Thursday, December 14, 2006
Dear City Stages
Dear City Stages,
I wanted to write this letter, after I noticed during the last couple of weeks, that you began to reach out to the community like never before asking for support to help pull your world-class festival out of the red. I have been following your annual event from day one and recall the days of old as being promising and hopeful. The early stages showed signs of great expectations and we have witnessed many festivals hosted here in our great city of Birmingham emerge from the ashes and fall back into shameful crypts. Yet, your music and arts festival still lives on. And for that achievement, you should be commended.
But I am really puzzled in how on your recent string of commercials to save City Stages with the public friendly www.sustaincitystages.org campaign you are using the faces of the faith communities to help bring in dollars to your collapsing institution. It's not as if I have a problem with seeing Pastor Stephen Green, of More Than Conquerors Faith Church, on television...even though he seems to be a very popular guy on local television. It's just that I've seen how each year the festival seems to neglect, abandon and disappoint many music forms. Particularly with gospel music.
I've heard many excuses over the years for this problem. You feel it's better to focus on local acts because, in the opinion of your staff, you feel there's a lot of great talent and music here in our area alone. That's a great and positive statement to make. But I tend to look at it using an industry perspective. You invest in bringing big acts to City Stages on rock and pop stages, and sometimes in R&B/hip-hop, but the failure of focusing on big drawing cards to the former gospel stage is a sign that it's not about there being great talent here. Instead it's about putting the money where you feel it needs to be. And gospel music is one of those areas that you fail to fully endorse.
In previous years, your agency has booked great artists like Vanessa Bell Armstrong, Helen Baylor, Wanda Nero Butler, Rodney Posey and LaShun Pace for the former Gospel Stage. But I was always bothered by the lack of well-respected artists you drew in each year. You only could afford ONE artist to highlight the entire three-day festival in the field of gospel music. Some years your festival decided to only feature the gospel stage for two days and most years you closed the gospel stage very early, while the other stages went on; leaving the saints confused on where to go. And some years, you confused everybody by putting gospel artists on stages that is highly surrounded by patrons drunk on site. I still can remember at 1:15 a.m. when the Georgia Mass Choir finally appeared on the Coca-Cola stage a few years ago and still having to deal with drunkards and confused hecklers. That same idea was used when you booked Kurt Carr & the Kurt Carr Singers two weeks before last year's festival....and then you put them on the Coca-Cola Stage...as the first act. Everyone knows you put the better acts towards the end, yet you put one of our great sensations in today's gospel music at the very beginning of your festival's lineup on that Sunday.
Then I was extremely bothered by how the Gospel Stage dissolved and was renamed as the Music Oasis stage - a stage focusing on eclectic forms of world music ranging from Celtic chimebell ensembles to other religious musical styles. And in the midst of it, you decided to put a few local gospel choirs up. On paper, your record makes it look like you care about gospel music; a historic American musical genre established from the blues during the 1920s and has blossomed into one of the fastest growing genres of music today. But may the truth be told: City Stages is no greater and no better than most industry professionals. It's a game of politics...and because you know we reside in the Bible belt, faith is an essential part of our lifestyles. So you use faith in the end to spearhead a fundraising organism to help City Stages rise from its current sickness.
But this is a sickness that you created, I believe. You killed the presence of real gospel music and replaced it with a very disappointing presentation of local acts that need the same intensity that your bigger stages receive year after year. They want to see Mary Mary, they want to see the Canton Spirituals, they want to see Shirley Caesar, they want to see Yolanda Adams, they want to see Richard Smallwood and Timothy Wright and Youthful Praise and Lisa McClendon. Sadly, you still have not heard their cry.
I look at music festivals across the country and notice that most of them have done the same thing you are doing and are facing. But you can still go to Chicago, New Orleans, Atlanta...they have gospel stages and festivals loaded with the best in gospel music. That's something City Stages fails to live up to.
I refuse to support CityStages now...and I really hope that the Greater Birmingham community, particularly those who really love and support gospel music, will stand with me. We hope you will get the message and learn from your current consequences.
A Disappointed Customer,
J. Matthew Cobb