CMA Awards 2018
Inside Garth Brooks' Master Plan to Launch the Biggest Tour of All Time
Garth Brooks has long been the biggest-selling act of the Nielsen SoundScan era, with 69.6 million albums sold in the United States alone since 1991. And insiders say that for the recently launched tour in support of his new album, Man Against Machine (due Nov. 11), he has got an even bigger goal: to overtake the marks set by U2 on its record-shattering 360° Tour of 2009 to 2011.
"He has been thinking about this for years," says one well-known Nashville touring executive. "I think this is a calculated, well-thought-out plan about how he would become the biggest touring act of all time."
It's a steep hill to climb: The attendance record of U2's 360° is 7.3 million and its highest-gross mark a whopping $736 million. But based on the numbers that Brooks' tour already is racking up — with most of the biggest markets in North America and the world yet to come — it's attainable. If Brooks, 52, can average 150,000 tickets sold in 100 markets (his opening 13 Chicago dates in September sold more than 180,000), he would more than double U2's attendance record. And if he can average $8 million per market (he did $12 million in Chicago) in those same 100 cities, the all-time gross record is also his. (The Chicago numbers were not reported to Billboard Boxscore; they represent the only tour data provided to Billboard from the singer's PR representative. Brooks and his management and tour reps all have declined to talk to the media or reveal details of the tour.)
Despite Brooks' long absence from the market — he has performed sporadically since his 2001 retirement — the demand for tickets has surprised many industry veterans, even though his last full tour, behind 1998's Sevens, was the third-biggest in history. It drew, in terms of attendance, nearly 5.5 million people and grossed more than $105 million (country's first $100 million run) during its three-year run. To beat U2's records, his tour is based on three key strategies: ticketing, short lead times and playing enough shows to satisfy each market's demand.
Paradoxically, the singer's unusual approach to ticket pricing places him at a fraction of his market value: There is no VIP, premium, gold circle or scaling. In Chicago, tickets were $56.94, typical for the tour, plus $2.56 in tax and a $6 service charge, totaling $65.50. The low price and high demand would seem to set up a field day for ticket brokers, but so far it actually has achieved the opposite effect. While tickets are limited to six (eight in North Carolina) per person and Ticketmaster uses its array of anti-scalping measures to combat bots and brokers, Brooks is playing enough dates to satisfy demand at the primary level to eliminate the need for a secondary market.
"When you look at StubHub on these shows, you would expect to see tickets posted there for hundreds if not thousands of dollars," says a source close to the tour. "But you don't, because he has [offered] so much supply that everybody who wants to go is getting to go, at a reasonable price." (Even his series of dates at the Wynn in Las Vegas between 2009 and 2014 were priced at $175 and later $225, modest by Vegas Strip standards.)
How those multiple shows are scheduled is another unusual aspect of the tour. In an era when tickets are sold as much as a year in advance — and often an entire tour goes up at once — Brooks announces his about a week before the on-sale date. It's a practice that has been used regularly at the arena level by only one other artist: Prince. In his case, the aim is to generate excitement and urgency, but for Brooks, the strategy also may be another attempt to stymie ticket resellers. Two or three shows are typically announced in one market at a time, and then more are added as the on-sales progress, based on real-time statistics, website traffic and other factors in Ticketmaster's secret sauce. The call must be made — several times — to add new concerts while still selling for the previous one. "It's an imperfect science," explains one insider. "You have to sell to demand, and pull the trigger at the right time."
Brooks tour will no doubt be an arena record-setter in terms of attendance, depending on how long he stays out and how many dates he plays. U2, largely regarded as the biggest band in the world, played only stadiums on 360, in a configuration that boosted capacity by as much as 20 percent. Next in line is the Rolling Stones Voodoo Lounge tour of 1994-'95 at 6.6 million attendance, according to Boxscore. Brooks is third for Sevens, but a move up a rung now seems more than achievable.
An element of that tactic is one of the oldest in the book: a second daily performance in the form of matinees, common for country acts of yore but almost exclusively relegated to family shows today. "If you add in 100 shows that didn't exist," one agent says, "all of a sudden here's an extra $100 million on matinees alone."
The tour is just getting underway — the first date was Sept. 4 — and massive markets await in the Northeast as well as traditional strongholds like Nashville, Texas, the West Coast and Pacific Northwest, with secondaries and then, sources say, Europe and Australia next summer, and possibly South America. "He could sit in Australia for a two or three months," the agent says. Further, the ill-fated five Croke Park shows originally meant to start this cycle could have been worth $100 million total gross, and Brooks will surely make a huge play in Ireland before all is said and done.
Huge markets await, including Philadelphia, Washington D.C., New York, Boston, as well as traditional strongholds like Nashville, Texas, the West Coast and the Pacific Northwest. Brooks needs robust population bases to draw more than 100,000, but could conceivably do week-long runs in both Staples Center and the Forum in L.A., and Barclays Center and the Garden in New York. And, many believe, if when Brooks starts getting close to the record, he could head to secondaries with big buildings in the heartland. This tour has already proven it can add dates in a hurry, and buildings from Fargo to Biloxi are aggressively pitching dates.
Meanwhile, other artists are trying to stay out of Brooks' way, especially country tours.
"A tour like this is unprecedented in our genre, or any genre," says Rob Beckham, co-head of William Morris Endeavor's Nashville office, "and we all have to be aware of where he's going and when." Another Nashville agency vet adds, "It's one thing when an artist like Luke Bryan or Taylor Swift goes into a market and takes out $2 million, and quite another when Garth goes in and takes out $12 million. The numbers are so staggering that it takes the market a little time to recover."
A version of this article first appeared in the Oct. 18 issue of Billboard.