than ever before. We need to make sure our audience know how important they are to us, that they are part of an important perpetual working cycle. As a music community, we need to realise this as something to protect, especially when we see aspects that threaten the loss of incredible talent and livelihoods. Preaching the Gospel of GMIA – we should respond collectively, effectively and wisely.

Free music vs free events

Free music has had an impact on events, although in recent times there has been a rise in larger quality-produced events. [An example is Black Grape’s promotion of Anastasia Baker, which featured Erica Campbell (of Mary Mary fame)]. It was excellent from start to finish. However, prior to this change, the scene suffered because the sheer cost of staging shows featuring international artists became financially unviable for independent promoters. This occurred because major gospel acts were appearing in church-based events that were priced within convention or conference structures, and the ‘show’ elements that attracted the general public were subsumed in the ‘believers’ worship experience’. Now, I am not (repeat NOT) saying this is wrong. However, it has inadvertently and unintentionally affected this aspect of gospel music promotions in the independent music scene.

The issue raises its head higher where (particularly new) UK-based artists feel compelled to cut out the ‘middle-man’ promoter, and stage their own shows because of costs. Invariably they have financial difficulties and, without expertise, lack ability in marketing to an audience. We have to admire the FaithChilds, Lurine Catos, Natalie Phillipses, Ni-Colas, David Bs and many others who actually pull it off.

“Freeness creates a norm with consumers that makes it difficult for promoters to get the right price point for paid events. Getting the best for less perpetuates the cry for free events, and demotes paid events” is Audrey Gray’s business analysis. It is indeed something to be avoided.

This sense of FREENESS has dulled the ‘buy in’ sensibilities of our core audience. It has had a devaluing effect and we need to affect a mindset transformation – somehow. I hope writing this has helped, making us aware of our role and importance in the ‘WIN-WIN paying cycle’.

FREENESS – Context – Contained – Communicated

Free concerts for good causes or outreach ministries remain unquestioned. And good music given away should always be relevant to an artist’s purpose. Outside of this, FREENESS should be utilised in context, contained within a project/campaign and communicated to the audience, who can then appreciate ‘why’ and not make it a ‘’ situ.

Everybody along the chain needs to feel they are valued and receive the right exchange for their ‘investment’. When we ‘come correct’ with this understanding, a sustainable industry will evolve. You’re free to dismiss or challenge and disprove. (Note: See you on social media :-))





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