Garth Brooks Talks Lady Gaga, Lobbies for Songwriters in SXSW Keynote

Country superstar laments song homogenization during chat with Amazon Music's Steve Boom

Garth Brooks participated in a keynote conversation with Amazon Music exec Steve Boom at South by Southwest. Credit: Katrina Barbert/Getty

In an hour-plus Q&A at South by Southwest this afternoon with Amazon Music Vice President Steve Boom, moderated by The Wall Street Journal's Hannah Karp, Garth Brooks spoke about his old-school commitment to the LP format, his admiration for Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, and how music can bring people together. Appropriate for an event focused on two of the industry's biggest brands – Brooks and Amazon – at a conference that's grown from a new artist festival to global marketing free-for-all, there was also talk about money and who gets it.

In a work shirt, jeans and a trucker's cap, a bearded Brooks argued passionately on behalf of country music's frontline content providers. "For music's sake, which is all of our sakes, we must reinvest in the songwriter," he told a packed conference room in the Austin Convention Center. He claimed Nashville lost 84 percent of its songwriters in recent years, and noted how shrinking royalties and the dominance of a small number of country hit-writers makes for homogenous music.

Brooks explained how royalties for a song bundled into a successful album, as opposed to one that relies solely on individual per-play streams, can literally help a struggling songwriter stay at it "for another six months." He also spoke about how people often connect most profoundly with album deep cuts, in part because they're not engineered to merely "piss off the fewest people." He used as an example his own "Face to Face," a song on 1992's The Chase that addresses date rape. "It's a really dark song," that radio shunned, he explained, "[but] I can't tell you how many letters I got" from people it touched. He also talked about the integrity of the album-listening experience. "I can't imagine Hotel California without 'Pretty Maids All in a Row,'" he said, referencing the Eagles' 1976 album.

Most strikingly, Brooks advocated for the creation of a songwriters group along the lines of the NFLPA to help lobby and advocate for the craftswomen and men. "If we do it," he said, "I'd love to run it."

There was some cognitive dissonance hearing Brooks talk songwriter lobbying alongside Boom, since Amazon, now one of the major players in the streaming game, spent over $11 million on its own lobbying efforts in 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. One of the last mega-star streaming holdouts – he's considered the Number One selling solo artist in the U.S. – Brooks recently cut an exclusive deal with Amazon Music Unlimited. He had good things to say about the company, which he believes is a trusted brand for country fans, and the deal. "I took it as a Godsend, as a miracle," he said. For his part, Boom spoke about the company's efforts to "reduce friction" in the streaming experience, and their commitment to the country music audience.

Brooks responded to audience questions, shouting out some of his current favorite artists, including Lady Gaga ("I think she's a fabulous writer"), Katy Perry, Beyoncé and Bruno Mars, whom he compared to Michael Jackson. Among country acts he noted Joe Nichols ("sounds like a young Haggard") and Jason Aldean ("'cause of the muscle he brings to [the music]").

Brooks lamented the lack of women being played on country radio (he's married to singer Trisha Yearwood) – a welcome call-out given the current golden age of female artists in country and Americana, though Brooks regrettably didn't mention any by name. And in response to a question about how music can help bring people together, he similarly mentioned no names when alluding to political beliefs that might divide us, maybe because Garth Brooks knows something about pissing off the fewest possible people. He did, however, speak about the need to love one another, and for personal responsibility. "Yes, we have assholes," he conceded, "but hey, you and me, brother, let's not be one of those assholes."