Inside RCA Inspiration: Gospel Music’s Worldwide Leader

With a roster featuring some of the most coveted names of its genre, RCA Inspiration (aka RCAI) not only maintains the legacy of its Verity Records origin started nearly 25 years ago, but is a worldwide beacon for Gospel music in this streaming digital age.

Marvin Sapp, Travis Greene, Snoop Dogg

The line-up is a virtual who’s who in Contemporary Gospel Music: starting with Kirk Franklin, Marvin Sapp, Donald Lawrence, Donnie McClurkin, Israel Houghton, Fred Hammond, and Kurt Carr. The label is also home to The Walls, Jason Nelson, Le’Andria, and Travis Greene (recently 3 consecutive No. 1s at Gospel Radio), newcomer Koryn Hawthorne from NBC TVs The Voice (recently celebrating 5 weeks at the top of the Gospel radio charts with her debut single “Won’t He Do It”), to surprisingly one of the year’s biggest Gospel success stories, the Hip-Hop artist known as Snoop Dogg.

Phil Thornton, Sr. Vice President & General Manager

Earlier this year, the label received 18 nominations at the Annual Stellar Music Awards, another 5 nominations at the Grammys, and is a staple at No. 1 on the Billboard’s Gospel Music Charts. Building on such a legacy is no small feat. Just ask Phil Thornton, the label’s Sr. Vice President & General Manager. “When I arrived in 2016, RCA Inspiration was in a bit of transition,” he says. “The label moved from New York to Sony Nashville’s division. Our goal was to continue to be the market leader in  Gospel/Inspirational music, but expansion was key. A lot of success has been achieved over the last two decades, but how do we build the legacy today? I had to set a few goals in order for the label to have a real opportunity at future success. First, we had to change the storyline. RCA Inspiration will continue to celebrate the Gospel Legends that have been on the roster for many years, but we must cultivate new artists to continue the legacy of this historic label. Second, I had to assemble a team of creative, committed, and forward thinking individuals. Third, we had to partner with artists and labels that would help us continue the legacy. Fortunately, we were able to achieve all three goals.”

Among the RCA Inspiration staff that Thornton calls a ‘well-oiled machine’ are: Tamar Rand, VP of Promotions & Strategy; Cathy Carroll, Senior Director of Radio Promotions; Tamone Bacon, Label Coordinator; Jarrett Dyson, Director, A&R; Jeremy Castro, A&R Manager; Justin Tomlinson, Marketing Coordinator; Gabby Jones, Marketing Manager; Charlene Bryant, Digital Sales Manager; Ritz McCain, Streaming Manager; Jimmy Wheeler and Carol Roundtree (from Provident Distribution); Aliya Crawford and Jacinda Chen (from W&W Public Relations); and Chantrel Reynolds, Label Assistant.

Damon Williams, VP, Marketing

Shoring up the label’s marketing department was one of Thornton’s top priorities. He appointed Damon Williams to the post of Vice President back in December. This was somewhat of a home-coming for Williams, who previously worked for the company under its Verity Records iteration.

“It’s a world of difference. Literally everything you can think of has changed,” says Williams when discussing the evolution of the label. “The way we market has changed. We have direct inroads to the consumer that we didn’t have before, especially with social media as the big linchpin in this whole thing. Now, we’re able to communicate directly with the consumer which was something we weren’t able to do before. It’s developed this long line of communication that’s on-going and never ending and allows for more instantaneous responses. Now, when we release a song, we don’t have to wait a week to see how people are responding to it at radio.”

So, with all of the transformative perks that social media offers, how does the label cut through all of the noise and clutter? “That’s the name of the game,” says Williams. “I have to ask, how do I present my content, my music, and my videos in a way that’s going to command the attention of the consumer? The only way I know how to do that is to present the most compelling, most authentic, and most touching content that we can. It really all starts with the music; with the song. We can create as many bells and whistles and as much smoke and mirrors as our budgets will allow, but at the end of the day if that song is not something that is going to touch or move someone, then it’s all for nothing.

Kirk Franklin, Koryn Hawthorne, Donnie McClurkin

Williams continues, “The consumer is a lot savvier today and they are skipping, fast-forwarding and clicking thumbs down – saying ‘we weren’t really feeling that but this right here is what we really want.’ You do studies to measure human behavior and determine what people are responding to. And it’s ever-changing. One of the effective rules of marketing is there really is no definitive answer. You have to continually take the pulse and understand the climate and be in touch with your consumer, and meet their needs head-on at that time.”

With social media providing direct access to the consumer, just how much of a role does traditional radio still play in breaking Gospel artists; the Urban AC format in particular? “The Urban AC format is extremely important to our roster as it expands our audience reach” says Tamar Rand. “Many stations offer inspirational programming on Sundays and throughout the week. We’ve also seen crossover success with our roster with artists like Kirk Franklin, Marvin Sapp, Donnie McClurkin on the format as well.”

Tamar Rand, VP of Promotions & Strategy

One of the more interesting challenges for RCA Inspiration was the marketing and promotion of the Snoop Dogg album, Bible of Love. The veteran artist, who has made a 25-year career of rapping about the streets, sex, drugs and all things HipHop, decided to make a genre shift only to record one of the most celebrated albums of 2018.

“Some stations were hesitant at first, but after listening to the music they had a change of heart,” cites Tamar. “Our current single ‘Blessing Me Again’ includes Gospel industry favorite Rance Allen, and is currently ranked Top 15 on the Billboard Gospel Radio Chart.”

“Getting the longtime fan of ‘Mr. Gin & Juice’ and ‘Drop It Like It’s Hot’ to embrace that Snoop Dogg was dropping a Gospel album wasn’t that easy,” says Williams. “To get the Gospel consumer to begin to conceptualize the same thing was equally as difficult. In our very early stages of this project, we had many conversations about how we were going to get people to buy into the project, but it goes back to what I said previously; it’s about the heart of the music. When Snoop explained the inspiration behind making the record, and what the overall project meant to him, all of my concerns went away. I felt this was something people would embrace if given a chance.

“I think this is a beginning of a new chapter in Snoop’s musical arsenal,” Williams continues. “Will he be a full-time Gospel artist from here on? No. But I also don’t think this will be the last time he will expose this part of his heart or this part of his life to the consumer. This isn’t new to Snoop, it’s just new to us. Snoop was born and raised in the church. This whole thing started when he posted a video on Instagram just vibing out to some classic Clark Sisters, and it went viral. It came out of something organic, and turned into what we know as Bible of Love.”

NBC’s The Voice, is one of the highest rated shows on network television, but has yet to really produce a crossover star. What was it that RCA Inspiration saw in Koryn Hawthorne, one of the finalists from season 8?

“Her heart,” says Williams. “At one of the more pivotal moments of that season she sang ‘How Great Thou Art.’ It was not a popular song choice at first, and some of the producers thought she would alienate certain fans and audience members, but Koryn decided, ‘You know what? This is who I am, and if I’m going to touch people, I have to come from a very real place. There is nothing more real for me than my faith in God, and I’m going to go for it.’ It was Koryn’s most talked about moment in that season. Something about that performance just leapt off of the television screen and landed in our hearts. That’s what made us think, this is something we can buy into and invest in, nurture and develop, and something that can go the distance in our industry.”

As for what’s coming down the pike? RCA recently released a new single from Donald Lawrence & the Tri-City Singers, titled “Goshen 432 hz,” marking the 25th Anniversary of the Tri-City Singers. There’s new titles coming from Israel Houghton, William Murphy, Koryn Hawthorne, and Jason Nelson, the latter fresh off his last No. 1 album, Jesus Revealed. “We’re really not at lost for new music,” says Williams. “We’ve got tons of it coming. Just stayed tuned.”

Phil Thornton concurs: “The future of RCA Inspiration looks bright! We will release more amazing music from our iconic roster and break new artists. Also, we will continue to expand our footprint in multimedia, touring, and brand partnerships. We will continue to be the market leader and create history for years to come.”

BY DAVID A. MITCHELL