There's a scene in this just-released video for Eric Church's new song "Desperate Man," initially viewable only through Amazon, where some ostensible feds come busting in to search the family home of Church's small-time hustler character. Only, the block lettering on the backs of their dark blue windbreakers doesn't spell out FBI but EMI, the shortened name of his record label. He's run afoul of these authorities because of a scheme to bootleg his own music and give it away à la Robin Hood. In the clip, his associates — including the song's long-haired Texan co-writer Ray Wylie Hubbard — manage to pull off the operation before they are apprehended, dropping cases of vinyl from a plane, smuggler-style. At the close of the video, directed by Reid Long and Church's longtime manager John Peets, the final text that flashes across the screen proclaims that this has been "an EMI Records Nashville Production."
Church is playing a part in the video, of course — a variation on the outlaw persona he has refined over the last dozen years, a consummate blend of posturing and confession, boasting and brooding, theatricality and self-awareness. He always seems to have it both ways, including when he's sustaining his superstar stature while abiding only selectively by the rules and customs of the country music industry, a world in which artists' cooperation counts for a lot.
When he releases the album Desperate Man in early October, he'll be six albums into one of the most solid major-label runs of his generation, and two albums into a subversive streak of furnishing paying members of his fan club, the Church Choir, with his music for free. Back in 2015, Church went so far as to record Mr. Misunderstood without his label's knowledge and to buy a European pressing plant in order to speed up its manufacture; vinyl arrived at fans' homes out of the blue, before the music had been distributed to critics and journalists. Much of the media coverage fixated on the fact that this was country's first major surprise release, but the bigger deal was the way that Church and his team were disrupting country's standard model for promoting and profiting from music. (Though it might seem old-school next to the rapidly shape-shifting industry practices of mainstream pop and SoundCloud rap, country labels still launch press and radio campaigns months out, in hopes of drumming up sales and streams on an album's release day.) Church was establishing a new pattern.
Last Thursday, his fan club members received streaming access to this new song — a spry classic-rock boogie that an NPR Music editor likened to The Rolling Stones' "Sympathy For the Devil" — a day ahead of everyone else. In a few months, members will have an exclusive pressing of the latest album to look forward to as well. Though country music has a robust tradition of artists cultivating significant relationships with their fan clubs — to the point that a club's most active members were sometimes the ones stumping for magazines and newspapers to publish articles on their favorite singers and radio stations to play their songs before the professionalized roles of publicist and radio promoter existed (here's an excellent book on the subject) — what Church is doing stands out in the contemporary landscape. He (and his management) are wagering that rewarding the devotion of highly engaged fans will serve him better in the long haul than just trying to move units or gain casual listeners through radio hits. It's a bold, and savvy, bet.