There’s a reason Garth Brooks is the Country Music Association’s reigning entertainer of the year. Quite a few reasons, actually.
Two years into a three-year world tour with wife Trisha Yearwood, he already has racked up ticket sales of nearly 5 million and counting. He recently became the first artist in history to land a seventh Diamond Award from the RIAA, each one representing sales of 10 million albums, and he remains the top-selling solo artist in U.S. history. Now, he’s front-loading the holiday season with a smorgasbord of new recordings, all offered on his own Pearl Records imprint which, for the first time, is releasing projects without the help of a major-label partner domestically. (Sony Music is partnered with Pearl for international distribution.)
As previously reported, his Target-exclusive 10-CD box set, The Ultimate Collection, sold 134,000 copies in its first week of release. His new holiday album with Yearwood, Christmas Together, moved 21,000 first-week copies to debut at No. 1 on Top Country Albums. And on Nov. 25 he released the new studio album Gunslinger, which also is expected to make a strong debut. (A deluxe version of Gunslinger was included in the box set.) The set’s first single, “Baby, Let’s Lay Down And Dance,” is at No. 26 on the Country Airplay chart.
After years as a digital music holdout, followed by a period of testing the online waters through his own GhostTunes service, Brooks recently made a digital and streaming deal with Amazon Music Unlimited, as Billboard first reported exclusively in October. Brooks recently spoke with Billboard about his new projects and what it is like to be in his shoes right now.
After saying prior to your last album — 2014’s Man Against Machine — that your writing chops were rusty, you co-wrote all but one song on Gunslinger. How did you get that writing muscle back in shape?
I heard that people kept saying, “Where is your pen?” So I said, “Really, that’s what you want? Here it comes.” This is the biggest dose of [writing] I’ve ever done on an album. It was fun to get back into the writing process again. I’m going to be honest: I thought it was gone. You’re always told if you don’t use it, it goes away, but I love to create. And now my thing is I don’t want to stop.
What are some of your favorite tracks?
“Cowboys and Friends.” That was my life from age 21 to 24 or 25. The only thing that would make it better is if I wasn’t singing it and George Strait was. But my favorite piece on the record has to be “Ask Me How I Know.” I love that song, and it’s the one I didn’t have anything to do with writing.
You’re no longer partnered with a major label. How are things different this time out?
Think about what a record label does. It streams. We didn’t stream. It does digital, which [with] iTunes, if you don’t play by their rules you don’t play. And then the third thing is YouTube. Well, guess what: the three things that we don’t do. So we weren’t any good to a record label. We owned our own masters, and record labels make their money off streaming their masters. So even if we would’ve streamed, they wouldn’t have gotten the money, because we own it. You realize, “I don’t fit in the record-label world anymore.” So we took a breath, stepped back and hired our own radio promotions people … And then, out of the blue, here comes Amazon looking to start a streaming partnership with somebody, and they’re paying great money and their terms of agreement aren’t that long, because they’re just looking to launch and get their feet underneath them. So this is a good time for us to do our own thing.
Your pricing on The Ultimate Collection made it ineligible for the Billboard charts [click here for more on that], but your fans must appreciate you keeping it low.
Look, you’ve been there [my] whole career. You know that I attribute what has happened to us — the biggest thing was when [Nielsen] SoundScan was announced. It was invented at the right time for us, so I give them all the credit in the world [for helping launch my career]. With that said, they said the box had to cost more to be on their chart. Really? You’re going to give Garth Brooks, of all people, that ultimatum? So I said, “Hey, keep your chart. I love you guys to death but you can keep the chart.” I’m not going to raise the price for the people to pay for the music just to be on somebody’s chart. That’s not my thing.
You have fairly recently embraced social media in a big way, and you have such a direct connection to your fans now that you’re announcing news straight to them, even though you have two PR firms representing you. Why was it important to go directly to your fans with your messaging?
Well, first of all, just on a professional level, I get my butt chewed out by [those PR firms] every day because we’re announcing stuff and they’re going, “You can’t announce that yet!” (Laughs.) I think social media is a wonderful thing. But this thing of “OK, I am going to text something to [you to post on] social media,” that’s not social media to me. If I want to say something, I want to see what your reaction is. So we did Facebook Live [on] opening night of each city we’d go into, and after five or six cities, we’re going, “Wait a minute. All the coolest fun stuff happens when the camera goes off. So let’s move it to Monday. That way we could recap the entire weekend and we can talk about what’s coming up the next week as well.” So a Monday night conversation was the original idea, and it turned into Inside Studio G. And now it’s crazy because you’ll see a million-and-a-half people [watching] these things … It has been the coolest journey. I love it. And to me, that’s what social media is.
How do you find the energy to so often do two shows a night?
Can I tell you it’s harder to watch a concert then to do one? We went to Justin Timberlake, you’re on your feet for two-and-a-half hours. You’re dancing, and you’re worn out when you get home. We went to Beyoncé and I was worn out. It’s harder to stand there and not be singing and moving around. As an entertainer, you know what the night’s going to be so you’re pacing yourself. It’s just easier than breathing for me. I so love to play music live.
What’s still on your career bucket list?
I’d like one more day of this. It’s pretty awesome … I don’t know if an independent artist has ever even been nominated for [CMA] entertainer [of the year], much less walked away with it. So there’s a lot of surprises right now. I’m lucky enough to be on the good end of those surprises this year. So I would just like more of the same. I know that’s greedy or whatever, but [for my] band and crew, you bet your ass they deserve it.