Billy Ray Hearn
By Bob Gersztyn
There were two halves to the Jesus movement, composed of both the Jesus freak, Counter Culture side and the straight Church, that sometimes tried to be hip. Calvary Chapel/Costa Mesa, Lonnie Frisbee and Maranatha Music made up the Jesus freak side, while Billy Ray Hearn and “WORD Records” represented the side of the conservative fundamentalist Christian straight people. Billy Ray Hearn achieved enlightenment without the aid of entheogens, and was excited to produce the music of the Jesus freaks, because he knew that it was the future of the church. So he became part of the Jesus movement and produced some of its most important foundational music, as he led the way as a prototype Christian music mogul in the bourgeoning Christian music industry.
Billy Ray Hearn was born April 26, 1929, and grew up a Southern Baptist, with his entire immediate family either in the ministry or involved in their respective churches. Music was always a part of his life, with his mother playing organ and piano for church services and an uncle who was a minister of music. He was what he considers a nominal Christian, until he enlisted in the Navy and sat under the influence of the sermons and mentoring of Dr. Wallace Rogers, the pastor of the First Baptist church in Pensacola, Florida. At that time he decided to dedicate the rest of his life to the music ministry.
In 1948, after he was honorably discharged from the Navy, Hearn began to attend Baylor University, in Waco, Texas, where he earned a Bachelor of Music degree, in Church Music. During his college years he openly expressed his faith and was an active part of the campuses Christian community. Hearn led hymn singing at Baylor’s chapel services, was in the choir and was an active member of the Baptist Student Union. His education was interrupted when he was called back to active service by the Navy, for the Korean War. He was stationed in San Diego, where for 16 months in National City, he served at the Highland Ave Baptist Church, as the Minister of Music.
After he was discharged for a second time, Hearn returned to Baylor University , where he completed his studies. It was at this time while he was still a student that he first met Jarrell McCracken, because his cousin was his roommate. It was at this time that McCracken’s recording “The Game Of Life” was starting to explode in popularity, and he began WORD Records. Hearn got married while he was still attending Baylor, and his wife was hired by McCracken as his secretary, when the company only had 3 employees. Then Hearn went on the road for McCracken and began selling records for him, until he graduated and became the Minister of Music at a number of large churches over the next 15 years, including Trinity Baptist Church, in San Antonio and then while he was completing his graduate studies at Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Ft. Worth, he worked at North Ft. Worth Baptist Tabernacle. (1)
By 1968, the music in the church was changing direction, as young people became more involved, and the church was trying to appeal to the Baby Boomers. It was during this time period that Jarrel McCracken and Kurt Kaiser called Hearn and asked him if he would come to WORD to take them into the contemporary music scene. They were still producing traditional Church music at the time and Hearn was only one of a handful of people in the church who were involved in the creation contemporary Christian music. At the time he was working as the music director of a church in Thomasville, Georgia. Because of this, the Southern Baptist convention had Hearn help write and put together a youth musical, called “Good News.” Hearn gathered 81 college students together for the musical and they sang at the Baptist world youth congress, after they toured Europe. By the time that “Good News” was performed at the Baptist national convention, in Houston, Texas, prior to Billy Graham’s sermon, it was a perfectly running finely tuned music machine. After the performance Kaiser convinced Hearn to fly to Waco with him, and was hired the “Director of Music Promotion.”
Ralph Carmichael was just beginning LIGHT Records, and Hearn started working with him. He helped Carmichael and Kaiser develop the concepts for their youth musicals “Tell It Like It Is” and “Natural High,” and became their marketing director. This led to his doing the same thing for Jimmy Owens’ musical, “Come Together,” as he became known as the “contemporary guy.” (2) Over the next 4 years Hearn worked overtime helping to shift the musical direction of WORD and the Evangelical church, and after producing a number of musicals for children and youth he began the Myrrh label, in 1972. He had tapes that were sent in from many of the new Christian music artists that weren’t signed to a record label yet, like the “2nd Chapter of Acts,” Phil Keaggy and Randy Matthews, to name some. They saw where Hearn was going and wanted him to take them with him.
The Myrrh label introduced WORD’s audience to an entirely new kind of Christian music, called Jesus music. The people who played it came out of the “peace, flower child and hippie movements that were the counter culture of the 1960’s. At its peak from 1967 to 1972, it involved millions of young people worldwide, who were searching and exploring the bounds of reality and truth. This often involved the use of entheogenic substances that sometimes induced mystical religious experiences, when ingested. When tripping on LSD, an inner space astronaut could just as easily to a record singing about Jesus, as he could, one singing about Sgt. Pepper.
Soon after the success of the Woodstock Festival, music exploded into new vistas of possibility, as existing record companies grew and new ones were created. Then hippies throughout the country began converting to Christianity, and the new believers began to express their new found faith through music. Coffee house ministries were begun, to give the budding artists a chance to perform before an audience of their own peers, and out of the coffee houses Christian music festivals were begun, some of which still exist at the time of the writing of this book. Billy Ray Hearn began to seek out these artists and sign them to his new Myrrh Record label. The West Coast and Maranatha! Music were doing their thing, but Billy Ray Hearn and Myrrh were just as important, with a lot of the people East of the Rockies, along with non Maranatha! artists in the West.
The converted hippies were Jesus freaks, but when they became part of the established church, they were called Jesus people. When Hearn first heard the 2nd Chapter of Acts, he knew that they were the direction that he should be moving in. The reason why Hearn formed Myrrh in the first place was because he knew that what he was doing with Ralph Carmichael and Kurt Kaiser was not the same as what these young people were doing. Hearn took on an entirely new perspective after he saw what the future was going to be. So he became part of it, by joining the Jesus people and the Jesus movement and marketing what was called Jesus music. Hearn was old enough to be their father, but because he was one of them, and believed in what they were doing, they enlisted him to record their music at Myrrh. They believed in Hearn as much as he believed in them, because of his strong Christian commitment, ethical base and financial backing to produce their records, plus he traveled with them and attended their concerts.
Once he started Myrrh, Hearn began signing artists he liked to the new label as he would discover them by hearing them in person or on tape. Some of the first ones were Randy Matthews, who was the folk singing son of a pastor from Texas. The “2nd Chapter of Acts” were elusive in the beginning, after Hearn first discovered them, but eventually they became one of his strongest acts. Barry McGuire was intertwined with “Acts,” since Buck Herring was not only the husband of its lead singer, but the producer of them both. He discovered Nancy Honeytree, at the Adam’s Apple coffee house in the cornfields of Ft. Wayne, Indiana, when he travelled there to hear Petra.
Larry Norman wouldn’t sign with Myrrh, but in 1973 Hearn signed his newly formed “Solid Rock” label, to a distribution deal with “WORD Records.” The relationship proved beneficial to both parties, in more ways than one. One day when Hearn was visiting Norman at his apartment, Larry offered to play him a new song that he just wrote. When he sat down at the old beat up piano he began playing I Am A Servant, which Hearn liked so much that he asked if he could use the song. Hearn was in the middle of producing an album for Honeytree and he felt that the song would be perfect for her to sing. Norman gave him permission, and it became Honeytree’s biggest hit.
During the 4 year period that Hearn headed up the Myrrh label for WORD, he made a lot of mistakes as he learned by trial and error. He finally realized that he was getting off course, as he began to develop a commercial attitude that involved producing records for the wrong reasons. The only way that he felt he could stay true to his original spiritual mission, was to start over again, using his mistakes as a guide to tell him what not to do. (3) Hearn was in a position of leadership in a field that was brand new, and had no existing models to learn from. He was writing the book, so he decided to start over again and resigned his position with Myrrh and WORD in January 1976, so he could start Sparrow Records. He opened an office in Canoga Park, California, after he obtained financial backing from CHC Corporation, which was a publishing company. Sparrow Records had a mission statement that clearly explained its purpose and goal – “Quality Contemporary Christian Music by artists who lived the life they were singing about.” (4)
Hearn wanted to create a record label that was centered on ministry. This goal was reflected in the roster of artists that called Sparrow their label. The first artists that were signed included the “2nd Chapter of Acts,” the Talbot Brothers, Barry McGuire, Janny Grein, Keith Green and the “Agape Force,” who produced the children’s musical, “The Music Machine.” Everything came together with Sparrow Records and it was as if all the experience from being a Minister of Music and working for WORD Records prepared him for this. He felt that he was at the center of God’s perfect will as much as any person could be. (5)
In those early days, beginning in 1976, Sparrow sold more units of those early albums than anticipated. If an album sold 100,000 units, in those days it was considered a big hit, yet those early releases did very well, even without a sales force to market and distribute them. When an artist recorded, the budget was so small that it was almost nonexistent. Sparrow had too few releases to support a sales force, with only 7 albums released in 1977 and not many more in the following years, until they produced 11 in 1983. Hearn didn’t want to have a large roster of artists, but was content to concentrate on the established cadre that he had gathered around himself during the early and mid 1970’s, with an occasional addition. His philosophy focused attention on the artist, while intentionally working with a small elite group, and at the same time handling all of its own distribution.
Billy Ray Hearn realized that the best people to sell a product are the ones who created it in the first place, since an outsider would never have the same level of enthusiasm and passion. “Passion and concentration sells records into the store. What sucks them out of the store is quality product, which results in ‘word of mouth’ and store sales people hand selling.” (6) Word of mouth was easy to get in those days, because the industry only produced a small amount of product.
The bottom line on how the business operated was always about overhead, the smaller the staff the lower the overhead, especially if you didn’t have many releases. A lesser amount of albums was preferred to putting out a large number of albums that were mediocre in quality. The cost of the facility was another important factor. For its first 4 years, “Sparrow Records” used a 4,000 square foot building, in Canoga Park, California, to combine everything from their offices, to warehouse storage and a shipping depot. The CHC Corporation was in favor of large impressive offices in Beverly Hill, but Hearn talked them out of it. He felt that neither his clientele, like Buck Herring, Barry McGuire and John Michael Talbot, nor himself would feel at home in fancy luxurious surroundings. Besides that, the high rent charged for those facilities in that location would end up coming out of the “Sparrow’s” bottom line.
The first year that Hearn began “Sparrow,” before he even had any finished records in the label’s catalogue, he and George Baskin discussed the importance of sales and marketing. Baskin was in charge of the religious book division for CHC Corporation, and he proposed hiring Steve Potratz for joint representation between the book and record divisions of the company. Hearn and Baskin interviewed Potratz for the position, while he was still managing the Zondervan Christian Bookstore, in Northridge, CA, but in the end Hearn decided to have his own sales force to market Sparrow releases. Hearn offered Portratz the job as Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Sparrow Records and he immediately accepted, even before salary and benefits were discussed.
Hearn felt that Steve Potratz was the most perfectly qualified person for his position that existed, because of the combination of skills that he possessed. Besides being a good salesman, he knew the retail business first hand, and was able to provide the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) bookstores with music that they could be enthusiastic about. Steve loved music, and although he was not from the Jesus music culture, he was the perfect person to bridge the gap between the music of the Jesus movement and the requirements of the retail Christian bookstore industry. He was hard working and had a positive attitude that was contagious. He later went on to be become one of the most powerful people in the Christian market by the 21st century , after he became the president of an organization of 300 Christian bookstores, called “Parable.” Potratz was an integral part of the early success of “Sparrow.” Success was broken down into 2 parts, first you had to have an outstanding product and then secondly you had to have good distribution. The first day that he was in the office Steve Potratz got on the telephone and sold 30,000 units, singlehandedly becoming “Sparrow’s” distributer, to Hearn’s astonishment.
When Portratz told Billy Ray that “Sparrow” should have a booth at the upcoming Christian Booksellers Convention, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, he followed through by contacting the CBA and requesting space. Since the convention was completely booked, Sparrow was put on a waiting list, until a few weeks later someone cancelled and they were in. A rush order produced a custom built booth that ended up being the first booth at the entrance, where people entered. They brought a record player with speakers, so they could play the music that they were selling. What they didn’t realize was that it was the first time that anyone ever played music at a bookseller’s convention. The booth drew so much attention that Hearn and his staff were inundated with people asking questions and placing orders, the entire time. The crowning event of the convention, which verified that “Sparrow” was on the right track, occurred when they won the prestigious “CBA Award,” for “Best Small Booth.”
Since there wasn’t a sales force traveling around the country, taking orders from Christian bookstores, “Sparrow” went to the local distributors that provided the Christian bookstores in their region with product. The distributors received whatever their suppliers provided including Bibles, books, and Christian record albums. They agreed to distribute “Sparrow’s” record albums, to the Christian bookstores that they supplied. The most popular format at the time was the 8 track tape cartridge, with the cassette tape just beginning to capture about 20 percent of the tape market. In the beginning Hearn hired 2 telephone sales people to stay in touch with the bookstores to promote and generate enthusiasm for their releases.
By its second year, “Sparrow Records” was an established label and was releasing some of Christian music’s biggest selling albums. That was the year that Keith Green released “For Him Who Has Ears To Hear,” with a $40,000.00 budget that sold half a million lifetime units. At the same time a group called “Candle,” was producing children’s albums, and Hearn had signed them to WORD, when he heard “Agapeland,” their first release. By the time that they produced “Music Machine,” their second album, they became incompatible with WORD, so they signed with “Sparrow” and the album was released on “Birdwing” the label’s worship and praise division. “Music Machine” sold 1,250,000 units, and became the first album to go gold and then platinum in the Christian market, with a production budget of a mere $13,000.00.
The third year “Sparrow” released the “2nd Chapter of Acts’” album “Mansion Builder,” which Buck Herring produced for only $25,000.00. The low production budgets was an important factor in the way that “Sparrow” avoided falling victim to the same cash flow problems that other record companies become burdened with. 1978 also saw the release of “Communion,” Hearn’s contribution to the first handful of praise and worship albums that eventually evolved into their own genre. Then there was Barry McGuire’s “Cosmic Cowboy,’’ Keith Green’s second album, “No Compromise” and “Candle’s” new release, with “Agape Force,” “Bullfrogs and Butterflies.” Without a sales force selling and promoting “Sparrow” releases sold between 150,000 and 750,000 lifetime units.
By the end of 1978 Hearn hired part time sales representatives, who were as passionate about the music that “Sparrow” was producing, as he was. The people that they hired were all concert promoters, and included Robbie Marshall from Colorado, Ray Nenow from Indiana and Tim Landis from Pennsylvania. Periodically the sales reps would fly out to L.A., when new albums were released, to meet the artists and hear the music, at which time they would book them to play at concerts and festivals in their area. After a year, Hearn realized that they needed a full time sales force, but still weren’t generating the revenue to support one. Coincidentally, there was a sales rep who was selling “Maranatha Records” on the West Coast by the name of Gary Pfeiffer, who Hearn hired to promote “Sparrow” along with “Maranatha,” which he did. Then in late 1979 “Sparrow” joined with Jesse Peterson’s “Tempo Records” located in Kansas City. Together they became “Avant Sales,” with Sam Mehafey as CEO, who is now with “Lillenas Music Publishers,” in Springfield, MO, as the OIC of sales. This partnership had its pros and cons, because of the diversity in philosophies between the two labels. One of the salesmen who was the most passionate about “Sparrow” releases was the New York area representative Danny McGuffey. He would win all the sales contests and was always salesman of the year, until he was promoted to Vice President of Sales, and eventually went to work for Integrity Records, in Mobile, Alabama, as the OIC of sales and marketing. (7)
When Hearn began “Sparrow Records” he had no knowledge of the business side of a record label, since he was a musician. When it came to balance sheets, P&L’s, Debt Ratios, Cash flow issues and a myriad of other accounting details he had learn it all from the ground up. CHC Corporation took an active interest in helping Hearn to learn what he needed to know, because the investors wanted to see him succeed. He was able to learn what he needed to know quickly, but still considered himself an amateur. When it came to paying the artists royalties and paying bills, Hearn established Christian practices of honesty and integrity to be the basis of all “Sparrow’s” business. He sought out like minded Christians to help him on every level, from Gene Holloway, of Newport Beach, who became Hearn’s main business consultant and teacher, to Bently Mooney who became his corporate lawyer. Marlin Summers was Hearn’s business affairs lawyer, who wrote Hearn’s contracts and worked for the accounting firm that represented “Sparrow,” along with Richard Green, who had worked in the secular music business many years prior to his conversion.
The policy that “Sparrow” established set a precedent for Christian record labels by striving to do the right thing, even if it wasn’t good for business. Take for example when Keith Green wanted to get out of his contract with “Sparrow,” when he still had 2 years left. He told Hearn that God wanted him to begin “Last Days Ministry,” in Texas, and begin giving away his albums away for donations, because he didn’t believe that it was right to sell the gospel. As a business man, Hearn could not give away his product and still keep “Sparrow” solvent, but he felt that if God was calling Green to make such a move, that he was obligated to releasing him from the remainder of his contract. Hearn felt that if God was truly in this, then He would bless the decision and provide other new artists to fill the void. Soon afterwards God sent him Steve Green and others who quickly made up for lost sales. It was ironic that one Green should replace the other, especially when their styles were so different. Many people questioned why “Sparrow” signed Steve Green, since he wasn’t a contemporary rock & roll artist, but a middle of the road inspirational singer. The way that Hearn viewed a “Sparrow” artist was not just the musical style, but the attitude that they have towards their music. In Green’s case, he was as sincere a Christian young man as you could find, with pure motives. When he sold 500,000 copies of For God And God Alone, it confirmed in Hearn’s mind that he had made the right decision.
Hearn’s concept of how “Sparrow Records” should function was that it was a ministry for the artists who would then minister to the people. He wanted to provide a Christian record company that artists could use as the foundation to launch their ministry from. The company was a successful business that was run by Christians who operated from a solid theological base made up of Christian principles and ethical practices. There were those who felt that “Sparrow” should operate like a church, but Hearn did not want to be a pastor. One of the issues that Hearn had to deal with was letting an artist go after they were no longer contributing to the success of the label, even though they may still have a strong ministry. Forgiving poor performance or carrying an artist who could jeopardize the solid base of the label, was difficult to explain, but at the same time sometimes it was necessary because the best way that they could minister was by moving in a new direction, and in some cases even produce their own albums. Even though it was often painful to give and receive advice that seemed judgmental, in the long run it always ended up being the best thing. (8)
While running Myrrh Records for WORD, Hearn produced 3 albums for Honeytree, when she was at the peak of her popularity. She was playing at a festival, that was being produced by a concert promoter, in Colorado Springs, that eventually went to work for Hearn as a salesman. The promoter asked Hearn if he would come and conduct the orchestra for Honeytree’s performance. Since he just finished Honeytree’s last album, which had orchestration on it, he agreed to do it. After her performance the Talbot Brothers took the stage and Hearn was completely taken by them. After the concert Hearn invited the brothers and Randy Matthews, who was also on the same bill, out to dinner at Denny’s, afterwards. While they were eating Hearn asked them about their recording contract commitments, since they were part of “Mason Proffit,” a secular country rock band, and just released a Christian album called “Brothers,” for Warner Brothers. They told him that they were free agents, without a contract, and he immediately offered to sign them to either Myrrh, or Sparrow, which he was just starting. They chose to go with “Sparrow” and released their Christian solo albums album’s, on the label. Randy Matthews and Nancy Honeytree stayed with Myrrh, even when her contract was coming to an end, because her manager advised against going with a new small record company. It was to her detriment, because Hearn “would have made her last a lot longer and get bigger.” Hearn produced nearly 20 albums for John Michael Talbot, out of the 50 that Talbot produced in his career. (9)
Over the years Billy Ray Hearn worked with hundreds of artists, businessmen, producers and every other position that formed the contemporary Christian music recording industry. One of his most notable affiliations was with Greg Nelson, who began his career as a high school music teacher, in Bismark, North Dakota. He had a small recording studio on the side where he produced commercials for the local businesses. At the same time he helped arrange and compose music for albums that he produced. His dream was to be involved in the Christian recording industry, as a record producer. Then in 1977 he produced an album for a Kansas City Christian artist, by the name of Glen Garrett. Garrett was discovered by the owner of Wendy’s Christian Distributors, Lonnie Longmire, who Hearn began using after having problems with one of his other distributors.
While Nelson was still in Bismark, he was doing everything that he could to get more connections in the Christian music industry, so he would accept any freelance job that was offered to him, at the time. The way that he first broke into Hearn’s circle was through a music editor that Hearn was using from the Dallas, Texas area by the name of Phil Perkins. Perkins would transcribe the music from albums that Hearn produced. The label used the music for songbooks to accompany the album, but it was a very time consuming and tedious job to perform and Perkins was too busy to do it. Somehow he got wind of Nelson and called to ask for help in transcribing the albums for him. Nelson who thought that the payment was $50.00 an album, began working on the first one, which took him days to finish. So he told Perkins that it was too much work, for too little payment, only to find out that the payment was in actuality $50.00 a song. After that Greg told him to send him as many as he had.
After Nelson discovered a singer/songwriter from North Dakota, named Phil McHugh, who wrote many Christian songs over the years, including the title song of Steve Green’s biggest selling album, which was also a hit single, by the name of God and God Alone, he produced an album for McHugh titled “Canvas For The Son.” Nelson tried to convince Christian record companies to accept the album, and after Hearn heard the tape he felt that it was more suited for Pat Boone’s “Lamb and Lion” label. Boone accepted it and it was released in 1977, which encouraged Nelson to begin his own record label. At that point he began to try and contact Hearn with his idea, seemingly to no avail, until one day he finally got through. By this time Nelson had found a number of businessmen in Bismark, who were willing to finance his venture.
Hearn needed more Product to help with the overhead, but didn’t have the cash to produce it, so he began to look at the possibility of marketing smaller labels. Since Nelson was starting up “Spirit Records,” Hearn decided to hire him in April 1978, as Director of “Sparrow” Music Publishing, while at the same time allowing him to begin his new label with Sparrow distribution. Nelson moved his wife and daughter to Chatsworth, California, close to the “Sparrow” offices, where he took responsibility for all the copyrights that the artists were generating. Even though he knew nothing about the operation that he was supposed to be heading up, his passion and ability to learn quickly, along with his connections, allowed him to find the people that he needed to talk to and learn the job.
Greg Nelson became one of the biggest record producers in the Christian market, during the 1980’s and early 1990’s, when he produced some of the most successful albums that Steve Green, Larnell Harris and Sandi Patti recorded. He became known as “Mr. Inspiration,” because of his ability to elicit the maximum amount of emotion from a song. Hearn called this the “Goosebumps” factor, because it is the main ingredient necessary to sell records.
Emerging artists were continually sending Hearn audition tapes, which he listened to, even though many of them were not “Sparrow” material, in which case he would sometimes recommend another record label. One of these was an artist from Waco, Texas by the name of Benny Hester, who had already recorded an unsuccessful secular album. Hearn wasn’t sure about signing him to “Sparrow,” so he gave him to Nelson, who made Hester’s first Christian album, and released it on the “Spirit” label. The album was later re-released on Myrrh, in 1983, as “Be A Receiver” and did well in both airplay, sales and increasing Hester’s popularity, as a West Coast performer. A second artist that “Spirit Records” successfully produced was an acoustic folk trio from Georgia, called Albrecht, Rolley and Moore. They were very proficient performers in the vein of a Christian version of Crosby, Stills and Nash, who were also very ministry minded.
Because of the pitfalls that small record companies encounter, Nelson’s $45,000.00 investment evaporated over a short period of time. Cash flow and inadequate funding were the problems that almost always derailed small record labels that only represented one or two artists. At the same time there usually wasn’t an understanding of the realities of the actual costs involved in the manufacture and marketing of a record album. Many times a record label is built around a single artist who has a hit album, but this only augments the volatility of the situation. Higher volume, increases production, distribution and marketing costs, which become due before the record company starts receiving payments from the distributing company, who manufactured, sold, warehoused and shipped the product. It isn’t until after all these bills are paid off that the record label begins to receive any income. Because of this budgeting is very tight, which results in self marketing and a barebones staff and office, until the label is so deep in debt, that it goes bankrupt. A record label like “Sparrow” was barely staying afloat itself, so it couldn’t afford to provide start up money to a company that would end up competing with it, and then move on when their contract ended.
Being a distributor isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, because it’s not a big money making operation, like many of the small distributed labels think that it is. The advantage to the distributor that handling other record labels brings is increasing the amount of product for sale, making it profitable for them to employ a larger sales force. This in turn increases the market coverage for the parent company’s primary product. At the same time the distribution company handling other companies, must carefully monitor the quality and the extent of the marketing campaign concerning the product. Otherwise, if it distributes an inferior product, it will be sent back to the distributor after a couple of months of sitting unsold in the store. When the store returns unsold product back to the distributor, for credit, it comes out of the small label’s pocket, but the salesman’s reputation is tarnished as well. If a salesman loses the trust of the stores that he stocks, then it becomes more difficult to get new artists in the record racks.
At the same time that “Sparrow” was a distributor, it suffered from poor cash flow because of their account receivables averaging anywhere from 100 to 120 days, before payment arrived from the Christian bookstores, who had their payments, to the label, on the lowest priority level. The reason why “Sparrow” was on the bottom rung was because it was the smallest distributor, and obviously the largest distributor, who filled the racks of the store, would be paid first. The only leverage that the label had, over the stores, was when there was a big release, by one of “Sparrow’s” top artists that the book store wanted to stock, since it would be in demand. The label wouldn’t ship any albums to the store until they paid their overdue bill. Sometimes artists would go into a store that didn’t stock any of their albums, and the owner would tell them that they ordered them, but “Sparrow” never shipped them, failing to mention that they owed the label past due bills. Some believed the problem could be viewed according to the Biblical principle of finances that Paul spoke of in Romans 13:8 “Owe no man anything, save to love one another: for he that loveth his neighbor hath fulfilled the law.” (10) So there was a constant battle between the two extremes, of payment vs. credit, before delivery of product.
By the time that “Spirit Records” was approaching its 2nd anniversary, it was on the verge of bankruptcy and owed Hearn a pile of money. At the same time Nelson realized that he didn’t want to own a record company, but just be involved with the music, which is why he was in the business in the first place. This is a common occurrence when a successful artist or producer thinks that by owning the record company they can control all the money. The imagined benefits, of complete artistic control, more money, plus the ability to sign new artists to their label motivated many people. Eventually they realized that all the details requiring their time, in running a record company, displaced the time that they used to have for the creative enterprises that brought them their original success. Every so often an artist does succeed, as in the cases of popular Christian music artists Toby Mac’s “Gotee Records” and Michael W. Smith’s “Rocket Town.” The difference between success and failure are determined by a number of factors, including how much capital you have available, your administrative skills, your ability to judge talent and creating a product that will sell. One of Hearn’s favorite sayings on the subject goes, “It has to be a whole lot better than good to sell a whole lot more than a few.” (11)
Greg Nelson resigned from “Sparrow records” and a lawyer named Tony Hart, purchased “Spirit Records,” which freed Greg up to move to Nashville, to work with the Benson company. He had been invited by Bob McKenzie, Benson’s A&R man, to work as a producer, and commuted from L.A. to Nashville for the next 6 months, until he finally moved his entire family there. When Nelson left “Sparrow” he owed Hearn a large amount of money, and things did not work out well for him in Nashville, so the two worked out a deal in lieu of a cash payment. Nelson was to keep on the lookout for new talent in Nashville, and send them Hearn’s was if he felt that they had potential. Soon after that Nelson discovered Steve Green, who was a member of “Whiteheart” and wanted to start a solo career. Hearn signed Green to “Sparrow” and moved him out to the West Coast, where he became one of his top artists. (12)
This connection with Nelson became very profitable to Hearn, because he was on the West Coast, while the former was in Nashville, where the Contemporary Christian Music industry was moving to. Greg was part of the Lorenz Publishing Group, which included Steve Lorenz and Alvin Reimer. They were a publishing company that discovered writing talent, but needed a record company to record the artist. After Nelson found Steve Curtis Chapman, who was writing some excellent songs, Nelson contacted Hearn again, and raved to him about Chapman. After Hearn listened to one of Chapman’s songs, he was sold, and Lorenz Publishing wanted him to produce an album by Chapman on “Sparrow.” However, Hearn realized that since Lorenz owned all the publishing, that he would be taking all the risk on producing a record. So he told them that if they would split the publishing with him, along with the cost of making the record, then they would split all the profits from the record with them. When Lorenz Publishing agreed to Hearn’s terms, he signed him to “Sparrow,” as a joint venture.
After Hearn signed Chapman to a recording contract, he was in Nashville, at the Renaissance Hotel, when it was Gospel music week. Chapman was scheduled to perform as a new singer/songwriter, late at night, when they showcased new talent. Hearn and Nelson stood in back of the auditorium when they attended Chapman’s performance, and then he came on and sat down at the piano and began playing and singing which disappointment Hearn. Hearn then expressed his disappointment to Nelson and they worked with Chapman for the next year to improve his voice and had him switch from playing the piano to a guitar. The rest is history, since Chapman went on to become one of the top CCM performer’s in the nation. Hearn happily accepted Nelson’s discoveries of Green and Chapman for him as ample payment for his debt
Greg Nelson went on to become one of the biggest record producers in CCM, with clients ranging from Sandi Patti and Larnelle Harris to Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith. Over the years Nelson won a plethora of Grammy and Dove Awards along with nearly every other award that both the secular and Christian music industries present, along with multiple Gold and Platinum albums. (13)
Shortly after Hearn began “Sparrow Records,” he started “Birdwing,” to release music for the church on. “Sparrow” was music for the streets, it was pop music and concerts, whereas, “Birdwing” was music that could be sung by a congregation in a church service. After seeing how “Maranatha” was recording praise and worship songs, Hearn realized that they concentrated on their own copyrighted compositions. There were hundreds of other good praise and worship songs coming out of all the other parts of the country as well. This gave Hearn the idea of producing a worship album, so after he selected the songs he assembled half a dozen singers together in the studio and recorded what became the “Communion” album.
1976 to 1984 were “Sparrows” peak years and during that time period it released nearly a hundred of some of the most important and enduring Contemporary Christian music that came out of the Jesus movement, across the country. The following year by year compilation of “Sparrow/Birdwing,” is taken from a list that Billy Ray Hearn provided this writer.
1976: 1) John Michael Talbot – Debut solo, 2) Anne Herring – “Through A Child’s Eyes,” 3) Janny Grein –Debut solo, 4) Terry Talbot’s musical “Firewind, 5) “Barry McGuire – “Come Along,” 6) Terrry Talbot – Debut solo.
1977: 1) John Michael Talbot – “New Earth,” 2) Janny Grein – “Covenant Woman,” 3) Keith Green – “For Him Who Has Ears To Hear,” 4) Danniebelle Hall – “Let Me Have A Dream,” 5) Scott Wesley Brown – “I’m Not Religious,” 6) Annie Herring – “Kids Of The Kingdom,” 7) Candle – “Music Machine,” 8) The Talbot Brothers – “Reborn” (Leased from Warner Brothers).
1978: 1) 2nd Chapter Of Acts – “Mansion Builder,” 2) Danniebelle – “Live In Sweden,” 3) Janny Grein – “He Made Me Worthy,” 4) “Communion” (Praise and Worship), 5) Barry McGuire – “Cosmic Cowboy,” 6) Terry Talbot – “A Time To Laugh,” 7) Keith Green – “No Compromise,” 8) Candle – “Bullfrogs and Butterflies.”
1979: 1) John Michael Talbot – “The Lord’s Supper,” 2) Candle – “To the Chief Musician” (Worship songs), 3) Annie Herring – “Kids of the Kingdom, Follow the Leader,” 4) Matthew Ward – “Toward Eternity,” 5) “Handel’s Messiah,” 6) Janny Grein – “Think On These Things,” 7) Scott Wesley Brown – “One Step Closer,” 8) Candle – “Sir Oliver’s Song.”
1980: 1) 2nd Chapter Of Acts – “Roar Of Love,” 2) John Michael Talbot – “Come To The Quiet,” 3) John and Terry Talbot – “The Painter,” 4) “Communion Continued” (Praise & Worship), 5) Jamie Owens-Collins – “Straight Ahead,” 6) Phil Keaggy – “Ph’lip Side,” 7) Lamb – “Songs For The Flock,” 8) Candle – “Nathaniel The Grublet.”
1981: 9) John Michael Talbot – “For The Bride,” 2) Silverwind – Debut album, 3) “Hymns Triumphant,” 4) Terry Talbot – “A Song Shall Rise,” 5) 2nd Chapter Of Acts – “Rejoice,” 6) Barry McGuire – “Finer Than Gold,” 7) Lamb – “New Mix,” 8) Annie Herring – “Search Deep Inside,” 9) Phil Keaggy – “Town To Town,” 10) Candle – “The Birthday Party.”
1982: 1) John Michael Talbot – “Troubadour Of The King,” 2) Sheila Walsh – “Future Eyes,” 3) Wendy and Mary – “Out Of The Fullness,” 4) Michele Pillar – Debut Album, 5) Terry Talbot – “On The Wings Of Wind” 6) John Michael Talbot – “Light Eternal” (Musical), 7) Scott Wesley Brown – “Signature,” 8) Michael and Stormie Omartian – “Mainstream,” 9) 25 Songs Of Christmas – All The Artists, 10) Candle – Little Tree.
1983: 1) Steve Taylor – “I Want To Be A Clone,” 2) Stormie Omrtian – “Exercise For Life,” 3) Phil Driscol – “Sound The Trumpet,” 4) John Michael Talbot – “Songs For Worship, Volume One,” 5) Keith Green – “I Want To See You There,” 6) Sheila Walsh – “War Of Love,” 7) Phil Driscol – “I Exalt Thee,” 8) 2nd Chapter Of Acts and The Omartians – “Live,” 9) Wendy and Mary – “Wind Came Singing,” 10) Talbot Brothers – “No Longer Strangers,” 11) Michele Pillar – “Reign On Me,” 12) Connie Scott – “Heart Beat,” 2nd Chapter Of Acts – “Singer Sower,” 13) Phil Driscol – “Covenant Children,” 14) Phil Driscol – “Ten Years After,” 15) Phil Dricol – “What Kind Of Love.
1984: 1) Steve Taylor – “Meltdown,” 2) Rez Band – “Live/Bootleg,” 3) Steve Green – Debut Solo, 4) Steve Camp – “Fire and Ice,” 5) Sheila Walsh – “Triumph In The Air,” 6) John Michael Talbot – “God Of Life,” 7) Terry Talbot – “Stories Of Jesus,” 8) Koinonia – “Celebration,” 9) Phil Driscol – “Celebrate Freedom,” 10) Hymns Triumphant II, 11) Michele Pillar – “Look Who Loves You Now,” 12) Rez Band – “Hostage. (14)
Billy Ray Hearn had decided to increase the Sales force for “Sparrow/Birdwing,” by somehow procuring more product. More sales people were needed, because many of the stores didn’t get as much inventory as they could move, and the only way to know what they needed was to physically check what they had on hand at regular intervals. New releases were just sent out, but the back catalogue was what was suffering. A close friend of Hearn’s, who was also his lawyer, by the name of Richard Green, was also the lawyer of “Star Song,” a Christian record company from Houston, Texas. They were a growing company who was being distributed by WORD, in Waco, and they were looking for a way to distribute themself, so that they would have more control over their product.
Stan Moser, who had been President of “WORD Record’s” was an executive officer of “Star Song” along with another “WORD” executive, Darrell Harris, who helped found the label. Both men were committed Christians that Hearn had worked with in the early 1970’s, when he was heading up “Myrrh Records.” Richard Green assisted in the negotiations that formed “Sparrow/Star Song Distribution.” After the two companies were joined together, sales increased by fifty-percent, so it seemed as if the problem of increasing the number of sales reps was solved with the creation of a common sales force. A board was organized to oversee the operation, and met on a regular basis to talk about the minutia of running “Sparrow/Star Song Distribution.” At first the union seemed to be working out, with just a few snags, but there were some serious differences of opinion about the quality and quantity of product handled by the sales force. It was as if a wedge had begun to split the merger apart over the issues mentioned above and others, like market place credibility and especially Hearn’s opinions about how things should be done. Because the two companies were so different, and at the same time very independent, they did not form a good partnership, and eventually went their separate ways.
The beginning of the unraveling between “Sparrow” and “Star Song”took place when the former moved to Nashville, Tennessee in January 1991. Hearn wanted to move the label closer to the hub of Christian music, and told the press about the move, in a surprise announcement, without informing their partner, “Star Song,” who were both surprised and offended. Hearn later confessed that the secrecy was wrong and that “Sparrow” should have informed “Star Song” and allowed them to help in the decision to make the move, since they were partners. After Hearn flew to Nashville and convened a board meeting, he asked them to let “Sparrow” distribute themselves’ or end the partnership. The dissolution was difficult and it produced many problems, but in retrospect Hearn felt that it was the right thing to do at the time. Dividing the sales force and reorganizing everything from the ground level up, with a lower budget, was especially difficult. At the same time, everything had to be done with a sense of urgency, in order to make up for the diminished incoming revenue due to the reduced sales force. Ironically, a year later after Hearn sold “Sparrow” to EMI and became it EMICMG, and then “Star Song” was purchased by EMICMG. (15)
After the move and the split with “Star Song,” “Sparrow” continued to grow and be a leader in the Christian music industry, by continuing to record and release successful new artists on its label, like BeBe and CeCe Winans and Margaret Becker to name some. When EMI music, the world’s third largest music company, expressed an interest in purchasing “Sparrow Records,” it presented Hearn with a dilemma as he was torn between continued growth and greater exposure for the label’s artists, and the possible perception of selling out. So in the continued tradition that his entire career and ministry was based on, Billy Ray sought out the counsel of his pastors as well as committed born again Christian business men, and after much prayer and deliberation he decided that the best thing to do was to take the offer.
One of the main reasons why he accepted EMI’s offer, was because it would be good for the artists. If they were marketed by a record company with unlimited funds, within a constantly changing recording industry, there was a greater possibility that they would achieve mainstream success. If this occurred, then they would get the distribution necessary to get their albums out to more people, and there was a possibility that they would be singing the gospel to a secular mainstream audience, as few artists, excepting Amy Grant had been able to do.
Billy Ray Hearn stayed on as CEO of “Sparrow Records” for EMI but in 1995 he had emergency heart surgery, and stepped down as his son Bill, who had grown up working in the family business, took over. Billy Ray only semi-retired, after his son became the label’s President, so that he could lend advice when it was needed, and assist as his health allowed. Bill Hearn had spent a lifetime preparing to step into his father’s shoes, by working in every major department at “Sparrow Records,” including, customer service, shipping and telephone sales, before becoming the Vice President of Marketing and Sales and subsequently assuming responsibility as the label’s CEO.
Bill had the same vision as his father, since Billy Ray used the Bible as his guide, and passed it on, as Proverbs 22:6 states –Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old he will not depart from it. (16) After the younger Hearn took over, one of the first things that he worked on was getting Sound Scan, a sales tracking system, that prior to 1995, did not count record sales from Christian retail stores, to include Christian music sales, so that it would get the recognition that it deserved. Another order of business was the creation of the EMI Christian Music Group, which expanded the family as it began enlarging the existing catalog with new acquisitions from other labels. Some of the labels that ended up being part of “EMI CMG” besides “Sparrow” were “Forefront” and “EMI Gospel,” along with “Gotee Records,” “Tooth & Nail/BEC Recording” and “Six Step Records,” which were joint ventures. “EMI CMG” today is the most efficient and streamlined entity in the Christian music industry, and includes its own publishing and distribution division, which makes it a completely self contained. Since 1995, “EMI CMG has led the market as it generated additional revenue by distributing third party music and video products.
More than 300 writers are represented by “EMI CMG” Publishing, along with 35,000 songs. Artists and producers like The Almost, Jeremy Camp, Steve Curtis Chapman, The Clark Sisters, Newsboys, Relient K, Smokie Norful, Switchfoot, Chris Tomlin and Underoath among others are signed to EMI CMG umbrella labels already mentioned. At the same time the EMI CMG catalogue containes top selling artists like “Third Day” and “Casting Crowns,” for labels like InPop and Midas. (17)
By the 21at century when hundreds of new releases inundated the marketplace every month, large amounts of capital became a necessity to market them to the consumer. Whether one was talking about 1976 or 2006, one thing remained the same, you couldn’t expect stores whether physical or virtual, to do anything but provide a place where people could go to purchase a product that they already knew about. The advent of the internet and electronic marketing and distribution completely changed the way that business is done, but in the end email and chat rooms, were still word of mouth. As ipod download’s overtook record, CD and tape sales in the music industry, the billion dollar a year Contemporary Christian Music genre found itself also needing to reinvent itself.
When Billy Ray Hearn reflected on all the changes that were going on within Contemporary Christian music at the turn of the millennium, he was drawing on 50 years of experience in the industry. Of course CCM, just like all modern pop music has been going through changes, since it first began. However, in recent years the pace has accelerated to the point that a single year can bring about monumental change. As technology improves, so does the ability of the artists to effect more lives, as more people are reached with the gospel than it was ever before dreamed possible. As the consumers keep getting younger, so are the artists, who are able to communicate with a message that is palatable to its youthful audience of peers. Hearn believes that the creation of a solid customer base is important, because then as the audience matures, so will the artists, who can continue to provide them with music that will gradually delve more deeply into ministry as they nourish themselves on the milk of the word through the music, until they are ready to partake of the meat. Not all Christian consumers are at the same level of spiritual maturity, every age group has to be provided for. If spiritual babies only want shallow Christian Entertainment, this is normal, and scriptural. The more mature believers only want music that has spiritual depth and a meaningful message. Then there are others who want praise and worship music that will emotionally impact their psyche and take them to the spiritual depth that they need to be at in order to have the stamina and ability to handle all the opposing forces that are competing for their loyalty in everyday life.
Christian artists and record companies are trying hard to meet consumer demands, and they are currently fulfilling expectations. As they mature spiritually in both their personal walk with the Lord, as well as in their music, they can lead their listeners into a deeper relationship with Jesus. Different record companies appeal to a variety of genres, and some specialize in different levels of spirituality, while others cover every level. All of this is based on the prerequisite that the Christian record companies do not just follow trends, or the market, but remember their mission and attempt to lead the way. Contemporary Christian music affects the Church, because it speaks to the young people, who are the future of the church. Much of the Contemporary Christian music released by the record companies isn’t for use inside the church, but it provides wholesome and inspiring entertainment for the youth and others who enjoy music. Hearn insists that this is just as valid a ministry as praise and worship.
At the heart of the church are the Gospel and teachings of Jesus, so Christian music must use the most effective methods of communicating this information. Music is but a tool that can be used to serve a multiplicity of tasks, including, being the drawing card to lead a pep rally that ends up with a powerful sermon from a gifted preacher. Another important function that music serves is that of a teacher, because a song is simply a 3 or 4 minute story, mini sermon or powerful truth. If a person sings something, even if they reject it, they will never forget it. A third thing that music can be used for is evangelism, as the songs prepare the heart of the listener to accept Jesus when the alter call is given. Although Jesus rock and contemporary Christian music has always tried to be part of the church, in many cases the church did not accept it. In some cases, it was because of the attitudes of the artists, while other times the church was suspicious of the ulterior motives of the musicians, by thinking that they were just doing it for the money. The church finally realized that it had to change or it would lose the youth. By the 1990’s Contemporary Christian music had been integrated into most churches, especially with the Advent of the Praise and Worship genre, through “Maranatha!” and “Integrity Music.” The problem is that the Christian music industry is leading the Church rather than the other way around. (18)
In less than 10 years from the time that Hearn evaluated the contemporary Christian music industry in 2001, it had drastically changed, to the point that much of what was true then is no longer true in 2010. CD’s are going the way of 8 track tapes, with the advent of the age of digital downloading with iTunes and iPods. The only way that record companies can survive is by re-inventing themselves, while in the mean time the revenue generated from digital sales is much less than that of CD sales. All the record companies have been forced to downsize, and reduce their recording budgets, as they lose clientele to home studios using Pro Tool technology. Christian music consumers, like their secular counterparts, have a direct connection to the artist through internet social networks and their personal website. The record company has become an obsolete middleman in the eyes of the artist, as their main source of income is generated by personal appearances, in conjuction with multi-artist tours, from “Festival Con Dios” to the “Rock & Worship Roadshow,” or one of nearly a hundred different Christian music festivals each year, along with direct sales, using the artist’s website. Consumers no longer want to deal with a faceless bureaucratic record company for information about their favorite artist and their releases, when they can communicate directly with them.
By 2010 downsizing had been going on nearly a decade, for “EMI CMG,” “Provident” and “WORD,” the three primary Christian record companies, while they were still searching for fresh ways to generate income, by using the new technology or shoring up existing ones. The same hard times hit both the Christian and Secular stores of all sizes that sell music, as they stock less on their shelves. So the question remains, what is to happen to the music industry? With the current demand for a continual supply of new praise and worship songs in the churches and wholesome Christian entertainment for leisure time, there is an even greater demand for song writers, recording artists and entertainers to create it today than there ever was before. As Billy Ray Hearn said, “the apostle Paul made tents,” so maybe the recording and entertainment industry will also have to find a secondary source to support their primary mission. (19) On Wednesday, April 15, 2015 Billy Ray Hearn died from heart problems at the age of 85, surrounded by his family.
- Darden, Bob, Interview with Billy Ray Hearn for “The Business of Heaven,” conducted on 8 May 2001.
- Interview with Billy Ray Hearn by Bob Gersztyn, August 2010.
- Gersztyn, Bob, Billy Ray Hearn Interview August 4, 2010, for DCCM.
- Darden, Bob, Interview with Billy Ray Hearn for “The Business of Heaven,” conducted on 8 May 2001.
- Hearn, Billy Ray, Chapters of Subchapters. Email communication with 4 August 2010.
- Hearn, Billy Ray, Success of the Early Days. Revised 8 June 2001.
- Hearn, Billy Ray, Success of the Early Days. Revised 8 June 2001.
- Darden, Bob, Interview with Billy Ray Hearn for “The Business of Heaven,” conducted on 8 May 2001.
- Gersztyn, Bob, Billy Ray Hearn Interview August 4, 2010, for DCCM.
- New American Standard Version of the Bible. Romans 13:8.
- Billy Ray Hearn Recollecting his relationship with Greg Nelson. Revised 25 June 2001.
- Billy Ray Hearn Recollecting his relationship with Greg Nelson. Revised 25 June 2001.
- Gersztyn, Bob, Billy Ray Hearn Interview August 4, 2010, for DCCM.
- Hearn, Billy Ray. List of albums released by Sparrow and Birdwing from 1976 – 1984. Email communication 4 August 2010.
- Hearn, Billy Ray. The Story of “Sparrow’s” Partnership with “Star Song.” Emailed 4 August 2010.
- The Bible. The King James Version, Proverbs 22:6. Published by the A. J. Holman Company, 1970.
- History of EMI Christian Music Group. http://www.emicmg.com/about/history.aspx ,accessed 22 September 2010.
- Hearn, Billy Ray. Christian Music Today, written in 2001, email communication.
- Hearn, Billy Ray. Christian Music Today, written in 2010, email communication.
- Schmitt, Brad. The Daily Tennessean, April 16, 2015, “Christian Music Pioneer Billy Ray Hearn Dies At 85. http://www.tennessean.com/story/entertainment/music/2015/04/16/christian-music-pioneer-billy-ray-hearn-dies/25861527/ (accessed on 23 February 2016.)
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