Garth Brooks sat down for an in-depth interview with Billboard‘s Melinda Newman on June 7th as part of the publication’s “Billboard Country Live” event. It was part of last week’s massive CMA Fest in Nashville. Garth talked about a host of subjects, including how he wants to make five more Chris Gaines albums, and that he’ll be stocking Bud Light at his new night spot on Lower Broadway in Nashville.
Even though these tidbits made for tasty headlines and ample coverage (there are now hundreds of click bait stories about the Bud Light comments alone), it might have been Garth’s comments about corporate country radio that were the most newsworthy, despite the media virtually ignoring them.
Garth Brooks is starting his own radio network via TuneIn this summer. It will include a host of stations curated by Garth himself. We’ll have to see just how good the stations are and how successful the venture is, but the news allowed Melinda Newman of Billboard to pick Garth’s brain about his feelings on country radio in general, and Garth surprisingly said the quiet part out loud.
“I think radio is a reflection of the labels’ agenda … the labels simply own radio, they just do,” Garth Brooks said. “They can say they don’t, or radio can say they don’t, but the truth is that nobody is going to get played on there that doesn’t have a major-label deal … So what this does is, just because the label might think that George Strait’s career is past the label part, I want to hear the new stuff from George Strait. Just because … all the sudden The Chicks were cancelled, don’t make the mistake of thinking their music wasn’t any good. Their music was fantastic. My thing is, I want to hear the new stuff from Luke Combs, followed by the new song from The Chicks, followed by Lainey Wilson.”
Though what Garth Brooks said is 100% correct and it’s patently obvious to everyone, the fallacy of radio independence is what persists because so many are afraid to speak about it publicly in the country industry. It’s not dissimilar to when popular DJ Bobby Bones made similar statements in 2021, and got in hot water for it.
“Here’s the truth about No. 1 songs: It’s politics,” Bones said in part. “They trade them out like baseball cards. A record label will talk to another record label and go, ‘OK, I’ll give you this No. 1 on this date; you give me that No. 1 on that date.’ Which really, it just should be the song that’s the most wanted, the most listened to, the song that people demand … and so when you hear someone talk about a No. 1 song, I would say half of them aren’t legitimate No. 1 songs.”
Along with exposing who is really in control of corporate country radio and who is to blame for the insular and unimaginative nature of the format, the comments from Garth also undercut the attacks of people who raise concerns about country radio’s lack of diversity. It’s not radio that’s to blame directly, it’s the labels. Myopically focusing on radio is missing the forest for the trees, and failing to address the underlying problem. That is why the constant flow of studies complaining about country radio’s diversity have failed to make a dent in the dilemma, or to address it in any substantive manner.
On the diversity issues with country radio, Garth Brooks also had some reasonable, heterodox views to share.
“The one thing that’s bad for me,” Brooks said, “is if you don’t play somebody because of the color of their skin or their gender. It’s as equally wrong if you do play somebody because of the color of their skin and their gender. My thing is, let the music decide. Sometimes there’s going to be less women because the women aren’t putting out new stuff yet, and sometimes there’s going to be more women because the women are putting out new stuff. That’s what I want to see.”
One of the reasons there are less women and people of color on country radio is because there are less of these groups making country music. There are other underlying, more systematic issues too like the ingrained idea that country fans just don’t want to hear women that make it harder for women to get radio play. But there is also an inventory issue that is rarely addressed in these matters.
Big corporate radio continues to lose market share to streaming services and podcasts, and for the reason’s that Garth Brooks and Bobby Bones cite. These are two individuals who’ve been on the inside of the corporate country system and benefited greatly from it, and can speak with authority on the matter as good as anyone.
If country radio is going to survive, it needs to start playing what fans want to hear as opposed to what major labels want them to. Even Garth Brooks and Bobby Bones know this.