(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Garth Brooks, at age 47, is re-entering the public arena with his announcement to leave retirement to play select concerts. He also seems eager to begin speaking his mind again. When he began his self-imposed retirement in 2001 — announced a year earlier — to care for his three daughters as a newly-divorced father, Brooks totally withdrew from the music scene, apart from playing occasional charity shows, and he has remained totally silent on current issues in the music industry.
Now he is breaking his self-imposed silence. “When you step back into this thing, you owe it to your brothers to protect the music,” he told me.
At his Nashville press conference on Oct. 15, Brooks called for the industry and for Nashville music creators in particular to protect their creations, saying, “It’s time to pull out the sword and go to war.”
When I talked with him later in Las Vegas after his second press conference that same day and asked what he meant about “pulling out the sword,” he said, “The thing I haven’t liked about the last 10 years is that we have allowed the creator and the owner of the content to bow down to the retailer. We’ve allowed them to stand by while piracy runs rampant without our government stepping in.
“Now, politics is a funny thing. If there are millions of illegal downloaders out there — which is millions of voters — and there’s 50,000 people in the industry to protect that, it doesn’t make it right to turn a blind eye because there’s millions of them. They wouldn’t do the same thing with McDonald’s or whoever. They would have police, they would bust ’em. Our government has not stood up to protect us. I think film and music should join hand in hand and put the brakes on entertainment until … all it would take is half a day of silence. And people would say, ‘Well, what the hell is going on here?’ Well, you didn’t take care of it, and that’s your job. We can create, but we need help protecting ourselves.”
Brooks also pointedly referred to iTunes’ policy of selling only singles as a huge mistake.
“They are nice guys and they love music,” Brooks said. “But they are businessmen and they are not going to say, ‘Yeah, we’ll put albums out there at the price that you tell me.’ Because they don’t have to. Right now, they’re running the music business. And I have told them this: They might not be the last guys that should be running the business, but they’re close.
“But, to us, as music people, if you’re just gonna stand there and bitch, nothing’s going to happen. We need to start getting active. We need to find a way that music can unify. Unionize. And turn it off.”
Would he, I asked, take the active role in organizing this?
“Whoever takes the active role is going to be the bad guy forever,” Brooks replied. “Somebody’s got to step up and do it. I’m sticking my whole body back into the business again. Because I feel great that I am doing something to try to protect the songwriters. …
“I’m not a record label fan, but on this one, I have to stand up for the record labels and say that they can’t afford development anymore. Because if you think you can live on 99 cents a single, I can guarantee you one of two things: You’re wrong, or you’re working for Apple.”
And what, I wondered, does he think can realistically be done about this?
“I think we should take a very good look at major league sports … and the ability to come together and speak as one voice. Not one voice speaking for us — but to speak as one voice. Then I think we’re fine. Trust me. iTunes? Sweet guys. And they’re good businessmen. But all they’re waiting for is for us to say, ‘That s**t aint gonna fly.’ And then they’ll say, ‘OK, what do you want to do?’ We’ve just got to get together. And that’s always been hard. Because of guys like me, that always do their own thing.”
So, would he personally issue a call for a day or half-day of musical silence to make the point?
“I would hate to see it get that far,” Brooks said. “What I would much rather do is see the government stand up for us and give us the right to make that happen if we’re not happy. That would be enough, trust me, because the people that you have problems with can’t make their living without music. It’s like you could win the war without ever firing one shot.”
He continued, “What I find myself doing with these record label heads is they’re going, ‘Hey, we’re doing great!’ And the truth is, they’re doing great with what they’ve got to work with. But the truth is, they’re making one-twentieth of what they should be making. The people that are running Taylor Swift‘s place? Those people, even though they’re the most successful, I betcha in the ’90s, they would’ve made 10 times more — without piracy and without having to sell everything at 99 cents. If that young lady, if for every single she sold, she sold an album, those people could have money for artist development again and for taking chances.”
With this new regular performance gig in Las Vegas, one of the pre-eminent voices of the modern country music era now has a prominent forum not only to present his own music but to explore new musical ideas and artists and to discuss topics at large. And pretty much to do anything he damn well pleases, as he and his new boss, hotel and casino czar Steve Wynn, made plain at their press conference in Brooks’ new musical home, the 1,500-seat Encore Theater.
Contrary to many fan and media expectations he might mount a spectacular Vegas extravaganza on the order of his big TV productions or a Cirque du Soleil show, Brooks will play his shows at the Encore by himself, with an acoustic guitar. It will be, at least initially, a musical exploration of his life and career, beginning with his musical influences and then branching into songs from throughout his career. He will, Brooks said, have the occasional musical guest, including his wife, Trisha Yearwood. He has agreed to a five-year deal (that could be ended at any time by mutual agreement) to play 15 weekends a year, with four shows a weekend. One on Friday night, two on Saturday evening and one on Sunday evening, with ticket prices at $125 for all seats. Both Brooks and Wynn said that figure was a compromise. It’s well above Brooks’ former top ticket prices but considerably below Vegas’ typical showroom prices.
One of Brooks’ main original objections to Wynn’s offers to come out of retirement was that he wanted to remain at home in Oklahoma to care for his daughters and drive them to school and soccer matches and the like. Wynn’s counteroffer was the use of a Challenger private jet for Brooks to make easy, two-hour commuter runs to Las Vegas, with the Challenger to become Brooks’ plane to keep at the end of the five-year run.
Appearing with Wynn at the press conference, Brooks made it very plain that he was musically in sync with Wynn. Which is understandable, given Wynn’s history of booking such artists as Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings at his casinos long before it became culturally fashionable to do so.
As a casino operator, Wynn is a rare music fan. After Brooks took a look at the theater and remarked that he liked its looks, he told Wynn he wanted to hear it, mainly because he has usually played sports halls and sports arenas. Wanting to hear a large room built especially for sound, Brooks returned, with just his acoustic guitar, to try the place out. He played an acoustic show for Wynn and “1,100 of his closest friends,” as Brooks said.
“I was sitting with Bette Midler,” Wynn said, “and she was screaming.”
So, what is Brooks after here? Well, for what it’s worth, here’s what I think. One, it puts him back in the public eye, which he does seem to relish. Two, he can also get back to performing music, which he obviously does love. Three, this gives him a launching pad from which he can venture into any area he chooses. Obviously, this is a man who is not finished with what he means to accomplish.