At SXSW, where music and tech convene for one weeklong attempt at making nice, it’s hard to imagine a stranger union than country-music legend Garth Brooks and online-retail behemoth Amazon. Stranger still was watching both entities and their dueling ideas about the way we consume music take center stage at this year’s festival, where Brooks delivered a keynote speech on Friday that turned out to be more of a town-hall debate on the business of streaming with the head of Amazon Music, Steve Boom.
For years Brooks resisted the emergence of digital into his insular country ethos — stalling longer than even the Beatles to sell downloads of his music — but more recently, he’s warmed up to the idea that Nashville and Silicon Valley can tango, except only when he leads. Last October, Brooks shuttered his online store GhostTunes, the only place where you could previously download his music, and instead announced an unprecedented alliance with Amazon Music. Since then, Brooks’s music has been exclusively available to download and, for the first time, stream on Amazon Music Unlimited, the site’s entry into the streaming wars.
Brooks chose Amazon over “the other guys” because he said they proposed a deal more meaningful than business. “I like this exclusivity because it’s a marriage. There’s someone I can pick up the phone and call,” he said, referring to his frequent chats with Boom. “It has to work as a family.” And like any marriage, theirs has its bumps. Brooks is honored to be “Mr. Yearwood” in his personal life (he and Trisha Yearwood have been married since 2005), but he won’t be Mr. Amazon in this relationship. When asked if he’d ever bend to Amazon in ways that might compromise his artistic integrity — like allowing whatever data Amazon collects on user behavior to influence his songwriting to make hits — Brooks refused. Part of the reason he went to Amazon, he said, is because they were the only service that would let him run the show: He can sell his albums digitally as a package deal only — a dealbreaker for him — and still sell physical albums to his loyal fans.
Brooks wants streaming to find a way to reignite interest in the album — it’s why he’s so tough on Boom about Amazon’s vision for music discovery. He especially wasn’t shy about telling Boom and the packed conference room why he’s iffy about Alexa, the customized Siri-esque voice service that controls Amazon’s Echo speakers. He’s not happy that users can command Alexa to skip a song if they don’t immediately like it. “Imagine if someone had said ‘Alexa, next’ on the Beatles. Think of all we’d have missed,” he argues. (He’s not exactly thrilled about people bossing around a female voice without so much as a thank you either.) He’s also wary of streaming allowing too much choice on-demand: “How do you discover what you don’t already know?” Brooks worries that the relative ease of streaming and downloads has already devalued music even among the diehards. “Isn’t ‘Fools Rush In’ worth more than 99 cents?” he asked of a reporter at an earlier press conference after learning the Elvis cover was the man’s wedding song.
The ability to get songwriters paid for full albums as opposed to one-off singles is what’s mattered to Brooks the most since watching Nashville become a “ghost town” for songwriters in recent years. “The definition of a commercial single is what song is gonna piss off the fewest people,” Brooks says. He’d rather hear the next song on the album track list, bringing up how two of his album cuts — “Face to Face,” a song about date rape, and the protest anthem “We Shall Be Free — never had a shot at terrestrial radio, but they’re the ones thousands of fans discovered on their own and now credit with saving their lives or inspiring hope in the current political climate. Stephanie Brooks co-wrote the latter song and Brooks finds it unacceptable that, more and more, women are now being shut out of country radio. “Men aren’t smart. We need female voices,” he says. (He later counted Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and Katy Perry among his favorite non-country songwriters.)
In order for songwriting to survive as an art, Brooks thinks there needs to be a stronger union akin to the NFL Players Association to fight for songwriters when they’re at the mercy of litigation, lobbyists, and corporations. And when that day comes, Brooks, who got his MBA in 2011, says he’d like to run it so he can send a direct message: “All you streaming services bullying us, let’s turn it off.” If this candid talk was any indication, he’ll hold Amazon accountable, too.