Eric Church

Eric Church performs onstage at the 49th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on November 4, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Rick Diamond/Getty Images

Eric Church's new surprise, Mr. Misunderstood -- the singer had CDs arrive unannounced at fan club members' doorsteps the day before the Country Music Awards -- was just as much of a surprise to brick-and-mortar shops and streaming services as it was to his biggest fans... and not exactly a pleasant one.

After the Beyonce's strategy-defining midnight drop was made available exclusively on iTunes, and in the wake of U2's (much-criticized) deal with Apple to have Songs of Innocence show up inside hundreds of millions of iTunes accounts, Church and his management team, with its unannounced physical distribution, was trying to bring a new approach to the stealth album release strategy.

Not only did the artist and his label, Universal Nashville, keep the album under wraps from his fans, they also didn’t tell retailers -- at least, most retailers -- that it was coming. In another twist, instead of giving it exclusively to iTunes (where it currently sits at No. 2 on the digital store's album chart), Universal Nashville and Universal Music Group also gave it to brick-and-mortar retailers... but even here they employed subterfuge. UMG sales reps told most of their retail accounts that the company was issuing a compilation of Christmas music, and that the artists on the record would be kept a secret until the CMA’s broadcast, leaving stores to order the album blind.

Consequently, some accounts -- none of which knew its true identity until Wed., Nov. 4 -- tell Billboard they under-ordered the "Christmas" album, and now that they have a discovered that it's Eric Church's fifth LP they say they would have ordered between two to eight times as many units.

Meanwhile, the three biggest accounts for Chruch's previous album Outsiders -- iTunes, Walmart and Target -- were told about the album in advance, according to sources.

To add to the confusion, iTunes is marketing the album as an exclusive, with Billboard sources saying it will retain that exclusivity for a week, when the rest of the digital account base will be given access to sell the album, meaning streaming sites will be without Mr. Misunderstood for seven days, from the day that Church's fan club members first started to receive it. In an e-mail, Universal Nashville spokesperson Lori Christian confirms the various artist Christmas album ploy and the iTunes digital exclusive. Furthermore, as of this morning (Nov. 6) the album wasn't available on Amazon, in either digital or physical formats. It's unclear if the physical album's absence from Amazon store is because the company is protesting iTunes' exclusivity, or because the online giant didn't order the album because it didn't know what it was. Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Church’s last album, Outsiders, which has scanned 1.1 million units to date, sold 288,000 in its debut week, but chain and indie retailers were only responsible for shifting 18,000 of those units. iTunes, meanwhile, moved 144,000 units. Mass merchants, i.e. Walmart and Target, appear to have sold another 126,000 that debut week. With those accounts getting advance notice on Mr. Misunderstood, giving them the chance to set up as best as possible the surprise, Mr. Misunderstood will have the chance at a strong sales start, even though not all retailers were in on the charade. A Universal Nashville spokeswoman couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.

So: sales accounts with the best track records behind Church are in good shape for his new record, which means the ploy could still yield first week sales bonanza since, those accounts were responsible for 94 percent of Church's last debut week sales.While other retailers are happy that the Church album isn't only exclusively available at the big three merchants, their reaction to the subterfuge ranges from bemused to slightly annoyed. “This release could be the sequel to Spinal Tap -- how not to distribute an album,” says one music merchandiser. “It's like they went to two high school kids and asked them to come up with some creative ideas on how to release an album.”

As a result, “the allocation to accounts are screwed up,” says one retailer. Yet, at least brick-and-mortar accounts weren't left out in the cold completely from another iTunes or mass merchant exclusive. Technically, they had a chance to stock the record -- even if they didn't know what they would be carrying.

Retail sources suggest that the release strategy came from Church’s management team at Q-Prime, and wasn't Universal Nashville’s idea.

One retailer says his company was tipped off by Church management and had time to adjust their order, accordingly. Obviously, not everyone was given that courtesy. One music merchandiser thinks that the industry might be taking this whole stealth release strategy too far.

“I guess when I get solicited for the next Barry Manilow album, I should double down on the order and assume its a surprise release from Bruce Springsteen,” he quips.