Since the release of his first solo album Traveller in 2015 the world of music has become infatuated with Chris Stapleton. His strikingly honest songs and soulful voice have made him a household name, and even earned him several Grammy nominations and CMA Awards including one for New Artist of the Year. But Chris isn’t new to this game, and there’s more to him than just good songs and a great voice. The rise of Chris Stapleton has long been in the making, and the success of Traveller has more to do with good marketing than it does with great songs.
Christ Stapleton is not a new artist, at least not in the traditional sense. Stapleton has been doing this whole music thing professionally for over fifteen years, so he’s no spring chicken. When he moved to Nashville around 2001, Chris signed on as a writer with Brad Paisley’s publishing house, Sea Gayle Music. There he honed his songwriting craft for the better part of a decade, having over 150 of his songs cut by other artists and turning out multiple top-ten country songs and at least four number ones.
In 2008 he joined an already-established bluegrass band, The SteelDrivers, as their lead singer and contributing songwriter. During his stint with the band they released two albums, their self-titled debut album and Reckless, both of which peaked at #2 on the Billboard Bluegrass charts and were nominated for several Grammy awards. In 2010 Stapleton announced he was leaving The SteelDrivers to focus on raising a family while he continued to work as a songwriter for Sea Gayle Music. Shortly after leaving he formed another band, The Jompson Brothers, which took a hiatus when Stapleton signed with Mercury Records as a solo artist in 2013.
As you can see, Stapleton is not new. He’s spent the better part of fifteen years songwriting, playing, and getting his name out there and making people aware of his presence. In short, he has been marketing his brand for a long, long time.
Traveller is essentially a greatest hits album. I know what you’re thinking, “I’ve never heard any of these songs before. How can they be his greatest hits?” and you wouldn’t be wrong in thinking that. Stapleton was a professional songwriter for fifteen years, and he’s said in multiple interviews that the songs on Traveller span across that timeline. Chris handpicked each song that made its way onto Traveller for one reason or another, and knowing that he is an established chart-topping hit songwriter he probably had good reason for picking those particular songs.
The writing support he had on this album is incredible. He co-wrote most of Traveller with some huge songwriters and producers. For instance, “Parachute” was co-written with Jim Beavers, former MTSU professor and Marketing Director for Capitol and Virgin Records. In 2002 Jim became a full time songwriter, and since 2008 has co-written nine #1 songs. “Nobody to Blame” was written with Ronnie Bowman, with whom Stapleton co-wrote Kenny Chesney’s #1 hit “Never Wanted Nothing More”, and Barry Bales who has been the bass player and a contributing writer for Alison Krauss’s band Union Station for around twenty-five years. Dan Wilson, former lead singer of SemiSonic, Grammy winning producer on Adele’s album 21 and co-writer of her hit “Someone Like You”, helped Stapleton write “When the Stars Come Out.”
From the list of hit songwriters that appear on this album it is evident that Chris Stapleton has some strong networking skills. Not only did he write some great songs with some well known and sought after songwriters, he also set Traveller up to be a huge success by doing so. Not in the glaring obvious way, but in a more subtle and skillful manner.
When I moved to Nashville the first piece of advice that was given to me was, “If you want to have a #1 album, you need to write with hit songwriters.” The person giving this advice wasn’t saying, “Hit writers write hit songs which leads to a hit album.” He was making the point that writing with great songwriters exponentially increases your social network. Not only will your team be working to promote your album, those other songwriters and their teams will be working to promote it too, because now they are invested in what you’re doing. This is exactly what Chris Stapleton did. He spent fifteen years writing with the best songwriters he could find and saved the best songs for his own Greatest Hits album, knowing those songwriters would help him market it. Genius.
Chris Stapleton transcends space and time. All jokes aside, Stapleton was able to successfully execute an out of the box marketing campaign and engage customers in outside markets through cross promotion. Because he comes from such an eclectic musical history Stapleton knew he would need an equally eclectic marketing strategy behind Traveller.
Working with UMG to promote the album led to a grassroots word-of-mouth campaign that relied heavily on the strength and honesty of the record to capture an audience and turn them into mini-marketers. And it worked. It worked so well that twenty-three radio stations began playing the debut single the first week after its release. Though it didn’t get much airplay due to the negative attitude towards non-mainstream artists that pervades radio, it did get some attention. After six long months of grassroots campaigning Traveller had sold 114,000 albums and made Chris Stapleton a growing name in country music. But what really put the album over the top was the knockout blow that came in November at the 2015 CMA Awards.
With the help of pop star Justin Timberlake, Stapleton sang “Tennessee Whiskey,” a cover of a George Jones song, from the album Traveller. The performance went viral. Its presence was heavy across all social media platforms, the biggest news outlets in America were covering it, and people were heralding Chris as the savior of country music. Album sales increased by 6,000% practically overnight, and Traveller went from #9 on the Billboard charts to #1. By the end of the year the album had sold more than 520,000 copies in the U.S. alone. Chris Stapleton’s firm grasp on social media marketing, grassroots marketing, and cross promotion helped bring himself and Traveller to the pinnacle of success.
Chris Stapleton may be new to mainstream country fans, but his success didn’t happen overnight. It took many long, hardworking years of trial and error and learning the music industry to make Traveller a success. We could all learn a thing or two from him, like hard work and dedication will eventually pay off, and that having a solid, well-planned marketing campaign can mean the difference between putting out an album and putting out a #1 album.