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VOL. 125 | NO. 47 | Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Visible School Puts Faith In Christian Music

JOE BOONE | Special to The Daily News

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Amid an industry in a tailspin, the Visible School in Memphis has put its faith in Christian music.

And while labels flounder nationwide, some industry veterans see opportunity in the move.

“Business is all down,” said Jim Van Hook, a veteran Christian music executive in Nashville. “Across the board, a hit record is 50 percent of what it used to be. Christian music is not an exception. We had to shift from an old business model to a new one.”

Visible School president Ken Steorts used credit cards to start the Visible School in 1999, drawing on his experience as a member of Grammy-nominated gospel hit makers Skillet.

Since then the school has embarked on a capital campaign, acquired a new facility, launched a record label – Visible Media Group – and been accredited by the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS).

But for Steorts it’s been about the music.

“I always gravitated toward churches with music,” Steorts said. “It’s how I served.”

Community property

Using the contacts he had from playing Christian music festivals, Steorts recruited students and developed a nine-month training program for certification in music ministry and production.

Host families housed some of the 21 students from around the nation and the U.K. Classes were held in a former catfish restaurant in Lakeland.

The school kicked off an ambitious $6 million capital campaign in 2009 called “Into The City.”

Phase one was completed in December with the acquisition of the former C&I bank headquarters at 200 Madison Ave. The plan includes building renovation, dorm space and environmental design enhancements.

Steorts’ timing was providential: U.S. interest rates fell, ushering in a period of low rates and easy money; Americans flooded into the suburbs; the faction-prone Protestantism of the middle classes followed the real estate boom and the mega church phenomenon responded to the growing flock and its tastes.

“It’s great that there is a place for a degree-holding rock musician in churches,” Steorts said. “More and more churches have paid music staff.”

He added that minister of music positions are usually the second job funded by a congregation.

The school has earned some high-placed fans.

“Visible School does a wonderful job of preparing students for careers in music performance, the music industry and media arts relevant to worship,” said John Fry, founder of Ardent Studios. “We have had a number of employees from Visible School, and all have been outstanding. We host part of their recording program in our studios, and we love to see these young people learning in a working environment.”

A business program was added in 2001 to help students focus on developing careers in addition to their talents.

“Artist development is what I really enjoy. They need to know how to run a small business. We won’t always be holding their hands.”

– Crystal Bergman,
Visible School graduate

The program grew into a three-year undergraduate program and in 2009 was accredited by TRACS. In addition, the Tennessee Higher Education Commission has authorized the college's bachelor's degree and certificate programs.

“Everything I learned in class was immediately applicable to the label,” said Crystal Bergman, who earned a degree in music business from the school and now works for its Visible Media Group label.

The label does not contract students but offers a “sweetheart” deal to graduates in which artists retain copyright and the label administers the publishing. The deal is more favorable to the artist than standard industry contracts.

“Artist development is what I really enjoy,” Bergman said. “They need to know how to run a small business. We won’t always be holding their hands.”

Beyond radio

Artists getting started today not only face a tougher economy, they have more responsibilities than ever. But they may have more opportunities than in the past, said Van Hook, former head of Christian mega label Word and former dean of Belmont University’s College of Entertainment and Music Business in Nashville.

“It used to be that labels made a record,” he said. “They forced it into high rotation on radio. Everybody said ‘this must be what’s hot.’ The consumer had to buy the whole record. The labels were fat and happy.”

Van Hook points to Norah Jones and Amy Winehouse as examples of artists who broke radio’s headlock on artist development.

“Now we listen on Pandora and we get recommendations on Facebook,” Van Hook said.

The church basically offers its own viral network. Live shows are likely to include entire families in contrast to most demographically driven popular music.

So Steorts may have hit on something. His students feel prepared.

“I have learned to stay independent as long as I can,” said Joshua Glasenapp, whose band Redbox December includes drummer John Justice and other classmates.

“It’s a pretty loving environment,” said Autumn Fox, whose album will be released by Visible Media Group this year. “I was immediately supported. We had such a tight-knit community. It’s been very spiritual for me.

“The album was a community project too. Kirk Smith, a fellow student, engineered it. My pastor’s wife did the artwork.”

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