The 2013 Annual Stellar Awards will be remembered as a zenith event in the growth of the gospel music industry. From inception to exit strategy, the show was terrifically executed in true glitterati style.
This year's 28th edition unfolded on Saturday (Jan. 19) and was broadcast live for the first time from Nashville's Grand Ole Opry, a fitting choice. In the same way that the country music industry has become its own arena-filling powerhouse genre, gospel has grown into a commercial powerhouse, with marketing rivaling the best of the R&B and hip-hop markets – sans the vulgarity.
More than 140 markets signed on and streamed the Stellars live on the web. That interest meshed, of course, with commentary on industry and fan blogs, Facebook pages, tweets and email support.
Co-hosting with fellow industry leader Kirk Franklin, sibling duo Mary Mary's five award-winning moments were among the night's highlights on stage. Marvin Sapp's aptly titled "I Win" equaled their total as the big statuette garnerers for the night.
Special awards were given to Kurt Carr, as the recipient of the James Cleveland Lifetime Achievement Award, and to Bishop T.D. Jakes, who received the Thomas Dorsey Notable Achievement Award (sponsored by Chevrolet).
Unless they decided to give away free Corvettes (the new C7 is the talk of the industry), Chevrolet couldn't have chosen a better weekend to highlight their diversity outreach. The Stellars coincided with First Lady Michelle Obama's birthday and led into President Barack Obama's second inauguration, which was held on Dr. Martin Luther King Day.
The real action
The Stellar Awards are the polished face for a revenue-driven industry. The real action is behind the scenes, where deals are discussed, doors opened and where upcoming talents network the showcases, seminars and confabs in their push to become to become "the next..."
Following Friday's daylong pre-show activities, Terrance Zachary, the president for the recently established indie label NuJeru Music Group, said the BMI luncheon is always the highlight for him.
"It's where you can let your hair down and just get caught up with everybody," he said.
Zachary's out to write his own success story after a rewarding experience with industry major Bow Tie World Music (based in Nashville) and its main act, Wess Morgan.
"I was with Bow Tie World from 2010 to 2012. I worked with a ton of artists there, Wess of course being the best known. Billboard voted us one of the top ten labels in 2010 and 2011 and I'm praying to be half as successful on my own," said Zachary.
"Working with Wess taught me a lot, seeing the work that was done in him getting to where he is now, and remaining humble along the way."
When the break comes
Detroit's Tabitha Goodman, part of the artists' support team, had myriad duties during the Stellar Awards weekend, including chaperoning the schedule of the Chrysler Corporation Choir, now known throughout the nation after being featuring in several commercials for the company. The choir was featured at several pre-show events. In between, she explained her own networking goal.
"What I'm trying to do, and what I tell others like me that are here to do the same, is brand yourself to be ready when the break comes," said Goodman.
"For instance, the main person I'm trying to connect with is one of the top radio charters in the industry, who places a lot of music on the air. She has 38 Stellar nominations, represents all of the artists nominated for Song of the Year and seven Grammys just this year. Just getting her ear would be a major plus."
'Here with God's people'
The closing highlight of the pre-show day was a service led by industry legend Pastor Hezekiah Walker, who presented the award to New Artist of the Year LeAndria Johnson.
Heading back to his hotel room afterwards to rest up for the big day, Walker's representative, Sean Pennington, offered insight from his decade-plus work managing a major industry figure via his company Flipside Entertainment (which also represents the Wess Morgan).
"Pastor Walker was really excited to present the New Artist award because he loves to see young people succeed in any endeavor, praise God," said Pennington.
"I like being here to see people that may not be winners out front yet but are winners at heart be made known to the world, and to get to know others with similar interests. Just the opportunity to be here with God's people doing good is a win."
'Step up our game'
In entertainment, crunch time is called "Day Of," and nearly every conversation kicks off with "It's Day Of, so..."
For the Stellars, "Day Of" presented several optional events, the most important being a conference for radio media. Totally thronged, a perfect example of smart marketing was the currently unknown and New York-based Livre, who had a full display on the event floor, positioning them to appear like a major. Another smart thing they did was to have door hanger flyers made and placed on room doors at the hotels where the industry players were staying.
"We just work hard," manager Craig Towns said. "We planned everything this year around the Stellars. We've been here several times now and knew we had to step up our game."
After the radio meet, all on board repaired to the hotels to breathe and change for the night. As the crowd thronged in, Michael Adrian Davis, air personality for the Memphis gospel arm of the powerful Clear Channel Group, summed it all up.
"It's the industry Grammys, and because it's now a live broadcast, it makes it even more important," said Davis.
"But it's really higher than that because of the message of the music. Praising God is always most important."
(Tony Jones reported this story for Real Times News Services' Memphis outlet, The New Tri-State Defender.)