Friday morning’s confirmation that Garth Brooks will perform Saturday on South by Southwest’s Outdoor Stage at Lady Bird Lake stole a bit of the thunder from his afternoon keynote conversation at the Austin Convention Center. But SXSW registrants still filled a midsized ballroom to hear the country superstar talk about how music streaming affects his own work and that of songwriters.
The linchpin was Brooks’ new deal with Amazon Music Unlimited, which finds the pioneering online retailer going head-to-head with Spotify and Apple in the major-league streaming ranks. Amazon’s Steve Boom shared the stage with Brooks to discuss the service in general and motivation for this partnership, with Hannah Karp of the Wall Street Journal serving as moderator.
Brooks drew applause early for planting his flag firmly in the camp of proper compensation for songwriters. “We must reinvest in the songwriter, and we must take care of them, because that’s where it all starts,” he said. That came after he cited statistics indicating Nashville has lost more than 80 percent of its songwriters since 2000.
After that artist-focused beginning, the conversation turned toward a greater focus on commerce and Amazon’s now significant role in Brooks’ career. When he re-entered the music-making marketplace after a 14-year absence in 2014 with “Man Against Machine” and followed with last fall’s “Gunslinger,” Brooks was competing in a far different world than the one where his albums often sold more than 10 million copies.
Now it’s all about streaming, and Brooks chose Amazon because of its reputation for catering to the customer, he said. He also liked that Amazon also still deals in CDs: “Anyone who tells you the physical world is done is probably someone who isn’t dealing with physical” product, he said.
Boom’s primary talking-point was what he referred to as Amazon “taking music streaming mainstream.” An argument could be made that it’s already there and Amazon is late to the party. But the company has the clout and the resources to become a major player, and Amazon Music Unlimited is already drawing in customers using its popular Amazon Prime service as well as its physical Echo units and Alexa voice-communication interface.
Though Brooks prefers to downplay his MBA degree in favor of his creative roles as a singer, performer and recording artist, he clearly puts his education to use. “The country music fan was already using Amazon’s product before streaming even came out,” he noted, theorizing further reasons the partnership made sense.
At times the discussion ironically sounded like efforts to back-engineer listening habits toward the old ways. Both Brooks and Boom referenced old-school FM radio as an ease-of-use goal that streaming service should strive toward. And Brooks questioned whether the on-demand strengths of streaming might inadvertently inhibit the discovery of music.
“Streaming lets you sate your appetite, I get that,” he said. “But I fear for new stuff. That’s my only concern with streaming so far.”
Boom noted that Amazon is trying out discovery avenues such as a “Song of the Day” feature, which seemed to please Brooks — especially when Boom added, “I’m pretty sure your new single is the Song of the Day today.”
“Thank you,” Brooks added with a sly grin that drew giggles from the crowd.
That there’s a need for discovery outlets in music was underscored by Brooks’ own answer to a question from the crowd at the end of the panel about what artists he’s been listening to lately. He qualified his answer by noting that “I’m the father of three daughters and [Trisha] Yearwood is my wife, so I don’t have control” over the listening device, prompting more audience laughter. But when he cited Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Beyonce and Bruno Mars as personal favorites, he might as well have been reading from the very top of the Billboard best-sellers charts.
Brooks keenly lamented how female artists on the country charts are “at an all-time low,” an apparent reference to the bro-country trend that has been vividly apparent in the lineups of the annual iHeartCountry Festival in Austin every spring. But one hopes he would dig just a smidgen beneath the surface for the reward of hearing artists such as Margo Price, Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark, to name just a few of the extraordinarily promising young women who have been helping to revitalize the quality of country music in recent years along with male counterparts such as Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton.
Saturday’s Auditorium Shores concert seems to have been geared toward raising the profile of women performers, and not just from country music. Following early-afternoon openers Colter Wall and Cale Tyson are four straight female artists from a range of genres: Americana veteran Shannon McNally, British indie-folk sensation Holly Macve, soulful pop singer-songwriter Nicole Atkins and Austin’s own country firebrand Sunny Sweeney.
Whatever the genre or gender, Brooks seems determined to fight for songwriters’ rights to get the money he feels they deserve in the age of digital music. Bemoaning the lack of a collective bargaining group akin to the National Football League Players Association, he asked, “I don’t know why we can’t assemble a writers’ organization. If we do, I’d love to run it.”