By Simon Glickman Hits Magazine 08/02/12
“This project has been a great vehicle for me to discover my purpose,” says The Civil Wars manager and Sensibility Recordings head Nate Yetton, “which is to contribute to a kind of industry reform.”
Yetton—who also launched the pubco Sensibility Music, which is co-run by his brother, Travis—has helped guide The Civil Wars to gold sales for their 2011 album Barton Hollow (certification is pending), massive digital reach, unprecedented cross-format video play, placement on the T Bone Burnett-powered Hunger Games soundtrack and a splashy Grammy appearance (the latter two involving collaborations with superstar admirer Taylor Swift), among other triumphs.
And the kind of reform he’s talking about? “It’s better for the culture overall when artists have leverage to truly partner with corporations, and with better terms,” he says. “When artists and their teams build this leverage, it hopefully results in less corporate interference in the making of the art, and the marketing of more compelling music. The digital age and a new kind of word-of-mouth allow for excellent artists to grow this kind of career, with patience and strategy.”
Of course, artists also get that kind of leverage by proving they can draw a crowd on their own. And that is precisely what the Americana duo—comprised of singer/songwriters Joy Williams (who happens to be Yetton’s wife) and John Paul White—did before they recorded a note of their breakthrough album.
For years, Yetton and Williams had resisted turning their personal partnership into a professional one, despite both having been in the biz—she’d had a solo-artist deal with a Sony label, while he’d been an A&R exec at EMI—but finally cast their lot together when they founded their company to do artist development and support her career.
Williams, like White, had worked steadily as a songwriter for other artists; when the tunesmiths sat down together, the musical chemistry in evidence gave rise to something new. “It was a kind of safe haven from their commercial songwriting gigs,” Yetton explains. “They started what became The Civil Wars without goals or expectations.”
They decided to post a live recording of their second performance as a band online as an experiment, letting people download it for free and not asking so much as an e-mail in return. Live at Eddie’s Attic was offered as a .zip file on the band’s site, and they hoped it would generate 10-20k downloads in its first eight months. The concert recording passed the 20k benchmark in just a few weeks.
“We realized there was natural word of mouth,” Yetton recalls, “and we really didn’t want to go to the industry first. We didn’t want Joy and John Paul to become this shopped product. I wanted it to feel organic and let people discover it on their own.”
That organic ideal extended to the recording of Barton Hollow, which was lovingly produced by Nashville Brahmin Charlie Peacock. “He’s really a selfless producer,” Yetton says of Peacock, whom he calls a mentor. “He said making it was like taking Polaroids, capturing the best angles on what they were doing. It’s just pure performance.”
Focusing on online outreach and touring, Yetton and the band continued to let the word spread naturally. Having decided to release the album on his own label, Nate assembled a team and set up the digital-sales program himself: “With Tunecore, you have a portal to e-tailers,” he points out. “And because I had relationships with iTunes and Amazon, I didn’t want to give up 25% to a distributor when I could give Tunecore $50 and retain our digital revenue.” (He continues to reap big benefits from that arrangement—Amazon’s $2.99 sale spiked the band’s online sales by 130% in the first week of July.)
But when it came to physical retail, Yetton decided he needed a partner. Enter former EMI sales exec Shawn Fowler, who’d recently hung up a shingle as Tonetree Music to consult on physical sales for individual projects. Fowler drew up a plan and went into the marketplace with a difficult assignment: find a distributor that wouldn’t insist on taking a slice of the digital pie as well. After much searching, Fowler struck a hard-goods-only deal with Orange County-based Super D. Barton Hollow went into mom-and-pop record stores nationwide, with only a few pieces per outlet.
In the first week of release, the title track became the iTunes Single of the Week, began a nine-day reign atop the Apple store’s albums chart and powered the sale of 25,000 albums—96% of which were digital. From that 4% physical-sales floor, Yetton, Fowler and company gradually raised the threshold—first to 10%, then 20%, as awareness rose. It now amounts to about 35% of overall sales, but at times digital and physical albums have sold equally. (They’ve even sold about 8,000 vinyl LPs.)
That Barton Hollow was a real story wasn’t lost on other distributors and big-box retailers, who began pressuring Sensibility to up its distribution radically. “They wanted us to start shipping in 30,000 to 50,000 records,” Yetton remembers. “They said, ‘You need to create a marketplace now that it’s selling.’ But we wanted to let people discover it—to create a demand we could meet, rather than oversupply.” Best Buy was the first of the big boxes to enter the fray, followed by Target. Team Civil Wars filled the orders that came in, but resisted the temptation to ramrod the supply chain.
“We weren’t foolish with it,” Yetton clarifies. “We made sure we had the product. But we didn’t over-manufacture and we didn’t over-ship. And on the industry side, we made sure people knew what was going on without pitching too hard.”
As a result, biz people discovered much the way fans did—through word of mouth. Thus superfan Rosanne Cash shared Barton Hollow with Burnett, who then approached the band about contributing music to the Hunger Games album. (In addition to contributing a track of their own, they were brought in to write with Swift—and ended up recording that collaboration on the day it was composed.) Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich, in turn, was hipped to the record by Burnett.
Video was also key to the album’s explosion. VH1 made The Civil Wars a “You Oughta Know” artist (Yetton gives a shout-out to major fan Rick Krim), and CMT also jumped in early. It’s a rare thing for a video to fly in both of these divergent formats, and Yetton acknowledges that the success of Americana-friendly projects like Mumford & Sons, Avett Brothers, Nickel Creek and the Grammy-winning Robert Plant-Alison Krauss album helped lay the groundwork.
For international distribution, Sensibility partnered with Columbia/Sony UK. Though the record hasn’t yet had a chance to develop internationally, tours in the U.K. (including an opening slot for band booster Adele) and other global territories are in the offing. Of course, Yetton and Williams are currently dealing with an even fresher release—their newborn son Miles Alexander, who debuted at the end of June.
Still, Yetton has permitted his somewhat sleep-deprived mind to ponder the next Civil Wars album. He insists it’s Peacock’s to produce, if he wants to do so; he’s considering various retail partners (a certain purveyor of caffeinated beverages, for example) for next time; and is even dreaming of “more bolstered packaging—maybe even a double gatefold.”
Will he stay indie or finally ink with a corporation, now that The Civil Wars has the leverage? “Being the manager and the label has taken a toll,” he admits with a laugh, “but we haven’t made that decision yet.”
Most importantly, Yetton points out that the organic success of Barton Hollow sets them up for greater growth next time rather than creating blockbuster expectations. “Our agent, Frank Riley, advised us: ‘How they ascend is how they will descend,’” he remembers. “If we can keep it natural and gradual, it’ll be an easier progression.”
Even so, he muses, “This project has allowed me to tap into a scary sense of ambition and drive. The band’s talent, taste and precision allow me to be as ambitious as I want to be.”