SXSW Music Keynote: Garth Brooks

Country music standard talks up songwriters

“Songwriting’s going downhill, and we as artists need to try and preserve that [art],” exhorted country superstar Garth Brooks backstage at the Austin Convention Center before his SXSW Music keynote address on Friday afternoon. “Everybody’s making something, but nobody’s making enough to survive.”

Garth Brooks (Photo by Gary Miller)

Such was the crux of the Tulsa native’s 75-minute conversation with Amazon Music Vice President Steve Boom. The company inked an exclusive deal with Brooks last October to make his catalog available for streaming and purchase, a first for the singer, who abstained from streaming services longer than Taylor Swift and the Beatles.

There’s just one catch: In the interest of preserving the integrity and context of the original releases, Amazon only allows consumers to purchase Brooks’ full albums, rather than let users cherry-pick singles.

“I can’t imagine having Hotel California without ‘Pretty Maids All in a Row,’” the 55-year-old singer told the Convention Center.

Apt analogy, considering the Eagles’ 1976 country-rock smash has racked up sales of 16 million in the U.S. alone, enough to go toe-to-toe with Brooks’ biggest albums. Selling full albums also awards songwriters larger royalty checks and keeps them working in Nashville, a motivating factor for Brooks, who claimed that 84% of songwriters have left Music City over the past decade.

“They get a cut that allows them to stay in town for another eight months,” he said. “Keeping these people in business until they write that song that God sent them down here to write, I think that’s our duty.”

The two-time Grammy winner, who later that evening put in a pop-up performance at venerated South Austin honky-tonk the Broken Spoke, also lamented the underrepresentation of women in country music and defended terrestrial radio’s enduring ability to make or break new artists – a note that rung ironic amidst a festival of performers who rely on Spotify, relentless touring, and merchandise sales to make a living.

For all of his bluster, Brooks professed to have no clear solution to the ongoing struggle for proper compensation among performers and songwriters.

“I wish I had a crystal ball and could tell you everything’s gonna be fine, but I hate to admit this: I don’t know,” he said backstage. “I just know that if you always put the music first, then everything else kind of takes care of itself.”

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