Rising gas prices lead some to wonder whether the solution is throwing in the towel and parking the bus permanently.

My take: Groups calling it quits won’t solve Southern Gospel’s woes. (Parenthetically: It won’t necessarily be the talent-deficient groups hanging up their traveling shoes. It would be the groups struggling financially, which might just as likely be the critcs’ favorites–i.e., Valor and Everyday Driven.)

Some propose that Southern Gospel will have to go towards a direction where virtually all groups will have to hold down outside jobs, and even the most popular groups will essentially be glorified weekend groups. Things don’t have to go this way.

Several ideas could help keep Southern Gospel afloat financially for another generation or two.

Park the Bus–but not in that sense
Switching to less expensive forms of transportation, such as a conversion or extended van (with a trailer if needed), could really cut down on gas costs and loosen debt’s tight grip on a group’s budget. That’s not even mentioning the additional freedom of not worrying about bus payments, and maybe even making enough money off the sale of the bus that the group owner can liquidate other outstanding debts and breathe easier.

Make Geographically Sound schedules
For generations, artists working with booking agents have complained that schedules just don’t make geographic sense. (Even the Trapp Family Singers, of The Sound of Music fame, were complaining about that during the 1940s.) Booking agents rightly point out that they have to do their best to accommodate ideal dates for individual churches. But the higher gas prices rise, the more it may be necessary to coordinate tours geographically.

The (very) few mega-groups that have the draw to pack the local theater don’t need to follow this model. In fact, they need to do the opposite, spreading out their appearances enough to make every appearance in the region an Event with a capital E. But they also make enough from those appearances that they can afford the gas bills.

On the other hand, the groups that sing the church circuit–the ones who, if taking a concert people, would find as many members of the host church present as people who came from the outside–could make good use of this model.

Incidentally, some already do; a quick glance at the Blackwood Brothers Quartet’s schedule reveals that they schedule swings through states like Maine and Iowa (and, earlier in the year, Arizona), grouping concerts at least within the state.

For those that fly to some (or all) dates
Build a network of fans and friends who are willing to pick you up at the airport and take you to a date (or TV interview, or awards ceremony), in exchange with the chance to chat with you on the way there. This could save quite a few incidental costs. Of course, there could be factors that might not make it feasible. (This post is as much a brainstorming session as anything else.)

21st-Century Fan Clubs
This was originally going to be a separate post, but I decided to incorporate it into this one. Although Gaither is the only example I can think of in the Southern Gospel genre, some artists have a dedicated enough fan base to pull off paid fan clubs.

What benefits could a fan club that might make a fan want to pay for the privilege?

  • Free shipping on website purchases. Granted, postage costs are going up, but this will help encourage fans to purchase everything a group releases.
  • Early Admittance. I seem to recall that the CCM ensemble Caedmon’s Call had a fan club that offered backstage passes. Since SG artists tend to be accessible to fans after most artists, this is less of a draw. But what about admitting fan club members a half-hour before the doors open to everyone else? In general admission concerts, this would practically guarantee them front-row seats, but that could just be an extra benefit. In fact, this could even be an announced thing (Doors open at 5:00, and to Fan Club members at 4:30). And if it’s announced it could lead some who want front-row seats to join the club.
  • Extra blog / audio blog / video blog posts and access. Artists want to make some of this available on their website to interest the average fans. But they could save some of it for fan clubs. Websites like this one [EDIT, 3/16/13: Broken link removed] are an excellent concept from Crossroads label artists, but are quite a bit of effort to maintain for free.
  • Message boards. If the artist has a message board, perhaps a special folder could be created for fan club members, where the artist makes a special effort to post more regularly than on the rest of the board.
  • Streaming audio and/or video of concerts. This could be a huge draw, and it’s one that Gaither uses to good effect. Offer either live or time-delayed webcasts on a regular basis–as often as monthly. Incidentally, one concept that can be used independently of the whole fan club idea is making tickets to the e-concert available for individual purchase.

Conclusion
None of these ideas, by themselves, will keep SG afloat–but perhaps a combination of some of them might help.