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Gospel Artists Forced to Ponder Root of All Evil

A lawyer's suit against a Sony BMG record label stirs up questions about money and mission.

May 02, 2005|Charles Duhigg | Times Staff Writer

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."

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