Gospel Star Kirk Franklin Keeps Faith in CD Sales

Wall Street Journal - September 2, 2013

It turns out the music industry does have a prayer: gospel.

While most types of music have posted declines in recent years, gospel sales have held steady. And now gospel’s biggest star, Kirk Franklin, is launching a new record label with Sony Corp.’s 6758.TO +0.15% RCA Records to steer the often-insular genre in a more inclusive—and more profitable—direction.

“It’s kind of hard if you have people running a label that don’t go to church,” said Mr. Franklin. “You don’t know what the choirs are singing.”

Mr. Franklin, 43 years old, will be chairman and chief executive of the new Fo Yo Soul Recordings, which will have an emphasis on younger and more secular acts than RCA’s existing gospel imprint. It is one of a series of interlocking endeavors designed to boost Mr. Franklin’s mainstream visibility, following a successful arena tour last year.

He landed a deal this year to take over the gospel channel at Sirius XM Radio Inc.SIRI -1.38% He was enlisted by Live Nation Entertainment Inc. LYV -2.32% to revamp the House of Blues nightclub chain and its signature gospel brunch. And in a new reality show for Viacom Inc.’s VIAB +0.19% BET Networks, Mr. Franklin—already the host of the channel’s long-running gospel-talent show, “Sunday Best”—will put mainstream artists through “gospel boot camp” to ease their financial, and spiritual, troubles.

Aiding Mr. Franklin’s mission has been the uncertainty facing the music industry. Last year nearly 5.4 million gospel albums were sold in the U.S.—about three-quarters of them on CD—a slight uptick from 2008, according to Nielsen SoundScan. At the same time, album sales across all genres slipped to 316 million units last year, from 486 million in 2008.

Though older than the average music buyer, gospel fans have become surprisingly attractive to the music industry. Among other things, they tend to gravitate to physical products and participatory live shows.

The gospel music industry, not including Christian pop, is smaller than both classical music and jazz.

Mr. Franklin believes gospel can do even better. He plans to widen its scope into secular pop culture, employing his live-music venues, satellite radio channel and record label to attract new talent, fans and corporate sponsors.

“Kind of like what we saw with Jay-Z and Samsung,” he says, referring to the high-profile marketing push the electronics giant gave the rap star earlier this summer.

Fo Yo Soul is to release its debut single on Tuesday: “Perfect People,” by a teen-sibling act called the Walls Group. Mr. Franklin has booked House of Blues gigs for Walls Group and his new label’s other signings, including Amber Riley of TV’s “Glee,” and promoted their music on his Sirius XM channel.

Meanwhile Vivendi SA’s VIV.FR -1.60% Universal Music Group recently launched its own new gospel label, Motown Gospel, which Barry Weiss, Universal Music’s chief of East Coast operations, also plans to use to push its gospel stars to secular success, as he helped Mr. Franklin do earlier in his career at his former label.

Mr. Franklin said he decided to take charge of his career two years ago when a song came on the car radio that he knew well: “Lose My Soul,” by Christian pop artist TobyMac—featuring Mr. Franklin as a special guest.

But as the tune progressed, Mr. Franklin was shocked to realize that his verse had been cut out. The lyrics he’d written weren’t explicit, but he learned later from TobyMac, whose real name is Toby McKeehan, that the Christian radio station had requested a revised version because they felt his part—in which he criticizes mainstream pop stars for glorifying gangster lifestyles—was “too edgy.”

“It broke my heart—this isn’t the 1960s,” said Mr. Franklin, who is African-American and suspected his race was a factor. Mr. McKeehan, a friend of Mr. Franklin’s who is white, said he was disappointed but not surprised by the station’s stance on the song, and thought it was a matter of style, not race.

Gospel music was born from the spirituals sung by black slaves in the 18th century, adaptations of traditional hymns. Themes nearly always center on hope and faith, and the music often uses heavy repetition and invites audience participation. But there are no “style restrictions” on gospel music, according to Boston Community Choir artistic director Dennis Slaughter, since the goal is to reach the widest possible audience.

Over time gospel has evolved to mirror what’s most popular in secular music, from blues to R&B and even hip-hop. Mr. Franklin’s high-energy music tends to draw from the latter two styles, sometimes incorporating samples of classic 1970s soul tunes.

After landing his first job directing an adult church choir in Texas at age 12, Mr. Franklin has sold more than 10 million albums and won five Grammy awards. To this day he rarely sings—instead directing choirs and other big artists as they belt out his arrangements.

The married father of four has also become known for his candor, talking openly about his estranged parents and confessing to a pornography addiction on Oprah Winfrey‘s talk show in 2005.

But Mr. Franklin began raising eyebrows for other reasons last year when he and three other gospel stars launched an arena tour with Live Nation, selling out shows in major markets from Dallas to Detroit, with tickets priced as high as $80 apiece.

Kevin Morrow, then an executive at Live Nation who suggested marketing the shows like rock concerts, said it was a gamble because while gospel acts have always been live draws, they have mostly played churches, and “no one knew what to expect.” But in the end, the “King’s Men” tour turned a profit, he said.

“It was definitely groundbreaking,” said Mr. Morrow, who has since left Live Nation and now works as Mr. Franklin’s manager.

That live success caught the attention of RCA Records President Tom Corson, who first met Mr. Franklin in an awkward encounter at a Grammy party in Los Angeles just after taking over the label in 2011.

Mr. Franklin skipped the small talk and said he “had a bone to pick” about a catalog release that had happened without his permission. But after patching things up, said Mr. Corson, “We realized this was a guy we wanted to take a shot on—he’s a force of nature.”

Write to Hannah Karp at hannah.karp@wsj.com