Eric Church

Eric Church

Courtesy Photo

Eric Church’s surprise album Mr. Misunderstood sold 71,000 units -- 70,000 digitally -- in its first day-and-a-quarter of availability, for the week ended Nov. 5, according to Nielsen Music. That was good enough to come in No. 3 on the Billboard 200, behind Chris Stapleton’s Traveller and Carrie Underwood’s Storyteller.

According to Church’s manager, John Peets of Q Prime, Church and his team used a stealth approach to release the album because “we just wanted to find a way to lead with the music. We wanted to put the fans first, and figure out a way to get the album to [the retailers] to the best of our ability” -- without letting the cat out of the bag.

The best way to keep an album a secret for a surprise release is to do an exclusive with one retailer like iTunes, Walmart or Target. However Peets, who has worked closely with indie retailers through managing The Black Keys, didn’t want to cut brick-and-mortar out of the mix.

“I care about these guys, so I went to the heads of the three coalitions [CIMS, AIM, and The Department of Record Stores] and told them about the album. We talked about how to get the album to their stores, but to make sure that the release is still a surprise,” Peets says. “So we had Universal tell everybody that a various artist country Christmas album is coming out, and that it was projected to do 200,000 in the first week.”

If merchants didn’t order enough, they were nudged a second time to adjust their order. Peets says he also agreed to do something that is unheard of in the modern-day record business: allowing indies who order the vinyl version of the album to return it, just like they can with CDs.

The first part of the rollout began on Nov. 2 with the Church fan club, which has three tiers of membership. The premium and standard tiers both require payment from members (in different amounts), with a third fee-free option as well. Premium members -- 2,500 in total -- got the album for free in white vinyl with a CD included; 13,000 standard-tier members received digital downloads of the album; the 65,000-member free tier got the ability to stream the album for a couple of hours.

Considering the long waits around this time of year for vinyl manufacturing, and that Church didn’t start recording the album until just after the Labor Day weekend, Peets had a small window to get about 15,000 vinyl albums pressed -- 2,500 of them on white vinyl -- and delivered to stores by Nov. 5.

What’s more, since a surprise release can’t include announcements or interviews to set up its release, the Country Music Awards (which took place Nov. 3) was the only driver that Mr. Misunderstood had to bank on.  On the day of the awards show, Church and company held a press conference during the first commercial break, announcing the release of a song. During the show Church was introduced by Carrie Underwood, saying he would perform a brand new song from a brand new album out that day. That was followed by a national ad spot on the album in the next commercial break on the show.

Finally, the album went up on sales at iTunes immediately after it was announced during the show. iTunes had an exclusive through Thursday, but physical retail had the album for sale on Nov. 6, the Friday street date, although nearly 1,000 CD units were sold during that week, indicating that a bunch of merchants jumped the planned street date.

Meanwhile, “our new website was being revealed, all social properties were coming online with a new look… [and there was] lots of messaging to the fan base at large,” Peets says. “We had street teams working the downtown area with flyers during and after the show. We had a pop-up store in east Nashville that was themed, which opened directly after the awards show. We had a special Uber [promotion in Nashville]… that went live after the album was announced. You could order special Uber cars that were playing the album -- to give you a ride to the store or anywhere else.”

The stealth approach was taken to get the album to fans first, but also to insure that brick-and-mortar didn’t lose out to a week-long exclusive. But then the Church team and Universal Nashville went all-out. In next week’s chart, the industry will see how the launch went at those brick-and-mortar merchants. In the first day-and-half of availability Mr. Misunderstood sold less than 1,000 CD copies, according to Nielsen Music. The record is projected to sell between 75,000 and 80,000 its first week, split evenly between physical and digital.

"We aren’t going for a chart number,” Peets says. “What the sales number is a year from now is more important to us.”