At SXSW, Garth Brooks Sees The Constants In A Changing Industry The music business has evolved dramatically since the country icon began his career. What hasn't changed, he says, is how artists connect with fans: "The music kinda lets you be in their life."
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At SXSW, Garth Brooks Sees The Constants In A Changing Industry

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At SXSW, Garth Brooks Sees The Constants In A Changing Industry

At SXSW, Garth Brooks Sees The Constants In A Changing Industry

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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While we've been here at South by Southwest, we've heard from a number of up-and-coming artists. But now we're going to turn to an icon.


GARTH BROOKS: (Singing) I've got friends in low places where the whiskey drowns and the beer chases my blues away.

MARTIN: Garth Brooks launched his career in the '80s, and he's still breaking records and selling out shows. He has become one of the best-selling solo artists of all time. This week, he had a keynote speech during South by Southwest. He also hosted a free concert. And he was nice enough to make time to speak with us now. Thank you so much for joining me.

BROOKS: You kidding me? Thank you. It's very sweet.

MARTIN: Now, this festival focuses on music, technology and film. And it often talks about the subject of disruption and change in all of those industries. How has the industry changed since you've been involved in it?

BROOKS: (Laughter) Oh, you don't have a - this show ain't long enough for that. You've got to remember, when I - when we hit, it was vinyl, cassettes. CDs weren't even out yet, right? So then I remember CDs were coming out right when the first album came out. So my first album that they gave me that was free cost me 300 bucks because I ran home so excited I didn't realize I don't have a DVD player. So I had to go out and buy one to hear the first CD of what we got. So it's been an unbelievable change through it - out.

But the one thing that remains constant is the music and how that music affects people. I'm very fortunate to be involved with songs like "The Dance," "If Tomorrow Never Comes." For that someone's going to pull you over in the grocery store and say, I lost my son and we played "The Dance" at his - and then "To Make You Feel My Love," "Shameless," people are going to pull you over and go, that was the first song at our wedding, all right? "Friends In Low Places," you don't want to know the story they pull you over for that. But it's so cool that the music kind of gets to be - let you be in their life. And it's been doing it that way now for 25 years.

MARTIN: How did you come to that insight? And I do want to mention here that in addition to the singing thing, you also have a B.A. and you have an MBA. And I wondered at what point - because you obviously wanted to understand and master the business side as well - at what point did you have a - sort of an epiphany moment where you realized that the business is one thing, the art is another? Or was that something that you always felt? Because a lot of artists, just to be honest, are really angry about some of the changes in the industry.

BROOKS: Well, they should be angry about them. But the artists should be angry for the songwriters. Those are the people that are getting left behind. And I'm telling you right now, we talk about movies, we talk about music, we talk about gaming. If it's not for the people that write it and create it, we don't have it. And if we do have it, it sucks. It's very stale. It's very white. It's just bleh (ph), right? And that can't be. So if anybody should be angry, it should be the songwriters.

MARTIN: What I think I also hear you saying is that people will pay for the things that they value. And if they value it, then they will find a way to pay for it.

BROOKS: Yeah. I mean...

MARTIN: ...Is that what you're saying?

BROOKS: I think so. And you got to remember what things are worth. There was a gentleman out there that asked a question about albums versus singles. And when you talk about a song that means everything to you - you know, I'm trying to think of a song for me that just means everything. And it might be off the movie "Ghost" when they're doing that clay thing. It's one of the coolest moments in movie history. You think about that song, that song's got to be worth more than 99 cents to me in my life, right?

So I think the thing with albums for me, why I love them, is for 10 bucks, price of a movie ticket or maybe a little - you know, a little more, you can see that movie through music a thousand times if you want for the same price. It's all one upfront. But what - if you understand how music works, if you understand what that does for the songwriters, that's what makes songwriters survive long enough until they get to write the song that changes the world. And I think music is that powerful. So I'll stand behind that any day.

MARTIN: And also, I think I also heard you say that one of the things that streaming does is it help people - it helps people to rediscover songs that perhaps were not well-received when they first came out, or it kind of - sometimes it helps them find a new audience.

BROOKS: Yeah, I don't know about that. I might have miscommunicated or you might have misunderstood me because for me, the thing that streaming doesn't do that I love about terrestrial radio - how many songs are your favorite songs that wasn't your favorite song when you heard it first? It's like, oh, that song just doesn't - eh (ph). But the next time you heard it, you were working or something, it's on the radio, you couldn't get to the dial to turn it. There was a line in there, oh, that's pretty cool. And then that song becomes one of your favorite songs ever.

Well, in streaming that's not going to happen. Alexa, play me this. I don't like it. Boom, next. You're not going to hear that song again. So that's what I love about terrestrial radio. I also love the fact that - have you ever gone to your streamer and go, play me a song I don't know? Right.

MARTIN: Well, I wanted to ask you about that. I wanted to ask you about a song that you talked about at the press conference that you just rereleased that - you wrote it in response to the LA riots.

BROOKS: Yeah, "We Shall Be Free."

MARTIN: "We Shall Be Free."

BROOKS: We just rereleased it. It's just showing up at all the concerts now. Signs - we shall be free - and you're like, what's going on?

MARTIN: What is going on?

BROOKS: I think that song resurges when there is unrest. And right now, I don't know - I don't know if we've ever been more polar opposite than we are right now within our own country. The thing that kills me is if we've got 10 things that mean something to us, if we don't agree on all 10 things, if we disagree on one of them, we can't be in the same room together. When did that happen?


BROOKS: (Singing) When the last thing we notice is the color of skin and the first thing we look for is the beauty within, when the skies and oceans are clean again, then we shall be free. And we shall be free. And we shall be free.

When did it not happen that hey, man, I don't agree with you on this point, I agree with you on this point and this point, let's exist - right? So...

MARTIN: Well, I wanted to ask you about that because I wanted to see - it seems that certain genres are now kind of aligned with certain political points of view...

BROOKS: Right.

MARTIN: ...And other genres are aligned with other points of view. I mean, it's not a secret that a lot of people in hip-hop and R&B and a lot of the indie folks seem to lean left, a lot of people in country seem to lean right. And the question I have for you is - is there a way in which the music industry is actually abetting the polarization and not bridging it?

BROOKS: Well, I hope not because for me - well, I guess music has always been a place to do your platform. Let's just talk about what I know. And that's Garth Brooks as an artist. There is no left and right. There is what is. And then wherever you kind of - they pigeonhole you or put a label on you, that's their deal. But what you got to do is you just got to speak from the heart. And we shall be free when the last thing we notice is the color of skin and the first thing we look for is the beauty within - there is no left and right there. That's just I'm going to base what I think about you on how you treat me and how I treat you.

And to me, I don't think there's a fairer system than that. So I'm going to stay away from the left or right not because I'm afraid of alienating somebody because I am always going to tell you what I feel. And if it puts me in that left or right category in your mind or if it sets me apart, whatever, it's going to be what it's going to be.

MARTIN: What are you excited about now these days? I mean, you've done - I don't know. We don't even have time to list all your accolades. We don't have time to...

BROOKS: Now, that's a broad question because I'm going to talk about my babies and I'm going to talk about being Miss Yearwood's husband. Those are the things that I'm excited about. I miss my mom and dad. And I love God and Jesus. And that's it. But if you want to talk about music, what I'm excited about...

MARTIN: Yeah, what's keeping you motivated musically?

BROOKS: I think live is always wonderful. I love to see the faces that we're seeing again. And I love to see these faces that weren't born last time we were touring. That's sweet. It's fun. And it's neat to see all those faces singing every word of every verse of every song. That gets you up every day, and it makes you feel like you're 20 every day. And then just the creation because I am a firm believer that what's going to go on is what's going to go on, but you cannot stop creating because that's what I think you're put down here to do.


BROOKS: (Singing) Nine o'clock the show is ending, but the fun is just beginning. She knows he's anticipating, but she's going to keep him waiting. Grab a bite to eat and then they're heading to the honkey tonk. But loud crowds and line dancing just ain't what they really want. Drive out to the boondocks and park down by the creek, and where it's George Strait 'til real late and dancing cheek to cheek.

MARTIN: That was multi-platinum-selling recording artist Garth Brooks. We spoke with him at the convention center in Austin, Texas, where he gave a keynote speech on Friday at the South by Southwest festival. He also surprised Austin residents with a couple of free performances throughout the weekend.


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