Over the years, I have felt truly fortunate to have been to more Christian concerts than I could list. As part of the newspaper columns and magazine features that I've written over the years, I've had the opportunity to meet many Christian artists. Some famous, some struggling. But all, for the most part, with a sense of where they were (and are) in God's universe and creation.
This eight-day period is turning into one heck of a "concert ride" for me. Earlier this week I took some of my family to the Barlow Girl/Rebecca St. James concert, and this coming Saturday evening, when I'm in Ft. Worth, Texas, I'll be taking in Third Day and the David Crowder Band. But today, I want to share with you the time I spent with singer/songwriter Sara Groves (pictured left) when she was in concert with Jars of Clay last weekend in Ft. Collins, Colorado, at the Timberline Christian Church.
The interview with Sara had been set up well in advance, and I got an "feel" for this artist when I was told that she had to put her two children, ages 2 and 5, down for their naps before she could join me for the interview. Sara Groves in concert is a family activity, since she not only has her sons with her, she has her husband (of eleven years) with her as well. Troy "does everything but sing", as she put it, and that not only includes all the business aspects of Sara Groves, it includes playing percussion when she is on stage.
The reference at the top of the story is one that came from legend Charlie Peacock, who told Sara Groves at one point of her career "You are a Mom and Pop store. People come to you because they trust you. And you're not ever going to be a Target or a Wal-Mart."
And that is just fine with the 33-year old that, at one point of her life, spent three years teaching English and History to 10th-graders in the Minneapolis area, where she and her family still live today. She continued on by stating: "At the end of my life if people are looking over what I have done, and they say 'She was a really quality Mom and Pop Store', then that would be the biggest compliment that I could get."
Over the years, Groves has been part of two independent projects and four with her current label, INO. Her most successful in terms of sales was Conversations, and her newest album, Add to the Beauty that came out in October, is getting a great deal of attention and probably her best received project, according to the gifted storyteller. It was selected as CCM Magazine's "Album of the Year", according to their December 2005 issue.
When we opened the interview, I mentioned that last August I spent some time in Estes Park, Colorado, with Shaun Groves. And no, they're not related. And as I listened to Shaun talk about his experiences as both an independent artist and an artist signed to a label, it was very clear that he was very bitter about his experiences with the Christian music business. [Editor's Note: Shaun replied to George about this in the comments below.] Since Sara Groves has seen both sides of the fence, I was curious about her thoughts regarding how artists are treated in the Christian music industry.
I was hoping for honesty, and I got it. Let me share some of her thoughts with you. Thinking about becoming an artist? Listen up to what she had to say. "Great artists and writers like Shaun (Groves) get the life sucked out of them by their label deal. Unfortunately, there's no difference between a Christian label deal and a secular label deal."
I asked her to explain further. She did. "Unfortunately, there's no difference between a deal in 2006 and a deal in 1960. If you look at the language, the percentages, the numbers and everything, folks today are signing the same contract they signed with Motown (a big label based in Detroit in the 60's). Those were the same lousy deals you've heard about that ruined the lives of artists way back in the days of Rock & Roll, and are ruining the lives of artists today".
Wow! Way to go, Sara. She continued. "The whole logic is that you have nothing to offer as an artist. They will contend: 'You're untried, and we don't know if you're going to make us any money. All the risk is on us.' We (Sara and Troy) know this because we did this dance with the label, and we ended up walking away from the contract. After ten months of negotiations we had a pretty clear idea of what that (the contract deal) looked like, and we went independent for three years because our contract was so bad."
Referring to the labels, she continued. "What they're banking on is the artist's desire to be heard. So they leverage that against you. The label we were negotiating with even sent me a copy of CCM Magazine with a sticky note on the center spread that said 'This could be you.' You would think in the Christian market there would be some difference, but no."
Eventually, after being independent, Groves did sign with INO Records, and she has been quite pleased with the way it has worked out. Part of the reason was that by that time, they weren't untried and they had built an audience of their own for three years. INO label President Jeff Mosely had been in the industry for twenty-five years, and he "didn't like what he saw" (her quote, not mine). Her arrangement with INO is called "equal risk, equal reward." They still fund their own albums, and they still continue to own all their music. Add to the Beauty was a personal investment to them of $80,000, but they have no complaints.
Her newest album didn't receive a Dove nomination for Pop/Contemporary Album of the Year, but it was nominated for Recorded Music Packaging of the Year. After the CCM "Album of the Year" pick, was she disappointed in the Dove nominations? This is what she had to say. "The first time I didn't get a Dove Award, I was let down. I think the Dove Awards are largely and solely based on album sales and radio play. Because I didn't have a radio hit, or sell millions of albums, I am in a different category. I'm fine with that. As a wife, as a mom, as a musician, God has given me a space that I can handle. If it were bigger, I couldn't keep my sanity. If it were smaller, I wouldn't be able to make a living. I feel very blessed that God has carved out a space that I can handle."
When Sara Groves is listening to music, what are her tastes? "I love Switchfoot, but I listen to a lot of stuff. Peter Gabriel is one of my favorites. Indigo Girls were my favorite in college, and their self-titled project was the main influence on my writing when I was in college because of its honesty. My goal was to bear my heart like the Indigo Girls did."
With her oldest son starting school in the fall, her touring time will be reduced. Is there another project in the works? "I don't know where I'm going next." she stated. "I feel that Add to the Beauty was the end of the sentence that was started with Conversations. Those four albums could be sort of a boxed set.
Last weekend, Timberline Church was totally sold out for her concert. She was given a thirty-five minute window for her performance, and I hated to see her wonderful storytelling songs end so quickly. Even if it was Jars of Clay that was about to come on. And their show was wonderful.
As we wrapped up our interview, she closed with this tidbit. "There are enough ears for all of us." referring to all the artists that make up the Christian recording industry. I couldn't help but feel that Sara's heart is in the right place. She's a peace with herself and she's at peace with her God. And for taking out time from your busy schedule to talk to me, Sara Groves, I extend to you a hearty "Thank you!" God bless you, Sara, for all that you are during to further His Kingdom.
George McHendry has lived in the greater Denver, Colorado area for the past 32 years. He is currently the Pastor of the First Congregational Church of Eastlake, Colorado, and he and his wife Helene have been the owners of a photography studio in Broomfield, Colorado, since 1979 that specializes in wedding photography. For the past few years, George has also written a weekly column on religion that appears on Saturdays in the Broomfield Enterprise and covers happenings at local churches.