How does a band with no mainstream radio play pull off a wildly successful tour? That's a question that gets asked often in this industry, but is the answer any different when the band is stamped with the "Christian" label?
The solution, at least for Southern rockers Third Day, is similar to many hard-touring bands with little radio play: massive amounts of grassroots marketing.
"For Christian concerts, certainly for our shows and what we expect from promoters for everybody to win, there's a lot of mailing to churches throughout the area," Third Day bassist Tai Anderson told POLLSTAR a week after the band's 51-date spring tour ended with a hometown Atlanta blowout.
"Maybe it's a little more underground; you're not going to see a TV ad or billboards or even as many radio ads, but you're going to see a lot of mailings to this network of what they call 'gatekeepers,' which would be like the youth pastor of a church," Anderson said. "If you can get the youth pastor on board and then he brings his 40 kids, then there's a big win there."
The band has also taken advantage of the benefits technology affords. Anderson said the band uses its Web site as a way to not only tell fans about upcoming shows, but also to get them to become a part of the promotional process.
"When you know you have an e-mail list of 50,000 people and you see the traffic on the site, you know it's something valuable. So, we're kicking around ideas on how to make it concrete," he said. "What if you give somebody a T-shirt? That costs you four or five bucks but if that person helps you get 10 people in the house, that's worth a lot more to you."
Furthering the idea that involved fans are loyal fans, the band has made its promotional tour posters available on the site in a PDF format for the kids to print and post in schools and coffee shops.
"Our fans get excited about that because they like being ambassadors and they like being a part of that street team idea. It's something that's really cool because your fans are already invested in the show before it happens."
To ensure that nobody is left out because of high ticket costs, Third Day has an unofficial policy to keep admission prices below $30. But, Anderson said, prices don't affect the quality of production, which the band strives to keep at a level worthy of a smaller-scale U2.
"When it comes to production, we always want people to get the kind of show that they'd normally spend twice as much money to see. ... Just because it's a Christian fan doesn't make them any less of a body in the house, and it doesn't make the money they're spending any less legal tender."
The strategies have all worked to give Third Day some of the most dedicated fans this side of a Grateful Dead spin-off.
"I think what you see with Christian fans, certainly with our fans, is just incredible loyalty. If we're selling 500,000 to 700,000 records and a 50-city tour has over 200,000 people, a very significant number of our fans come out to the show."
The phenomenon looks to be taking off. Third Day's latest album, Come Together, sold 108,000 copies in November, its first month out, according to manager David Huffman. The group's two prior albums, Time and Offerings, have been recently certified gold and, for the second year in a row, the boys have walked away with a handful of Dove Awards including group of the year.
And to say that Third Day's presence on the radio is nil would actually be a misstatement. In fact, the band recently landed its 18th No. 1 Christian single when "It's Alright" debuted at the top of Radio & Records' Christian AC Top 30 list. The same song is at No. 3 on the Christian CHR list.
"I think we've had to work really hard to get to where we are and we'll have to continue to work really hard to stay at this level or grow," Anderson said. "In those early years, you really have to fight for everything. Now, it becomes a lot more exponential, when you come back to a town and it just doubles."
One of the most noteworthy aspects of the Come Together Tour was a partnership with Habitat For Humanity that saw $1 from every ticket go to the nonprofit. That, too, came with some promotion.
"We sent out to roughly 5,000 church youth groups a video that talked about what churches and individuals and civic groups could do with Habitat for Humanity in their local market," Huffman said. "The B part of that video was, 'Oh yeah, we're also touring in the spring as well.'"
The project required an amazing amount of cooperation among all parties involved with the tour, which is one of the things the members of Third Day had in mind when they presented it.
"That affected the agents' fees, that affected management's fees and it affected the amount of money the artists were able to take home," Huffman explained. "We strongly all unified behind them on that front and honestly, it was a great point of unity."
The same contribution will be in place for the second leg of the tour, which will hit around 20 cities in the fall.
In November, Third Day and Michael W. Smith will combine their respective routings into one package, the Come Together and Worship Tour. Details for that outing are still being sketched out.