Last year, Eric Church jumped on one of modern music’s biggest trends, following Beyoncé, U2, David Bowie, and others by releasing what is widely thought to be the first surprise album in country music. While most unexpected releases arrive in digital form, with a physical version rolling out weeks later, Church dropped his record with an additional fan-centric flourish, mailing vinyl copies of Mr. Misunderstood directly to members of his fan club in secret. The record drew five nominations for the 2016 CMA Awards, including Album of the Year.
“I didn’t choose this,” he says of Mr. Misunderstood‘s out-of-the-blue inception. “I didn’t want it, I didn’t need it — it just happened. I’m proud that we released it in the moment vs. doing what everybody would have done, which is wait until you’ve got a tour coming and a way to promote it. When something arrives like that, I do believe it’s a crime against that creativity to go, ‘no, we’ll see you in six months.'”
Church is lounging on a plush leather couch in the corner of a hotel bar in midtown Manhattan. Later that night, he’ll perform his latest single, “Kill A Word” — which recently cracked the top 25 on the Country Airplay chart — with Rhiannon Giddens on The Tonight Show. In place of his standard performance outfit of boots and shades, he’s wearing jeans and sneakers. (A pair of shades hangs around his neck in case of emergencies.) And though he brings a solemn, grim authority to his live shows, he’s genial in person and quick to laugh.
The spirit of Mr. Misunderstood‘s release guided Church’s hand as he planned the recently announced Holdin’ My Own Tour, which starts next January in Lincoln, Nebraska. Church devised a system to bypass scalpers and once again prioritize his supporters by sending a pre-sale link only to members of his fan club. He also vetted ticket orders, flagging suspiciously large or multi-city purchases as the work of potential scalpers. Tickets will arrive close to the date of each performance, so as to minimize the impact of the resale market.
“We’ve always been fighting scalpers,” Church says. “We had some tech glitches, but we found the best way to figure out how the scalpers are, who the fans are, and make a system that works for them.”
Church presents his new method of ticket distribution as a way to battle larger income disparities in American society. “I think too many artists, whether it’s a record or a ticket, they just want butts in the seats or platinum albums,” he explains. “There’s a better way to serve the fans, especially in this world where there’s so much entitlement everywhere,” he adds. His manager, John Peets, used similar language in a statement accompanying the tour announcement: “In this era where growing inequality seems to be the norm, we wanted to do everything within our power to put the advantage back in the hands of true fans rather than those that take advantage of the system, and by extension our people.”
As a result of his planning, Church will be surrounded by the true faithful as he plays songs from Mr. Misunderstood — many of which have never been performed before. “Our fans, the way this system is working so far, they’re gonna be the ones in the pit, they’re gonna be the ones on the floor, they’re gonna be the ones tight. Normally the secondary markets gets those tickets, so the fans end up having to pony up five times face value to get where they should have been anyway, or they’re up top, all the way back. It’s gonna be interesting to feel what it does to the vibe in the room when you’ve allowed the people that are the most important to be right on top of you.”
Church will need their energy: he’s slated to play 50+ dates, roughly three hours a night, with a short intermission and no opening act. “It’s never been done in country,” he notes. “Can we do it physically? Can we do it musically? I’ve had shows that have been that long, but it’s like the last show of a run. It’s not every night.”
He believes the potential upsides to this sort of performance outweigh the concerns about endurance — “You can walk out there and not have to worry about time, about how far is the next city, how fast we gotta get out of here” — and suggests the presence of his ardent admirers insulates him against risk, as it has throughout his career. “I’m here to make music pretty freely because I know they’re there,” Church says. “That gives you an amazing amount of power when you go to labels and go, ‘regardless of what you think, when we do it, this group is there.'”
Cultivating this support outside of the label system may be easier in the modern music marketplace than it was in the past. “There’s good and bad with the digital age,” Church says. “I hate a lot about it. But it’s easier to get the music out there than it is when you have the powers that be in some regards boxing people out — a la some of those Americana artists.” “Guys and girls like that can really build and grow a career,” he continues, “whereas before you had to use the industry in a lot of ways, the network that’s in Nashville.”
Church’s zealots — his fan club is called the Church Choir — gave him the upper hand when he sprang the news of an impending Mr. Misunderstood release on his label at the last minute. “Because those people are with us, they just kind of had to go with it,” he remembers. “They didn’t balk too much. We didn’t give them a lot of room to wiggle.”
Between the album drop, his careful method for selling tickets, and his unusual tour format, it’s been a year full of firsts for Church — and for country music. But the novelty factor is besides the point. “It’s not that I’m trying to do something that hasn’t been done,” Church says. “It’s just what should be done.”