Christian record companies - heroic pioneers or villainous exploiters? Tony Cummings tries to find out.

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The 70s saw a veritable stream of releases of American pop gospel coming out in Britain, to compete for shelf space with albums of traditional hymns and the new praise and worship choruses of the charismatic renewal. Britain's Christian bookshops resisted the trend at first but with the establishment of the Word Record Club in 1975 a way was found to go straight to the public. For a while Word and Kingsway were neck-and-neck in terms of British recording. Norman Miller now Sheila Walsh's husband and manager, was head of A&R at Word. But gradually Word drew back as it discovered that recording costs were spiralling but sales weren't.

By the early 1980's brave new spirits emerged to try and offer recording opportunities to Britain's Christian music talent. Pilgrim Records (later Marshalls) had established a healthy foothold with artists like Marilyn Baker but a financially disastrous move into high budget rock gospel recording and a series of complex corporate takeovers eventually led to Rupert Murdoch's Zondervan Corporation selling off Marshall Pickering's record catalogue.

Another company Chapel Lane Records, an independent based at a studio near Hereford put out some fine releases (Bryn Haworth, Larry Norman, Barratt Band). But they too floundered. Even more disastrous financially was Window Records (whose roster included Marilyn Baker, Dave Markee, and Lovelight), a company run by David Paine, one of the founding fathers of MGO who has subsequently headed up Pilgrim/Marshalls and )ohn Pac, an experienced A&R man/producer whose Parchiament group were in the 60s the only group coming of the Christian coffee bar scene to experience mainstream pop success. Window broke within two years.

In the hard-time 1980s there was one Christian music independent which seemed to be lasting the distance. Ears And Eyes Records, with its Break-Thru Management sister company, became a formidable talent-spotter. Martyn Joseph, Shirley Novak and Triumph were all recorded and toured. But eventually Ears And Eyes sucumbed too. With Ears & Eyes demise, recording of Christian music artist seemed to be reaching its lowest point since pop gospel recording started in the 60s. It probably reached it a few months ago when Kingsway, having to lay off a third of their staff, announced that they were all but pulling out of contemporary music recording and, in a display of good housekeeping, concentrating their resources on praise and worship (where they are arguably still the market leader) and heavy metal.

British contemporary Christian music artists in 1991 have little or no chance of recording unless they're already signed by Word or can get a deal with one of the low-overheads independents connected to a studio like ICC or Chapel Lane Productions. Nigel Coltman, head of music publishing at Kingsway is outspoken in saying where he believes the fault lies "Word Records have destroyed Britain's Christian music scene. They have shipped over container-loads of high quality American gospel albums, and swamped the market."

David Bruce, A&R director at Word (UK) sees things very differently "Over 25% of our sales of albums are generated by UK-origin products. So its just not true to say we're not committed to British Christian music. The reason we do release many American albums is to give the public a wide choice of musical styles and artists as possible."

David is equally adamant that to record (relatively) cheaply made albums to capture what few British sales there might be for an artist or worship leader, can on occasions be self-defeating. "It's always been Word's intention to record music of the highest quality in both areas-both contemporary and worship - music that theoretically at least has the creative potential to find release in the USA and even cross over into the pop mainstream."

Yet the fact remains that there are few opportunities for a new British contemporary artist to secure a recording contract. Says Nigel Coltman. "What is needed is for God to raise up a whole new MGO, a recording situation that isn't run by tired old men like me" (he laughs) "but has the energy and the talent to go out and find the fresh new gospel music that is there, somewhere, in the churches. Then maybe there'll be something coming out to blow away the glossy American music."

Maybe, there are signs of such a company, not a record label, but a production company. Full Circle lease finished masters to companies to manufacture and distribute. Their first releases by the Electrics, Sal Solo and Tracey Riggan, will be available via Word this summer. Full Circle's executive director Paul Bennett, who'd previously been manager of 70s gospel pioneers Nutshell and who has previously worked at Word says. "There are some astonishingly fresh and creative music ministries in the local churches. Full Circle is committed to helping these ministries. Though primarily a management company and agency, we recognise that many artists need an album if their ministry is to find any kind of national platform. So we're producing albums and leasing them to companies like Word and others."

Word's David Bruce is convinced that the link between live concert and ministry is not forged strongly enough. "Word have had approaches from numerous bands who want us to record them but who aren't working. How are we expected to sell albums by artists who aren't working at a live level? Not that it's always the band's fault. The main reason why the British artist Christian music scene is in danger of stagnating is because of the cheapskate attitude of much of the Christian public concerning live music. They recoil fro the idea of paying more than £3 for a Christian music concert yet in the mainstream scene you can pay £25 for a ticket. In the mid '70s there was still a fairly healthy gospel concert circuit in the UK. Now that's gone. The record industry is basically a backup service to artists' and ministries' live work. Without concerts you can't sell albums."

Full Circle's Paul Bennett points out the Catch 22 that many young Christian music hopefuls are caught in. "To get bookings an artist needs profile and often that doesn't really begin until there's an album. Yet record companies have been unwilling to record artists without a healthy date sheet."

Britain's Christian record companies today stand at the cross roads. Word (UK) are seemingly an impregnable corporate structure (they're wholly owned by Word Inc. who in turn are owned by secular giant ABC). In addition to the rights to Word Inc. releases, Word (UK) have licensing arrangements with just about every major American gospel company (including Sparrow, Benson, Frontline, Maranatha! Music and many more).

Yet Dave Bruce at Word fully realises their lifeblood is live, and that largely means British, music and ministry.
Kingsway are still the market leaders in praise and worship yet with Geoff Shearn (Graham Kendrick's manager) leasing each Kendrick album separately the day may yet arrive when Kingsway no longer have their most popular praise artist while many are predicting the charismatic public will shortly tire of endless rolls of glossy American 'wallpaper praise'.

ICC, Chapel Lane Productions, Anfield Music (who bought the entire Marshall Pickering catalogue) and others are all in their fighting for a sale yet none seem to penetrate the Christian bookshop market as efficiently as Kingsway (through STL) or Word (UK) (with their own sales force).