One day after word of a new 25th anniversary version of Garth Brooks’ classic “Friends in Low Places” surfaced, plans for the song’s release — and the album it originally appeared on — have been put on ice because of a stalemate with music publishers.
The new version of “Friends,” featuring George Strait, Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line and Keith Urban, was to be the centerpiece of a No Fences silver-anniversary reissue that would come out in November and be available through the holiday season. “Friends in Low Places” was the first of four No. 1 singles from the 1990 album.
The plan called for a non-traditional retailer to buy at least 1 million units of the remixed and remastered No Fences. Brooks wouldn’t identify the partner, but likens the deal to his McDonald’s pact in 1994 when he released The Garth Brooks Collection exclusively through the fast food chain for a limited time with a portion of each $5.99 CD sold going to the Ronald McDonald Children’s Charities.
The arrangement with the third-party retailer was contingent upon publishers agreeing to a discounted royalty rate in return for the guaranteed 1 million buy (with potential for more units). While the majority of the publishers on the album agreed to the discounted rate requested, some — including Sony/ATV Music and Universal Music Publishing Group — would only agree to a lesser discount. Because of favored nation clauses, the deal would have then had to be done with all publishers at the higher royalty rate, which Brooks says priced it beyond the non-traditional retailer’s budget.
Brooks called the publishers that wouldn’t agree to the full discount to ask why. “They said to protect the songwriters,” he says. “I respect that. That’s been my whole thing since day one; you have to protect the songwriters.”
A UMPG spokesperson tells Billboard: “While we believe it is inappropriate to comment on any specific negotiation, we are proud to report that UMPG will continue to approach every negotiation with the same guiding principle: Our songwriters come first.” In addition to “Friends in Low Places,” among the songs from No Fences partially published by Universal and Sony/ATV are “The Thunder Rolls” and “Unanswered Prayers.”
Sony/ATV declined to comment.
Brooks, who owns the masters to his recordings, wouldn’t say the discounted rate he requested for the No Fences deal. However, it’s common knowledge, and sources reconfirmed, that publishers have previously agreed to a 50 percent rate for a number of the deeply discounted multi-CD reissue packages Brooks has released since 1998 in return for payment on an initial guaranteed buy of a certain number of units (with many of the projects’ sales far exceeding that original amount). Any new songs added to those projects were paid at the 100 percent publishing royalty rate. Those sets included at least 33 previously released tracks and often ran higher than 60 tracks. No Fences is 10 tracks.
Songwriter Pat Alger, who co-wrote two songs on No Fences, stresses he believes new material should be paid at the full royalty rate, but he has no problem with the discount on the older material. “Garth Brooks has done more to generate income from these songs than anybody else. On the first several uses, we got paid full rate and then he started coming up with different packages — this may be the sixth or seventh time he’s found a way to re-energize this 25-year-old material,” he says. “In a day when 50,000 sales really impresses somebody, we’re being guaranteed over a million sales on this. As a songwriter who has watched his income diminish, to give a half rate to someone who’s going to guarantee me a million or a million and a half copies, doesn’t seem like I’m giving up much.”
Only one album released in 2015 has sold more than 1 million units: Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late.
No Fences has sold 4,000 copies in 2015, according to SoundScan. At the full mechanical rate of 9.1 cents per track, each of the 10 tracks has earned the songwriters and publishers $364 to split year to date. At the 50% discounted rate it’s believed Brooks has received before on the reissued sets, the million-unit guarantee for the No Fences reissue would garner another $45,000 per track for the songwriters and publishers to divide. Brooks co-wrote four songs on No Fences.
With negotiations shut down, Brooks says he’s taking the blame for assuming that the publishers would continue to offer a discount rate that made the numbers work. “This is 100% my fault. I’ve done this deal for 20 years,” he says. “I know how this deal works. What caught me off guard — I just never guessed — is that the rate would go up.”