After at least six years of radio silence, Garth Brooks brashly stormed back onto the country music scene with with last week's announcement that he would be going on a world tour before releasing a new album in 2015. On the heels of that announcement, Brooks also released his first new music since 2001's Scarecrow, a single called "People Loving People."
In a somewhat surprising twist, he also announced that his music would be available for digital download for the first time on a brand-new platform called GhostTunes. Brooks had long refused to make his music available for download or streaming on major sites like iTunes and Spotify, largely because he didn't want people downloading individual songs from his albums.
Now, Garth Brooks fans can download all of his existing catalog and three upcoming albums for less than $30 on GhostTunes, a start-up service that Brooks co-owns. Beyond his own hang-ups with iTunes and other digital music platforms, Brooks has made his new platform available to hundreds of other artists. According to the LA Times, you can download albums from Sam Smith, Ariana Grande, and Coldplay alongside your Garth Brooks tracks. While Brooks himself will not offer individual songs for download, GhostTunes allows artists to choose for themselves how they'll sell their own work.
As such, GhostTunes may be poised to be the first artist-friendly digital music service. Musicians have long lamented low revenues from digital downloads and the meteoric rise of streaming services like Spotify and Rdio have only resulted in even bigger hits to per-song payouts.
The criticism of digital music chorus is growing. Led Zeppelin and Tool are still holding out from digital music, along with a slew of indie artists who still sell concert tickets via word-of-mouth. In an interview with Esquire last week, KISS frontman Gene Simmons went so far as to say that rock music is officially dead, largely because of the popularity of streaming services like Spotify and the per-song pittances they pay to artists. If Garth Brooks can provide a service that gives both artists and fans more autonomy and broader choices in their digital music purchases, he may really be onto something.
For new bands who are scraping by on digital music streams, occasional Bandcamp downloads and concert tickets, it is much more difficult to buck the trend and refuse to offer digital downloads. Even the most stalwart musicians, those who still use analog technology to record their songs, have to offer MP3 downloads in order to stay competitive. But for someone like Garth Brooks who has sold millions of records, a few thousand digital downloads isn't a make-or-break move financially.
It is important to note that only someone with a pedigree like Brooks could get away with starting his own content delivery platform. At first, it looks opportunistic and almost counterproductive, especially when you consider that Brooks has been functionally pushing his fans to acquire his content through illegal filesharing services by refusing to make his content available for purchase online. You can be assured that there are millions of fans who acquired the copy of "No Fences" on their iTunes through less-than-legal channels.
On its face, the announcement that Brooks plans to compete with digital music giants like Apple could be as potentially tone deaf as the time he changed his name to Chris Gaines and tried to sell us all on a crossover career. But as someone who became the biggest-selling solo artist of all time long before the advent of the digital download, maybe it's time for the music industry to sit back and listen to Brooks.
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If Brooks' service is to succeed, it will have to lure both musicians and fans away from iTunes and Spotify with a truly unique offering. Undoubtedly, Brooks has a long way to go before his new service is even remotely competitive with iTunes, but it does offer some interesting options in a market that has never been friendly to artists or fans. There's no difference in price for most content between GhostTunes and iTunes, but there may be some distinct advantages in Brooks' new platform. Specifically, there's a lack of digital rights management restrictions that prevent fans from copying their music to a number of devices.
Even if GhostTunes offers a fairly limited catalog, it can still be the best place to find the content that it has to offer. The beauty of music is that it is broad enough to develop niches everywhere you look. There are plenty of disgruntled audiophiles who would like to have better quality downloads and people who don't like Apple telling them what they can and can't do with their purchases who are potential GhostTunes customers. It may be getting its start as the exclusive digital home of Garth Brooks' tunes, but there's no reason that GhostTunes can't succeed on a broader scale.
Maybe such a broad announcement gives me pause because Brooks has already nearly decimated his career before by taking a big risk. But if Brooks can offer a service that is both artist-friendly and comparable to its competitors in terms of price and offerings, true music junkies may have found a new home. The kind of music junkies that like to see artists succeed, even if they don't have an already multi-platinum career.
And at the very least, Brooks' fans can take comfort in the fact that it appears GhostTunes isn't the same ill-conceived, unmitigated tectonic disaster as that shitty Chris Gaines album was. That and he's finally going on tour again.