The Gospel Music Man

This doesn't begin as a family-values story. Max Siegel's father, Bill, a music salesman, was Jewish. His mother, Delores, a beautiful nightclub singer, was African-American. The marriage ended badly; Bill kidnapped 5-year-old Max and his baby sister, told them Delores was dead, then married a drug addict. When Max was 12, Bill died, Delores reappeared, as if from the grave, and the chaos continued. "It was straight ghetto," he recalls.

He couldn't have known, but this turbulent childhood, with its racial complexities and musical influences, gave Siegel, 42, everything to be what he is today--arguably the most important exec in gospel music. In a shrinking music industry overall, Christian music is a rare bright spot: sales have soared to $700 million last year from $381 million in 1995, and gospel is the biggest slice. As president of Verity Records, Siegel has helped guide the genre through a dramatic transition from a traditional, church-based sound to spiritual messages with beats as funky and edgy as anything in the secular sphere. Verity, part of Sony/BMG's Zomba Label Group, is now gospel's most dominant label, with such hot acts as Kirk Franklin, Donnie McClurkin and Fred Hammon, who rule the gospel-music charts. "He has transformed the industry," says Lewis Gibbs, a top exec of gospel-focused The Word Network. Siegel's boss, Zomba CEO Barry Weiss, adds: "He's taken it to new levels of profit and done it in an unassuming and businesslike manner."

Siegel is also committed to exposing a hidden, unholy side of the religious-music business, which has long been deeply and tensely divided along racial lines. "Gospel music" was for black people; "Christian music" was for whites. What's more, gospel artists believed that white-owned, independent labels ripped them off and relegated their records to outlets that catered only to black audiences. The segregation "is manifest and longstanding," says John Styll, president of Gospel Music Association.

For the most part, the industry has accepted the status quo. "That there's a racial divide is not only correct, but it's one of the things we don't discuss," says John P. Kee, a groundbreaking gospel artist on Verity. In confronting the issue head-on, Siegel recently organized a "unity" panel in which top music execs discussed ways to deal with it. "There had been such a tense relationship between the leaders of contemporary Christian and gospel music," says Siegel, a father of three who commutes between New York and his Indianapolis home.

As a child, Siegel's only calling was to be a success. He immersed himself in school and sports, ultimately earning a scholarship to Notre Dame, where he also attended law school. Music and religion were always in the background--he plays the drums and is a churchgoing Baptist--but never part of his career plans. As a young lawyer, he represented sports stars, such as the late football great Reggie White. Then, in the early 1990s, his sister introduced him to Kee, who hired Siegel. And Siegel's calling found him.

When he arrived at Verity in 2001, Siegel was all but the ultimate outsider: a lawyer, not churchy by the standards of the gospel crowd, an artist advocate. Through his annual conference, "About My Father's Business," he is continuing to inform the religious community on marrying its talents to the music industry. But Siegel's biggest legacy may be in helping to push the boundaries of the gospel's sound, first by representing artists like Kee and Hammond, and then by signing new artists who can bring gospel to mainstream FM radio and the Internet. Siegel also maintains a major role in secular music that no doubt influences some of his decisions in gospel. As a senior vice president of the Zomba division, for example, he has had a broad influence on labels whose rosters include Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and R. Kelly. His outsider status "gave him an ear and a mind-set to not do just church business, but music business," says Kirk Franklin, who may be the most famous of gospel's new generation. For a music exec, that's high praise.