As I was twirling the dial last night (alright I just dated myself didn't I...) Let me start over. As I was clicking the clicker for my home entertainment system last night looking for something to watch on the tube that featured either cops chasing bad guys or carpenters sharing secrets on how to best build a room addition, I stumbled on the Country Music Association's annual award show. I paused and watched for about twelve minutes before moving on.
In a different time and place, these award shows mattered to me. Or to be more accurate, they mattered to the record labels I distributed and the artists I represented. Twice a year for almost a decade I would rent a tuxedo, hit the CMA and ACM awards and either back slap or commiserate at the lavish post-show parties. That most of my memories center around jumbo shrimp, stone crabs, prime rib and top shelf alcohol says as much about the business as it does about me. Maybe not, but it reads nicely.
I came to work at Capitol-EMI Music just a few months after Garth Brooks' first album was released. It was dead on arrival for a number of reasons, but primarily because there was a management change going on and the old guys who signed him were shipped out, the new guys were cleaning house and everyone was a bit distracted to deal with it. A few months passed, someone finally heard something they liked, orders from the top trickled down, the promotion and marketing teams kicked in high gear, money was spent, investments were made and a star was born.
To be fair, you can't blame the current state of country music on Garth. But I believe he came to popularity and prosperity at a very unique moment in time that changed the blueprint or at least raised the stakes. The country music industry was chugging on rather nicely in the late eighties and there was a return to the traditional music via the hat acts. George Strait and Randy Travis (although he never wore a hat as I recall) took the lead and they were filling arenas and making money. But Garth...he took it up a notch. Bam!
Around the same time period, Walmart was changing the way that consumers consumed. They were opening stores almost every day, guaranteeing the lowest prices and rapidly killing off ma and pa retail. Their demographics were rural America and in recorded music their market share for country music was big and getting bigger. When Garth entered the scene, he was fortunate enough to hold a marketing degree and the smarts to listen to a couple of sharp advisors, and they helped him partner up and crawl into bed with the Arkansas retailer and the game changed.
Books could be written on the subject but the bottom line is this: country music today is a unique and profitable entity that exists in a cultural bubble driven by a handful of major labels and publishers, radio conglomerates and syndicates, a couple of concert promoters and Walmart. The money is huge, it has operated fairly well outside of a rush to digital music, the fans are rabid and the music is secondary to the industry. Or so it seems to me this morning.
My twelve minutes of watching the CMA show last night made me remember just how far from country music we've drifted away. I saw three performances which could barely be considered twang despite a hat or two, and the staging and posing and music reminded me of what happens when the business people take control. They not only reap the rewards, they shift and adjust the culture and artistic process for profit; tradition, quality and integrity be damned.
As a kid from a northern city, I grew up listening to country because there was a certain magic in the music that grabbed me and I was enchanted. It wasn't always my first choice, but I found myself coming back to it time after time. And to be honest with you, I like Garth...both as a performer and a person. He looks you in the eyes when he talks to you, he speaks from the heart and he connects with his fans despite his fame like no other performer I've known.
But in his wake, he helped to set the table for this country music that we now are left with. And I won't be coming back again.