– Garth Brooks
Bright Lights, big country: Garth Brooks opening the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo at NRG Stadium Feb. 27, 2017.
Garth Brooks has just returned to Nashville after opening the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo at NRG Stadium. He sounds knackered if relaxed while explaining the musical influences that helped him take his recent record-setting world tour to a whole other level.
“So I’m 17 when I see Freddie Mercury and Queen,” Brooks recalls. “All I wanted was for Freddie Mercury to look at me for three seconds, so I could go, ‘Hey man, thank you. Thank you for the times that I was lost and I depended on your music to get me through.’”
The late, operatic rock star is just one of many of his unexpected influences from an array of genres for whom the country superstar expresses devotion and credits with informing his musical approach.
“Then I’m in the front row at Oklahoma State when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was playing,” Brooks continues, “and John McEuen jumps over the monitors and lands right in front of me and I shit myself. And then I watch Buddy Mondlock, a singer-songwriter from Chicago, in this noisy-ass room, play and he didn’t turn up. And pretty soon it was quiet as it could be and he quieted them not by getting loud, but by getting quieter.”
Brooks cites an array of others, including George Strait, James Taylor, Keith Whitley, Chris LeDoux, James Brown, Tina Turner, Tony Bennett, George Jones, and Lena Horne. And, even more unexpectedly, Prince, KiSS and Michael Jackson (“God, I worshiped that guy,” he says of the latter).
The Tulsa, Okla., native may not look or quite sound like any of these music icons, but it’s clear he’s fully absorbed their sounds and they’re part of Brooks’ live arsenal that has, over the course of his historic 30-year career, taken him to stratospheric heights.
Brooks completed in December a three-year-plus, record-setting world tour with wife and touring partner Trisha Yearwood, selling a staggering 6.3 million tickets at more than 390 dates in 79 cities while smashing attendance records at 58 venues. Each stop became an event unto itself with unheard-of, multi-day residencies at arenas where his team would set up camp, often for more than a week, playing consecutive shows – sometimes two in one day.
“The only thing that’s tough, as you can imagine, is age,” says the 56-year-old known for leaving blood, guts and sweat on stage. “But it’s what you always wanted.” It’s also what more than 6 million of his fans wanted.
Brooks’ groundbreaking live strategy involved playing as many nights in a single market as demand dictated while keeping ticket prices well below market value and at a single price for all seats. This novel approach brought about a myriad of overlapping synergies.
First, affordable tickets, say $65 before fees, reinforced fandom by consumers who regularly face prices three, four or five times as much to see an artist of Brooks’ caliber. Lower prices also increased demand and helped create new fans – more than 40 percent of the fans who caught this tour are Millennials who had yet to see Brooks perform. Meanwhile, multiple shows helped pull the rug out from under the secondary market. Tickets can’t be easily resold when there’s, say, 11 shows to go as there was in Sept. 2014 at Allstate Arena near Chicago where the tour kicked off (selling a mind-boggling 186,000 tickets).
And he’s comfortable playing secondary and tertiary markets like “Billings, Lubbock, Las Cruces,” as his agent and co-head of WME Nashville Rob Beckham noted.
“It was all motivated by Garth,” says Bob Doyle, Brooks’ longtime manager who first heard his music in 1987 when Brooks’ landlady slid him a tape. “He didn’t come from a lot, so he has a great appreciation for the value of things and this is a reflection of that approach. It’s a great show at a great value.”
When asked about this live strategy, Brooks cites a certain Las Vegas hotel magnate.
“I took a job with Steve Wynn to come out of retirement in 2010,” says Brooks who, after his more than $100 million grossing 1996-98 tour, took 14 years off to “raise my babies.”
They all left for college, and left Brooks with an acute case of empty nest syndrome.
“When you work for Steve Wynn, you’re going to the University of Steve Wynn,” Brooks continues. “So, he’s sitting there telling me, ‘You’ve got to make each city its own destination, like Vegas.’ I said, ‘How do I make it my own destination?’ He goes, ‘You fly. You don’t route. That way you can play Boston and Portland in back-to-back weekends.’ And I was like, ‘Is this possible?’”
Indeed it was, according to Brooks’ long-time promoter Ben Farrell, president of Lon Varnell Enterprises. “We wanted to make sure we confidently booked our tour real early and didn’t compete with others,” says Farrell, who’s worked with Brooks for the past 29 years.
“He hadn’t played in a good while and people remembered him for his great shows,” Farrell continued. “And when it caught fire, we were very fortunate. One big, powerful show led to another one and the word got out.
“We were very selective in playing shows one at a time. It became a very nice situation for people to anticipate what he’s going to do next and we were fortunate enough to do well.”
Ticketmaster President Jared Smith, speaking on Garth’s keynote Q&A panel at this year’s Pollstar Live!, where Brooks was named Pollstar’s inaugural Live Hall of Fame inductee, described the exhilarating process of being on the phone with Team Brooks during an on-sale.
“He doesn’t say we’re going to do 11 shows in Chicago. He says we’re going to put Chicago on sale. Then we put a show on sale and when we sell it out 80 percent, we put another one on sale. And every time you can hear Ben Farrell in the background on the call yelling, ‘Roll another one boys!’”
For Farrell, who’s worked with Brooks since he saw him open a bill at Nashville’s old Starwood Amphitheatre in 1988, it’s not just a business strategy that makes Brooks astronomically successful but the artist himself.
“You run across a person like him once in a career or maybe every 50 years.”
He should know. Farrell promoted shows by another superstar in the 1970s. “Elvis [Presley] was extremely special and so is Brooks,” he says. “He’s just a special, special person behind the scenes and such a natural person.
“You could be talking to him on the street corner and he’d be talking the same way as he talks to you out there with anybody else on the street. There’s no pretentiousness to Garth Brooks. There isn’t a disingenuous bone in his body.”
The warm sentiment is one shared by fans and Team Garth alike. His co-managers Bob Doyle and Randy Bernard, attorney Rusty Jones, business manager Kerry O’Neil, production manager Brian Petree, and WME’s Rob Beckham, promoter Ben Farrell and tour manager Tracy Greenwood all say as much.
“His personality has pretty much been the same since he came to my office,” says Doyle who at the time was director of membership at ASCAP.
“I believed he was a very special talent, songwriter and singer and person. And at the core of it all is Garth’s intellect and ability to care about people.”
But Brooks is also savvy when it comes to the music business.
His participation in on-sale calls and his knowledge of buildings and their executives, the ins and outs of label deals (he has his own indie, Pearl Records, Inc.) and ticket counts make him something of a hands-on music exec though he says he trusts his longtime team implicitly (“These guys have proven themselves a thousand times over”).
During Pollstar Live!, he went into great detail on streaming decimating songwriters who he considers the life blood of the music business.
Simultaneously, Brooks exudes an undeniable wit, wisdom and authenticity.
During his keynote, the room teared up as he recounted stories of fans: One who told him he played his music at his son’s funeral; and another involving a little girl in the front row of his Atlanta show who wore her late father’s Garth T-shirt.
Later, while discussing the possibility of playing Russia, Brooks sounded almost sage-like.
“Music is a bridge and I would put it on the line in a heartbeat for a chance for people from another country to hear an artist from another country play and think, ‘You know, maybe we’re not that different. We got something in common. Maybe we can love each other because that’s what we’re all down here for, isn’t it?’
“Everyone talks about the greatest mystery in life and why are we down here? For me, it’s the easiest thing to answer on the planet: We’re down here for each other, that’s why there’s more than just one of us.”
The day after we spoke, the Academy of Country Music nominations were announced.
Brooks says if he’s nominated for Entertainer of the Year, “I would find myself pulling against me the whole way.”
This because of Jason Aldean’s horrific experience at the Route 91 Harvest and all he and the country music community and far beyond endured.
“I don’t think you can hand it to anybody but him. Because that would be a beautiful thing. Well, it’s just … It would be more than his fight and more than love right there. And that kid deserves it.”
Talking about his future, Brooks has a Cheshire cat grin while describing an upcoming project that he won’t go into details about.
“If all the stars line up,” he says, “which is much more of a possibility than not right now, I think we’re about to announce something that’s going to make everything we’ve done look small.”
That’s hard to imagine considering his record-breaking tour and that he’s received an astounding seven RIAA Diamond awards for album sales of over 10 million and is the No. 1 selling U.S. solo artist with more than 148 million albums sold.
In November he won CMA Entertainer of the Year honors for a record sixth time and in December his single “Ask Me How I Know” became his 20th chart-topper.
“I wish I could say something because I am busting at the seams,” he says, but will only reveal that it’s a concept that he and his team are working on with WME’s Beckham.
“We’ve been nothing but a-hole and elbows since we got the news, just working and working and working and getting geared up. It’s going to be a lot of fun, but I think they’ll probably announce it here in the next … I’m hoping … six to eight weeks.”
But to really get the scoop on what’s going on with Brooks, all one has to do is visit his Facebook fan page (which 2.26 million have done) and where each week he shoots Inside Studio G, a Facebook Live video shouting out fans, and letting them know what he’s up to.
Brooks’ recent Facebook Live video showed him in a recording studio laying down two new tracks, shouting out his gig at the rodeo in Houston and mentioning his upcoming appearance at the Stagecoach festival in late April.
“That might be where we’ll make a big announcement about what the future will be,” he says. Brooks’ appreciation for his fans may only be matched by his commitment to philanthropy.
The charity he co-founded, Teammates for Kids, has paired some 4,300 professional athletes with children in need, created doctor-free zones for children in hospitals, and raised more than $100 million for kids in over 60 countries around the globe.
He’s also played countless benefit shows for flood and fire victims, venues and more throughout his career, which has only made him more popular.
The thunderous applause Brooks received upon his induction into the Pollstar Live Hall of Fame in February made this clear.
Brooks, true to form, remained humble and expressed his “total shock” at getting the award, and mentioned artists like his beloved Freddie Mercury and George Strait among others he thinks should also be inducted.
When asked what his personal watershed, live performance experiences were where he first caught the performance bug, Brooks cites early shows at Stillwater, Okla.’s Willies Saloon where he began learning his craft (and where he met his current production manager Brian Petree who bartended there).
“After you did something so many times at Willies, you learn what the great songs are that keep people in that building so they weren’t walking out,” Brooks says.
“So you’re like, ‘Oh, I like that. You just go to the supermarket and you just pick. I watched this guy do that, this guy do that, so I’m going to try it, see if it works.”
On this last tour, his strategy of playing into a market’s demand meant at times the last show of a run would be less than sold out. Brooks, the consummate performer, had no qualms about playing those.
In fact, he explained, these were often his favorite performances as the audience, seeing the empty seats, would become extra boisterous and, because more than anything else, he just loves performing.
“We have a song called “The Old Stuff” off of Fresh Horses, my fifth album,” Garth says.
“It’s got a line that says, ‘No rules, young fools, coming from the old school/Taking on the world alone….we were begging for a place to play.’ That’s what we’re doing, man. And I still love that line, because that’s what we’re doing. We’re just begging, ‘Please, just give us a chance to bring our stuff, plug it in, turn it up too loud and play.’”
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