It’s hard enough to have an album go platinum these days. Even when you’re a superstar with smash hits and spend a million+ on an advertising campaign, put in six weeks ahead of the release splashing your name all over entertainment media with interviews, features, and exclusives, release big budget videos and tour the major radio stations to help spread the word, there’s still no guarantee you’ll receive any precious metal in the streaming era when nobody’s buying records, and the streaming equivalents the RIAA uses to compensate for the continued deterioration of physical sales only add up for the elite.
Now take into consideration not just forgoing all of those pre-release formalities, but starting off your release cycle by outright giving your record away in limited-release vinyl to 2,500 of your most devoted fans, allowing another 15,000 to digitally download it, and giving an additional 65,000 the ability to listen to it, meaning the foundation of your sales base just got handed your record for free.
That is what Eric Church did with Mr. Misunderstood, and the result was still Certified Platinum status.
Confirmed on Monday (1-22), the 2016 CMA Album of the Year has now sold over 1 million copies when factoring in physical sales and streaming equivalents, which is pretty incredible when you consider all that went into it, or more accurately, what didn’t. Beyond giving away so many copies initially, Eric Church really didn’t promote the release even after the surprise debut on the day of the 2015 CMA Awards.
And remember what else happened on November 3rd, 2015? It was the night Chris Stapleton shocked the world by winning New Artist of the Year, Album of the Year, and Male Vocalist of the year, and then turned in the marquee performance of the night with Justin Timberlake. Make no mistake, part of the calculus for Eric Church must have been to create more buzz than anyone else heading into the 2015 CMAs, and hoping to have an opportunity at the podium to help promote the release. But Eric Church was locked out of the major awards like most everyone else, and by the time the local news started, Church and his surprise album were an afterthought.
And still, the long game paid off for Eric Church. He bet on the fact that showing loyalty to his notoriously loyal fans base would be reciprocated and rewarded. And it was. He bet that if he released a more stripped-down, songwriting-centered effort, it would be appreciated even more than some big production. And he was right. Eric Church achieved critical acclaim with an Album of the Year win at the 2016 CMAs. And now he’s received certified commercial success. And most importantly, he reached a level of maturity with his music where both were possible.
I’m not sure the lesson of the Mr. Misunderstood release is to keep your record a secret. That won’t work for many artists not named Eric Church. But it does prove you can still side step the hoopla, put out the record you want with a limited recording schedule, a skeleton crew for studio personnel and co-songwriters, give it away to your most loyal customers, and still make a mint. Or maybe Eric Church and Mr. Misunderstood‘s success wasn’t in lieu of these things, it was because of them.