A version of this article first appeared in the July 26th issue of Billboard Magazine.
Garth Brooks’ July 10 reveal of a new deal with Sony Music (an album on Pearl/RCA Nashville is due around Black Friday, and will be sold digitally on his own site, sidestepping iTunes) and an upcoming global tour had tongues wagging: Does he still carry the clout of a country superstar? “Our listeners say they’d buy tickets today,” says Bruce Logan, vp country programming for CBS Radio. (Only one date, Sept. 4 in Illinois, has been announced so far.) Adds Kris Daniels, PD of KCYE Las Vegas: “A lot has changed, but he is Garth Brooks. If the music is country and hip, it’ll be a slam dunk.”
That’s what Sony’s CEO is counting on. According to sources, Doug Morris pulled out all the stops to land the deal, including other potential suitors. Among those rumored to be in the bidding for Brooks was Big Machine Label Group, home to Taylor Swift. However, CEO Scott Borchetta tells Billboard it wasn't a perfect match, despite his history with Brooks going back to 2007 when Big Machine and Pearl paired up for Ultimate Hits, which sold 2.45 million in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and featured three new songs.
Says Borchetta: “Garth and I have been very business friendly since our historic success with ‘More Than A Memory’ and its No. 1 Billboard Hot Country Songs debut, which still stands as the only song ever to debut at No. 1 on the Country singles airplay charts. We’ve talked extensively over the years, and as recently as earlier this year, and ultimately the things he wants to do and the deals he wants to strike aren’t aligned with what the Big Machine Label Group has to offer. In 2007, as Big Machine was only in its second year, we were able to execute a ‘services’ radio promotion arrangement. After that arrangement we ceased any service-only agreements, as all artists signed to the Big Machine Label Group are all-in."
Such a gargantuan launch is justified for an artist who has sold 134 million albums worldwide since his 1989 debut and collected 25 No. 1 country hits, according to RCA, but if it’s the industry’s confidence Brooks, 52, is seeking, he may have his work cut out for him. “I don’t know if he can do it anymore,” confides one senior label executive. “Radio will play him in the beginning, because it won’t want to miss out on promotions for show tickets, but will the play sustain?” Clear Channel executive vp Clay Hunnicutt, who oversees country programming, says that’s missing the point. “There’s an entire swath of the country audience, the twentysomething crowd, that knows the legend of Garth Brooks, but hasn’t had the complete ‘full-on-Garth’ experience yet,” he says. “Now, they’ll get to do that.”