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The Boston Phoenix G Forces

Garth Brooks, country's biggest deal.

By Matt Ashare

JUNE 15, 1998:  The year was 1991. And, as we all remember, the pop world was in for one of those periodic shake-ups that would thrust a new group of artists into the spotlight, whether they liked it or not. In many ways the change would come to be embodied by one young man who released his second album that year and, thanks to a new computerized system of measuring CD sales, rode it to the top of the Billboard album chart. He'd grown up listening to Kiss albums in the middle of nowhere, USA, far from the media centers of LA and NYC. But his music would alter the sound of radio and his clothes the look of fashion in those cities, and he'd quickly be cast into the role of an American pop icon. If you're part of a loud and particularly visible minority segment of American music consumers -- the demographic that reads this paper -- there's a good chance Kurt Cobain is the name that's popped into your head. If not -- if you're part of the much larger demographic that regularly tunes into the country's dominant radio format -- then you know I'm talking about Garth Brooks.

Both Kurt and Garth released their debut albums in 1989, and each did well enough to set the wheels in motion for a major breakthrough two years later. Both artists gave voice to the hopes, dreams, fears, and frustrations of large segments of the population that hadn't been actively spoken for; each went on to challenge the industry's ruling hierarchies. But whereas Kurt was crippled by having to wrestle with the tension between mass success and anti-commercial punk ideology that was so much a part of his musical heritage, Garth acted as if he had no such issues to contend with. In contemporary country music there isn't supposed to be any conflict between artistic integrity and economic prosperity -- they're simply two sides of the same lucky coin. Heads, Garth wins; tails, Garth wins. Indeed, as NPR contributor and New Yorker and New York Times music writer Bruce Feiler details in his fascinating new Dreaming Out Loud: Garth Brooks, Wynonna Judd, Wade Hayes, and the Changing Face of Nashville (Avon Books, 406 pages, $24), Brooks's massive marketing coups have actually strengthened his artistic standing, to the extent that he's helped bring a new level of commercial clout and prosperity to country music as a whole.

Brooks's latest triumph is The Limited Series, a competitively priced boxed set comprising his first six albums, each with 11 tracks rather than the Nashville standard 10. (He also broke with Music Row convention last year by including a whopping 14 tracks on his long-delayed seventh album, Sevens.) The extra cuts in The Limited Series were all recorded during the sessions for their respective albums, and they're more or less gratuitous inclusions (including the Bob Dylan tune "To Make You Feel My Love," which is also on the Hope Floats soundtrack). But as has been the case so often in Brooks's career, The Limited Series has ingeniously been framed as a something of a challenge to his fans -- an opportunity for them to demonstrate their loyalty. Because when you buy the set, you're helping to push Brooks -- already the best-selling country artist and solo artist of all time, with more than 60 million units moved -- closer to his ultimate goal of overtaking the Beatles to become the best-selling act of all time. The strategy is working: the set debuted at #1 on the Billboard album chart four weeks ago, only the second box set in history to do so (Bruce Springsteen's Live, 1975-1985 was the first). And since each box represents six SoundScanned CDs and there are exactly two million on the market, well, you do the math -- yeah, 12 million.

Of course, if, like me, you're one of those people who was too caught up in the goings on in Seattle and the rest of the alternative nation to pay much attention to Brooks's ascent, then The Limited Series is a conveniently packaged catch-up kit. Other than hearing Brooks hits like "Friends in Low Places" on the radio every now again (usually as a passenger in my mom's car), catching bits of gossip about any of a number of his feuds with the folks at Capitol Nashville (the label formerly known as Liberty), and seeing the occasional concert footage of a puffy-faced Brooks crammed into a pair of ridiculously tight Wranglers and wearing that big old Stetson and that high-tech headset microphone like some space-age cowboy preparing to ride off into orbit around the sunset, I was a Brooks neophyte until three weeks ago.

But getting to know him through his music -- at least the Brooks mythologized in and by his songs -- is reasonably easy because, well, you just don't sell 60 million albums without making music that's universally accessible and delivering it in such a way that listeners can effortlessly identify and empathize with the performer. And that, more than anything, is Brooks's talent. It's the kind of skill or gift a good politician possesses. Like Ronald Reagan, Brooks claims John Wayne as his favorite American hero -- and when he discusses this with Bruce Feiler in Dreaming Out Loud, you get the sense that, like Reagan, he doesn't distinguish very well between the person John Wayne and the characters Wayne played in his films. But where Reagan was a simple character actor good-naturedly walking through all of his roles, whether he was playing the hero or the villain, Brooks, like Bill Clinton, is a Method man. Brooks and Clinton both want you to feel their pain, and they want you to know that they feel yours, too. Brooks shares Clinton's obsessive appetites for food (he's constantly battling a weight problem) and women (he tearfully confessed his infidelities on TNN back in '89 and then renewed his vows with his wife, Sandy) -- as well as the president's ability to turn these personal character flaws into assets for his public persona.

Beneath the sensitive-guy façade, however, lies one of the most powerful artists in the music business, one who's proven particularly ruthless in his dealings with his label. As Feiler reports, Brooks went to war with label head Jimmy Bowen, and he might well have gotten Bowen fired if Bowen hadn't been diagnosed with lymphoma in 1994 and decided to resign. During all this, in 1993, Brooks negotiated for himself what some have characterized as a better deal than just about any other artist in the world has -- one estimated to be worth $300 million, and giving him complete control over every aspect of when, where, and how his albums are released. Last year he engaged Bowen's replacement, Scott Hendricks, in a public battle of wills, and he actually held up the release of Sevens for three months, until Hendricks was replaced by more or less by a man of Brooks's choosing, Pat Quigley. Few if any artists have that kind of power.

The most illuminating and engrossing parts of Feiler's book, which examines Nashville in the '90s through the wide-angle lenses of three very different artists (Brooks, Wynonna Judd, and the lesser-known Wade Hayes), come when the author explains that his subjects -- even Brooks -- are essentially products of the times and the changes in Nashville and the music business. The implications are alarming, not just for the future of Nashville but for the industry as a whole. For example, though the introduction of SoundScan has rationalized the way CD sales are reported, it's also put more pressure on labels to generate pre-release hype and airplay for CDs in order to ensure a strong debut on the album sales charts. The result has been an escalation in the promotion wars that has significantly inflated the cost of releasing a major-label Nashville CD. As recently as 1980, moving 100,000 units was a success; in the '90s you need at least three times that number to break even.

An even more detrimental force has been the proliferating use of market-research companies by radio stations and labels to choose singles and determine the make-up of playlists. As more and more radio stations have been bought up by giant corporations looking to get an immediate return on their investments, programming those stations has become less of an art and more of a science designed to keep the largest number of listeners tuned in until the next commercial break. To serve that need, companies like Marketing/Research Associates have stepped in with polling data that suggests which singles will "work" best on radio. Unfortunately, the songs that generate the most enthusiasm in the polling also tend to generate negative responses from some potential listeners -- those who would likely switch to another station if they heard it on the air. So singles that generate consistently middling responses -- not too hot or too cold -- tend to be chosen over the kind of songs that people feel passionate about.

Feiler watches and reports as this logic is applied with disastrous results to a crucial sophomore album by Wade Hayes. The label services radio with a single everyone, even Hayes, agrees is one of the disc's weaker cuts -- because it tests well. Sure enough, it's the number one most-added single on radio the week the album is released. But even after all that effort the album sells poorly, presumably because people aren't that enthusiastic about the single they're hearing on the radio. They don't turn the dial, but they don't head for the record store, either.

Ultimately, Brooks and every other mainstream country artist has had to contend with some incarnation of this problem -- namely, how to balance the desire to appeal to the largest number of listeners against the need to make music with substance and meaning. It's really not all that different from the prickly predicament Kurt Cobain faced in the wake of Nirvana's chart-topping success. Cobain apparently decided he was willing to sell fewer albums in order to maintain a degree of integrity. And certain country artists -- notably Steve Earle and Waylon Jennings -- have made similar sacrifices. But for a performer with the ambition of Garth Brooks -- a performer who depends on being able to boast, McDonald's style, that he's got 60 million sold -- catering to the lowest common denominator has become the cost of doing business in the '90s. "The best quote I ever heard about country music these days," Feiler quotes bluegrass musician Marty Stuart as saying, "is that the reason Long John Silver's outsells Uncle Bud's Catfish Cabin on the edge of town is because they've made fish succeed in not tasting like fish."


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