Are People Loving "People Loving People?"
September 4, 2014
Man, I wouldn't want to be Garth Brooks.
Because after you've sold a gazillion records, recorded the signature song ("Friends In Low Places") of the format's defining era, while single-handedly re-inventing the live concert experience for Country audiences, let's face it: Expectations for anything you do are gonna be high.
And so it was when Brooks' first new single in seven years, "People Loving People," arrived first thing Wednesday morning (9/3). Country radio instantly jumped all over it, with Clear Channel and Cumulus stations -- among others -- spinning it every hour, all day. The song was tracking at #1 on the Mediabase realtime charts all day, so everybody absolutely loves it, right?
Well, not exactly. It's fair to say immediate feedback was mixed
"I really hope this song grows on me, because I am sooo unimpressed right now," said one MD, asking not to be identified.
WWQM/Madison, WI PD Fletcher Keyes told me after hearing it, "Like! Thematically and musically it's positively different and stands out, and vocally it even sounds a little different from what we're used to hearing from Garth, which I think is a good thing. Could this be Garth's 'Imagine' or 'Give Peace A Chance?'"
A poll of consultant Scott Huskey's clients revealed a 50-50 mix of like and "meh" reaction, with Huskey adding, "I was hoping for something stronger. Not sure that if it wasn't Garth we would be discussing this song. But I am happy that he is back putting music out again."
Jacobs Media Social Media expert Lori Lewis said enthusiastically, "I love it! Starts out like Pat Green's 'Wave On Wave.' Feels very Garth. I look forward to the entire CD!"
WAMZ/Louisville PD Coyote Calhoun shared this listener feedback: "Most are saying they have to hear it a few more times before making up their minds and that's exactly the way I feel."
And from WFRE/Frederick, MD PD Don Brake, "I'm glad to have Garth back on the radio with new music! To me 'People Loving People' sounds like it came off the Chris Gaines project. I mean that in a good way as I liked that album, not so much for my station then, but it certainly fits the variety sound we have today."
It all goes back to those monumental expectations -- and the management of them.
"If this had been a duet with Jesus Christ himself, it couldn't possibly have lived up to the hype," said Tony Randall of the syndicated "Tony And Kris" morning show. "I don't know what people were expecting. It's a good song with a message the world desperately needs today. His only competition is his former self and success. Hard to live up to that, no matter who you are."
Streamsound Records Dir./National Promotion, Tyler Waugh added, "That anticipation of it being something so incredibly amazing is what will make people think it's not as good as it really is; the listeners will most likely slowly come around and start liking it. Definitely a good message."
All of us wondered what Garth 2.0 would sound like when he announced his self-imposed retirement would end this Fall and new music was coming. At his July 10th press conference in Nashville, Garth assured us his music wouldn't resemble "Bro-Country." He made good on that promise.
Instead, Brooks did what he's typically done over the years and what he famously sang about on "Against The Grain," the opening track of his landmark 1991 "Ropin' The Wind" album: "Nothin' ventured, nothin' gained/Sometimes you've got to go against the grain."
That approach served Garth well back then and he's employed it again here, bringing Country radio a socially conscious message with "People Loving People." I found Garth's single selection both interesting and bold, because think about it: In spite of worldwide unrest (have you read the news this week?), no genre of music -- least of all Country -- is really tackling social issues right now, as most did so vigorously in generations past, most notably in the late '60s and early '70s.
Many radio programmers are saying "People" is suspiciously familiar to Garth's earlier, socially aware 1992 single, "We Shall Be Free," said to be inspired by Los Angeles riots triggered by the Rodney "Can't we all just get along" King police beating the previous year.
For years, people have said Garth is a marketing genius -- even his critics. So maybe this counter-intuitive choice is further evidence of his savvy; his willingness to zig when everybody else zags.
But can that strategy be effective with your first single since 2007 and your post-retirement launch after a gap of 14 years? And it's a massive launch of (ahem) Garth-gantuan proportions, one that includes a new album, worldwide tour and rollout of a new platform (ghosttunes.com) to finally make your entire music and video catalog available digitally.
"We're all going to play this one," said one PD who asked to remain anonymous, "Legitimate interest in new Garth for sure, but I was personally hoping for a 'Fun' Garth tune and not a 'We Shall Be Free' Garth- type song."
That feeling was echoed by Albright & O'Malley & Brenner founding partner, Jaye Albright: "Of course, we all hoped he'd find another 'Much Too Young,' 'Friends In Low Places,' 'The Dance' or 'Two Of A Kind,' and instead he came up with another 'We Shall Be Free' and that's okay. It's Garth.
Two key quotes here. 1."We're all going to play this one." 2. "It's Garth."
Let's start with #2. Retirement notwithstanding, Garth Brooks remains a very, very big mass-appeal music star and ticket sales for the first two stops of his worldwide tour have verified that. Ten shows in Chicago, Boom! Gone in, what? An hour? Similar to my point a couple of weeks ago regarding Taylor Swift: when the G-man makes an announcement and/or brings new music, it's an enormous pop-culture event, especially coming off a 14-year sabbatical. The difference between Garth and Taylor, though, is that Country has exclusive ownership rights to Garth, and that represents a tremendous opportunity for the format.
As for #1? See #2. Country radio was rightfully all over this song, ASAP. Good for Cumulus and Clear Channel for banging this every hour! That's appointment listening and occasion-building. Play the crap out of it, let listeners quickly get familiar and they'll tell you if it belongs, long-term. And here's why I respectfully disagree with those PDs not playing it because they didn't like a label rep suggesting (okay, more like insisting) Garth merits a reserved spot on the playlist (he does, by the way). How do you explain to listeners who've waited seven years for a new Garth song that you're pissed at the label, or it's just not good enough, in your opinion? Go ahead and do that, then tell me what kind of look you'd get from his fans who neither understand nor care about the machinations of facilitating radio airplay. God forbid, maybe they'll be too busy finding another place to hear it. You have high expectations for new Garth music; your listeners have expectations too, as in, their favorite Country station playing his song.
That's how WPCV/Lakeland MD/midday personality Jeni Taylor sees it, commenting, "As long as the listeners like it, I don't have to."
We'll have to see how "People Loving People" performs over the coming weeks. As I mentioned earlier, the first-day hourly airplay from Cumulus and Clear Channel stations powered the song to a #1 realtime ranking on Wednesday. Thursday, it settled into the #26 position, so it's safe to say the song is too new and still unfamiliar -- even for Garth -- to show real traction.
One final point that I found refreshing and something I hope every artist, new or established, keeps in mind: After 14 years of retirement and seven years removed from his last single, Garth Brooks obviously remains enthused and engaged during this career reboot. While appearing on ABC-TV's "Good Morning America" on Thursday (9/4), he described hearing his new music on the air again: "I heard this on the radio yesterday evening for the first time and it just … If somebody sits here and tells you, 'Oh, it's okay to hear yourself on the radio,' they're lying to you. It's the greatest thing on the planet. It's fantastic."
Man, maybe I DO wanna be Garth Brooks.