To fully understand sixstepsrecords means to understand a decade-old movement called Passion, a metaphorical family with its own mother and father figures, four artists who really do act a lot like brothers, and a fairly obscure Old Testament tale about hauling around the Ark of the Covenant.
This record label started like no other and continues to surprise even today. Sixsteps has kept the same small roster of artists for most of its nine-year existence. It has a partnership with industry giant EMI, yet stays involved in every aspect of operations. And at a time when the music business is in universal decline, sixsteps maintains consistently strong sales.
Let's start this story in 1,000 B.C., when the Israelites finally figured out how to return the Ark to Jerusalem. Shelley Giglio, Director of Label Operations, recounts the tale from 2 Samuel 6:13: "It says that they went six steps, laid the Ark of the Covenant down, and then they built an altar and worshiped. Some scholars think they did that every six steps for the several miles to Jerusalem. They were so grateful they were alive—that they'd figured it out, that the glory of God was going to be back with the people of God—all that made them so worshipful that they couldn't go very far without stopping, building an altar, and worshiping." Thus the name, sixstepsrecords.
That name is a reminder to everyone associated with the label of the importance of worship. Shelley Giglio continues, "It's a reminder to me of the purpose for which we were created—that it's really wise for us to worship often, that if we're really going in life much more than about six steps before we figure out how to worship, then we've probably gone a bit too far." The label avoids capitalizing their name as a reminder that it's not about the company, but about God. And they spell their name as one word to show that they operate as a close-knit family.
Worship artist Chris Tomlin agrees. "The heart of sixsteps is the name—the continual place of humility and gratefulness that God has given us this life, that we are alive in his presence, and that we worship him because of his greatness and his holiness."
The sixsteps label started in 2000 but was predated in the mid '90s by a movement called Passion, created to gather college students from around the world to "seek the face of God together in worship and prayer." In time, the artists involved with leading worship at the Passion conferences soon realized something greater than a student gathering was afoot.
"All of the sudden it was this huge thing," recalls worship artist Charlie Hall. "Between the vision of Passion and the guts of it—the movement, the heart, the theology, all mixed with the music and people—it was like a good chemical explosion." Rather than have each of these artists pursue deals with different record labels, the decision was made to start sixsteps.
According to Visionary Architect and Director Louie Giglio, sixsteps and Passion continue to serve a common purpose. "Within the fabric and framework of the Passion Movement, sixsteps is both a way to serve the Church by fostering a worship lifestyle that is about both songs and action, and a way to serve the friends who have been with us on the journey by creating a small community of artists." Collectively, Passion was already an EMI "artist," so it became a natural fit for sixsteps to partner with EMI further.
Surprisingly, there is no clear delineation of duties in that partnership. As Shelley Giglio notes, "We are heavily involved at every level, from who's a part of the label, to what kind of records are made, to what songs go on the records, to how the records sound, who produces them, all the way through to what the end cap looks like in the store and what distribution method we're using for which artist, and everything in between."
Those are important decisions in an industry marked by losses and decline. While sixsteps forges ahead with consistency in staff and artists, EMI has suffered from downsizing over the years.
Worship artist David Crowder speaks for everyone at sixsteps when expressing disappointment: "It's been disheartening watching people [at EMI] lose jobs, especially since [we all] thought they're amazing people doing a great job and doing what they're supposed to do."
According to Louie Giglio, the music world as a whole may never recover from its recent turmoil. "The landscape of music transference and usage seems altered in an irrevocable way, causing people within the music world to cast aside every given and rethink things from the ground up."
How, then, has sixsteps stayed successful through all this? Its small size is important, but so are the label's focus, energy, and unconventional management structure. Typically, management of artists functions separately from the label. At sixsteps, Shelley Giglio manages all the artists on the label.
"On paper this shouldn't work at all," notes Crowder. "It's a glaring conflict of interest that should implode quickly. [On the other hand,] you don't have a manager coming in the middle of you and arguing for one guy over another. There's a collective interest that's at stake, as well as the individual interests. Probably due to the amount of relationship and the time we've spent with the other artists on the label, there's a genuine want for success, a collective shared interest that's probably due to the fact that management is rolled into the label."
With all the artists sharing the same manager and touring together with Passion, the word "family" applies more appropriately with sixsteps than perhaps any other label. "There's a definite father and mother figure," says Hall, speaking of the Giglios. "In my life, Louie and Shelley have helped me navigate through quite a bit over the last few years."
Tomlin likens Hall to the "oldest brother", and the guys are quick to jab Tomlin about his height, in a brotherly sort of way. For the record, Tomlin notes, "I'm taller than Charlie and [worship leader Matt Redman]."
Crowder calls the guys "a bunch of pals," and notes that experiencing life together outside of making music (particularly through the Passion conferences) helps foster those relationships.
By the same token, Crowder stresses the importance of individuality. "We can just be who we are. What was valued is what was being spoken or written from a particular vantage point. There wasn't any homogeneity that was either asked for or wanted."
Shelley Giglio identifies this as one of the label's major strengths, noting that each artist's individuality calls for customized marketing plans for each one. "Our guys are so unique. I try to take it case-by-case with our guys and each record—to figure out for each scenario what the best plan would be."
For Hall, that meant a very gradual rollout of his Flying Into Daybreak CD in 2006 that started with a single chain of stores in Texas and Oklahoma. "That's Charlie's definite stomping ground, where we have primary support," relates Shelley Giglio. "Then we took that, made it a success story, and had the trickle out from there. Eventually it was in stores everywhere, but at first, the best thing to do for Charlie was to make it a little bit harder to get, so that people were motivated to find it. It worked really well." [Hall has since released The Bright Sadness to much acclaim.]
Another innovative approach to marketing stresses the link between CD sales and concert tours, and sees sixsteps playing the role of ticket seller. A limited amount of presale tickets are offered to the core fans before general sales. With Tomlin's Hello Love Tour, 8,000 tickets have been pre-sold to people who purchased the CD. Sixsteps' Mike McCloskey notes, "They didn't carry any ticketing fees. Best of all, they're the best seats in the front rows of the venue. It's an amazing deal, and a great reward for those that supported the music by purchasing it legally."
To those outside the industry, it can seem a little bit unsettling to hear talk of ministry and marketing so easily intermingled. Shelley Giglio sees no contradiction. "I don't wake up in the morning and think about marketing. I wake up and think about Jesus. That sets the tone. I'm really not apologetic for wanting to sell a lot of records. I hope we sell a ton of records. But I do understand that resources follow ministry. What makes sense is that people experience something of God in a setting, and then they look for a resource that keeps them connected, and that's what we're providing. You can't get the resource thing ahead of the ministry thing and expect it to be successful. If our guys weren't providing ministry for people in everyday settings in places all over the country, then for me to ship records to store wouldn't make any sense."
The label's artists seem grateful that sixsteps is there to take care of the resources so they can focus on ministry. Crowder notes, "We're afforded the opportunity to think really simply about what we're doing. We're just trying to write songs for a little church in Waco, TX, and it doesn't really go much further than that. It's amazing that things fit elsewhere and it's amazing that we have partners that make it maybe more appealing elsewhere."
Hall is glad he's been able to establish a limited touring schedule with the label's blessing. "[The schedule is] built for the families of our band, so we can live normal lives and not get caught up in the machine of who people think you are. We put a lot of emphasis on being who we are and letting the music flow out of that. [The label has] gotten behind me and let me do ministry at home; they encourage that and love that."
Many have wondered through the years about why sixsteps has resisted expanding its roster of only four artists for so long. Most with the label note the importance of relationship, and the limitation of time and resources. According to Tomlin, however, things might be expanding very soon. "I think we'll be developing some new worship leaders down the road, in the coming years that I'm very excited about," reports Tomlin. "We're in the process of that now."
Another major upcoming change is the planting of a church in Atlanta involving Louie Giglio, Tomlin, and Redman. The latter two have already moved there, though the timeline for development is uncertain, as is the impact on the label. "I see songs coming out of the church," says Tomlin of the new plant. "I see Chris Tomlin still making records, but I also see Passion Church CDs , and that kind of thing. The reason I'm excited about that is we've never been in the same place: me and Redman and Louie."
This small (but maybe growing) family exists in a stormy industry but is committed to maintaining its original focus. "There is something I am confident of," declares Louie Giglio, "That the Church that Christ is building worldwide is on the rise. The whole Christian record industry could vanish, yet the Church will prevail and prosper. So I think our future is in being aligned with his movement, not ours, and in being linked to the process of building up the Church versus growing a label. After all, our songs are for that very Bride, designed to give voice to a new generation wanting to reach for God and stake their hearts on something greater than themselves. We will continue to work hard to restore, expand, create, and modify our approaches to delivering music to every listener on the planet, but we are hopeful because we are a part of an expanding Kingdom, not a shrinking industry. It's a tough time to be building a label, but a great time (maybe the best time ever) to be building the Kingdom of God."
And so they continue, six steps at a time.
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