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Garth Brooks on Resuming his Stadium Tour Safely: 'I Think We're All Learning'

Garth Brooks
8 Ten, Inc.

 Garth Brooks performs during his third Dive Bar concert at Gruene Hall in New Braunfels, Texas on Sept. 23, 2019. 

As he heads back into full-capacity stadiums next month, the country superstar talks responsibility above all else

If Garth Brooks had any qualms that his fans were ready to return to full stadiums to see the country titan in concert, his concerns were quickly allayed as he began putting tickets on sale for summer stadium shows.

While many artists have postponed touring until the the fall or 2022, Brooks is one of the first acts to return to stadiums at 100% capacity as COVID-19 restrictions lift across the country.

On May 6, Brooks sold more than 50,000 tickets in less than 30 minutes for his July 17 show at Salt Lake City’s Rice-Eccles Stadium. That was quickly followed on May 21, by moving more than 86,000 tickets in 75 minutes for his Aug. 14 shows at Lincoln, Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium, the first concert at the venue in 34 years. This morning (June 10), tickets for his Aug. 7 Kansas City shows at Geja Field at Arrowhead Stadium went on sale.

These shows join rescheduled 2020 concerts now slated for July 10 at Las Vegas’ Allegiant Stadium, Sept 18 at Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium, and Sept. 25 at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium

While selling out stadiums is standard operating procedure for Brooks since he started his three-year stadium tour in 2019, he had no idea if the fans were ready to come back as the pandemic began to wane. “Everything was new again so you didn’t know what was going to happen,” he says.

What happens next is that Brooks will move ahead with his tour at an accelerated pace, filling in the calendar for the rest of a year to make up for lost 2020 dates. But as he notes in a conversation with Billboard below, rapidity does not replace responsibility -- and he and his team are moving ahead, fully aware that all eyes will be on him to see how to safely move ahead while the pandemic wanes, but remains a long way from totally over.

You’re one of the first solo artists to go back into stadiums in the U.S. this summer. What signal do you hope that sends?

What I hope is the week after the shows, people go, “Hey look man, we mass-assembled and we sang and we had fun like it was 2019 -- and we’re not worse off for it.” Let’s say we get the best reviews we’ve ever gotten in our life; still, for me, the most important thing is what happens after that in that city. Did everyone come out of it OK? And if so, then, thank you, God. That’s what you’re hoping for more than anything.

What were you thinking when the first show in Salt Lake City went on sale?

Everything was new again so you didn’t know what was going to happen. You didn’t know what your mask mandates, restrictions, were. Anybody that was dealing with us knew we were doing 100% capacity, so when we got the green light from Utah and the green light from Nebraska it was pretty cool and it’s sweet that people are showing up like this.

I think people naturally want to be together and sing songs together, but with that said, the responsibility comes with them leaving safely once they get there. That’s our job, that’s the stadium’s job. We must remain responsible and careful with how we act around each other.

What was your process in picking venues that you knew would be able to handle 100% capacity?

I’ll speak for [Brooks’ longtime concert promoter] Ben Farrell on this. He has a list of our places to play that have been the best to us in our career, and he just kept rotating them as time would come on. This city would fall out, and the next city would be there, and he’d reschedule the city that would fall out. The wheel just kept going for the last year and a half.

Finally, when he called Utah and said, “You guys are up on the list,” they got with the governor and everybody was fine. That became the first city. If Lincoln wasn’t in, it would [have] dropped and become a city down the way. With all the opening of everything, it looks like every city in the future will be 100% -- unless we do something that isn’t in line with stuff, and cause this thing to shut back down, so back to the responsible part again.

What steps are you taking at the venues to keep people safe given that the pandemic is not over?

You do all you can do. You can open up as many lanes as possible. They’re going to be hiring more ticket staff. We talked about doing masks for everybody and the stadiums stepped up and said, “That’s our job,” so they’ll have masks for everyone there that wants one. Our job is to get people in there and to make sure the message goes out, “Do not look strangely at someone who is wearing a mask -- and if you are wearing a mask, don’t look strangely at someone who isn’t.” We’re all taking our steps toward recovery at our own pace and let’s all be family. Let’s all have a good time, and let’s respect each individual’s way of how they’re handling this and coming out of it.

What about for your crew?

The state and stadium laws come first for us, but we’ll probably mask mandate our own band and crew for the rest of the year, because we’re traveling from city to city. We do not want to get this thing shut down, so we’ll be toughest on ourselves, and we should be.

Are you mandating your crew gets vaccinated?

As an artist, I don’t think I can mandate it. My thing is we’re all a family that’s been together for 100 years anyway, so the conversation is this: If you don’t believe in the vaccination, or don’t feel like you’re going to get it, I get it -- but what you’re going to do is you’re going to stay at home. I’ll still pay you, but I’m going to pay you to stay at home, and the rest of the crew members will make up for you. Only vaccinated band and crew will be on this tour, because we don’t need to fire up just to shut down. This is the individual’s choice 100%, but if you’re not vaccinated, you won’t be out there with us this year.

Are you testing your crew onsite?

You have to test them at home. You don’t let them go somewhere. You sure as hell aren’t going to take them into these cities and then test them there. If it happens out there, everything gets shut down, so you test them all at home.

You’ve been telling fans that if they aren’t ready to come out, don’t worry. It’s not their last chance.

Yeah, a concert is a luxury, it’s not a need. It’s the same way with the vaccination talks with this band and crew. The reason I want you to get the vaccination is because you think it’s what’s best for your health. If you do not believe that, do not get the vaccination. Let’s do some studying on it; if you need somebody to talk to, let us provide those people or you can provide it themselves. It’s everybody’s choice because to have a good shot at entertaining people, you want people there because they want to be there.

How are you going to feel when you step on stage July 10 in Las Vegas for the first time since Detroit in February 2020?

My voice is going to be gone after two songs. I think I’m just so excited, I’m going to wear myself out the first 10 minutes. I’m like a little kid. I just can’t wait to get back to the playground and hear those people sing.

I can hear you tearing up just talking about it.

Dammit, yes.

What are you looking most forward to?

Getting to hear that crowd singing. What you miss more than singing and playing is standing on that stage and hearing everybody sing for you. That’s the rush of it all for me. And then there’s the other part, the love part. The guys on stage are the guys you’ve been on stage with since day one. You haven’t seen them for 18 months either, so it’s going to be nice to see the guys again. There’s no better seat than where I’m standing when you do “The River,” and all those [cell phone] lights come on and you hear them singing. That’s just a beautiful thing. To get back to doing that, I can’t wait.

Are there more dates coming beyond what you’re put on sale?

There are going to be more dates played in the last six months of this year than the rest of the stadium tour and the beginning of it combined. We’ve got a lot of making up to do. So where we would go once every three weeks, I think we’ll be going every weekend, if not every other weekend, from here on out.

What kind of expenses did you have to look at that you didn’t have pre- COVID?

That’s a lot of stadium expenses: The sanitization of everything, the addition of masks, the addition of hand sanitization stations. We go to the stadium and go, “Ok, show us your expenses there and let’s share in them because you shouldn’t be taking them all on" -- but I gotta tell you, they’re going way over the top. And I’m fine with that, because if we can get to January of ’22 and not shut this thing down, then we have a good chance of finishing strong.

You did not raise your ticket prices from before the pandemic even though you’re likely to incur extra costs. They are still around $95.

I guess this has just never been my way of thinking. You’re either going to make an absurd amount of money or you’re going to make a lesser absurd amount of money -- but I can’t imagine raising the ticket prices to make sure you keep making the absurd amount of money. My thing is if we make 100% of each ticket -- and because of the COVID regulations and restrictions that we have to put in and pay for, we make 95% -- I’m more than OK with that. [Laughs.]

What kind of follow up will you do with the venues?

There’s going be a thousand follow-ups on this. If there was something you can do better, can we apply it to the next city and do it better? I think we’re all learning.

So there may be things you learn, for example, from the Las Vegas show to keep people safer that you take into the Salt Lake City show and so on?

I’m hoping in all this stuff in the pandemic that we’ve learned things -- the stuff we never did before that never even crossed our mind. This might piss some people off, but in the future if I have a cold or something, hell, I might wear a mask in the store just to let people know, “Hey I’ve got a cold, I don’t want to give it to you. "But the mask thing seems to be sort of a smart idea.

What if you get shut down?

I don’t know. I have to tell you the truth -- after 16 months of being shut down from financially to mentally, everything, I just don’t want to think about it. I’m sure [my managers] have a plan. For me, my job is to look forward, and run as safe and as fast as I can. Because, c’mon man, the people did not pay for that ticket to come see a guy lay up to chip to the green -- they came to see a guy drive the green to the tee. And you picked the right guy for that.