Tony Cummings charts a small gospel company MASTERPIECE CHRISTIAN RECORDS based in North Carolina
When we think of gospel record companies we, understandably, tend to think of the gospel affiliates of massive music multinationals. Seemingly, to reach the upper echelons of Billboard's Gospel chart you need an EMI or a Zomba with all their dollars and marketing muscle to get the really big sales. But small record companies able to record local gospel acts for a regional market have, despite all the odds, continued to exist. One of the most intriguing of these small companies is Masterpiece Christian Records of Rocky Mount, North Carolina. I quizzed the company's president, Ted Wilson about the origins of this brave enterprise. "My wife Michelle and I started Masterpiece Christian Records in 1996. At the time we had no artist and no idea of how a record label functioned. The next 11 years would provide an array of experiences (both good and bad) to enabled us to keep the music flowing." Ted had moved to North Carolina in 1994 after seven years of medical school and residency training in Toledo, Ohio. It was there that Ted met and married Michelle. It was prior to medical school that Wilson caught the music bug. He explained, "I had a home recording studio in Rochester, New York that kept me busy. Over a 12-year period I recorded numerous gospel artists including a few national talents such as Timothy Wright and Rosie Haynes."
By the late 1990s much had changed in recording technology and a fully functioning pro studio could be equipped for under $60,000. Said Ted, "We started getting equipment with this in mind. In 1997 friends from Rochester and North Carolina came together and we recorded our first project called 'Circle Of Love'. The production was 'terrible' so it was kept on the shelf; I still got boxes of CDs (smile). A friend from New York let us hear a DAT recording of Ron Surrey. It was an original gospel production, with an old school R&B favor that was a mixture of folk and blues. I loved it but realised there was not a major (commercial music) market for the material. Around the same time I heard an excellent live recording of James Bellamy And The TC Ensemble that was never finished. Michelle and I decided an independent record label could release these projects in small numbers to a specific consumer base. In 1998 'Rhapsody In Spirit' by Ron Surrey and 'Let Your Spirit Fill This Place' by James Bellamy And The TC Ensemble were released."
In a gospel market today dominated by big name artists on major record labels how could a tiny company like Masterpiece Christian Records survive? Ted' answer was fascinating. "Like any business it is important to generate a profit by knowing your market, producing an excellent product (that is desired by the market) and defining your value of success. MCR does not compete with the dollar-driven industry dominant mega companies. Our products are 'Music that Ministers', bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to those that God has given us an opportunity to reach. We have been blessed to keep our production cost low by doing most of the work in house (graphics, photography, website design, recording, video production, etc). Over the past three to four years we have expanded our sales throughout the Eastern USA because of James Bellamy and Hope Askew getting wide exposure. They have had performances on national television programmes such as Bobby Jones Gospel and Singsation. They have also been seen on the cover of Gospel USA and various major city newspapers."
I asked Ted to run down their current roster of artists. "Possibly Hope Askew is the highest profile artist. She's had two albums, 'Always Hope' in 2004 and 'Life, Love And Music' in late 2006. She has been busy over the past year sharing the stage with Andrae Crouch, Donald Lawrence & Tri-City Singers, J Moss, and many others. She was nominated for the 2006 New Gospel artist for Virginia GAG.
"We also have James Bellamy & TC who have a new project 'Triumphant: Live'. This is James' third album and the most highly anticipated for the label. He has been our most successful artist by CD sales. He is well received among the churches throughout the Eastern USA as a praise and worship leader.
"Everett Silver, who is a pastor of a church in North Carolina, released 'Gift Of Love' in 2004. It received excellent reviews and has continued to sell via the internet. Ray Braswell, Jr. is the master producer for the label who has been a blessing to our efforts. He is only 26 years old and was co-producer for Keith 'Wonderboy' Johnson for many years. Masterpiece is releasing his compilation CD 'Raymarkable Vol 1' by this fall. And we have also recently released 'Choices, The Story Of Noah' by Lil' Peeps which is a children's video series that teaches Christian principles to three to eight year olds using music, puppetry and animation."
Ted is Kingdom focused about the future. "MCR is not looking for another Kirk Franklin. I believe God has used GospoCentric Records and Kirk to reach the masses. Like Kirk, we look for individuals that are talented, self-expressive, Christ-oriented, and understand the commitment to the music industry. If God will allow Masterpiece and an artist to reach the masses - what an honour that would be. But we're not chasing after that level of success. Although it has increased, gospel music sales and capital dollars are still a small percentage of the music industry. The major labels have purchased or closed down many of the independents that were profitable in the past. In today's marketplace however these mega companies are experiencing large financial losses with decreasing CD sales, high production/marketing costs, piracy and internet down loads. Masterpiece keeps working because of our love for ministry and a positive impact we make in the lives of individuals that God has provided us an opportunity to reach. We operate dollar for dollar with each new release improving in overall quality and investment of resources. I believe God will continue to honor our work with the monies and talent to move to the next level."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.