GMA President and Executive Director Jackie Patillo addresses attendees of 46th Annual GMA Dove Awards Nominations Press Conference Aug. 12. (Photo credit: Getty Images for Dove Awards)

It’s been dubbed the Christian version of the GRAMMYs, but with diminishing music sales and changes in technology, do the Dove Awards still play a significant role in our industry?

On October 10, 1969, Christian and Gospel music artists and industry leaders gathered at the historic Peabody Hotel in Memphis, TN, to celebrate the inaugural Dove Awards. The brainchild of then Gospel Music Association (GMA) board member Bill Gaither, the Doves celebrated the industry’s best and brightest. Fast-forward 46 years, the annual tradition continues as the faith-based music community comes together on Oct. 13 at Lipscomb University’s Allen Arena in Nashville, TN.

Through the years, the Dove Awards have symbolized affrmation and credibility. Since BeBe & CeCe Winans were first crowned New Artist of the Year in 1988, the coveted category has helped launch countless careers, including those of Take 6, 4HIM, Point of Grace, Jars of Clay, Jeremy Camp, Brandon Heath, and for KING & COUNTRY. Last year, Ellie Holcomb took home the honor, signaling a turning tide for the genre as Holcomb, who is completely independent, doesn’t fit the usual adult contemporary mold with her organic and unvarnished sensibilities.

Other pinnacle categories such as Male/ Female Artist of the Year, Group of the Year, Song of the Year, and Artist of the Year have shaped the stories of Christian music’s most beloved artists, including Steven Curtis Chapman, who with 58 Dove Awards to his credit, is the most awarded of any artist.

In addition, the Dove Awards have consistently helped fans discover new music with its annual TV broadcast—often the only time during the entire year when Christian music is in the national spotlight.

“The Dove Awards is known for being the biggest night in Christian and Gospel music,” says GMA President and Executive Director Jackie Patillo. “It’s the only time that all genres of music are represented on one stage.”

While an artist’s success is determined by multiple factors—radio play, touring, media coverage, and social media activity—the Dove Awards remain a driving force behind a Christian artist’s momentum. They serve as a mile marker that signals changes in musical trends and acts as a tastemaker of the highest caliber for countless fans around the globe.

“ The Gospel Music Association and the Dove Awards have always been cutting-edge in promoting and recognizing the diverse set of artists who’ve put their varied talents on the line for Christ,” says Joe Bonsall of the legendary Oak Ridge Boys, who’ve garnered nine Dove Awards. “I believe in my heart that Gospel and Christian music of all genres is more needed [now] than in any time in our history, making the Doves more relevant than ever.”

Rocky Road

Even with the decline of traditional music sales, Christian music fans shouldn’t be counted out just yet. According to research released earlier this year by the GMA in partnership with the Christian Music Trade Association (CMTA), 215 million people have listened to Christian and Gospel music in the last month. When compared to other niche genres, faith-based music takes the lead.

In 2014, Christian/Gospel music accounted for 6.6 percent of all music sales, besting Latin and jazz sales combined. But the sales figures are only the tip of the iceberg for the inroads Christian music is making in the mainstream. Secular media is gradually starting to pay attention. for KING & COUNTRY performed on the Today show earlier this year, NEEDTOBREATHE played Good Morning America, and TobyMac recently appeared as part of the FOX & Friends Summer Concert Series.

The road to relevancy and respect for the Dove Awards hasn’t been without its share of challenges, however. In recent years, leadership changes, financial strain, declining music sales, and, at times, lack of participation from key music labels forced the GMA to make changes to the Dove Awards show, which prompted a controversial move to Atlanta in 2011 and 2012. Voting procedures and categories were also given an overhaul to make the awards more fair, diverse, and as unbiased as possible.

When the awards returned to Nashville in 2013, they were welcomed back with (mostly) open arms. Lipscomb signed on as a major sponsor, and the GMA downsized venues to Allen Arena. The Doves had previously been held for years at Nashville’s iconic Grand Ole Opry House, and in its heyday, the ceremony was even hosted at the 20,000-capacity Bridgestone Arena, one of Music City’s largest venues.

The live audience may be smaller, but thanks to heavyweight partners like the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), the award show’s global audience is more widespread than ever before. Last year alone, more than 1.4 million viewers tuned in for the televised broadcast via TBN’s massive reach across an array of platforms spanning cable TV and mobile devices.

Better Together

TBN broadcast the Dove Awards Sunday, Oct. 18. With only two hours to provide the world at large a glimpse into the current Christian music scene, GMA is tasked with a significant responsibility.

“The Doves are a unique mix of entertainment and ministry, celebrating what God has done through the medium of music. Attendees and viewers resonate strongly with this purpose, but we have to deliver it in increasingly creative ways,” says GMA Director of Operations Justin Fratt.

This year, the GMA is centering its efforts on the theme “Better Together,” emphasizing what the award show has always done best— bring people together.

“ The ‘Better Together’ theme speaks to the sum of us being greater than our individual parts,” Patillo explains. “Our community is made up of people with different styles and cultures with the same calling to spread the Gospel through music.”

“I think deep down we’re still a tribe-driven people,” Fratt adds, “and the Doves have a long legacy of rallying our community.”

The Dove stage is consistently one of variety since the genre covers a wide array of musical tastes held together by a common lyrical thread. Mary Mary’s Erica Campbell and Sadie Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” fame hosted this year’s festivities featuring performances from Casting Crowns, Kari Jobe, Kirk Franklin, KB, and Tedashii. “When the production team begins the process of selecting the talent for the Dove Awards, we focus on the artists who are nominated,” says Patillo. “It is important that we honor our artists and their performances both on the live show and the edited televised version.”

Rap and Worship

This year’s category delegations reflect the diversity of the genre more than ever before. In an effort to make sure every style of music is represented objectively, the GMA introduced an Artist of the Year category for each sub-genre instating Contemporary Christian Artist of the Year, Southern Gospel Artist of the Year, and Gospel Artist of the Year categories. In addition, the Songwriter of the Year categories have been divided into Artist and Non-Artist categories.

The 10 Song of the Year nominees—noticeably all pop entries—were solely based on sales during the eligibility period, making this a key category for retailers. The nominations also point to the immense popularity of hip-hop with recognition going to NF, Andy Mineo, Trip Lee, and Lecrae, who leads this year’s overall nominations with nine nods. “[Lecrae’s] story is anything but music business as usual,” says Fratt. “He’s one of the biggest-selling artists but still has relatively no Christian radio play and initially had no traditional retail sales; but God’s opened doors for him, and his music is resonating with a generation that previously wasn’t having much positive influence from rap music.”

Ironically, Christian hip-hop has been around for quite some time, but it’s always been a category industry gatekeepers have a hard time classifying.

“Believers have been involved in hip-hop for years. It just existed underground,” Lecrae says. “CCM was the first industry to see the impact of us. However, for a long time, people didn’t know what category we belonged to. I think we, as believers, can exist everywhere. We should be impacting the entire music community.”

Nominations abounded for artists in other categories, such as worship mainstays like Chris Tomlin, Hillsong UNITED, and Kari Jobe to newcomers like All Sons & Daughters and Lauren Daigle, who received four nominations—a rare feat considering she’s only released one full-length album and hails from a purely independent label, making the nominations significant for Centricity Music as well.

Joseph Hadebank and Audio Adrenaline attend 46th Annual
GMA Dove Awards Nominations Press Conference. (Photo
credit: Getty Images for Dove Awards)

“So much of the work of the development of an artist is behind the scenes—writing songs in tiny rooms with people you may have just met, to singing vocals in a recording studio with no windows, or rehearsing with a couple of musicians. All this to prepare to walk on stage and connect with an audience; and when it connects, it makes all those hours worth it,” says Centricity Music General Manager Steve Ford. “To see Lauren connect at such a deep level has truly been a blessing. To go from the K-LOVE Award— a fan-voted award [which Lauren won for Worship Song of the Year in May] to four Dove Awards, an industry-voted award, shows how deeply Lauren is connecting”

Connection. Perhaps that’s the very facet that continues to make Christian and Gospel music—in all its forms—relevant. The GMA simply serves as the master liaison.

“ The Dove Awards have a mix of nostalgia and relevant programming that will continue to grow and build a community, which will be exposed to new artists and new music for years to come,” Fratt predicts.

The ways in which music is consumed may evolve, but the fact that it deeply touches lives will never change. For a few hours in October, the GMA will once again unite music lovers under the banner of the Dove Awards to remember the power of Godbreathed songs.

-Lindsey Williams