George Strait not only has one of the longest hot streaks of hit-making in any genre, but he’s achieved it during three-plus decades on the same label, MCA Nashville.
“Every fan of country music has their favorite artists,” says Mike Dungan, chairman/CEO of Universal Music Nashville Entertainment, parent of MCA Nashville, “and they are usually more than happy to tell you who they are. But inevitably they end with the words, ‘And of course, George Strait. I always love George Strait.'”
The Texas-born artist has earned that devotion by putting out consistently strong music, but his fan base has also been successfully cultivated through savvy marketing strategies executed by a loyal team at his label. Executives past and present enjoy recalling their achievements on behalf of the “King of Country” in the years since he released his debut, “Strait Country,” in 1981.
Among the first challenges that MCA overcame in getting Strait to A-level status was expanding his support beyond the Lone Star state.
“Strait could go gold in the state of Texas alone,” recalls Shelia Shipley Biddy, president of Flying Island Entertainment president, and previously senior VP of national promotion at MCA Nashville. “A lot of stations in the Northeast, Midwest and Northwest were like, ‘What’s the big deal?’ They played him but they didn’t get it.”
To educate those programmers, the label flew them to a special showcase in 1986.
“It was a huge event with radio nationwide,” recalls Shipley Biddy, who worked 24 No. 1 Strait singles during her tenure at MCA (1984-94) before becoming senior VP/GM of Decca Records. “We had all the promotion people there, had a big dinner and did the show. It was a pivotal point for us to show what George Strait was all about.”
Strait’s career is populated with enviable milestones for MCA. “We were the first label to debut an album at No. 1 and that was “Ocean Front Property,” Shipley Biddy says of the 1987 release. “Back in that day, part of your marketing was calling on the retail reporters to give you a No. 1 store report. This was pre-SoundScan.”
Another pivotal moment in Strait’s career was his starring role in the 1992 film “Pure Country.”
“The movie was huge for us,” Shipley Biddy says. “We did screenings in different cities. We worked with the film company to develop all kinds of packages we offered to radio…That movie took George to a new level. It made him this icon. If you loved him in the movie, it wasn’t that far a reach from who George really is, even though it wasn’t supposed to be about him.”
Shipley Biddy attributes Strait’s longevity to song sense and authenticity. “He knows what kind of songs to choose that fit him. He knows a great song,” she says. “He has great ears and he’s been true to that. He’s true to himself and he’s never sold out.”
While Strait has announced he was retiring from the road, he does plan to continue to record. He launched the Cowboy Rides Away tour this year, with final tour dates in 2014 and only one-off shows planned after that.
“The Cowboy Rides Away tour is an emotional roller coaster and the fans are singing every song louder than George can sing them,” says Universal Music Group Nashville senior VP Cindy Mabe. “George also gives away homes for military warriors each night onstage on this tour. It’s an emotionally moving experience that brings the tour full circle. If you don’t get choked up, you don’t have a pulse. These shows are moving and energetic and incredible.”
Strait’s current album, “Love Is Everything,” arrived May 14 and debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart.
“As far as marketing this album, first and foremost, it started with a great song, ‘Give It All We Got Tonight.’ It was a different, sexy, surprising choice for George and it made the fans react,” Mabe says.
“As the single went to radio, and the heaviness of the farewell tour weighed on us and the fans, we decided to create a campaign, a full-blown movement to get the fans, radio and the artists and industry behind a plan to get George’s 60th No. 1 song while he was still 60 years old.”
(Of the songs that his label counts as chart-toppers on charts from various publications, 44 have gone to No. 1 in Billboard.)
The label campaign, Mabe says, “was called the Sixty for Sixty movement. George turned 61 on May 18 so we wanted to push the fans, friends and industry to react immediately to help push the song to No. 1. It worked in a big way.”
The label launched a website (sixtyforsixty.com) and collected birthday messages and well wishes from fans.
“We built a radio tracker application to keep track of stations as they supported the movement and played ‘Give It All We Got Tonight’ so the fans and the industry could stay connected on the progress we were making every day,” Mabe says. “Then we enlisted the help of other artists, actors and sports figures to give it a viral push. Those videos were picked up by radio station sites, news publications and entertainment outlets alike.
“Ultimately, it created a lot of noise for both the single and the Cowboy Rides Away tour and it put a sense of urgency in getting the song to No. 1 in a tight time frame. It allowed the fans for the first time to help be a part of the process of helping George make history and they went to work.”
Though Strait has long been media shy and hesitant to do interviews, he gave the label the tools it needed for the Sixty for Sixty campaign.
“George also gave us days to answer the questions the fans wanted to know and talk about the making of this album and the stories behind these songs,” Mabe says. “Because George has been hesitant about doing a lot of media interviews over the years, he has built a rabid fan base who all go to his Facebook page and his website to get official information and stay as connected as possible to their favorite artist. That is why his social numbers are enormous. The fans have been trained to go to one place to get the information instead of information being leaked from various media outlets.
“The upside of George not doing a lot of media has been that it has made any interview so much more valuable and sought after,” Mabe adds. “It has certainly pushed the fans to his social pages. It has also built an environment of when he does say something, the fans know it’s important.”
Strait has 5.2 million Facebook likes. “In a one-year time period George has increased his Facebook followers by more than three quarters of a million ‘likes,’ which make him in the top three of our roster of artists,” Mabe says. “George’s highest demographic on Facebook is 18-34, which counts for 46% of his likes.”
Though Strait may be retiring next year from the road, Mabe doesn’t see his career winding down. “His strong song sense has brought him this far and will allow him to stay as long as he wants,” she says. “We just released the second single from this album, ‘I Believe,’ a song he wrote with his son Bubba and Dean Dillon. It was initially inspired by the Sandy Hook [shooting] tragedy. ‘I Believe’ gives the fans perhaps the deepest, most personal look at his faith. He just wanted the families who have lost children to know how much he understands what they are going through, as he has experienced it in his own personal life with the death of his daughter [who died in a car accident in 1986]. George’s music will continue to evolve and move listeners but will always stay true to who he is. That’s what the fans know.
“He is one of the most important music artists of all genres of all time,” Mabe adds. “His impact will continue with or without a tour because it lives in his songs and his interpretation of those songs, and he’s not close to being done with that.”
Dungan agrees. “George has experienced such a long and successful career for this simple reason: George Strait music soothes the human soul,” he says. “Rarely challenging, but almost always mesmerizing. No matter what style he is performing, George brings you to a place of comfort, a place where the listener can just sit back and smile, where all is good and right in the world. Who else can claim that? Who else can pull together such a diverse group of fans of all ages and types? He is one of a kind, and we are so proud to represent him and his music.”