by Chris Willman
The Big Machine Label Group recently started a new imprint called Nash Icon for the veteran artists on its roster. But those two words are an equally fitting description of founder Scott Borchetta‘s status in his adopted hometown of Nashville. The Southern California native’s reputation would be set if all he had done was discover Taylor Swift. But in the 10 years since he founded Big Machine, he has gone on to become a major force throughout the entire music industry, breaking acts like Florida Georgia Line, Zac Brown Band, Brantley Gilbert and The Band Perry, bringing in such heavy hitters asTim McGraw and Reba McEntire, advocating aggressively for artists’ rights and becoming a mentor on American Idol along the way.
It’s a long way for a scrappy label that nearly went out of business just a few weeks into its existence. After getting his start at, of all places, Mary Tyler Moore’s MTM imprint, Borchetta had two major gigs fall through in Nashville — first, when he was let go from his head of promotion job at MCA Nashville in the late 1990s (purportedly for his desire to blur the job-role lines and get involved in other departments), then, after he got a more encompassing role at DreamWorks Universal, seeing that entire label come to a halt. From the moment he founded Big Machine in 2005, though, he was in control of his own destiny.
A decade on from the label’s modest start, and with Big Machine boasting 93 employees, a roster of 44 artists and a label group that includes Dot, Nash Icon, Republic Nashville and Valory, Billboard sat down with the president/CEO (and 90 percent owner) of the biggest little indie in Nashville history for a look back — and ahead.
You have said that you called the label Big Machine as a “middle finger” to the record business. Is that the real reason you chose that name?
You want to come up with something you think will cut through. Auto racing has been a big part of my life since I was very young. When the car feels right, it’s like, “We’ve got a big machine.” Plus, it’s the name of a song by Velvet Revolver. I remember telling Taylor [Swift] the name because she made the commitment to sign with us before we even had one. So when I was looking at the final list of ideas, I thought, “We’re anything but a big machine, but if we just announce ourselves as one, it’s bold and it’s disruptive and it doesn’t sound corporate.” The rock’n'roll of it was, “We’ll just flip off corporate, right in the face, and declare ourselves a big machine.”
Did you ever harbor the slightest reservation about Swift’s potential?
I never doubted that she would be successful. I felt we could compete because her being is substantial. Even her [first promotional] package was impressive — now, it’s not hard to put together an attractive-looking promo package, but there were enough interesting things that it was raising its hand to me. And when I met her, I was just smitten. She was a fascinating person, even at 14 years old. She had such an amazing desire for people to like her and get to know her, and she has found a way to engage anybody whom she wants to, whether it’s the immediate fan or the biggest stars in the world.
Did you feel like an outsider at the start?
I don’t know that I was ever conscious of [thinking], “Let’s be outsiders.” It was more, “That pisses me off and I don’t want to do it that way.” I’ve always questioned authority, not in a sarcastic way, but [more like], “What were you thinking there? Help me to understand and I’ll learn something” — or “That was just a bad idea.” So it was the dogged determination to continue to figure that out every day. And I’m as doggedly determined today, even more so than I was 10 years ago.
What’s a contemporary example of that?
How in the world can there not be performance rights in the United States of America? That’s bullshit, so we didn’t wait for anybody. It’s like, “Let’s start asking questions. Let’s see if anybody else is aligned with us. Let’s not just accept that this is a status quo.”
Changing the rights landscape has been a passion for you, from forging new agreements with terrestrial radio chains like iHeartRadio and Emmis to the issues involving Swift and Spotify and Apple. How successful has your “Music Has Value” campaign been?
As we get to a new royalty decision later this year, it feels like there’s a greater understanding that we have got to continue to figure out how to be better partners. Radio’s still No. 1, and there’s a huge desire on the record and radio sides to work together in this grand scheme. I’m bullish in thinking we’re getting closer to a resolution that can work for everyone — to the extent that anything can work for everyone.
When you look at all the other major labels who’ve got a huge platform besides Warner Bros., right now they’re just sitting on the sidelines while our artists are three-plus years into earning from iHeart, earning from Emmis, earning from Greater Media, earning from Beasley. And so at a certain point the artists have to raise their hand and go, “Why aren’t we on that platform?” While other labels are lawyering it out, we’re moving forward, with real results. If you look at what streaming is doing, they’re monetizing every cent. Maybe the money isn’t enough yet. But if we can continue the conversation, we can get to a value.
That’s where Music Has Value comes in. We’re at the point now where streaming has to work. We’re going to get it scaled. We’re going to convince the companies that there has to be a premium-only option and that you can only have free for so long — or you can have this much for free.
To see these kids come into the Big Machine store [in Nashville] and walk out wearing T-shirts saying “We support artists” … Fans get it.
With Swift’s apparent battles with Spotify and then Apple…
You’ve got to remember her battles are my battles. There’s no separate battle there.
But she seemed to have been on the warpath against “free,” and you’ve acknowledged that “free” will always be with us, to some extent, so people might wonder where that line is drawn.
People forget that we gave away hundreds of thousands of Taylor songs for free when we started — free as promotional works. Like with SiriusXM: “Free” as a promotional period works. Thirty million people have said, “We fell in love with this product. We’ll pay for it.” That’s where these other services can follow the same model as SiriusXM. If you took away Spotify from everybody, they’re going to go, “Wait, we love this.” It’s OK to say, “This part of it is going to remain free — the promotional part.” If a restaurant gives you a free sample, you can’t just go, “Can I just come in and eat for free?” Anyway, there’s not anything separate. I went to Taylor and said, “Why don’t we do this?” And she said, “Yeah, let’s do it.”
Are you happy with the royalties you’ve seen from Apple so far?
It’s too early to tell; we don’t get paid that quickly. If you compare the streams to what the service is, it hasn’t scaled yet. But when you have that kind of opportunity, you’re hopeful. “You have that many credit cards in your system?” Very hopeful!
Recently you said, “There’s a huge rock animal out there that needs to be taken care of.” How quickly are you looking to expand into rock and pop?
With Nick [Fradiani, Idol's season 14 winner], and with the next winner of American Idol, there’ll be a continued partnership with Universal. It’s way too early to project what kind of artist would win season 15, but obviously Nick is a pure pop play. We’re not going to jump in and sign 10 artists, but in a year, we’ll have more pop than we do now, and we’ll also have more country than we do now, and we will have some rock.
Big Machine re-upped with Universal this year. There were rumors about other scenarios leading up to that, including talks with Sony. How seriously were you looking at other possibilities?
What was really supposed to remain a very private conversation became public when other people found out that we were available for distribution. And those are conversations you’ve always got to entertain. Even though we battle like pirates during the day, it is still a handful of us who move all this forward. I am friends with [Sony CEO] Doug Morris, and I worked for him when I was at MCA. But we’re very ingrained into Universal. They have given us unbelievable opportunities for growth, so it would have had to be something that we absolutely couldn’t say no to for us to leave. But you have these conversations and go, “Wow, this really gives us a true idea of our market value. They’re willing to do some things that I really want to do. Can we do these things within our current structure?” Universal stepped up and made it very clear they want to continue with us for a long time.
You’re known for being involved in every aspect of the company. Is there a cap on how much you can or should grow?
I can’t get any bigger — I can’t spend more than the 20 hours a day I already spend on it. And there’s no way we can be bigger just by adding more artists. So for the label to grow, it has to have great executives who understand the culture, understand the mission and can lead. I don’t want to be part of every decision. Adding David Nathan as our senior vp of pop promotion, there’s an expertise and mega-experience, and he’s on the ground [in Universal's New York office]. We have a Big Machine representative right there on the main floor.
You’ve made a move into pure country with the Nash Icon imprint, where you’ve signed Ronnie Dunn, Reba McEntire, Martina McBride and Hank Williams Jr. Can you really provide a home that doesn’t subject them to the same pressures you put on a young act?
Part of the mission of Nash Icon is taking away some of the day-to-day, hand-to-hand combat that you have to do to continue the mainstream country-radio relationship. These artists have already done it and had the highest highs, and we were able to create a different game board where they don’t have to try to compete with the 20-year-olds. We can say to them, “Don’t worry about trying to make a record that’s younger than you are. Go make the record you want to make.” And if you look at the music that Reba and Ronnie and Hank Jr. [have turned in] — Martina’s still working on stuff. I have an email from Hank Jr. saying, “This is my best record ever.” We’ve already seen great results with Reba. With [track-equivalent albums], we’re over 200,000 units, and we had a No. 1 album again. She wasn’t going to make records [anymore]! So for us to be able to say, “We’ve created a lane where your fan base and your peer group is,” it’s so liberating. They’re having so much fun doing that and not having to worry about, “Am I going to fall out of the top 30 this week?”
You’ve got veterans from American Idol and The Voice on your roster, but neither show has sold many records in recent years. How do you break that streak?
The first Cassadee Pope single sold well for us — over a million, and it was a top 10 record. We’ve had a couple follow-ups that didn’t perform as well. The reason I bring that up is I got to see Carrie Underwood sing at the All for the Hall benefit, and [she is] such an amazing singer. Such an outlier. You have to kind of take Carrie and Kelly [Clarkson] out of this mix and go, “OK, what is the realistic timeline of developing an artist?” We have a new single out on Cassadee right now that’s off to a great start. When she came off [The Voice], she wasn’t ready to be a solo female country artist yet. She had been in bands, and she’s fantastic on television and an amazing singer, but she had to find her wheels. And now she’s killing it, but it took this long to really get her ready to … I hate to say compete, but to compete.
With Nick, we didn’t rush a record out for one simple reason: The music wasn’t ready. We had a single that did great at [adult top 40] — it was a top 25 hit; it was the biggest record [off] Idol since Phillip Phillips. But I was not going to have Nick flying in and out of New York or L.A. or Nashville in between tour dates to rush through a record. Now he’s writing like crazy, and we have great songs and producers lined up to work with him, and the development continues.
I said it at the end of last season: None of these shows anoints you a career. It anoints you an opportunity to have a career.
You’re one of the most visible record executives in the industry right now. How do you feel about the platform you have?
Well, it was never a goal. It was always, “What can we do for the betterment of our artists and our label?” I have to be willing to work as hard as or harder than anybody else. So being in Fast Company or being in The Wall Street Journal and things outside of our industry trades made Fox and American Idol go, “This guy is interesting — maybe he’d be good for our show.” And then that opens up all these other opportunities for our artists and our label in Los Angeles in different media. To me, it’s all just building layers. The nicest thing that my friends who’ve known me for 15 or 20 years say to me is, “Man, it’s crazy that you’re the same guy.” It’s like, “Which guy did you expect me to be?” Those opportunities absolutely help our artists and our other executives.