Published: August 19, 2006, Billboard Magazine

By: Deborah Evans Price

In today's competitive climate many startup labels don't make it past the first few rough years, so a 10th anniversary is definitely cause for celebration.

As JDI Records hits the 10-year bench-mark, founder James Roberson is proud of the label's past but is keeping his focus on the roster's future. And after a decade behind the scenes, he steps into the spotlight with his own debut album, "Joy Unspeakable," out Aug. 15.

"I started the label with just $7 in my bank account," Roberson says of the early days. "Our first record was Norman Hutchins' 'Battlefield,' which took off for us and became a big seller. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and from that time on, it's been a real blessed journey."

Roberson started the label after earning hs master's degree in business administration at the University of California, Los Angeles and working at Capitol Records. Though his future looked bright at Capitol, he says he felt God calling him to start his own venture, a move encouraged by his pastor. "I told my pastor I was having a hard time finding basic church music," says Roberson, who has also been a music professor at UCLA for the past 13 years. "He said, "Why don't you do something about it? Why don't you start a gospel label that focuses on providing music that is suitable for church?"

So Roberson launched JDI, which stands for "Just Do It." He started with Hutchins, who remains the Los Angeles-based label's flagship act. His most recent release, "Where I Long to Be," debuted at No. 12 on Billboard's Top Gospel Albums chart. The JDI roster also includes DeNetria Champ, Chester T. Baldwin, Minister Timothy Britten, Paster Woodrow Hayden and the UCLA Gospel Choir.

JDI artists have ranked among Billboard's top-selling independent gospel acts. The label is distributed to Christian retail via a long-standing relationship with Nashville-based Central South Distribution and to mainstream retail by Sony Red.

Roberson's advice to others looking to start an indie label is to be prepared and be willing to reinvest. "I'm glad I took time to go back to school and get my MBA," he says. "I've always been a creative person and the music part has always been easy for me... but I needed to learn marketing, promotion, how to do financials, strategic planning, things like that."

He says his pastor also gave him good advice: "'Don't eat your seeds.' When you make money, you have to replant it into the ground for a harvest next year. I took that to heart."

Roberson has also been tithing, donating a portion of his proceeds to his church. In turn, when he kept dragging his feet about doing his own album, the church called him on it. "They decided they were going to invest in the album for me and they gave me a check and said, "Go do it," he says. "That's how the record came about."

He's produced many artists over the years and was continually asked about doing his own project, but admits he was hesitant. "I love ministering, but never really thought about being a gospel artist," he says, "but my pastor thought my ministry should be heard outside the four walls of our church."

Roberson will debut his solo effort during the annual Gospel Music Workshop of America gathering in August in Dallas. He's already getting calls from people who want to book dates, but isn't sure how many concerts he'll do because the label remains his first priority. He's still planning ways to celebrate its 10th anniversary and says he may do a commemorative album involving JDI's entire roster.

In the meantime, he wants to stay focused and manage JDI's growth. "My vision has always been to have a boutique label with good quality music and good quality artists," Roberson says. "If I have 10 artists that sell 100,000-200,000 units versus a label that has 40 artists, then you have five or six that are selling and then there's [a] whole bunch of disgruntled artists because they don't feel like they are getting a fair shake. That's not my paradigm. I want to have a maximum of 10 artists, then I can really concentrate and build. That's definitely one of our challenges...to manage our growth, to make sure we don't get away from the vision."