Gospel Artists Forced to Ponder Root of All Evil
Bestselling songwriter and Pentecostal minister David Frazier recalls that two years ago, as he sat with one of the most powerful figures in gospel music, he was told to choose between his lawyer and his God.
Frazier, now 39 and author of more than 15 songs that went gold or platinum, was discussing the forthcoming WOW Gospel 2004 compilation album with executives from Verity Records. Verity’s bestselling WOW series transformed the gospel marketplace in 1998 and fueled the genre’s growth by offering lesser-known artists a shot at exposure they might otherwise not get on their own.
Frazier’s inclusion on previous WOW compilations had enhanced the songwriter’s profile and finances thanks to the negotiating prowess of his attorney, James L. Walker Jr., who demanded high-end royalty payments.
But Walker, 36, had also publicly accused Verity executives of using the WOW albums to bully some of his clients and others into exploitative contracts. So in 2003, Frazier said, Verity’s president warned him that his songs would be excluded from future WOW albums if Walker was invited to the bargaining table.
“James had gotten me great payments because he was aggressive,” said Frazier, who wrote the 2004 gospel hit “I Need You to Survive.” “But my first goal is the ministry of Christ. And as my mama said, ‘If you aren’t heard, you aren’t doing God’s work.’ So I found a new lawyer.”
That conversation and others are at the center of a lawsuit filed last month by Walker that has stirred up controversy not only about the money in gospel but also about its mission, revealing the fissures in this small corner of the record business.
In his federal suit, Walker alleges that New York-based Verity and parent company Sony BMG Music Entertainment intimidated his clients into firing him and maligned his character, depriving him of income. Sony BMG and Verity, one of gospel’s dominant labels, declined to comment on Frazier’s account or the pending litigation.
Though some gospel artists and religious leaders praise Walker’s hardball tactics, others dismiss the litigation as an affront to the spiritual origins of a genre that exalts God’s everlasting word above the almighty dollar. Some also accuse the Stamford, Conn.-based lawyer of fostering unrealistic expectations among gospel singers and songwriters, whose music represents only 6% of albums sold in the U.S. -- about $750 million a year.
“Gospel artists don’t want to think about money and greed,” so the industry disdains secular activism, said Frazier, who consented to a lower rate of compensation on the WOW Gospel 2004 album after dropping Walker and signing with a new lawyer.
Walker is “a crusader,” said Garrett Johnson, who now represents Frazier and negotiated his 2004 WOW deal. “But I’m worried he’s convincing musicians they have more power than they really do. A songwriter may be a fantastic talent, but there are a lot of fantastic talents in gospel. It’s better to settle for a smaller deal than to get barred from ever appearing on WOW.”
Music historians say that Walker’s crusade, win or lose, has cast a hot light on what they say is the exploitation of spiritually driven artists that has long plagued gospel music.
“For a long time gospel artists saw performing as almost an act of charity,” said Yale University Chaplain Jerry Streets. “Songwriters didn’t even know to ask for publishing rights. Artists didn’t realize labels were profiting from their recordings.”
But musicians began recognizing the economic importance of their work in the mid-'90s, when Christian music, which includes gospel, began outselling classical and jazz, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The genre’s steady sales among a core audience prompted major music companies to begin acquiring smaller gospel labels. Today, three corporations -- Sony BMG, EMI Group and Warner Music Group Corp. -- dominate sales of recorded religious music of all sorts.
The major players quickly began producing compilations of the kind that had scored big in pop and rock. Verity released the first WOW Gospel in 1998; the 2003 album sold almost 500,000 copies. Last year’s reached No. 1 on the gospel charts.
Many artists crave inclusion on these compilations because of the albums’ exposure and sales. But because no single artist is essential to the project’s success, labels retain significant power over the terms of participation. In exchange for the exposure, lesser-known artists frequently compromise on royalties.
“Those WOW albums are really important,” said Roger Helms, manager of Grammy-winning singer Donnie McClurkin. “They offer smaller musicians the chance to appear with big names and participate in a bestseller. There’s only a few gospel singers who can make it without being on WOW, and the labels know that.”
Walker represented 15 clients on the WOW albums between 1999 and 2003 and negotiated top-dollar royalty payments for each of them, he said. The lawyer has negotiated on behalf of more than 200 artists appearing on 30 gold and platinum albums, he said. Industry leaders agree that Walker is one of a handful of attorneys representing gospel’s most successful artists.
In his lawsuit, Walker alleges that Verity President Max Siegel and other executives two years ago demanded a cut in royalty payments to the lawyer’s clients. After he refused, Walker said, Verity’s executives began telling artists they’d be barred from WOW albums unless they changed representation.
“This is the top project in gospel music, so the artists deserve top compensation,” Walker said. “There’s no labor in these albums -- you just grab the masters, put them on a CD and it’s in the stores the next week. So for Verity to ask artists to take a cut of $25,000 is just greedy.”
Walker said that after he was dropped by three of his clients, he decided to sue Verity and the label’s president, distributor and parent company. “They’re scared of anyone who stands up to them, so they want to make it impossible for me to work,” he said. “I have to fight back for both me and my artists.”
To press his agenda, Walker in April helped found the Gospel Artists Progressive Movement, a group whose stated goal is to educate musicians about copyright law and artists’ rights. But even that group, illustrating the conflicts in the gospel music ranks, has asked the lawyer to withdraw while his case is pending, questioning the spiritual valor of his methods.
“The Bible speaks of Christians not suing one another,” said Rev. Robert Lowe of Mount Moriah AME Church in New York and chairman of the Gospel Artists Progressive Movement. “This is Jesus’ music and it is governed by the rules of God. Our artists have not gotten our fair share, but the Bible prefers things are decided at a table rather than in the courtroom.”
The religious criticism is particularly risky for Walker. Unlike hip-hop, whose artists successfully negotiated with record executives by founding their own independent labels, the gospel industry has traditionally valued harmony. A Dallas choir came under criticism in 1997 when the group signed with Interscope Records, then distributor of Death Row’s Snoop Doggy Dogg. When Kirk Franklin, one of gospel’s few platinum-selling artists, launched his own label, he did so under the aegis of Verity’s parent, Sony BMG.
Some artists say they are uncomfortable with their battles’ becoming public.
“I don’t like talking in the open about money,” said Twinkie Clark of the bestselling Clark Sisters. Clark, who appears on WOW Gospel 2005, was represented by Walker on projects that did not involve Verity. “I want to concentrate on talking about the Word.”
Walker’s critics say change is already happening within the industry. As evidence, they point to business conferences administered for the last 12 years by Rev. Bobby Jones, a musician and Black Entertainment Television personality.
“Bobby Jones is teaching singers how to fight for their rights and to lobby,” said Richard Manson, a Nashville attorney who represents Jones and other gospel artists. “The WOW albums are exploitation in its purest form, but the answers lie in better laws instead of litigation.”
Legislators, however, say there’s only so much they can achieve.
“There’s no law that will give artists the backbone to weather a fight with the record companies,” said California State Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Culver City), an artists’ rights advocate and former entertainment lawyer. “Gospel is where rap was 10 years ago. The artists are unsophisticated and there aren’t a lot of high-powered attorneys, so the labels can push tough negotiators out. The problem is, some lawyers may be tough but not very competent. It’s hard for clients to tell which one they’ve got.”
In the meantime, Walker is preparing for the religious ire of his peers and gambling that his lawsuit will win him power within the industry.
“The Book of Matthew tells us it is OK to sue,” Walker said. “What I want is an apology. I want public admission that I was fighting for my clients and Verity was scared so they wanted me out of the room. When I get that, you’ll see everyone line up behind me. Then you’ll see some real change.”