When Ghost Tunes CEO Randy Bernard and COO Chris Webb first met with Garth Brooks to discuss an alternative digital and physical distribution platform, there was one thing they had to get out of the way. "We're going up against Google, Amazon, iTunes -- billion-dollar companies," Bernard recalls telling him. "What happens if they change their models and have better economic deals?"
"Music wins," Brooks had said. "This is my gift to music. That's all I want." That's when Bernard knew "it wasn't about making a profit for Garth," he tells Billboard. "It was about putting out a great product and working with artists and fans.
Ghost Tunes, the country singer's alterna-iTunes, launches as a full-fledged website today, Nov. 11 (the site has been available in beta since Sept. 5). It's also the date of release for Man Against Machine, Brooks' fittingly-titled first new album -- he's been notoriously opposed to iTunes and has kept his music off the service -- in 13 years. On top of it all, the RIAA's top-selling solo artist in history is releasing a bundle including his nine-album back catalog and some live material to the twangy tune of $29.99.
Visually, the new site's interface resembles a cross between Spotify and eMusic. The rollout includes additional features like playlist creation, exclusive interviews, and a social sharing component. If artists choose, they can add mobile and credit card verification to their Ghost Tunes hub. The platform will also integrate direct links to ticket outlets, another hot-button issue for Brooks, who partnered with Ticketmaster in August to fight scalpers. Customers will also be able to stream their purchased songs from their iPhones, Androids, or desktop via a "consumer locker."
That's great for consumers, but the most salient incentive for artists to put their music on Ghost Tunes is probably its 80/20 distribution deal (the company has licensing deals with Universal and Warner Music Groups, Sony Music, the Orchard, and several other content owners, with a "robust" independent section coming at the end of the year), which pays 80 percent as opposed to the traditional 70 percent of revenue back to artists and songwriters; however, Webb stresses that they are not competing with services like iTunes' Apple Store or Amazon's digital mp3 store, they're simply providing an alternative.
Even BitTorrent, which has also been an increasingly popular means of distribution for artists releasing bundles of albums or other merchandise, isn't a concern for the company. "Ghost Tunes is about choices," Webb tells Billboard. "We don't view ourselves as a platform in competition with other distribution platforms. It's about the formats the artists want and how the consumers choose to absorb the content. It's a win-win for the music industry."
With 10 million "pieces of content," including T-shirts, posters, and CDs from artists like tourmate Trisha Yearwood (whose new album is being exclusively released on Ghost Tunes, with the rest of her catalog coming in the beginning of next year), Ariana Grande, and Coldplay -- and albums by the winners of this year's Country Music Awards, whose albums became available for the discounted price of $3.49 following the show on Nov. 5.
"We want to make sure we unlocked the music and gave it to the consumer, not to the device," says Webb. "Ghost Tunes is about freedom."