Sharing Vs. Selling: A Lesson From Gospel Music

Gospel Choir

This fall, I am working on wrapping up the manuscript for a book called Spreadable Media, a collaboration with MIT Convergence Culture Consortium. In short, businesses are looking at how content that circulates ultimately makes money for the company, returns some "ROI," whether in compensation or in promotional value. Audience members often aren't circulating that content for any sort of monetary reason whatsoever. That does not mean that there aren't many obligations between sender and receiver according to non-market logic: if a friend gives me a gift, all sorts of obligations come along with it: an obligatory thank you, perhaps reciprocation of a gift on a special occasion for them, an obligation to keep and use the gift, etc.

These two logics necessarily co-exist. But it doesn't mean there isn't significant tension between them at times. For the purposes of our book project, we look at how the sharing of media content often brings these two forces in conflict: the content creator or brand which is looking to make money or protect its intellectual capital, and the audience, which is using media content to build social ties. As companies enter social spaces primarily governed by non-market logics, then, they must be careful not to try and turn a "gift" into a commodity, to take situations governed by non-market logic and directly build a business model. This is a tension inherent in Web 2.0 logic, where a variety of platforms are built from the labor of audiences, audiences which are often not doing what they do (conversing with friends, sharing things, etc.) in ways governed by a market logic. As we've seen, when a business model can coincide and not interfere with these user activities, the two logics can fit well together. When they don't--for instance, when companies try to overly commercialize a social network site--the business plan often falls apart.

I've been thinking in particular about how these conflicts crop up offline as well. I grew up in a Baptist church, where my father was a deacon. Most Saturday nights when I was younger, we would go to our own church or a church somewhere else in the community to listen to a gospel singing. Often, my grandmother would come along, and we would listen to a quartet perform for a couple of hours in a little country church somewhere. While I didn't realize it at the time, there was a fascinating struggle between market and non-market logics at many of these gatherings. The church was primarily governed by non-market logic. There was no cost of admission. Generally, these bands were not paid to sing at the church. And no concessions are sold at a church gathering.

However, most gospel quartets made money on the side by recording cassette tapes of their most popular songs and selling them to churchgoers. Since a crucial tenet of the teachings of Jesus Christ advise separating the church from market logic, however, these transactions were considered unfit for a church sanctuary. (For those of you who are Christian or who have a Christian upbringing, you might remember the story of Christ overturning the tables of moneychangers in the temple.) This particular conflict between market and non-market logics has long been a key point of consternation for churches, but these little country churches generally struck a balance: cassette tapes could be sold by groups on church grounds, as long as it wasn't in the sanctuary. Some required a table to be set up in the parking lot or yard of the church. Others allowed for sales to be made on the porch. A few even allowed it in the lobby of the church (particularly important during winter months).

Most interesting of all, however, was the "love offering." Churches did not pay groups to sing, but the audience would take up a "love offering" for the group who came to sing. A collection plate would be passed around the congregation, and many would anonymously drop a contribution, not all that unlike the model used by street performers. The love offering was often presented as a spontaneous happening, but of course everyone in the congregation had come prepared for the moment of the love offering and probably had made sure they had they the appropriate cash quick at hand. And the love offering was also a point of potential contention, as the non-market logic of the moment collided with financial compensation.

As these gospel quartets traveled across a regional territory, some became noticed to the point of getting gigs down across our Kentucky border into Nashville. Sometimes, those groups started charging an up-front fee to come sing at a church, a decision which led to a great deal of conflict among the church community. Other groups who didn't start charging an up-front fee nevertheless began to develop a reputation for primarily going to churches who had more "love to give." Smaller country churches would never have any luck getting them booked for a Saturday in their sanctuary. Several decided that, when a group reached that point, they had let their "worldly" concern with money come in the way of their calling to sing by God. In other words, compensation was fine as long as it was optional (in the case of the love offering) or supplementary (in the case of the cassette tapes).

More recently, these tensions have continued to play out among the Christian music community. As Christian music has become increasingly shared online for free, the industry has faced a dilemma. By market logic, such "piracy" has traditionally been considered theft, and industry spokespeople have framed file sharing in moral terms: that church people should know that "Thou shall not steal" is a central tenet of the Christian faith and that the choice to share religious music without compensating its creator is doing just that. Others not only have seen major increased in their popularity because of their music circulating (a story that we all know and one that points toward how letting content circulate through non-market logic might eventually return monetary profit as well) but even argue that it is impossible for Christian music to be "stolen." After all, few religions place a higher premium on proselytizing, so--these people have asked--how is it possible for someone to "steal" the Word of God? If, as many gospel/Christian music fans believe, singing is a calling from God to help spread the word about Christian faith, how can it ever be bad for people to share that music by whatever means they want.

Those Saturday night gospel singings taught me many lessons that it seems brands have yet to learn. Tension between market and non-market logic peaks in these moments when the business model behind content creation comes into conflict with the purposes people have for sharing that content. Whether in a religious setting or not, applying business terms to a relationship-based transaction can truly be "sacrilege."

Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom, a PR agency, and a research affiliate with MIT's Convergence Culture Consortium. Ford was previously the Consortium's project manager and part of the team who launched the project in 2005. He has also worked as a professional journalist, winning a Kentucky Press Association award for his work. He also blogs for Peppercom's PepperDigital. Ford is co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington and co-author of the forthcoming book, Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.

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