Seated on a sofa on the third floor of Allentown, his recording studio on Nashville’s Music Row, Brooks, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, reflects on “Dive Bar” (which he describes as “Jones meets Stones”), his record-breaking stadium tour, how he can offer the Legacy box set at such a low price for fans, and why he doesn’t have to play the game like everyone else.
How did Blake end up on “Dive Bar”?
I was watching the ACMs this year, and there was one performance that really hit me hard: Blake Shelton's “God's Country.” I thought, “I’m feeling something here that's drawing me right into this television.” So I just reached out for him. He was so sweet on the phone. The last thing I said was, “Hey, man, I don't want to put you on the spot, but we got a song that might be a pretty cool duet.”
I want to go on record saying I did not think it would sound like this. I didn't know what I was expecting, but I’ve never heard him sing like that before. … We recorded together and it was fun to watch him. My biggest shock in all of this is I think I know my voice and I think I know his, but there were several times I looked over at Matt, the engineer, when we were mixing it going, “Is that him or me?”
Will “Dive Bar” be on any streaming services besides Amazon-it will become available there on Amazon Prime Day- where you have your exclusive deal?
No. I made sure Blake understood that first and then I told Amazon, “This guy gets streams out the ass because he's on Spotify, you guys and Apple. Doing this, you're going to cut his streams on this way down, so I need you to overperform on your end. Put him on every playlist you possibly can.” Of course that helps me, but the main thing is, I just don't want to hurt Blake.
You're filming your performance in Boise. Will there also be a conceptual video?
Yes, you can do it different than any video you've ever done, which is always good. I want to do it underwater, but my problem is he's a foot taller than me, so I'm going to drown first (Laughs). But it's got to be nothing short of fun because that's what the song deserves. We'll be shooting the video sooner rather than later.
The song will be on your new album Fun. When does the album come out?
We’ve probably mixed four out of the 10 to 12 [songs]. I imagine we’ll be done by the end of July. We'll see when it comes out. … We have an exclusive with Amazon, but Amazon also understands that those mass retail partners were the ones that gave us our career, and so they're very sweet to say we have an exclusive deal, but we understand that the people that listen to Garth Brooks’ stuff don't all just go to Amazon, they’re everywhere big retail is.
Amazon is only 12% of the streaming market, so you’re not reaching the majority of the streaming audience. Are you OK with that?
Yeah, because my job as a partner at Amazon is to bring those numbers up. And Amazon has proven time and time again to me in contracts that they will take care of the songwriters. [Streaming services Spotify, Google, Pandora and Amazon] are trying to reduce what they have to pay for overhead to songwriters [by appealing the Copyright Royalty Board’s decision requiring digital service providers to increase royalty payments]. So what you do in your exclusivity contract is to make sure your writers are taken care of.
All seven stadium shows so far this year have been sellouts, with some setting attendance records. What has surprised you the most about the stadium tour?
The whole tour has been a surprise. Stadiums are [supposed to be] echo-y. They're cold. They're distant. I'm stunned. It's the warmest tour I've ever been on. When you start “The River,” the phones start lighting up from the back, coming this way and you can hear them singing so much.
Here is a big picture that makes people understand the stadium tour a little easier. The arena tour, the stage was 60-foot wide by 40-foot deep. This thing's 150-feet wide by 100-feet deep, and it looks like a postage stamp in the stadium. It's a full 360 stage, so where people think seats are behind the stage, they’re basically in the front row again.
How do you want fans to feel when they leave the concert?
It might not have as much to do with the music as it does this: I want people leaving that concert loving each other more than when they came in. And hopefully this show doesn’t stick it down your throat but talks about it enough to where it makes a difference.
You’ve become a damn hippie!
[Laughs] I know! Isn’t it weird? I don’t even know how to describe myself.
Will the tour go outside of North America after the three years?
I don’t know. We haven't been to Australia in a hundred years. If we do go outside the United States, which the plan is to, then the plan is also to promote the new music in these places where you're more of a current artist instead of someone that hasn't been around for a while. If not, I just don't feel the energy will be there and I'm worried that it might not be there from me.
But by your own admission, at the beginning of the show, you talk about how you know people have come to hear the old stuff.
Sure, but still it's how you enter that place. So it's the difference between coming in as an '80s hair band -- funny I should use the term [laughs] -- and coming in as somebody who has something current that you love that also has a catalog that you've come to hear. … There's a song that I have got to do something with because the requests are above normal for me. “Cold Like That” just keeps growing and growing. It was a song off [2014’s] Man Against Machine that [fans] just will not let go of, so I've got to figure out how to get “Cold Like That” into the set.
Aside from “Cold Like That,” there were a number of lost potential singles from that album, including “Tacoma” and “Midnight Train.” What happened with that? [Editor's Note: First single "People Loving People" peaked at No. 19 on Country Airplay, while second single "Mom" reached No. 32.]
When we signed with [Sony], we knew what was going on and that the label was kind of trying to find itself during that time. I think everyone there got on a ship that they couldn't assign a captain to yet. I was part of that crew, so I'm not blaming anybody, but I just felt like the label was struggling and was searching and I could either stay on that label until they found themselves or just kind of get out of their way and go do my thing. You can ask them. They might have a different story. I’m glad they found a captain and are on their journey.
How do the shows at the college stadiums differ from the ones at the professional stadiums?
The college ones have Music 101 [where he's done tributes to The Beatles and Tom Petty]. They move a little slower, more organic. The pro shows go fast. It's because you're in a professional stadium where everything is sleeker. College, you're a little more laid-back, more relaxed. You’re going to do longer shows in the college towns. So why is it that way? I have no idea. Is it working so far? So far, it's the best time of my life.
For the stadium tour, you brought back two members of your original band that hadn’t toured with you in 20 years, Ty England and Steve McClure. Why?
Ty just made sense. When Ty left [to go solo in 1995], it left a lot of acoustic playing in my hands. If you've ever seen the show, I cannot control my adrenaline. So what we noticed in [forthcoming live set] Triple Live was all the acoustic parts were played at a thousand times’ speed that they should have been, no matter how hard I tried not to. So to bring an acoustic player back and a voice that sounded like mine, it would be nobody else other than Ty.
It's great to have him out there for band purposes, but it's also great as friends to look over and see him because everything in me just kinda relaxes and goes, “I'm home” … I guess it was St. Louis or Phoenix when I heard the old Garth live sound from the clubs. It was fucking Steve McClure. He really has that much of an influence with that steel and the way he plays guitar that makes it more boondock-y. It makes it more like the original sound that we came out with that I loved and missed.
The stadiums really feel like big-ass, small honkytonks. You look out in the crowd, you see children, you see older people, you see people right in the middle, you see same-sex couples, traditional couples and they’re all singing every word. [Tears up] Pretty cool, pretty fun. So yeah, man, when you talk about not doing the traditional things, about YouTube and these things like this, you want to get the music out to everybody. At the same time, you want to treat the music like it's something special and not something that people can just pull off the roll like toilet paper and use how they wish, I guess.
You are releasing a seven-disc vinyl box set, Legacy, this fall at an incredibly low price, especially for people who pre-ordered the set. What made you decide it was time to make your albums, most of which had never been available on vinyl, available that way?
Because I saw pieces of vinyl moving for $29, $39 each. That's not us. I just can't do it. What I love more than anything is for people to be surprised at what they get for their money. That's my thing. And I want to have my name on something that surprises them in a good way. So $39, $49 … Shit, let’s find a company and let's figure out how to do this. So Technicolor, stepped up. They have relationships with plants all over the world, so there are four different countries pitching in. Then the quality control becomes massive, so that's been the hardest part of it all. There are guys in this building that have flown to Germany, spent months with headphones on, making sure the quality's right. So my hat's off to them.
Given the discount, can you make money on the project?
You can make money off of it, but the main thing, which I love, is the songwriters get paid a guaranteed rate on 600,000 units. Take that 100% rate at 600,000 [for a previously unreleased song] and at a 50% rate with a second use, now you’re 300,000 guaranteed at a full rate, if that makes any sense.
You're asking the writers to accept a lower rate because these songs have been out before and you want to keep the prices down, otherwise the project doesn’t make sense?
You want to make it affordable, for sure. The reason why vinyl is so expensive is the manufacturing of it. So you go to [the vinyl plants] and say, “Hey, look, if we order this many units?…” They'll go, “Holy shit. Are you kidding me? We don't make that many units a year. And you just want it for this project?” “Yeah. How low can you get the price?” Then you go to the songwriters, and go, “We're going to guarantee this many units.” They go, “Are you kidding me? Nobody guarantees that many units.” So now everybody feels like they're winning. And when they all pitch in, then the price comes out to where the people win.
As an artist, if anything, you're just breaking even. But it's fun that vinyl’s back out there. It's fun the big art’s back out there, and you're gonna make your thing up touring because I don't belong to a record label other than my own, so no 360 deal, no stuff like that. And I'm one of those writers on that project, so you make your money as a writer and a publisher.
Why don't you license your music for commercials?
It’s every artist’s nightmare that “We Shall Be Free” will be used for a Depends ad kind of thing. So you just, while you're alive, protect it. That might be something that happens after the music leaves your control. If there's something cool that comes along, like Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock” for Chevy was everything to me, that's an example of how it's done.
Every artist wants to reach newer fans. If they can't stream you unless they go to Amazon, they can't find you on YouTube, you’re not licensing your stuff for commercials -- do you feel you may be limiting your fans’ ability to find you?
Of course you're limiting the ability for them to find you, but at the same time, you're not just giving it away. So what I found with all creatures, no matter what age they are, if it's their quest to find something, then they appreciate it more when they find it. The thing is never chase, right? So if everybody goes, “Oh, I just want that younger demographic,” good luck, because I just raised three girls and if you chased [after them], they didn't care about it. But if they had to work to earn it, if they had to dig, if it was their idea, they loved it. So I think what you do is you just play your music the way you play it, protect the music the best you can, and when you do that, whatever happens, happens.
We own our masters. If 90% of these people that you talk about today owned their masters, their music would be treated very differently. But the fact that the labels own it, the labels are a public company and they're trying to get every cent they can out of that music.
We're lucky enough not to have to be in that thing. So it only makes sense that we might not play the game the way other people do. In this business we think there's a right or wrong way. And so if you don't play like the other guys do, you're in the wrong. But you've got to understand, our motivators are not the same as the other ones. It doesn't make us better than them. It doesn't make us less than them. It's just we don't have to make that quarter earnings report. It's so fun to not be handcuffed and to say, “Where's the rule book?” Instead we go, "What's a rule book?” That's a blast.