Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone? Ask Billy Joel, who points out that his countrypolitan pal Garth Brooks — one of the runaway winners in 1997’s year in music — is ”knocking over records left and right. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even know that I had set a record for the most platinum albums by a solo artist until he moved ahead of me. I said, ‘Oh! So, you mean, I was No. 1 before that? Why didn’t anybody ever tell me this?’ But I didn’t ask. Garth wants to know.”
Not since the bygone days when Michael Jackson could sell records has any superstar had his eye trained quite so clearly on the prize. Brooks, 35, is already the best-selling solo act and best-selling American artist ever, with 67 million RIAA-certified U.S. album sales — and he recently passed Led Zeppelin (at 64.3 million) for second place overall, making no secret of his ultimate intention to someday knock the 100-million-plus Beatles off the top of the heap. A few more albums like his current blockbuster, Sevens, and he just might get there. Between its Thanksgiving release and the new year, the album sold 3.4 million copies, an opening-month pace unprecedented since the 1991 dawn of the SoundScan sales-tracking system. His barroom anthems and tender ballads may never cross over to pop radio, but in the flyover zones he’s bigger than Billy, bigger than the Beatles…almost bigger, you could believe, than Anyone Else whose name might start with a G.
The question is: Has he started acting like it, too? Estimates of Capitol Nashville’s marketing budget for Sevens range from $8 million to $25 million. But the real cost might be the erosion of the singer’s deferential down-home image, which some suggest is being replaced by the less flattering picture of an obsessive number cruncher. For several months in 1997, Brooks engaged his label in a public battle of wills, refusing to release Sevens unless it agreed to the marketing plan that he wanted — and, according to reports, unless parent company EMI replaced Capitol Nashville’s management as well.
”It’s probably not a good precedent for an artist to be picking the employees of their company,” says the president of a rival country label, chuckling at Capitol’s misfortunes. ”But if the guy can get away with it, and somebody’s going to allow him to do it, hey, you can’t necessarily blame him.” Argues a former exec at Brooks’ label: ”They passed the heritage of the label over to a spoiled child. It’s like Michael Jackson saying the same thing and Sony handing him Epic Records.”
Yet his record-setting December sales, which warmed the hearts of retailers everywhere, seemed to spell vindication. So was he The Garth Who Saved Christmas, or Garth Vader?
”There’s enormous backlash. Garth is reviled in large quarters of Nashville,” asserts author Bruce Feiler, who spent more than 50 hours with Brooks while researching a forthcoming book about the country-music industry. ”But the other side is that Garth is, in the way only he can do, galvanizing the kind of attention back on Nashville that they haven’t had for the last several years.” Holly Gleason, a Nashville-based manager and publicist, agrees: ”It’s kind of a mess, kind of depressing. Garth’s success should be so good for Nashville, and yet it seems like it’s fragmented the town.”