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A Tale of Two Comebacks: Garth Brooks and Britney Spears

The big chart news this week is about two notable music artists—Garth Brooks and Britney Spears—who both recently re-entered the charts for the first time in several years. One is a country legend who retired in his prime, but now seems to be aiming at re-entering the playing field. The other is a pop megastar who has spent the last several years trying to get over a public meltdown. One is an album of cover tunes; the other is brand-new dance-pop.

Both debuted in the Top Ten on the Billboard 200, but the sales numbers of each compared to one another have been extremely revealing. Let’s take a look at each.

Britney Spears new album Britney Jean was supposed to be the popstar’s triumphant return to entertainment. Spears has released several singles from the record, made the interview rounds, and announced a Las Vegas residency—in short, the PR people working on this project have been working overtime to make darn sure people know Britney is back, y’all.

After its first week, Britney Jean debuted at Number 4 on the Billboard 200. Pretty good, huh? Not so much. The actual numbers tell a different story: this album not only sold less than half as many units as 2011’s Femme Fatale did in its first week, but at a measly 107,000 units, this marks Spears’ lowest-selling debut ever. To make matters worse, second-week sales numbers are dismal, suggesting Britney Jean has already peaked.

So let’s look at Garth Brooks. This guy has been enjoying a number of years in semi-retirement, living a relatively quiet life with his wife Trisha Yearwood and his kids on the northeastern Oklahoma countryside. Haven’t heard a whole lot from him. He decides to put out an eight-disc box set of cover songs called Blame It All On My Roots: Five Decades of Influences. Not a lot of fanfare surrounding it—Brooks makes a couple of appearances here and there, sings a tribute to George Jones at the CMAs. No biggie. No one puts huge sales expectations on cover albums or box sets—they’re just something to add to the fans’ collections. To further up the ante, Brooks releases it on Thanksgiving Day, instead of the usual Tuesday release—and it’s only available at Wal-Mart.

In its first week, Blame It All On My Roots debuted at Number 3, selling 146,000 units in only four days from Wal-Mart alone, according to Billboard. This week, it’s at Number 1.

Two artists. Two comebacks. Two completely different marketing strategies. Two remarkably different results. What’s the difference?

{Steps onto soapbox…}

Talent. Substance.

This trend gives me a lot of hope for the music industry, because what it says is that at the end of the day, there’s only so much that hype, marketing and autotune can do to sell records and build a loyal fan base for an artist. Underneath all that style, there has to be some substance, or the popularity won’t last. Britney Spears has hype and marketing in spades, and she still couldn’t outsell Garth Brooks, even with one hand metaphorically tied behind his back. (Remember, he’s only selling in one outlet.) How can this be? Because Brooks has built a loyal following of country fans, not through hype alone, but through honest-to-goodness substance. Good songs, good performances, good personality. This is the kind of stuff that builds lifelong fans—not hype. Granted, the box set is a great deal for an awful lot of music ($25 for 6 full-length CDs and two DVDs), but if you’re not offering something of substance, you won’t be able to sell a lot of music at any price. Fans aren’t buying this because it’s cheap; they’re buying it because they know what Brooks is made of, and they know it’s a great value for the price.

On the other hand, during her string of popularity, Britney Spears relied largely on sexuality, buzz, lighting effects, lip synching and vocal effects to entertain her audience, without providing much in the way of substance. It would appear these are no longer enough to carry her after a few years out of the loop, especially with the current glut of “newer” dance-pop artists basically doing the same kind of thing. All the PR in the world won’t change that.

Meanwhile, there’s only one Garth Brooks—and the years he’s spent in private life have obviously not dimmed the enthusiasm of his fans.

Moral of the story: if you’re a musical artist, no matter what genre—don’t rely on hype. Have some substance behind your style.

{Steps down from soapbox.}


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About the Author

on MUSIC IS MY OXYGEN WEEKLY.

David Tillman is an independent composer/arranger whose primary work involves writing jingles for commercials for radio and television, with several film and television placements to his credit as well. David has a fascination for all things related to the music business and the music industry in general, an obsession which his wife finds to be mildly unhealthy at times. His personal tastes in music are in electronica and industrial rock, and include The Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk and Nine Inch Nails (he loves that Trent Reznor is writing soundtracks!). When not in his office or in his man-cave, David enjoys skiing, hiking, the occasional game of golf, and sometimes just lounging by the pool. David lives with his wife and three children in Los Angeles, CA.

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