The Civil Wars Case Study

(L-R): moderator Christopher Moon, Shawn Fowler, Asha Goodman, Lori Kampa and Charlie Peacock. Photo by Kevin Brown

The industry took note when the first album from indie act The Civil Wars debuted with sales of 25K units. In the almost eight months since, Barton Hollow has passed the 180K mark, currently averaging more than 3K per week (Nielsen Soundscan).

The band’s team members discussed the success story last week at one of SoundLand’s educational Field Trips, held at The Belcourt Theater. The Civil Wars weren’t attendance; about that time they they were taking the stage in London, opening for Adele at Royal Albert Hall.

Producer Charlie Peacock explained that The Civil Wars came to him as a group poised to break through. Particularly, they needed no help honing their sound. “It was already fully formed,” he said. “I just had to take a picture of it.”

Joy Williams and John Paul White had experience on their side; both had been working solo careers when they were paired randomly at a songwriting camp. That collaboration led to The Civil Wars.

Prepping the album release, the band spurred good word of mouth by giving away free copies of a live recording and selling a successful EP. Their team orchestrated radio and touring efforts, which were fueled by the hard work of Williams and White. Via a special agreement with Dualtone, the label’s Lori Kampa promoted the band to radio without signing them.

Around the February 1 release, The Civil Wars scored a visit to The Tonight Show and stepped up to the plate with a sizzling performance (see video below). Helping secure that slot was publicist Asha Goodman of Sacks & Co. “It was a dream band to work,” she said. “There were so many compelling things going on.”

Not the least of which was the music. Attorney John Strohm, who also counts rising artist Bon Iver as a client, says that what both his indie success stories have in common is undeniable music.

Even The Civil Wars’ team was a little surprised by the debut week. Shawn Fowler of Tone Tree Music had distributed physical copies to indie record stores, but the big debut left shelves empty for two weeks. Eventually the project grew to big box outlets. To date, it has sold about 70% digital and 30% physical.

Panelists report that five genres are now claiming the act, including country, where the band is up for a CMA award, and has a video in rotation on CMT.

After the release, Strohm received several calls from major labels. The attitude, he said, was generally, “Congratulations, now you’ll be needing our resources.” But The Civil Wars passed, preferring the flexibility, ownership/control, and boosted income of life outside the label system.

“It was an experiment,” sums Strohm. “But it was successful, so it was encouraging.”

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Sarah Skates has worked in the music business for more than a decade and is a longtime contributor to MusicRow.

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