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Epic Cues Up Gospel Deal with Integrity

Sony Music imprint Epic Records is maneuvering to cash in on the industry-defying growth in the gospel music scene, inking a reciprocal marketing and distribution venture with Integrity, the largest independent gospel music company in the U.S.

Under terms of the deal, Epic will pipe releases from Integrity labels in the U.S., Europe, Latin America, Asia, Australia and New Zealand through the major’s worldwide marketing and distribution machine.

In turn, Integrity will market and promote select Christian releases from Epic and fellow Sony division Columbia Records specifically to the Christian bookstore market. The first release set for this treatment is “Heart to Yours” (Columbia), the gospel debut of Destiny’s Child member Michelle Williams. The deal also will extend to some Christian albums in Sony’s catalog.

In addition, Sony Music’s kids unit, Sony Wonder, will distribute some releases for Integrity Just for Kids in the general retail market, and Sony Discos will handle selected Integrity Music Spanish records for nationwide marketing and distribution.

Tuesday’s pact “marks the beginning of a new era for Integrity,” said Integrity president and CEO P. Michael Coleman. “Our artists will now be able to team up with one of the most creative and effective marketing organizations in the music industry.”

Christian music enjoyed a banner year in 2001, partly as record buyers looked for uplifting themes after Sept. 11. Sales of contemporary Christian and gospel albums climbed 13.5%, according to the Christian Music Trade Assn., compared with a decline of nearly 5% in the broader market. Integrity said its sales swelled by 37% in 2001 to nearly $71 million.

Sony’s move follows another tie-up between a major label group and a gospel powerhouse: In November, Warner Music paid $84 million to acquire No. 3 Christian label Word Entertainment. Word, which had been distributed by Sony, in turn distributed Integrity’s recordings worldwide.

According to Integrity financial chief Don Ellington, Tuesday’s deal continues his company’s relationship with Sony, removing Word as the intermediary. However, Word will continue to handle Integrity’s Christian bookstore distribution.

Shares of Integrity, which trade on Nasdaq, closed up nearly 10% to $5.48 Tuesday.

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