October 7, 2014
"Movers and shakers" may sound like an antiquated term these days, but it perfectly fits Scott Borchetta. Consider: Borchetta launched the Country indie label Big Machine almost 10 years ago. He started with a small roster and, among other things, would eventually grow that into a label group, turn a Country phenom into a worldwide pop star in Taylor Swift, launch the first-ever revenue-sharing deals with radio groups and helped start a new Country format with Cumulus, NASH Icon, that's dedicated to selling new music from heritage Country artists. Instead of having things happen to him, here's how Scott Borchetta makes things happen:
We last interviewed you four years ago. Since then, Big Machine started revenue sharing deals with radio and Taylor Swift became the biggest pop star in the world. Would it be fair to say you are a proactive rather than a reactive guy?
Today, you don't have any choice. To survive, you have to be aggressive and proactive. The landscape is changing so dynamically and so quickly, every day is a new adventure. You have to do everything you can to stay in synch and try to be a step ahead of it.
Regarding Taylor Swift ... what went through your mind when you heard the new album for the first time?
The thing with Taylor is that she records two or three songs at a time, so we could see very early on where the record was going. Plus, her songwriting always knocks me out. If you look at the arc of her last album, "Red," that album started in Nashville and ended in Los Angeles with Max Martin and a few other non-Country producers. For "1989," it started with Max and Shellback. It's a very natural evolution, and while it is different than anything else she has done, there's still so much classic Taylor in her songwriting. It's not like the new album didn't make sense compared to her past work. She just continues to find new ways to excite you; she very rarely repeats herself melodically and lyrically and she's taken the production to another level.
How do you view Country radio's reaction to her new music?
The reaction is pretty much what I expected. We actually had more pop success on the last record than Country success, so the fact that this record completely stepped into the pop lane didn't surprise us - and because she has built a great relationship with her friends at Country radio, several of the programmers weren't surprised. They'll always have some level of involvement with her as the music format evolves over the next several years. There are those who are sad that she didn't have anything format-specific for them to play, but at the same time, they have the sense to know that Taylor has been and will continue to be a great partner with them in terms of tour promotion and other access.
Obviously you're working Taylor more to the pop side than ever before ... have you noticed any major difference between working her to Pop verses working her to Country?
You have to remember that we've had major crossover success for quite awhile, so it's not like we had to learn some new ropes and get to know a whole new slate of players. We were fortunate to have worked with Monte Lipman and the Republic crew from the beginning. We had a couple of early Pop forays from the first album - "Teardrops On My Guitar" being the first and we dabbled with a couple of other Pop mixes. And then we made history with the leadoff single from her second album "Fearless" with "Love Story" in 2008. It was the first-ever Country crossover to hit #1 on the Top 40 Airplay charts. And then we followed it up with "You Belong With Me," so this wasn't new ground for us. We've enjoyed continued Pop success for six years now.
Now that Taylor has become a global pop star, does that change the way the world looks at Big Machine?
Yeah. We're now getting inquiries from all kinds of artists in a variety of formats from all over the world. The fact that we've been able to repeat crossover success with Florida Georgia Line, The Band Perry and Brantley Gilbert as well as the tribute we did with the guys in Motley CruÃ«, and of course Taylor's mega-success -- it has shown some of the diversity we have but it's really just scratching the surface. We are always looking for exciting new artists.
In that light, could you see a Metal, Alternative or even Hip-Hop group signed to Big Machine?
I could see Big Machine signing whatever we fall in love with. We've got to find artists with great songs and great energy; those are the things that get us excited and inspired to work with artists, no matter what kind of music they play.
There has been a big hue and cry about the paucity of female artists on Country radio nowadays. Do you share that concern?
Country is such a female-based format as far as listenership is concerned. We have to find those artists who have the right attitude and the right songs, then really find a different way to cut through. I look at the females on the chart now and see Lady A with a #1 record. I don't think listeners are aware that they're not hearing many girls on the radio. Miranda and Carrie are still there; obviously we've got the Band Perry and there's Little Big Town, so it's not that big of a drought, although there's room for more.
We're very aggressive about developing female artists. We're working and breaking the great new teenage female duo Maddie & Tae with "Girl In A Country Song," which is this great tongue-in-cheek female empowerment song that's absolutely rocking. We've got this new release from RaeLynn, "God Made Girls," that is starting to get real traction. We first heard her on The Voice a couple years ago. She's very energetic ... a very "Dolly meets Miranda" girl-power vibe. Both acts are young, but when it comes to artist development and female singers or acts, you've got to come out strong, perhaps on the girl power side. You need a clear point of view -- what's her vision for her music and image?
What's your take on Bro Country?
You look at acts that break out of any scene and only a few are powerful enough to move beyond the scene. For example, people won't look at Florida Georgia Line 10 years from now and think, "Bro Country." It's not as if we made up the concept of Bro Country. We didn't walk around, going, "Hey, it's Bro Country ... high-five!" The critics came up with that and if that's what they wanna call it, fine by me.
As I said earlier, several artists will transcend the moment. So when the critics need a reference, they'll go back and remember when Luke Bryant and Florida Georgia Line were kings of Bro Country, that's okay. It's just a reference, but does the public refer to U2 and The Police as new wave bands because that's the scene they came out of? No. Is The Who considered as a Mod band by the public? No, because in those cases, those bands far transcended those movements.
You can't look at Bro Country from an A&R perspective, where A&R reps say, "Wow, we need more Bro Country..." It has more to do with similarities in song lyrics than anything else.
Going back to Country radio, four years ago you described the impact of centralized programming in Country. Has it gotten worse or better ... or do you have a better grasp on how to work with it?
This, like anything else in radio, just evolved. We have to continue to know who the players are and make sure, more than anything else, we bring them great music and great artists. Regardless of how it is being programmed, we have to make sure we're doing our job first. We saw centralized programming coming 10-15 years ago ... and it's getting even more centralized, but that's just a way of life. We have to deal with it the best way we can.
Initially when the PPM came out, Country seemed to be skewing older. Now it's just the opposite. Are you at all concerned about it skewing too young?
I love it because Country has become the new rock. Even though there's still Rock radio and new rock records, from the moment the Country format started rocking harder, we took over. When you look at the big festivals and see the ones headlined by Jason Aldean and Brantley Gilbert, 25 years ago they'd both be called Southern Rock acts. It's really the same Southern culture you heard from Lynyrd Skynyrd. The younger listeners really create a young Country culture, which is fantastic. When our bands get into their DNA at that age, they literally stay with them for the rest of their lives. It can be Taylor Swift or Florida Georgia Line; when those records get embedded into you in your teen years, it never leaves you.
On the flipside, you're also involved with NASH Icon. What are your expectations here?
We created a partnership with Cumulus to create the NASH Icon label. The idea is that these artists are still very relevant; artists such as Reba and Martina McBride still make records and go on tours. They now have the opportunity to stay relevant on radio. Something that has frustrated me about Classic Rock was that when a new Aerosmith album came out, all the Rock stations in town were giving away their concert tickets, but they weren't playing anything off the new record. That's what killed Rock radio; they've frozen in time. We have an opportunity with some artists who have aged out of mainstream Country, to give people who grew up with them and have loyalty to them, a way to hear their new music and stay excited. These listeners don't feel old at 50; they don't want to listen to Oldies stations. That's why there's a huge opportunity for NASH Icon.
On June 5th, 2012, Big Machine announced its first revenue sharing deal. You've made several more since then. At this point in time, have these deals lived up to your expectations?
The deals have lived up to expectations. Everybody now is focused on the new digital rates ... and it's a challenge, but there won't be that much time between what's going on now and the moment we all realize that it's all broadcasting -- be it terrestrial or digital --and every spin in the digital and terrestrial space is going to have a value ... and hopefully an equal value. Digital is getting more powerful every day. We have a vision of the future and want to create a pathway that's beneficial for everyone - and a little over two years in, we think it's working great. And we're on the eve of announcing another major broadcasting company that will be joining the platform. It's just a matter of time before everybody gets it.
Next year will be Big Machine's 10th anniversary. Have big plans on how you'd like to celebrate it?
There's going to be a BIG party....
Finally, what do you see for Big Machine's next 10 years? What are the biggest challenges you face?
Our goals are many. One is figuring out what the streaming model is going to be and how to keep a real value attached to the amazing music that artists create. I am a staunch critic of the possibility that record companies are turning into publishing companies in the sense of going from frontline value to a long tail chaser of a percentage of pennies. We've got to be really aggressive in maintaining a value structure. Our goal is figuring that out and it will take bold moves from all the players in the business. We have to challenge them because the direction of the current business model sucks. But there is a solution; I'm absolutely certain there is a solution - and it's coming.