“This is where I make my stand.” So Garth Brooks proclaims in the opening lines of the new album, Man Against Machine, his first collection of new original material since 2001.
He isn’t just flexing his muscles. The earnest country megastar has, in fact, made some very public stands in 2014, taking on heavyweights like iTunes, Pandora and even the Irish government – all in an effort to release his music the way he wants. But such stands often yield equally big falls, even for the best-selling country artist of all time, and it doesn’t take a Nashville executive to see how thoroughly underwhelming Brooks’s return to recorded music has been, as a result of his many stubborn convictions.
For starters, Brooks, who has sold more than 120m albums worldwide, hasn’t been able to inspire much excitement for his mega-hyped comeback album. Man Against Machine’s maudlin lead single People Loving People bricked at country radio, and Brooks’s refusal to sell his music on the world’s biggest digital music retailer, iTunes, has hugely limited its reach. (Digital versions of Brooks’s albums are now exclusively available on his own newly launched platform, GhostTunes, which he claims compensates songwriters more fairly than iTunes.)
Man Against Machine was expected to be one of the biggest releases of the holiday season, with first-week sales landing somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000, but according to industry publication Hits, the disc is currently headed for a far more anemic debut in the 120,000 range. That’s less than half of what Taylor Swift’s 1989 will sell in its third week on the chart.
Brooks’s comeback has faced other challenges as well. In October, fans and critics balked at the heavily photoshopped cover art of Man Against Machine, criticizing Brooks’s porcelain-smooth baby face and his silly CSI: Miami sunglasses, neither of which befit an artist of his stature. But all that internet snark was merely a blip on the radar compared with this year’s Ireland fiasco. In July, just days before Brooks was scheduled to kick off his entire return to music with a massive five-night engagement at Ireland’s Croke Park stadium, Dublin courts granted permits for only three of the five performances. Brooks’s team had already invested millions of dollars in a custom stage made specifically for Croke Park, and the star balked at the idea of canceling two of the already sold-out shows. After a highly publicized stand-off, Brooks ultimately scrapped the entire event, and instead of garnering positive media attention, as was intended, attracted controversial attention around the world.
Not everything is gloomy in Brooks’s world, though. He is selling out stadiums wherever he goes on his comeback tour, and he could probably do so for the next 20 years without ever putting out another album. But the question now is whether Brooks can hold his own against a new generation of savvy country stars like Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert in the never-ending battle for cultural relevance. Right now, he isn’t even on the same playing field. At a time when social networking and digital availability have fundamentally altered the way people discover and consume music, Brooks’s rose-colored retail glasses and general aversion to popular technology have made him look glaringly out of touch – or, even worse, non-existent – to a growing generation of music fans. Brooks knows that. On Wednesday, just hours after news broke that Man Against Machine was trending well below sales expectations, he launched official Facebook, Twitter and Vine channels to begin building his social footprint.
The move to social media marks a refreshing and humbling career shift for Brooks, who has lately come across as both egomaniacal and controlling, determined to bend the entire music business to his will. As he’s learning, after 13 years out of the game, he doesn’t really have the cultural cachet to do that. A star like Taylor Swift can strongarm Spotify and get away with it, but she’s dwelling at the apex of the pop culture landscape and has over 70 million fans following her every word on Facebook – plus 50 million on Twitter. She’s now reached such a height of fame and influence that she can protest against one segment of the industry and thrive nonetheless. But Brooks bit off more than he could chew by trying to take on both streaming and digital retail after a decade spent in relative obscurity, and it’s costing him with younger country fans.
It’s far too early to call Brooks’s comeback a failure, and from a touring perspective, it’s certainly not one. But if Brooks hopes to regain his former status as a multi-platinum recording artist, then he’ll need to learn how to meet people where they are in 2014 instead of forcing them to walk down the Garth path. Because right now, this man can’t take down the machine.
This article was written by Grady Smith, for theguardian.com on Friday 14th November 2014 16.44 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010