In the Spotlight

News & Features
The business of gospel
By Patty Marsicano, Minnesota Public Radio
August 14, 2001
Click for audio Real Audio

Minneapolis is alive with gospel music this week. The Gospel Music Workshop of America has come to town where thousands are honing their craft and studying the business of gospel music.
Several songwriters, like Anita Watkins of St. Louis (above), have only a few days to teach their material to The Mass Choir, a choir of over 1,000 people. The choir will record a CD later in the week. It requires grueling, but inspiring, rehearsals. See a RealAudio slideshow and spend a few minutes at rehearsal.
(MPR Photo/Patty Marsicano)

If you're a gospel singer or a gospel choir and you're good - but nobody knows who you are - Minneapolis is the place to be. An estimated 10,000 people, including singers, choir directors, record label executives, musicians, and other industry representatives, have convened at the Minneapolis Convention Center to learn, network, promote themselves and - most of all - sing.

The AFC Praise Ensemble performed at the New Artist Showcase, where solo singers and groups trying to break into the gospel music business get a chance to strut their stuff in front of their peers and people who might help them professionally.

AFC has already had some national television exposure, but just as with other music, one performance does not a career make. Gospel musicians have to get out there time and time again; repeated visibility is what it takes to be successful in the business.

Debra Snipes is a gospel singer from Columbus, Georgia and she'll be on stage at the new artist showcase. "I'm just coming out to enjoy. This be my first time and Wednesday, Wednesday I'll be singing," she says.

James Bullard , the president of MCG Records, says gospel music goes back hundreds of years in the African-American community. "The early days of slavery, it's how people conversed with each other on different farms," according to Bullard. "They would sing these songs, sending a message as to what was going to take place the night or the next day or the next week."

But now gospel is big business, netting an estimated $3 to $4 billion over the last few years.

Chrystal Allen of Eye on Gospel Publications is here selling a resource book that's a catch-all for anyone who wants to know about, or become part of, the gospel music scene. In it is information about how to attract attention in the gospel industry, publishing and performance rights, top producers, top choirs, a listing of Christian bookstores, a list of the year's gospel events, and tips for creating gospel music web sites.

"Not only do they want to sharpen their skills," Allen says of the people attending the Minneapolis event, "they actually want to succeed. But let's be honest, there's a lot of people that can sing, but very few that really actually make it. So the whole point for them being here is to make themselves more competitive in that market."

"You need to put a team together and part of that team will be a personal manager, a music attorney, a publicist, also a booking agent," says entertainment attorney Reginald Erskine.

In one of the large halls of the convention center, a musician demonstrates a song called I Got Mine to a mass choir of about 2,000. The choir is learning this and a dozen other brand new songs in the next few days and will then record a new CD later this week. The CD recording is done each year at the Gospel Music Workshop of America convention and those CDs then go to the market.

The 34-year-old Workshop is the world's largest gospel organization, boasting 18,000 members with 165 chapters in the U.S., Britain, Caribbean, Europe and Asia. The annual convention ends Friday in Minneapolis.