Scott Brickell of Brickhouse Entertainment admits he wasn't exactly impressed with Christian rock band MercyMe when a promoter pitched the group to fill a local opening slot for Audio Adrenaline in 1995. Managing the group was definitely not in his plans, but the members changed his mind.
"I had [already] turned them down to open for us. The demo the promoter sent to me just wasn't that great of a demo. When I listened to it, I didn't think they'd be able to pull it off. I finally said they could come do the show, but I made [the experience] difficult for them," Brickell told POLLSTAR. "On the second song of their set, I was going to walk over and stand next to the promoter and say 'See, I told you so,' but I stood there and watched their whole show. I loved it."
"In my opinion, they weren't the best band I had ever seen, but they were really, really, really good for a band that was making a living at it and not signed."
Frontman Bart Millard said landing that opening slot was the start of a close friendship with Brickell that, over time, developed into a win-win situation for both parties.
"We became really good friends over the years and kept that relationship going, so when [the signing with INO Records] happened, we had already earned the trust of a manager and knew him well," Millard told POLLSTAR. "It's really tough to entrust your whole career to someone in a quick amount of time. When you sign the deal, everything starts going so fast. It was really a benefit to already know [Scott]."
Texas-based MercyMe, comprising singer/songwriter Millard, keyboardist Jim Bryson, guitarist Mike Scheuchzer, bassist Nathan Cochran and drummer Robby Shaffer, formed in 1994 and built a solid fan base through performing at local churches and other venues and a Web site with about 6,000 e-mail addresses. Before signing with INO, they had produced six independent albums.
"Because of all the church camps and [being] willing to travel as far as we needed to, we really got a following going where we were doing about 200 dates a year for, like, four or five years," Millard said. "I think our biggest promotion was we'd play for free, we'd play for whatever you could give us. As long as we could pay for the gas to get there, we'd be fine."
But that was before Millard penned a song called "I Can Only Imagine," for The Worship Project album. Until that point, the band thought selling 1,000 CDs in a couple of months was a big deal. Between local airplay and the Internet, sales suddenly went through the roof.
"We were overwhelmed. All of a sudden, out of our garage, we're shipping CDs to over 400 book stores," Millard said. "I think we sold about 65,000 to 70,000 units of that independent project before we ever signed a record deal, within about two years. We really didn't know what we had on our hands. We just thought it was a cool song."
The single was included on the band's 2001 INO Records debut, Almost There, which went gold and earned MercyMe three Dove Awards the following year. Its 2002 sophomore release, Spoken For, debuted at No. 1 on the Christian charts and has garnered several more Dove nominations for the band.
So how much better can it get for MercyMe? As with bands like Creed and P.O.D., MercyMe has scored a mainstream radio hit with "I Can Only Imagine." Millard said a DJ at a Dallas station, which has a playlist including Justin Timberlake, Jennifer Lopez, Jay-Z and Nickelback, was the catalyst to getting the band noticed.
"The song ... which is blatantly Christian ... was played on the air, and they got flooded with phone calls about how [people] couldn't believe they played it; they had never heard it and loved it," he said. It became one of the top five requested songs, then hit No.1 within a day.
Millard, who said the band's influences include U2, Dave Matthews Band, and Avril Lavigne, was openly amazed.
"We never planned on it. You kind of sign your death certificate when you write about Jesus stuff in your lyrics, as far as mainstream goes, which we kind of assumed," he said. "I think it's awesome that all types of people can appreciate the music. True music lovers recognize the passion ... whatever you write about."
"After 9/11, it's not that everybody wants to get saved and be Christians; people are just looking for answers. Everybody wants to have some kind of faith," Millard added.
MercyMe is currently on a 50-plus-date tour of the U.S. with Audio Adrenaline that will continue through late fall. Brickell said plans for a European tour are also in the works.
Millard said the band is also working toward a February 2004 date to release its next album, and he's preparing to launch a new record label with MercyMe producer Peter Kipley called Simple Records. And then there's squeezing in time for the band members' families as well as the fans.
"Anytime you connect with the audience, and they say that what you're doing is good, it's a relief and it's very exhilarating," Millard said. "We're doing less shows, but we're reaching more people. It's blowing our minds but it's such a fun ride."
Brickell summed up his experience with MercyMe as being similar to a marriage where good communication and commitment make it a relationship that will endure.
"It's just so mind-boggling what's happened to [the band] in the past two years. It's the dream, actually, to be the fastest-selling new artist in Christian music history, every new artist... strives for," he said. "In a climate and a market where CD sales aren't the best, it's fun to be able to relax a little bit."