When I was writing Think Like a Rock Star, one of the joys was selecting case studies from the music industry to highlight the power of embracing your most passionate customers or fans. Perhaps my favorite was the story of how Johnny Cash saved his musical career, by going to jail.
By the late 1960s, Johnny Cash’s musical career was at a crossroads. His popularity had fallen in prior years, and an inconsistent recording and touring schedule had magnified the issue. Additionally, he had spent much of the 1960s battling substance abuse, which had further sidelined his success. Yet despite his struggles, Cash had done his best to stay true to God and his family, and by 1968 Cash was sober and ready to jump start his musical career once again.
And Cash had the perfect location to start over: He would record an album at a prison.
As you might imagine, his label and management were less than thrilled with the prospect. However, Cash was an old hand at prison concerts. Since the late 1950s, Johnny had been playing in front of prison audiences. To his credit, Johnny never saw the inmates as criminals or bad people, he just seemed to view it as some of his fans happen to live in a prison. So since they couldn’t come to see him perform, he went to them.
As you can imagine, there weren’t many musical artists making the time to perform in prisons, especially not of Johnny Cash’s caliber. His series of prison concerts quickly created a very devoted fanbase among inmates for Cash, and also helped bolster his ‘outlaw’ image.
So when 1968 arrived and Cash set out to record his ‘comeback’ album, he decided it would be recorded at a prison. After finally convincing his label and management to sign off on the idea, he contacted two prisons in California that he had previously performed for; San Quentin, and Folsom State Prison. Folsom State Prison responded first and accepted. So Cash put the plan in the works to record his album there. San Quentin responded a few days later and also accepted, and Cash would later record another album there.
Since this would be a live recording, Cash needed a lively and energetic audience response to help create a better concert. To this end, Cash’s selection of a prison was the perfect venue. The prisoners understood this was a big risk for Cash, and they appreciated the trust he put into them to help him make an amazing record. As Cash waited offstage, he listened to the warden inform the inmates that they should behave, not curse, and act appropriately. Cash then came onstage to polite applause and introduced himself. Cash then reminded the audience of how they couldn’t curse, and then proudly and loudly uttered several of the more severe curse words that they could NOT say! This lit the fuse for the audience and communicated to the inmates that they and Johnny were about to have a good time.
And they did. The concert recording was a wild commercial success for Cash, and revitalized and extended his musical career for another 40 years. Cash could have easily listened to his label and management, and recorded an album in a studio that clearly wouldn’t have had the passion and intensity that was captured in that iconic Folsom Prison concert. But instead, Cash took the ‘risky’ move, and embraced his most passionate fans. Because Cash was smart enough to understand that embracing his most passionate fans WAS the smart move. Even if he had to go jail to do it.
This was essentially where I left the story in Think Like a Rock Star. But a few years ago, I learned there was another element to this story that makes it even richer.
As I mentioned earlier, Cash began performing in prisons in the late 1950s. On Jan 1st, 1959, he performed at San Quentin Prison. A young inmate in the audience was so enamored with his performance that he decided that day to clean up his life and become a musician just like Johnny.
And he did. Over the next 50 years, this inmate would go on to record over 600 songs, putting over 100 of them on the Billboard charts, including 9 straight #1 songs on the Country Music charts. He would also sell over 6 million albums in his career, and die with a net worth of over five million.
His name? Merle Haggard.
A decade after that San Quentin concert, Haggard performed with Cash on The Johnny Cash Show, and inbetween songs, Cash mentioned performing in prisons, and specfically mentioned performing at San Quentin. Which led to this on-air exchange:
“The first time I ever saw you perform, it was at San Quentin,” Haggard said, to which Cash replied: “I don’t remember you being in that show, Merle.”
“I was in the audience, Johnny,” Haggard said.
Think about the impact of one choice. In the late 1950s, Johnny Cash made a choice to start playing concerts in prisons. Because of that one choice, he created a passionate fanbase that would help him save his career in 1968 and extend it for another 40 years. Because of that same choice, he helped launch the career of Merle Haggard.
So because one artist decided to embrace his fans, even if he had to go to jail to do it, the musical career of Johnny Cash was saved, and the musical career of Merle Haggard was made.
The lesson? When you have a chance to completely embrace your most passionate customers and fans, ALWAYS take it.