Garth Brooks made a surprise appearance at SXSW on Friday (March 17), and considering it was the country icon's first time at the long-running Austin fest, he needed to make it big. And he did.
Brooks kicked things off Friday morning with the radio premiere of his new single "Ask Me How I Know" during a press conference that also found him announcing his first free concert since he played Central Park in the late '90s. On Saturday (March 18) night, Brooks will perform a free outdoor concert for Austin locals at Lady Bird Lake at 8 p.m., which will also be open to music festival badge holders.
"I love that there's a freshness on everybody's face down here," Brooks told Billboard about his first impressions of SXSW during the press conference. "And that freshness is about content. And that's what I love. Everything is based on content. So to get somewhere where content is king, that's where I want to park and I want to live. Between gaming, movies, music, technology, this is the place to be if you want to know what's happening and feel like you're 20 years old again."
So why was Garth making his first SXSW appearance a quarter century into his career? Thank Amazon. The online retail giant, which paired with Brooks to exclusively stream his catalog in Oct. 2016, is the presenter of Brooks' free Saturday show. Just hours after the press conference, Amazon Music vp Steve Boom sat down with Brooks for a keynote discussion that was open to a wider swath of SXSW attendees.
While Brooks was careful with his words during the packed keynote -- referring to streaming competitors such as Spotify and Apple Music as "the other guys" -- he was more candid during the morning presser, explaining why he turned down those two giants and went with Amazon.
"Spotify came in, Daniel Ek came down to sit with me, sweet man, I love Daniel, great guy," Brooks said of the Spotify founder/CEO. "I think he gets a lot of crap. His parents were both street musicians - he's a good guy who understands music, and I think he wants to help and believes 100 percent he's helping." As for Apple, he was slightly less enraptured. "Apple's a little different story. They came in with their own set of rules, and if you're already established, you have to change to get to them. I'm never going to change to fit their rules. Nice guys, we have respect for each other, we're just never going to work together. So we were kind of dead in the water. Then out of the blue, thank God, Amazon shows up and wants to get into the streaming business…. The views they shared seemed to correlate with the views we shared."
Even so, Brooks and Boom weren't entirely simpatico during the afternoon panel, with the country legend expressing his "fear" that streaming and devices such as Amazon's Alexa make it too likely for listeners to skip songs they don't already know instead of letting them sink in. Boom countered that pointing out that data has shown Alexa and streaming make it likely for people to actually listen to music longer, thereby increasing the chance of discovery. For his part, Brooks lauded Alexa for having the option of syncing listeners in with terrestrial radio stations, something clearly dear to his heart as someone who benefited greatly from radio play in the '90s (he also quipped at one point, "Does Alexa know if you're sober?" which got a big laugh from the crowd).
Speaking of radio, Brooks voiced concern over the homogenization of country radio within the last 10-15 years, bemoaning that Nashville has lost, according to him, 84 percent of its songwriters in an era when people buy songs versus albums.
"How albums work for songwriters is a songwriter moves to town and gets a cut on an album. That cut allows them to stay in town for another six more months, seven more months. And then they get another cut, which allows them to stay in town for another six, seven months… until that one night when the stars line up and they write the song they're put on this earth to write.
"Right now we have one or two songwriters who have 28 No. 1s… and maybe then the music starts sounding kind of the same. For music's sake, for all of our sakes, we need to reinvest in the songwriter."
Later, during the Q&A section of the keynote, Brooks added, "One thing I'm missing from country radio is the female voice." As for what he does like on country radio, Garth shouted out Jason Aldean and Joe Nichols, whom he likened to "a young [Merle] Haggard."
"Outside of country music, the people who are grabbing me right now are Gaga… Katy Perry…and some of the most talented cats we've seen since Michael Jackson are Beyonce and Bruno Mars."