How does a 45-year old heavy metal band with fewer than 10 million monthly Spotify listeners manage to break into the best-performing albums of 2021?
The answer is, true to the band’s style, rather old-fashioned: By throwing vinyl LPs and CDs into Targets and Wal-Marts.
Over the past week, while Kanye West and Drake drew most of the chart attention in the battle between Donda and Certified Lover Boy for Number One, Iron Maiden quietly made waves of its own when the long-running heavy metal fixture scored its highest-ever chart debut for Senjutsu, the band’s 17th studio album. Senjutsu bowed at Number Four on the Rolling Stone 200 Albums chart, and it got to Number Three on Billboard’s 200 — nabbing a larger opening than even the band’s platinum-certified classics like Powerslave and The Number of the Beast.
Senjutsu is also one of just five rock albums overall, and the only heavy metal album, to open to a top-five debut this year.
Rather than relying on streaming, nearly 90 percent of Senjutsu’s sales came from pure album sales, Rolling Stone chart data shows, and the ratio represents by far the highest percentage of pure album sales on the chart. (Imagine Dragons’ latest project Mercury – Act 1 was a distant second at 50 percent). Of those album sales, nearly 70 percent came from large physical retailers, reflecting a largely physical-driven market that the band further bolstered with exclusives at stores.
Iron Maiden can move product, so the band’s team pushed hard on collectibles and physical product, sending out 15,000 special edition CDs to Target and 10,000 limited edition red vinyl to Wal-Mart, along with posters with the record for the indie retailers. “We decided we wanted to live at Target after not being in those stores for over a decade,” Michael Kachko, senior vice president of catalog recordings at Iron Maiden’s label BMG, tells Rolling Stone. “Given the decreasing retail space, we thought fans would show up. We’ve built a great relationship with Wal-Mart over the last few years. We knew where we had success between Book of Souls and now, with that album and with other catalog initiatives. So we fed into that and executed well. It’s a good place to be to attract the retailers by giving something unique.”
Iron Maiden wasn’t looking to reinvent the wheel when it came to finding ways to sell Senjutsu, Dave Shack, managing director of Iron Maiden’s management company Phantom Music Management says. The band has never been oriented toward radio or passive listening formats like streaming, so they focus on active purchases instead.
“Rod [Smallwood, the band’s longtime manager] wrote the rulebook back in the Eighties,” Shack says. “He realized quickly that this isn’t a band getting airplay on the radio, so he decided to focus on retail. While other people were fawning over the promo guys, he was getting close with people going to retail, merchandising it.”
Such a strategy pushed the band up the charts as they went mainstream, with Book of Souls hitting Number Four on Billboard’s chart in 2015 on similarly strong sales, encouraging BMG and Maiden that they could perform even better now.
Over the past 40 years, Maiden has built one of the most recognizable brands in music culture through Eddie, the band’s zombie-like mascot that has been featured on the cover of all their albums alongside hundreds of thousands of t-shirts, a mobile game and a specialty beer. Through Eddie, the band has amassed a media and merchandising empire that the band feels they can most effectively leverage through physical goods.
“We’re interested in building streams, obviously, we want the next generation of fans. But the band is built with Eddie, and the visuals,” Kachko says. “They’ve built such a strong brand that not only do we want a younger fanbase to be streaming the music for exposure, this is a band that demands a physical purchase. These are albums the audience wants to own, not just stream.”
Focusing on pure album sales allows the band’s team to work the whole album rather than focus on one or two hit singles, which Kachko calls refreshing. The team is still intent on working the tracks, with “Writing On the Wall” getting rock radio play, but the songs are still an entry point to purchase rather than the main focus, Kachko says.
But BMG and Maiden’s team do want to engineer the band’s business for the future. Senjutsu is Maiden’s first album since streaming became the most popular and lucrative listening format in music. The band is looking to increase its stream count and draw in younger listeners to its deeper catalog, and has seen some success in that effort for the new album’s rollout. BMG wants to introduce the band to younger listeners, helping start new partnerships to expand beyond their core audience. The label facilitated a music video premiere for “Stratego” on Adult Swim and got popular video game League of Legends to play “Writing on the Wall” during one of the game’s recent competitions.
They’ve seen support from streamers too. Iron Maiden was featured in Spotify’s Rock This playlist, the platform’s most popular rock playlist, in a large Spotify advertisement in Times Square when the album dropped. The band has close to 8 million monthly listeners and has the benefit of a deep catalog, which drives most listening on streaming — but like much of the broader rock and metal landscape, Iron Maiden has a bigger challenge pushing new music in an ecosystem that rewards brevity.
“It’s been an education for us,” Shack says. “Back in 2015, when we did The Book of Souls, it was still so nascent. It was new with the digital space. When I look at the digitals now, every DSP wants unique artwork, special audio, and we’re delivering both. The DSPs are showing us respect and we’re learning quickly, but we know we’re against the eight ball when it comes to streaming. Our songs are long, and they aren’t easy to playlist. We get to our chorus in three minutes and even then that could be short for us.”
Of course, above any other frills and strategies, it helps that the album has been met with almost universal critical acclaim — yet another rarity for a band so deep into its tenure. In a slower week without two superstars duking it out, Maiden may have had a chance at an even higher placing, a notion not lost on Shack.
But he’ll take the wins where he can. “We were pretty confident we could be in the game, and then the game got taken away from us at the eleventh hour when Drake and Kanye came in,” Shack says. We did the best we could. We have well over a dozen number ones around Europe with it, and we sold a lot of records. It was a modern day take way on selling music versus an old fashioned one, and I’m showing you it’s still relevant. We weren’t going to beat them with all the streams but we took some global markets and we gave a run to the end. We managed to give them a bloody nose.”