If the Civil Rights Movement is the story of Atlanta, then gospel music may very well be its soundtrack.
The movement charted and changed the course of American history and the music of that time, particularly gospel, served as the spiritual salve for a generation.
That connection remains strong, even through today, says Teresa Hairston, founder of the Gospel Heritage Foundation.
The foundation, which Hairston founded in 1996, held its 17th annual Praise & Worship Conference, this past weekend in Atlanta to celebrate the genre's legacy and importance as a vehicle for education.
Despite music business turmoil as consumer behavior changed the way recordings are accessed and the greater ease for piracy via technology, gospel remains stable.
Indeed, the sector continues to grow at a fast clip with recorded music sales reaching nearly $500 million in sales a per year, according to the Christian Music Trade Association.
Some 56 million units of Christian/gospel CDs, cassettes, digital albums and digital tracks were purchased in 2008, the most recent data available.
The CMTA reported that in 2008, digital album and digital tracks sales rose more than 38 percent and 37 percent, respectively.
Cascade Patch spoke with Hairston recently to discuss gospel music and its place in Atlanta, which is the fourth-largest metro market in the country for the genre.
Q. Why is gospel so linked to Atlanta?
A. Atlanta is a mecca for gospel music. It was part of the growth and proliferation of the Civil Rights Movement. And while those lyrics and the songs have evolved over the years, what we're finding these days is that young people really need a positive message. And gospel does that. It impacts the mind, the spirit and the body.
Q. The music industry has changed immensely with the rise of technology and social media. How has that affected gospel?
A. The music industry has diversified. We see the independent artists — they make their own records and they own their masters [recordings]. They do it and they have to become entrepreneurial. They decide what they're going to do and when they're going to do it. It's a different day and time.
Q. There's traditional gospel and there's a rise in several offshoots from country, to rap to heavy metal gospel. How do they fit in?
A. I think it's like any other other genre, there's the commercial and the underground. The evolution of gospel comes from the creative aspect going back to its connection and roots to Africa. They just created sounds; freedom and creativity was their trademark. We're seeing the same thing here. There are no rules about what gospel music is. The only thing that defines gospel music is its message — that it's about the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Q. What's the future of the genre as you see it?
A. Gospel is always going to be around and it's going to continue to grow. We're going to see gospel evolve and different expressions of it. It's going to have a secure future and place because people are tired of the negative music lyrics. They want music that speaks to life. I think we're going to see gospel as music of the world.