Garth Brooks’ raucous return: country’s bestseller confronts a new world

Categories: The Guardian

Shrieking with delight before nearly 20,000 people at his first concert in 14 years, Brooks is determined not to reinvent what made him the bestselling country artists of all time

Mark Guarino in Chicago, Friday 5 September 2014 11.51 EDT

“You came back! You came back!” shrieked Garth Brooks, fists striking the air, laughing on stage in front of an audience of nearly 20,000 on Thursday night in Chicago. He also jumped for joy, blinked away tears, screamed when he realized the audience remembered his lyrics, and, when that was not enough, pointed to people picked out from the audience and thanked them individually for coming.

Brooks’ raucous two-hour concert at the AllState Arena in the Chicago suburb of Rosemont marked his return to the global concert circuit after a 14-year retirement, intended to devote time to raising his three daughters, who are now adults. He returns to his role Nashville’s first stadium superstar who embraced rock music theatrics and spectacle. He is not just America’s biggest-selling country star, Brooks remains one of the bestselling musical artists in the US of all time.

Talking to reporters Thursday, Brooks admitted that returning to a music industry which has transformed so dramatically in his absence has taken some adjusting. He remains, he says “an album guy” in the digital age and refuses to sell his music via iTunes. He wants people to stop uploading videos of his concerts with their smartphones because “it’s about protecting the songwriters.” He calls Bruno Mars and Lady Gaga “talented kids”.

But no matter how far country music has gone in his absence, he says he will not reinvent himself.

“The last thing I should do is chase. I don’t think you try to change yourself to fit. You just be yourself and as long as that works for you thank God,” he says.

Brooks, 52, admits he would not fit into the “muscle country” category of chiseled country star Jason Aldean, nor does he want to. In fact, during the opening night, he frequently poked fun at himself, saying his guitar was designed to “hide my gut”.

“The truth is, you can’t train for this. You can prepare for this, but it’s a different kind of shape. I’m hoping after five or six cities I look a little different, you know,” he says.

Brooks began the show with People Loving People, a crunchy southern rock anthem that will be on his new album in late fall, but the setlist spanned his career, from traditional country barn-burners like Calling Baton Rouge and Friends in Low Places to his rock ballads and pure pop. Wife Trisha Yearwood was also on hand, performing a six-song mini-set near the end.

The Chicago show was the first of 11 over seven nights, four of which he’s performing back-to-back. From Chicago, he travels to Atlanta, Georgia and Jacksonville, Florida, with more dates pending.

“Very few artists want to [go on such a long tour], especially when doing a high energy show,” says Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar, which tracks the ticketing industry. “The downside to this is that there’s only one Garth and it is going to take him forever to get around the country.”

Critical to filling so many seats is price: tickets for the Chicago shows remain a flat $65.50, slightly below the average ticket price ($69.52) in 2013 and far less than most stars. Pollstar reports that the ticket price for the first seven North American Rolling Stones shows last year averaged $355.14, a 162% increase from what the band charged in 2006.

Bongiovanni says making shows accessible to fans has always been part of the Brooks’ strategy. It also helps combat the secondary ticket market, worth about $4bn in 2012, according to Pollstar. Many tours have turned to paperless ticketing to combat scalpers while very few others, like Kid Rock, are dropping tickets to the bare minimum and admitting that their most robust revenues will come from merchandise or concessions.

“He has always worked with inexpensive ticket prices, unlike everyone else who looked to maximize revenue,” Bongiovanni says of Brooks. “Garth took the approach to maximize the number of people to come see him to the point he was willing to do three, four or five shows, which was virtually unheard of.”

Brooks says this current tour was programmed to eradicate the secondary market.

“Brokers’ – that’s a nice name for it. ‘Scalpers’ – that’s the name we kind of grew up with. All the sudden they’re competing with you,” he says. “So my thing is put more seats than there is demand out there. The 96-98 world tour was all about sellouts. This one is all about making it affordable, making sure anyone who wants a ticket can come.”

Although this is billed as a global tour, he has not announced more than three US cities. He returns to artistic landscape that is both familiar and not. Many of the artists he came up with are no longer hit-makers, replaced by new generation artists like Aldean, Luke Bryan, Kenny Chesney, the Zac Brown Band and Taylor Swift, all of whom represented country music among Pollstar’s top 20 North American tours of last year.

These are country stars who share the same media coverage, audience, and arena theatrics of corresponding pop stars of their time: Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, among others. The intersecting of both worlds started in the 1980s, following the film smash Urban Cowboy, and continued with crossover hits by country artists like Kenny Rogers, the Oak Ridge Boys and Alabama. But Brooks took country music much further into the monster spectacle associated with shed rockers like Kiss and Journey.

“He changed country music. You can see it today with the Luke Bryans and Brad Paisleys who certainly took cues with how he provided energy, country themes, and rock and roll spectacle that made the concerts much more energized, opposed to George Strait or Johnny Cash who went out there and did their songs,” says Michael McCall, a writer and editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. “Kenny Rogers had played arenas before, but he wasn’t flying over the crowd.”

Brooks also benefited from a career that started in the dawn of the CD album era, and he bowed out soon after it gave way to the digital music revolution. Between 1989 and 2013, he sold 134m albums worldwide according to the Recording Industry Association of America, an achievement that will likely never be replicated. McCall says Brooks’ “timing was perfect”,

“If you had two or three million in sales, it was a landmark event, and all the sudden here’s this guy who sold 10 times that; it changes the landscape,” says McCall. “The business was changing and needed someone like Garth to kick it to the next level and he did.”

But he is not ignoring digital. Albeit slow to digital retailing because he disagreed with the emphasis on selling singles, Brooks announced Thursday that his entire catalog is now available on his website in a discounted bundle, plus he is a partner in GhostTunes, a new service that will sell music from Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group for download or stream. Again, he says his site offers better compensation to the songwriters and artists than the competition.

Indeed, much about Brooks in concert is competition. On stage he seemed invincible. Even when in the midst of a duet with his wife, Trisha Yearwood, Brooks focused on nothing but the music.

“It’s been awhile, people. We didn’t come to talk, we came to play music!” he told his audience. Then he let rip another scream.


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