When SXSW announced just weeks before the conference that Garth Brooks would be one of this year’s keynote speakers, there was instant speculation that his attendance would include a “surprise” musical performance. On Thursday, when SXSW announced that Brooks would host a press conference on Friday morning, rumors persisted that he was revealing a free Saturday concert at Auditorium Shores. And, to exactly no one’s surprise, Brooks got on stage at the convention center with Ryan Reddington, the director of Amazon Music (to whom Brooks recently gave exclusive streaming rights for his entire catalog), and announced that he would, in fact, be Saturday’s “mystery” performer.
Though it is still somewhat surprising that Garth Brooks was at SXSW in the first place. For a music festival that prides itself on being a place to discover new talent, the highest-selling solo artist of all time is a weird choice. Brooks acknowledged as much, telling reporters he felt like “a bridesmaid” who got to ride down to Austin on Amazon’s coattails.
At the press conference, he claimed to know little about his corporate partner’s weekend plans, saying he had too big a mouth to have been privy to those details. And that may be for the best; Amazon seems to know exactly how to showcase a star of Garth’s magnitude at SXSW. In addition to Saturday’s free concert at Auditorium Shores, which Amazon is sponsoring, Garth made another surprise appearance with an acoustic set at Austin’s legendary honky-tonk the Broken Spoke on Friday night.
If Amazon really pulled the strings, then they must have known that Brooks is big draw for the many locals not attending the infamously expensive festival. SXSW brings free shows to the Shores every year, and usually anyone can go, provided they have the forethought to sign up for one of the festival’s guest passes. But Brooks’s Saturday showcase required credit-card-bill proof of Austin-area residency to secure one of the free passes (SXSW badge-holders were also able to get in). Free passes went on sale on Friday at noon and were completely gone within the hour.
Between the press conference and Friday night’s surprise Broken Spoke set, Brooks sat down for his keynote panel with Steve Boom, the vice president of Amazon Music, to talk about their new partnership. For Boom, having Garth on board will help bring in country fans, who have been slower to adopt streaming, to Amazon Music.
Brooks said he was attracted to the retail behemoth because of its commitment to old models of the music business in addition to the new. Brooks said it’s foolish to give up on physical music sales, pointing out that half of Adele’s historic record numbers were for CD sales. “I was looking for one company that did it all. Out of the blue comes Amazon, offering streaming, physical, and digital music,” said Brooks. “I took it then and I still take it now as a godsend and miracle.”
Brooks told the audience another reason he signed with Amazon was that they agreed to sell digital versions of his music as whole albums and not just singles. Brooks clarified that the full-album model is one that nurtures songwriters. Normally, songwriters will get a cut on whatever album they get a song on, even if that particular song isn’t one of the album’s most popular singles. This allows them to keep working on their craft until, as Brooks saids, “the stars align” and they write that hit. “From 2000 to now, Nashville has lost over eighty-four percent of its songwriters,” Brooks said. “We must reinvest in the songwriter. We must take care of them, because that’s where it always starts.”
In each of his SXSW appearances, Brooks praised the songwriters that have contributed to his success. Texas Monthly sat down with the Nashville songwriter for a few minutes on Friday to discuss the debt he owes to Texas songwriters in particular, including Dan Roberts, who wrote “The Beaches of Cheyenne” and Texas-transplant Stephanie Davis, who wrote “We Shall Be Free,” a single that Brooks said has been seeing renewed success given our current political climate.
The Texas music scene has been more than welcoming to Brooks. “I’m from Oklahoma, so I didn’t expect them to take me in,” Brooks said in our interview, “but they’ve treated me like a native son here everywhere I’ve played.” Brooks returned the favor to a crowd of Texans on Saturday night. “I’m just always happy that somebody wants to show up and hear me. I feel very thankful for that, and tomorrow night’s gonna be a fun night.”