Grace Notes
By Chris Crain

Greg Long visited Louisville January 15 and 16 to help with a fundraiser for Third World relief. It is the start of a big year for Mr. Long and his new group. On February 24, Avalon launches The Creed, their first full studio record in three years and the first showcasing the vocal contribution of Long, who replaced Michael Passons after his departure from the group last summer to pursue other career interests. The Creed is also the first complete recording to exhibit the vocal strengths of Melissa Greene, who joined Avalon in the fall of 2002.

Avalon, considered a standard in Christian music since 1996, continues to sing classic ballads and pop songs with commanding vocals and compelling lyrics. "All," the first single from The Creed, is presently getting airplay on Louisville Christian radio.

The Creed goes deeper, as a songwriting collaborative effort from the foursome, as Jody McBrayer, Melissa Greene, Janna and Greg Long worked with 20 of their favorite writers during a Writer's Camp in an effort to speak directly into the songs on this record. As a result, The Creed reveals not only personal and spiritual growth over the past 3 years, but also the mission of Avalon as a group in the title song. The Creed offers five songs resulting from the Writer's Camp, as well as two songs co-written by Avalon members; "Abundantly," co-written by Janna Long and "The Good Way," co-written by Melissa Greene and Janna Long, as well as a re-make of "Overjoyed" from Janna Long's solo record.

The Creed, produced by the team of Brown Bannister, Tedd T. and Charlie Peacock, comes on the heels of a very memorable 2003, beginning with the collection of an American Music Award in January and ending with a recent CCM Readers Choice Award for Group Of The Year. Some of Avalon's most notable career credits include a total of 19 #1 singles, 3 Dove's, 20 Dove Nominations, two Grammy nominations and an American Music Award in 2002. RandR recently credited Avalon as the fourth most played artist on all of AC Christian radio in 2003, ranking Everything To Me and New Day - the only new singles featured on Testify To Love; The Best Of Avalon - in the AC Top 25 on RandR for 2003 and Everything To Me, second on RandR Inspo Top 25 for 2003.

Avalon is slated for a spring tour with Mark Schultz and special guest Across The Sky, playing to audiences in 35 markets including Pittsburgh, Grand Rapids, Dallas, Chattanooga and Miami. The tour kicks off in Pensacola, Florida, on February 26.

Last month I looked back at some of the bigger stories of 2003. One I failed to mention was some good news...at least for the record companies. This information comes from the gospel music association and I thought it might be of interest to you.

Gospel music sales rebounded in the second half of 2003, giving the industry reason to be optimistic for 2004, announced John W. Styll, president of the Gospel Music Association (GMA).

According to Nielsen SoundScan, sales of gospel music ended the year down 5.2 percent, cutting in half a mid-year 10.4 percent decline. 47.1 million albums were sold in 2003 compared to 49.6 million in 2002. The total does not include sales of singles and digital single downloads.

"With the overall economy showing very positive signs of growth and with the tide slowly reversing on the piracy issue, we have every reason to be confident going into the New Year," said Styll. "There are still challenges ahead, but the outlook is brighter and more importantly, we know that Gospel music is having a strong impact in every segment of our society." In the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, sales of gospel music grew four percent. The last week of the year saw a 20 percent increase over the last week of the year in 2002. Pop Gospel was the style of music that sold the most records with 19.4 percent of sales, followed closely by Black Gospel with 17.9 percent, rock with 14.9 percent and Praise and Worship with 11.1 percent.

Sales grew at mainstream retail outlets, where gospel music sales increased 6.7 percent in 2003 over the previous year. More than 60 percent of gospel music sales occurred in the general market.

"The second half of the year was historic in terms of crossover success. In the past, gospel music has gained general market prominence in one-shot situations, like God's Property's `Stomp' and Bob Carlisle's `Butterfly Kisses.' This year, we've had several artists, each with unique music styles, penetrate the mainstream in a significant way," said Styll. Stacie Orrico was one of the big stories of 2003. First discovered through the GMA Academy Spotlight competition in 1998, the 17-year-old Orrico released her sophomore project, Stacie Orrico (ForeFront/Virgin), in March. To date, it has sold more than two million units worldwide. The first single, "Stuck," found success both on radio and TV, landing her as a regular on MTV's Total Request Live. She has made appearances on CNN, Extra, Access Hollywood, Wayne Brady, KTLA, NY 1, CBS Weekend New York, Living It Up With Ali and Jack, Nickelodeon, BBC's Top of the Pops and more. Her current single, "(there's gotta be) More to Life" is currently moving up on the Top 40 Pop/CHR charts.

"It's been a great year for Stacie," said Greg Ham, president of ForeFront Records. "She has crossed two million units worldwide and has established herself in multiple territories around the world. It has been a huge cooperative effort with Stacie, Virgin, EMI and the ForeFront teams."

Two thousand-three was also the year when the song "I Can Only Imagine," propelled band MercyMe to widespread success as it began to get heavy airplay on Pop, AC and Hot AC mainstream radio stations nationwide, reaching Top 5 on the Adult Contemporary charts and Top 20 on Hot AC and Pop/CHR. The song's album, Almost There (INO Records), has reached platinum certification and consistently sold over 20,000 units a week. "I Can Only Imagine" topped Billboard's single sales chart for ten weeks. As 2003 ended, the song was being added to country radio charts.

"`I Can Only Imagine' sold over 750,000 units and topped the singles sales chart for 11 weeks. For a record that was two years old, this shows the impact of a song, but also the tremendous impact Christian music can have once it is afforded increased exposure," said Jeff Moseley, president of INO Records.

Randy Travis made a significant impact on the music industry with the success of hit song "Three Wooden Crosses," from the gold-selling Rise and Shine (Word/Curb/Warner Bros.). The single achieved No. 1 status at country radio (Billboard, RandR and Music Row charts) in 2003, an unprecedented achievement by a gospel record label on the Country charts. "Three Wooden Crosses," penned by songwriters Doug Johnson and Kim Williams, garnered the CMA Award for "Song of the Year" as well as being named "Song of the Year" by The Nashville Songwriters Association.

"It's been exciting to watch Randy's success story unfold over the past year," said Mark Lusk, senior vice president of marketing and artist development at Word Label Group. "Randy believed in the power of this song from the start and it's wonderful to see so many people impacted by it."

Since releasing The Beautiful Letdown (Sparrow/Columbia), which was recently certified Gold by the RIAA and is the band's fastest selling album to date, Switchfoot has seen astonishing success both on the radio and with the media. The album started 2004 atop the Billboard Top 100 Contemporary Christian Album chart. The band was featured in the October 16th issue of Rolling Stone in a "New Faces" feature, as well as on Launch.com's "New Artist Spotlight" for the month of September. Switchfoot was seen all over late night TV shows with performances on ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live, CBS's The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn and NBC's Last Call With Carson Daly. The band's first single "Meant To Live" peaked at #6 on Billboard's Modern Rock chart and RandR's Alternative chart and dominated the #1 spot on the Christian Hit Radio (CHR) charts for six consecutive weeks with their second single "Gone." Earlier this year, Switchfoot was also honored by their hometown in the San Diego Music Awards with awards for "Best Pop Album" and "Artist of the Year."

"From the very beginning we believed that Switchfoot would impact culture and that is becoming a reality. We couldn't be happier for Switchfoot. We are looking forward to another exciting year for the band!" said Peter York, president of Sparrow Records.

The gospel music industry does not yet chart digital single downloads, but Nielsen SoundScan reports that 19.2 million digital tracks (of all genres) have been sold since June 29, 2003, the day the Recording Industry Association of America announced it would file lawsuits in an effort to deter illegal downloading. Most of the major gospel labels are providing their music to iTunes, Napster 2.0, buymusic.net and others. Additionally, LifeWay Christian Stores recently announced it would launch the first online resource offering gospel music downloads exclusively at www.lifewaystores.com. Others are expected to follow.

"Illegal downloading no doubt affected our sales in the past few years and will continue to have an impact, but the RIAA and others have successfully raised awareness that downloading music for free is illegal and that there are a growing number of alternatives. As an industry, we plan to make this problem a priority for 2004, addressing the issues that are unique to our genre," said Styll.

Finally, as a reminder, MercyMe brings the "Imagine" tour to the Palace February 15. As of press time, tickets were still available. Check out ticketmaster.com to get tickets (or better yet buy them at The Palace if you can and save a few bucks).

Look for a review of the concert in next month's LMN.