Concept Albums: Solving the 99-cent dilemma

Until iTunes, you had to purchase a $12-$17 CD to get the one song you liked. Now you can pay 99¢/song and get the song—or two or three—you really like.

Since iTunes, artists and their record companies have watched revenues decline as fans spend $1-$3 per artist per year/album cycle instead of $12-$17. Like other technology / paradigm shifts, it has been slower coming to Southern Gospel—but it’s now here.

Naturally, artists and labels have wondered how to get fans to continue to purchase the whole project. Some have tried only making the complete album for digital sale, but that method has failed. The only way to succeed, long-term, is to construct an album that fans find so compelling that they don’t want to settle for only the radio singles.

The solution is quite simple: Shift the paradigm to view an album as one coherent artistic piece instead of a collection of ten individual pieces.

It’s been done before. Of course, Christmas projects and tribute projects to another group are both concept albums of a sort, but one can only do so many of either. Here are a few of the more unique concepts I’ve seen:

  • Fictional narrative: Mark Bishop, Fields of Love, 2007. This is constructed around a fictional narrative of love, loss, and redemption set in a vague time/location in America’s heartland. Every song ties into the concept, and there is some spoken-word narrative.
  • Inspired by a modern book: 2nd Chapter of Acts, Roar of Love, ~1977. This was based on C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.
  • Inspired by a book in the Bible: Michael Card, Unveiled Hope, 1997. Virtually all of Card’s albums are concept albums, but this concept—a walk through Revelation—is one that could play particularly well in a Southern Gospel context, with our genre’s numerous songs about Heaven.
  • Inspired by a pilgrimage: The Kingsmen’s “Behold the Master Cometh” (Georgia Live, 1995) was inspired by a trip Eldridge Fox took to Israel. Fox set up the song so well, and it got such a strong reception, that it wouldn’t be hard to imagine a full project going over well. Apart from Holy Land trips, CCM has seen projects inspired by trips taken to countries where Christians are being persecuted, where there are major moral or social problems (e.g., human trafficking or third-world living conditions).
  • Inspired by a theme: Last summer’s series of Southern Gospel theme CD posts offers some ideas: Fatherhood, Martyrdom, Creation, the Wrath of God, and Family Heritage. One other idea, “exploring the miracle of our adoption in Christ,” was discussed in a translation series post.

Of course, simple and easy are two entirely different things. An artist who wants to construct albums that tell a compelling overall narrative can’t just wait till shortly before going into the studio and put out a general call for song demos. The artist must either invest the time to write / co-write songs, or invest the time to build relationships with songwriters whom they can approach for songs on a specific theme—well in advance of the booked studio time, to allow time for research and creativity to take shape.

Artists will always have superfans who will purchase an entire project. But if you want more fans to purchase entire projects, tell a compelling story that can’t be told in just one song.