Locked and Loaded
With 26 #1 hit singles, 15 charted albums and over 116 million albums sold in the United States alone, Garth Brooks is the biggest selling solo artist in music history. Brooks has received two Grammys, 17 American Music Awards, 11 Country Music Association Awards, 18 Academy of Country Music Awards, five World Music Awards, 12 People’s Choice Awards, and 36 Billboard Music Awards. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) named Brooks Artist of the Century.
Kevin sat down with Garth at the San Diego Padres spring training camp to learn about how the country music legend thinks about business and success. Brooks was there promoting his Teammates for Kids Foundation. Here are five lessons that can be gleaned from that interview.
1. ENGAGE IN WORK THAT MAKES YOU PASSIONATE
KF: What has allowed you to overcome the obstacles and the things you had to overcome in your career?
GB: I think in between where you are and where you want to be is a sea of reasons why you can’t get there. I think passion is the bridge you build. Because when you’re laying there in bed at night and you’re starving because you aren’t making any money—but you sure as hell ain’t gonna get a real job because playing music is what you want to do—passion is what gets you through that night.
It’s seeing what other people can’t see, not because they aren’t visionaries, but because it’s not their dream. Passion is what’s going to make all those stories—the ones you made the mistake of telling your friends—come alive! Passion is what’s going to see you through.
KF: What is passion to you? How do you define it?
GB: Passion is something you’d easily die for. It’s something you’d be honored to die for. It’s something that’s stronger than any machine man can create. It actually gives a mortal person wings.
I’m sure passion is what convinced armies that had no chance to win—it’s believing that something can happen. Reality is what you make it to be. And when you’re the only one who can see the way the future is going to be, you can be the tool that bends, rips, shapes and paints the future the way you want it to be. That’s true passion!
KF: Do you think passion is contagious?
GB: Sure it is! Take spring training for example, a lot of these guys have already come up and told me, “Gee, I had forgotten what spring training was all about! But I see it in your face, I see it in the way you smell the grass out here in the morning. I used to do that! I see when you lay down and stretch out the way you feel the dew in the grass. I used to do that! I watch you watching everybody else trying to figure out where in the hell you’re supposed to go and what you’re supposed to do so you can be like everybody else. I did that. This is bringing back to me what I had taken for granted in the game.”
And that makes me feel good because I think we all need to know our purpose and worth in whatever our name is in. Truthfully, I don’t think it’s in-between the [baseball diamond] lines. I think it might be in between the ears and the shoulders reminding these guys about how lucky they are to be playing professional baseball.
You know the cool thing about passion is that no matter how good or bad a day you’re having, tomorrow’s going to be better because passion finds some way of doubling itself. It’s like we were talking about earlier, when the crowd gets pumped, you get pumped. So you get pumped more and they get pumped more and it becomes a circular thing.
2. MAKE MORE MISTAKES
KF: You’ve had incredible success not only as a recording artist but also as an entertainer. It strikes me that you haven’t gotten here without taking risks and experimenting?
GB: Yeah, you know a mistake isn’t a mistake if you learn a lesson from it. So mistakes don’t scare me or bother me. If I feel like I made the same mistake twice, then I feel like I’ve really screwed up. But if I make one mistake and learn from it, hey, to me in the game of life it’s just as important to know what doesn’t work as what does. So I think mistakes are a good thing. I just love putting it out there on the line—baptism by fire.
KF: Can you give me an example?
GB: We had a song called, “One Night a Day” that needed a sax solo. We didn’t have a sax player. So I took four lessons and tried it in front of 20,000 people. That was the worst thing I’ve ever done! So the next night it got a little better and the next night a little better until finally we could pull it off enough just to make it a memory in the show.
Giving people a picture, a memory—that’s what a concert is all about. When people take those pictures of you standing on top of the piano playing a sax solo they say, “I got it! I got that shot!” Or flying out over the crowd on a rope—they shoot that. They take those things home with them and they piece them together like a trailer in a movie.
But again man, if you make an error being aggressive I’ll take that error. But if we get through a show with no mistakes and played it safe I don’t want that show. I really don’t. No one ever says, “Were going to go listen to Garth tonight.” What they say is, “We’re going to go see Garth.” So I tell the band, “If you try something, make a mistake and bust your ass and end up on the floor, that’s what they’ll remember. They’ll remember that more than that gorgeous B-Flat Minor that you played.
I think it’s the same way in life. You can either sit on your ass and condemn other people for trying things or you can go out and try and do all the stuff you possibly can so that when you can’t get off your ass (when you’re older) you’ve got something to keep your mind entertained, something to remember. And you know, I just don’t want a “What if…” life. I just don’t want to say I let that happen.
3. HIRE FOR ATTITUDE: YOU’RE ONLY AS HAPPY AS THE COMPANY YOU KEEP
KF: When it comes to ramping up for a tour or replacing a member of the band, you must be very selective about the people you hire…
GB: Well that’s a tough one because I’m not really all that selective. I trust God a lot that there’s some reason why we’re together—me and whoever I’m working with. Like with the band. I didn’t care how good they played, I wanted to know what kind of people they were the other 22 hours I was with them in a day. Because that’s what really matters. That two hours on stage, hell, if you can’t play a guitar solo after 160 shows you’re in trouble. So really, playing wasn’t the big criteria. The more important criteria for me is: “HOW ARE THEY TO LIVE WITH ON THE BUS?”
You live in a little cramped area with twelve guys. One asshole in the bunch can make the tour seem like dog years. The question I always want an answer to is, “Is he or she a sweetheart of a person or not?” One of the last guys we hired was a musician’s musician that everybody loved. He turned out to be one of the sweetest, hard-working guys you’d ever meet. We were lucky to find the exception to the rule—a player’s player who doesn’t have to be some eclectic asshole that hides in a closet and is hard to get along with, yet when he plays everybody says, “OOH.” Our guy, Jimmy Mattingly, is a great entertainer, but the other twenty-two hours of the day he was funnier than hell—and a sweetheart of a guy.
4. RISK MORE, GAIN MORE
KF: It sounds like you’ve surrounded yourself with players who have the same passion for the game as you do…
GB: Yeah, when I met these guys they didn’t have JACK, but they were passionate enough to leave town. We were all scared shitless to leave our jobs and our families and friends. But they did it. They laid it out there on the wire and went on. Usually, you’ve got to leave where you are from to get to the top of your class. Very rarely is the top of your class going to be in the same location where you were born. And passion is the difference between making that move and not making that move. I can tell you right now I know ten guys who are better musicians, better singers, better looking, and basically just better people, but they’re just to damn scared to make a move.
KF: You have a dream job, but even doing a tour with 150 shows can get old. How do you motivate members of the tour team when they fall into the trap of “dead people working?”
GB: Well there’s a saying that we have before we go out on stage, “For the next two hours be selfish.” I tell our guys, “There’s nothing you can do about your relationships at home if you’re fighting or if your child is sick. We should’ve made the decision for you to go home this morning. But for these next two hours—I know it’s hard—you’ve got to forget about it because there’s nothing you can do. These people came here for an event so “lock and load” and let’s go.”
There’s a couple of musicians—good friends of mine—that on the second or third song I’ve had to go over and talk to them and say, “Either get your act together or get your ass off the stage. Cause all you’re doing is slowing us down and someone’s gonna get hurt with this kind of show if you’ve got your head somewhere else!” And every time it’s ever happened, they’ve come on board.
I’ll never forget—it’s infamous for us—the $500 bounty I put on my head during a show because we just weren’t putting it together. I said, “Anybody that can knock me on my ass during the show gets $500 bucks! You can blindside me, you can do whatever you want.” It brought a whole new dimension to the show. People were looking for a time to knock me on my ass. It created a game on stage where we were all watching each other and not paying attention to what we were doing. And it all worked! It just became natural again. We didn’t feel like we were going through the motions anymore.
KF: Sometimes just shaking things up can be energizing. It forces us to quit sleep-walking through life.
GB: That’s right. If I feel that the crew is going to sleep on me during a show, I’ll immediately jump from the [pre-established] setlist and introduce another song. Our whole light rigging is pre-programmed—one song after another—on computers. Now the crew has to rip the program out, put a new one in, and do it all before the new song starts. So if I feel people are getting lazy or complacent we’ll just take off in another direction. Some of our greatest shows have happened this way because all of a sudden half-way through the show you can see these guys scrambling. You can see the communication going on— the headsets are on, everybody’s talking and yelling, and their blood’s flowing!
KF: It gives them a sense of urgency?
GB: Sure. It creates kind of a healthy fear where you start to find your game. If things are going stale during a soundcheck I’ll tell the drummer he’s playing keyboards on this next cut and somebody else is playing drums, somebody that doesn’t sing is singing and so on. Now they’re embarrassed and they sound terrible, but three or four bars into it they’re laughing their ass off. And they understand what it’s about. It’s to appreciate what the other guy next to you does.
5. BRING SOMETHING OF VALUE TO THE GAME
KF: Having seen a couple of shows and listening to you talk I can see that you are absolutely passionate about giving the fan a memorable experience—but at a reasonable price. Decent concert tickets have become outrageous.
GB: It seems to me you just hire the exact number of people you need to cover your work, no more no less, pay them a good salary, set your show up, and see how much money you make at $15 a ticket, $20 a ticket, and $40 a ticket. What we found out was that at a $17.95 ticket these guys all get covered, we make a bucket-load of money, and the fans can hopefully bring their kids to the show. It’s still a lot of money, but it’s not $45 to $150 a ticket.
I sat down one day with Sam Walton for lunch. It was probably one of the greatest days of my life because what he taught me was this. If you price things that people can afford they’ll buy three times as much. You’ll sell three times as many tickets. Because there is a mass majority out there that can only afford so much. So what happens is instead of two people buying a ticket at $100, now 30 people can buy a ticket at $17. Then, look at what happens to your merchandise. Now you’ve got five times as many people in there. Instead of buying one high-quality t-shirt for $15, they buy ten because it’s affordable for them.