The State of the Music Ministry Artist

Last year around this time, I talked to all my industry friends and did a blog post called “State of the Music Ministry Business”. This year, I’d like to talk a bit about what I see on the artist front.

We are in a very different time. Ten years ago, it was easy to sit across a prospective Christian artist in Nashville and tell them that selling just 1000 CDs could likely pay back any investment they’d make in producing a CD for their music ministry (that’s still kinda true by the way!). The problem now isn’t that people aren’t selling 1000 CDs, it’s just more that they “can’t”, “won’t” , or just don’t want to even get out and try. This could be for several reasons.

It’s Just Difficult to Find Places to Gig

“Knock knock!”
“Who’s there?”
“Christian Artist.”
“Christian Artist Who… oh never mind, we already have a worship band!”

10-20 years ago it was a different landscape with churches. They still had needs for special music on evening services, or bringing in an artist or band was special, as it brought something different than they offered in their service. Well, as we all now know, every church has at least one contemporary service with a band that is very competitive to even get to play or sing in. Pastors and music pastors just don’t see a need to bring “special music” in.

If you are a younger band or play to youth, there can still be opportunities in youth services, or possibly special youth events. There could be special church events as well. But there are just not that many churches that will even take a call from a Christian solo artist or band to come do a song, much less a concert. Conferences are possible, but competitive, and you need to have a book and speaking component. Festivals are plentiful, but are either pay to play, or don’t pay (although you can sell product!)

This is one reason we have stressed “niche” so much in our workshops. You have to really bring your own “event” that a church not only needs or wants, but that they have budget for. We’ll do a special feature on this soon.

Many Artists Don’t Really Want to Tour (But They Better)

“I can lead a horse into the studio, but I cannot make them tour.” – Anonymous Producer (OK, it was me)

Everyone starting out as a Christian artist thinks they want to sing in front of thousands, or at least hundreds. The truth is, and veteran artists know this, gigging (finding someone interested, booking the date, getting to the event, setting up, performing, tearing down, and going home) is a LOT of work. It’s very mind, heart, and soul numbing. Most people give up after managing to put together a release concert. They sell a few hundred CDs, and put the rest in the garage. (Full disclosure: I have literally hundreds of my own CDs in the garage. So I include myself in this category.)

Without real touring, there is not much product sales, and sales are the second best income for recording artists. This is why big name artists still tour, and many go back on tour when money is low (“Reunion Tours”, etc). No large label could make any money without touring bands. Think Beyoncé and Taylor Swift in recent years, but in 2017 the top touring groups were U2, Guns-n-Roses(?), Metallica, and even Paul McCartney and Rolling Stones!! Those last two came to fame in the 1960s!!! They are still touring!!

Of the many artists I have produced, very few artists gig regularly, if at all anymore. Maybe 5%. This tells me that most people would rather make recordings, and put them online, rather than really get out and perform in front of audiences, especially after they realize how hard touring is. Or maybe it doesn’t make sense in their life with a job, family, church, etc. This is certainly valid.

Social Media and Video is Much Simpler (and Cheaper)

“I’d rather make music than tour.” – Bob Seger

Most artists are not even thinking touring as a first option anymore. They make a single, put together a web site and social media, post a video to their Facebook or YouTube that can garner thousands or tens of thousands of views, and call it day. Now, what may surprise you is that I don’t think there is really anything wrong with this. I do it for all my brands. In fact this should certainly be part of every artist’s strategy. I’ll talk about video next.

But is this enough to sustain and bring in income as an artist? Probably not. Without the “long tail” of touring, you just don’t see the increase and income from online sales, email lists, product sales, and performance revenue.

Social media is fun on your phone or tablet. But even making videos and posting them only goes so far in making this any kind of job or income. Because….

Most Artists Are Too Shy or Too Busy to Take Advantage of Social Tools, Especially Video

“YouTube videos, they’re more personal and more real than a commercial on TV.” – Bethany Mota

I’ve written a blog post already called “Youtube: The Best Marketing Tool You’re Not Using”. Artists basically have a free television station that they can build an audience with, that millions watch daily, and they aren’t really using it. Sure they may make a video of a song and toss it up there, but these channels grow because the people who have the channel “speak” to their audience. This is how you build a YouTube following that brings in real income, but it takes weekly if not daily attention.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and more can be used to engage, communicate, and grow a great following, but most artists just won’t or can’t invest the time. Now on my artist and brand side, I am perhaps guilty of not using Youtube (and other tools) to it’s greatest potential.

But video is especially is too important a tool to take lightly. After making great quality music, building high-end graphic identity, and of course a home base web site and social media, video should be everyone’s next focus. In my opinion this is a better way to reach real people who may become fans than radio, publicity, or other forms of marketing.

Most Artists Just Think They Can Do It Themselves

“I prefer to live in my own little bubble of my own reality.” – Lauren Lee Smith

When I moved my business to Nashville, artists and songwriters were thrilled that they could come to Nashville and work with the best in the Christian music business. They were absolutely in awe of the process and opportunity. They were fine to let the producers and players and engineers speak into the how the songs should sound. But lately, artists and songwriters are beginning to dictate how the production should sound, and overriding the thoughts and ideas of producer and players.

Maybe as a result of this, we have seen writing quality of both writing and sometimes even production decline somewhat. As the worship genre has become more of a force, we saw and are currently seeing in Nashville much weaker songs. More than ever I am urging artists to look for songs with our friends at major Christian music publishers. In fact, that will likely be our first call unless an artist comes to us with really original, strong material in the future.

Why is this important Because most artists come to us wanting to compete on a national or international level with Hillsong, K-Love, or Kari Jobe. I don’t care how talented you believe your local friends are, unless you employ people regularly doing this work for those outlets, you will not have a chance to compete there. I know, I tried for years from my hometown in Kentucky. Creative Soul Records was only taken seriously once we began working with the pros and industry in Nashville, the Christian music center.

The Single versus the Album

“Less is more. “ – Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

“I hate to hear ‘Less is more.’ It’s a crock of crap.” – R. Lee Ermey

More and more artists are choosing to do a single first, to “dip their toe in” and see what Nashville production is all about. Or they want to do what a lot of pop artists are doing, and continually feed their fans and following new music, then worry about compiling the singles into an EP or CD down the line. This is not necessarily wrong, and may indeed be a formula for success for some artists, particularly new artists. I have always, and still am, a proponent of making a full album of songs. I just prefer that as an artistic statement. But I can understand the single strategy for cost’s sake and for the marketing potential it offers.

However, if you are planning to do any live/touring work, and have no previous projects (or none that you are wanting people to hear!), then some kind of physical product is mandatory and helpful. As I said above, Christian artists (and all artists really) have always found income in touring and selling product. They kind of go hand in hand. So the album (or EP in some cases) still has worth for those who are touring.

A note about the EP: This term and type of recording came from the Extended Play cassettes and CDs in the 90s that were basically singles with remixes or B-sides added on. Now we think of them as mini-albums that are cheaper and faster to put out to your fans. We do many of these, and for a new artist this isn’t a bad idea at all. Just know it’s harder to sell them, although asking for a $10 donation to your ministry isn’t out of the question.

The Outlook for 2018

We really believe artists need to take this more seriously than ever. They need to rely on people inside the industry that are available to them. They need to get guidance before they jump in with both feet into recording. They need to look beyond the recording as well before they start.

It’s tempting because you may know the “guys” or have been down the road before to attempt to produce or executive produce your music and ministry yourself. But in our opinion this is leading to a watering down of the product, the ministry, and the success that folks want to have.

It’s also important to know who is going to help you AFTER you have that cool single, EP, or CD? Sure you’ll have fun recording, but that will last a few months. Marketing and ministering with the recording will last the rest of your life. Your ministry will affect countless others, and THAT will be your legacy.

There is a reason the large labels like Word have lasted from the 60’s until now. Someone with experience, who is doing nothing but finding, producing, and marketing Christian artists every day, living in it, and constantly studying and absorbing the changes in music and marketing, needs to be in charge of the whole shebang. Artists trying to do everything themselves will likely fall by the wayside, except for those very few who are so driven they will find success by sheer determination and grit.

I know all of you are doing your very best, and much of finding longevity in music ministry is just that willingness to keep going, keep fighting, and keep doing what you do. as one of my previous blogs said, “You Can’t “Not” Do It”

Agree? Disagree? We would love your thoughts, ideas….and prayers.

“I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.” – Jimmy Dean

“Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.” –  John F. Kennedy

Have a great week!

EC

Eric Copeland is president of Creative Soul Records, trying to help music ministries do great work around the world through watching over production, putting music product int he marketplace, and helping artists market to the world. If you have questions about getting started, or restarted, start here with our consulting packages, or contact us now!

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