The View From the Driver’s Seat of Big Machine

Since founding Big Machine in 2005 with a coltish 14-year-old first signing named Taylor Swift, Scott Borchetta has watched his empire grow to five labels. BMLG is now home to superstars Swift, Reba McEntire, Tim McGraw, The Band Perry, Rascal Flatts and Florida Georgia Line, as well as emerging acts A Thousand Horses, Justin Moore, Brantley Gilbert and Maddie & Tae, and has a projected worth of $300m. An American Idol mentor this season, the California-born race car enthusiast has been hailed by UMG Chairman Lucian Grange for having “transformed Big Machine into a global music powerhouse.” Beyond empowering the Big Machine,now wholly owned Republic Nashville, Valory, Dot and NASH Icon staffs, Borchetta has worked to be an artist-rights activist. He was the first to negotiate artist performance royalties for terrestrial radio and is standing up to free streaming for his artists. Over his career—including stints at MCA Nashville, DreamWorks, Universal, MTM and as an indie—he’s been responsible for 157 #1 records and more than 400m albums sold. In spite of all that, he couldn’t outrun his stalker, HITSHolly Gleason

When you started Big Machine, what was your vision on Day One?
As much as anything, it was a survival mechanism for the ideas myself and a few others had. We were disgusted with the way things were being done around us. So if we took our own strategy of how we were building up the most successful promotion departments, how could that not work when we took that same culture to an entire label? 

You keep spinning off labels, each seeming to have a distinct flavor, a distinct truth. Is that a fair analysis of what you’re doing with your four, now five labels?
That’s driven by the individuals we select to lead them. When we set out with Big Machine, it was all about just staying alive, and trying the things we’d wanted to try for a long time. After four or five years, you look down—it’s this superstar label. Taylor, Tim McGraw, Rascal Flatts, it’s really custom-built for that. Building up Valory by osmosis and artist culture, it’s become our redneck label with Justin Moore, Brantley Gilbert and Thomas Rhett.

Republic Nashville, because of Jimmy Harnen, has its own pop culture: The Band Perry and Florida Georgia Line; now A Thousand Horses is breaking. Dot, just getting started, has Maddie & Tae, who had last year’s most talked-about single with “Girl in a Country Song,” and Steven Tyler. You can have a specific vision from the beginning, but the results ultimately drive the culture.

It’s so clear with Icon. It starts with Reba. It’s great to see her have a two-week #1 album, back inside the Top 30, all the national countdowns, revitalized. She’s made one of her best records ever. So I would definitely say that my relationship with her is really the driving force behind Icon. 

You’ve actually created your own format. Was that your vision when you started Icon? Did you form the label because of a radio need, or were you thinking, “This artist is great; let’s figure out a reality for them”?
It was about the reality of relevance. Just because an artist “ages out” of a specific demographic target, it doesn’t mean that artist, who’s still working, doesn’t still have a huge desire to make music and tour, and the fans shouldn’t be left out in the cold. It started with my frustrations with Rock radio when it shifted to Classic Rock. When Aerosmith or Mötley Crüe put out a new record, the stations all wanted tickets but wouldn’t touch the new music.

When I had the opportunity to meet with John Dickey and talk about things we might be able to create together, when they were presenting this menu of assets, I ran right toward NASH Icon. I was like, “What if we rebranded the Country stations and took these artists who are still touring, have a desire to create music and have this huge fan base that isn’t being serviced? It’s an open lane, let’s go!” Reba got it immediately. When we sit down with Hank Jr. and lay out what we’re going to be able to do with him on Icon, and Ronnie Dunn too, they’re so excited. They’re making some of the best music they’ve ever made, because they’ve tasted what it’s like to be on the outside. 

Reba’s record is maybe as relevant as any record she’s ever made
Reba never took it for granted. But Reba is also a realist. It was her choice to say, three years ago, “You know what? I don’t think I should make another record. They’re not going to play me.” That is what crushed me. We’re such a blockbuster world, we’re such an 18-44-female world. Well, I call bullshit on that. There’s a helluva lot more life and a helluva lot more fun than just that demographic.

You’ve changed the sound of Country radio twice: first with Taylor, who made things a little prettier, sparklier and younger, then with Florida Georgia Line. You really are responsible for Bro-Country. So, when you look at Florida Georgia Line or Taylor, how do you resist the temptation to move it closer to the lane that’s working? How do you have the balls to leave the music out here?
I think it’s just this inner desire for individuality, from everything I personally do to everything that I encourage at the label group. 

But there was never a temptation to say, “Gee if we did this, it might be a little safer?”
No, I believe in the edge of the mainstream. Our next big artists live at the edge of the mainstream. When you get it really right, they become the mainstream. When something is so loud on the edge of the mainstream, people go “What is that? I don’t know if I like that or not. But it now has my attention.” You go from attention ultimately through the arc of demand. 

How does that work?
The one starting to get loud on the edge of our mainstream is The Cadillac Three. They’re going to these cities and selling 800, 1,200, 1,500 seats, selling these places out; the music, and their look. I couldn’t change these three if I wanted. I laid out a roadmap on how we could intersect, and they would choose the moment, at their own pace, and their own entry point, without giving up any artistic integrity to do it. “White Lightning” feels like that “bigger intersection” for them. That’s a song they’ve been playing live for a couple of years, but because they’ve been working so hard and continued to build fans and support at radio and retail, that one you can feel. 

How patient are you? They’ve been in development a long time.
There does come a point where, if we don’t see growth and effort, if we don’t see some kind of return—and not just a financial return, but a social return—then you have to cut bait. We’re always staying plugged in and seeing where we need to put our muscle, and also understanding when we can no longer do anything. 

How do you know when you can’t do anything more?
It comes in different shapes and colors. You will see artists kind of give up the ghost—I’m not going to name names, but I saw it last week with one of our artists, and I was like, wow maybe that’s it. Because we can’t do anything more for you if you haven’t gotten to the point where you not only grasp this opportunity but really take it by the neck and throw it to the ground. At that point, we’re done investing our time, money and effort. Because it’s not just the time or the money; it’s all these people’s lives—and you’re deciding how they spend them. So I don’t take those decisions lightly. When I have this team that shows it can deliver at the highest level, I get pretty precious about it. If you are not earning their time and their attention, then shame on you, and we’re moving on. 

Let’s talk about “Music Has Value.” What prompted that? When did you decide you needed to do it? Do you think you can put your finger back in the dike?
I have been one of the loudest voices about free streaming from Day One. I felt it was wrong, explained it to our staff. The loudest moment was obviously when I pulled Taylor’s catalog off of Spotify. That was a joint decision, hers and mine. I went to her. We’ve always windowed her new releases within this new streaming world. I went to her specifically and said, “I want to pull down everything.” She agreed immediately.

Fast-forwarding to the actual phrase “Music Has Value,” I’d just been hired by American Idol to be a mentor; I was going to have my first TV spot on the American Country Countdown Awards last December on Fox. I went to Sandi [Spika, BMLG’s Creative Director] with one of my jackets. I said, “I want you to paint “Music Has Value” on the left chest.” She goes, “All right!” It was such a conversation starter that night, we decided I’d wear it every night on American Idol. Once you explain it to people, to fans, they get it. 

No streaming at all?
Everyone’s trying to put us all in one box, where one-size-fits-all. One size does not fit all. Will we give music away? Yes, in the beginning, when we’re trying to turn you on to a new band, a new artist; yes, we want you to hear it. That’s part of our investment. Just like with any trial, if you like it and want to continue to use it, you’re going to have to pay for it. Daniel [Ek] just forgot that part of the equation. 

Did he forget, or was it just more profitable?
He’s not making money. That’s not a newsflash—while he’s got this huge valuation, Spotify isn’t making money. 

You could’ve done what a lot of people have done, say, “Give me the licensing money,” which isn’t going back to the songwriters or artists. The labels are using it to try to recoup, but you didn’t choose to participate. You’re more successful than many; why did you forgo that income stream?
First off, that wasn’t offered to us. Secondly, I still wouldn’t have, because it’s a lie. It’s a lie to my artists. “Why did this money come in, and we didn’t get any of it?” It’s like the old record clubs. Basically, that’s what our industry leaders thought that this was, what this was going to be. We’re going to get a big advance, nobody will really know—and we’ll just work through this advance and get to the next one. They didn’t see the Trojan horse. Even if you look at our deals for terrestrial performance rights, we don’t recoup against those. That money flows through the same way it goes through SoundExchange. We’re not going to take a fake dollar and have some kind of blacked-out line in our artists’ statements, where they go “What is this?” and we say, “Oh, we can’t tell you.” That’s not how we roll. 

American Idol—why did you do it?
I wanted to see if we could make a difference from the inside of one of those shows. We had first right of refusal for the country artists on The Voice. We were not allowed to meet them till after they won. Cassadee Pope hadn’t even made the declaration she was going to make a country record until after she won. And here we are continuing to develop Cassadee Pope and Danielle Bradbery. We were thrown in a situation of a shotgun wedding. Go make a record, hope it works. Ultimately, with the work that they’re doing, the work that RaeLynn is doing, we’re going to get there.

Anyway, I wanted to see if we could use the incredible platform American Idol provides; could we advance the artist development timeline? I learned so much in those four or five months. The answer is yes, you can advance the artist development timeline. I’ve already put things in place since I’ve been back that we’re seeing results on. 

Did it change how you see the artist development process?
What changed for me about the artist development is a lot of times we tell artists, “OK, you’re not ready, go on the road, keep playing shows.” That’s too much of a broad stroke. Working with these kids for months at a time with a specific directive, then watching their growth, it gave me a deeper definition of what artist development can and should be. Not just “Go on the road and go get better,” but “Here are the things we’re going to work on. And yes, there’s a test.” 

That notion of accountability, the finite reality of “You have to hit this mark,” it’s not so vague.
Not only that, but the timeline. Every day matters. Why shouldn’t every day matter at the Big Machine Label Group? Not that it doesn’t, but why don’t we have that same kind of intensity of making every day matter? When you have to go into song meetings with young contestants and know you have a minute-30 to match a song up and make it work on television? It’s taken my A&R chops to a completely different place. That’s already being reflected in so many records we’re making right now—Cassadee Pope, The Band Perry, Justin Moore. 

How involved are you in A&R?
Very. Between myself, Allison Jones, Jimmy Harnen and Julian Raymond, nothing gets recorded we’re not really involved with. That doesn’t mean there’s locked-tight approval. But all of our artists know that if they come to me with conviction about a certain song, 99 times out of 100 
it’s going to be a yes.

You were in a rock & roll band in California. When Taylor sang “Tim McGraw,” she was nose-to-nose with you. Does that aesthetic start with you in a garage? What did you play?
Played guitar, bass, sang. But yeah, I was in a garage band [laughs]. 

Does part of that inform your country aesthetic?
There’s definitely a piece of that. Understanding the intersections of where that is valuable and where it is not is important. Because that was so long ago. But do some of those things stay with me? Absolutely. 

They can translate too.
You know what I think it does? I think the intensity absolutely is still there, from that guy. 

As a country label, you did a Mötley Crüe tribute, and Steven Tyler has this great single. Talking about intersections: How do they intersect with country? Or what’s your definition of country that allows them to intersect?
My definition of country is “Southern culture.” The Mötley Crüe record was very specific: I wanted to see if the songs held up. Being a fan of the band and watching what the boys did, led by Nikki, and how they changed the landscape, I don’t know that they got enough credit. So as much as being a fan, I wanted to see if we could make a great record. I think we made a great record. 

Steven Tyler’s voice and his being are so rooted in Southern blues. When I first met Steven and told him I wanted to make a country record with him, I explained what I was hearing. He took that and said, “Here’s what I grew up on, and here are the things that have meant so much to me that I’ve never really had a chance to explore.” The music he’s making is so on-point. It’s not overdone, it’s very in-the-pocket. We’re not just creating country versions of Aerosmith songs; that’s not what this record is. 

Just like with Icon, in a sense they are just looking for a place where they can be relevant. There’s no rock radio anymore that has any kind of depth or mainstream accessibility. No one can even name what the #1 rock track is a thousand percent of the time. I can name it right now because it’s Zac Brown with Chris Cornell—and that’s one of our records. 

Obviously, we have to talk about Taylor. Kind of the biggest star in the world. What makes her so enduring?
Ten years of consistently communicating with her fans in a very personal way. And she still finds a way to give more than she gets. Her fans know that. They know that every day she’s somewhere, doing something to move that whole peer group to continue the conversation.

She does musical things people don’t expect. As the label head, is that scary or thrilling?
It’s awesome. I have been one of the biggest encouragers behind the scenes, always. Go back nine years ago, on the first album. If you’d said to me, “‘Shoulda Said No’ sounds like an ’80s rock song,” I’d have said, “Yes, what’s your point?” The reason I bring that up is, we were in the studio for the last day, she and Nathan Chapman. She goes, “I just wrote this song; I really like it. I can’t wait to play it for you, but I have all these musicians here. Can I cut it?” And I said, “Of course.” She was always pushing the envelope to make it as relevant and timely as possible for her own world. Every single record up until 1989, there was a song she had written that had to make the record last minute. 

The Band Perry—out of the box, almost superstars with one single. What happened? What’s the plan going forward?
The Band Perry are in a transition. They’ve been touring for over five years. The third album is really taking shape. Our world moves so fast now—the race for relevancy, when you look at all the bands right now. They’re redefining their sound and understanding the live show is where they live. How do they create the right music that is going to dominate radio and continue to really turbocharge their quest for being a hard-ticket headliner? 

What about your quiet giant, Brantley Gilbert?
Of all of our great artists, he’s one I am most proud of. That guy travels in a Southern hip-hop crew. The first time that I met him, he was eyeing me up and down, kind of like Sons of Anarchy. With him, you know you’re going to be in or out. It’s black and white, and it’s about the truth. And he’s a brilliant songwriter, and he’s really helped change some of the landscape too. He’s pushed the edge of our sound as a format. And look at all the big acts he’s outselling. 

Working outside the system by staying true to your vision, can you still build things?
Early on, he was very raw. All the music was there, but it had a lot of rough edges. So when the Valory team said, “Hey we want to take him on a radio tour; let’s start doing interviews,” I said, “Here’s what you’re going to do: You’re going to leave him alone. You’re going to protect him; you’re going to keep him away from radio. Not only is there an image that we have to protect, but he’s not ready.” I believed in him, that he was going to see what he truly wanted and what his career could be, and help guide him with his great manager, Rich Egan. We let him make the discoveries on what would be the best route for him as an artist and as a young man. And he has made the right choices. 

Florida Georgia Line—arguably the most momentum of any act in country music.
Two guys so focused on extending the party. It’s rare to see any act that’s not a solo act work so well together. They understand how to give each other space; they understand how to create together. We’re already going into a third record on them. They’re a legitimate hard-ticket headliner. As their life changes, their heart and their work ethic are so intact. 

How do you see them evolving?
This single is when we began the evolution. We started with “Dirt.” Nobody saw that coming. People thought there was going to be another big loud party song; then to drop our arguably most important lyric right out of the box is what made it such a big record. I’ve already heard songs from the next record. They’re expanding the themes, expanding emotions. They’re not going to be stuck with any kind of label. 

You’re about to hit your tenth anniversary. You’ve broken a lot of ground. Going forward, how do you see your evolution?
The seeds have been planted; it’s just how quick-ly do they bloom? We know we have to be an entertainment company. So as for the future of the Big Machine umbrella, we’ll have separate pods for our corporate endorsements, for management, for publishing. That evolution has started. 

So you’re a multiplatform entertainment company.
Yes. With the TV things I’m already doing, with Idol and other production conversations. 

What is it about TV that excites you?
The immediacy. We fight so hard to get however many millions of impressions we can get on radio, streaming, etc. But when we get the right music with the right emotion on the TV screen, you move people quicker and in a more profound way. When we get our content right, people will invest their time. Binge-watching has become the thing. When you get Sons of Anarchy or Breaking Bad, Taylor Swift or Brantley Gilbert, it’s something where people want the whole thing. Television gets to storytelling. Our best artists are still our best storytellers. 

Where are you with your racing?
We’re part of Chip Ganassi’s team this year. We are their official entertainment partner. We were on all of their cars at the Indianapolis 500. We’re represented somewhere within that team every weekend, whether it’s NASCAR, Sports Car or IndyCar, so that provides my mental fix.

And for my personal fix, I got to take my 1967 Dan Gurney Eagle to Indianapolis in May and run laps on the super-speedway with other vintage cars and my hero, Al Unser Sr. So it’s never far away. 

What are your thoughts on Apple’s response to Taylor?
First off, I think Apple’s response says so much about Taylor. Not only is she the biggest star in the world, but she is truly the leader and spokesperson for her generation. I am so incredibly proud of her and what she stands for.

 I applaud Apple for their quick response and Eddy and Jimmy for deciding to put the creators first. It was the right thing to do. From the onset of streaming I have been screaming about proper payments to artists, writers, producers, musicians, publishers and, yes, labels and the entire ecosystem of music creation. It’s our job, and a responsibility we accept, to continue to empower the creative community to push the boundaries of its art and to strive for proper compensation.•

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