It was 10 years ago that Scott Borchetta took a look at the most doom-laden climate in the history of the modern music industry, and decided it was the perfect time to start a record label. What must have seemed a kamikaze gamble turned out to be a stroke of genius, and thanks to a fortuitous meeting with a 14-year-old songwriting prodigy named Taylor Swift, the Southern California native was able to build one of the most dynamic and status-quo challenging imprints since Def Jam turned the label world on its head back in the 1980s.
Taking another page from the likes of Russell Simmons, Borchetta is now only beginning Big Machine’s transformation into a full-on multimedia company branching from music into film, television and new media. He signed with Creative Artists Agency last spring, notched a season on “American Idol” as a mentor (with the label also releasing the debut album from eventual winner Nick Fradiani), got involved with film production on last year’s documentary “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me” (with the label also releasing the star-studded soundtrack album), and will enter a fourth season as the label partner of ABC’s series “Nashville.”
And Borchetta promises plenty more where that came from.
“He’s more of an old-school record executive, he’s more of an entrepreneur,” says Jeff Frasco, who represents Borchetta for CAA. “We just thought he could branch out into different businesses, whether it’s television or film or theater. His goal is to have a multimedia company, not just a record label. … He has his finger on the pulse of a lot of different IP.”
For his part, Borchetta credits his stint on “Idol” for igniting a sense of urgency on his newer ventures.
“Going into last season and knowing that on May 13 we are going to announce the winner, I came back to the label feeling more fired up than ever,” he says. “(On ‘Idol’) I had to make every day count for those contestants, and the best ones literally got better every day. A lot of times in a record company environment, it’s, ‘All right, go out on the road, go get some experience, come back in six months and we’ll see where we are.’ I’ve erased that. Now it’s, ‘This is what we’re working on today, I expect you to come in tomorrow and address this and be better.’”
|NO ‘IDOL’ HANDS: Most recent “American Idol” winner Nick Fradiani will release his debut album on Big Machine.|
This would be an easy moment for Big Machine to rest on its laurels. The Big Machine Label Group — which is distributed through Universal Music Group, and whose label roster also includes Universal Republic, the re-launched Dot Records, Valory Music and Nash Icon — has produced 66 No. 1 songs in the past decade, and Swift’s latest genre-straddling juggernaut, “1989,” has moved 8.6 million copies worldwide. (Swift’s total five-album tally is north of 40 million.)
Borchetta is cognizant of the fact that modern cultural appetites require a different type of content pipeline, and once again looks to TV as a model.
“The immediacy of TV is still really critical and I’ve got some ideas that we’re working on right now to get a more immediate response, reaction and result.
“If we accept that (TV) is changing how people are consuming (other media), then it all relates back to having great content, whether it’s music or storytelling or whatever. If you’ve just discovered ‘Sons of Anarchy,’ then there’s seven seasons waiting for you there, jump in. You discover ‘Breaking Bad,’ you jump in. So the immediacy of seeing something and wanting more right away, we really have to always be ready with more content.”
Per Frasco, it’s unlikely that Borchetta will be back in front of the camera immediately, and he says the agency is exploring film opportunities along the lines of “I’ll Be Me”: “Obviously he knows a lot about music, so it would be biopics, bio-docs, similar to the Glen Campbell film, or something like a ‘Walk the Line’-type movie,” the agent says.
Yet with the label increasingly looking toward Hollywood, one can’t help but wonder how much the Big Machine roster will play a part. Some of the older artists on the label — particularly Tim McGraw and Reba McEntire — have managed to notch successes in film and TV without losing sight of their core music fanbase. With Swift, the closest this decade has seen to a Michael Jackson-level pop phenomenon, the incentives to spread her star power among other media would seem to be enormous.
Yet Borchetta espouses a measured approach.
“Without naming names, you can take some of the biggest artists of the last 25-30 years and point to those moments where they thought they were going to be movie stars, put the entire weight of a film on their back, and it failed,” he says. “And some of them didn’t recover from that. So if you look at the way that Taylor has handled her career, she’s had a couple of cameos, a few small parts. It’s something we talked about early on, let’s avoid the mistakes that others have made before. Let’s not just throw her in and expect her to give an Academy Award-winning performance out of the box. You have to build that part of it.
“So you have to be careful. If your fans fall in love with you in a certain arena, making that transition is super difficult. Those first imprints are so important and bold and memorable, that psychologically a lot of times we just don’t accept it. It’s like, ‘oh that’s not how you entered my life — what are you doing over here?’ You have to be really careful and really strategic.”
One of the youngest acts on the Big Machine label roster, Maddie & Tae has already earned comparisons to the label’s flagship star from Borchetta himself, and notched a country No. 1 with debut single “Girl in a Country Song.” The twosome made their dramatic TV debut on “Girl Meets World” earlier this fall, but the group’s Madison Marlow echoes her label boss’ words of caution.
“Sometimes there are great opportunities and great money, but we have to turn some of them down because it’s just not right, and not us, and not representing the music correctly,” she says. “We do like getting out of our comfort zone though, and for me, ‘Girl Meets World’ was totally out of my comfort zone, because I am not an actress. It was super cool, because we’re reaching an audience we weren’t able to reach prior to that. But it is kinda scary when you’re jumping into new opportunities.”
Speaking of challenging new opportunities, Borchetta and Swift made consistent headlines through the past year with their battles with streaming services — Swift and label mates Justin Moore and Brantley Gilbert famously pulled their music from Spotify in protest of the service’s free option, and Swift’s open letter to Apple Music caused the nascent service to reverse course and agree to artist royalty payments during its three-month free trial period. Despite these high-profile scuffles, Borchetta affirms that he remains “bullish” on the potential of streaming, and recognizes that “free” will always be a part of streaming’s draw.
“There are a lot of opportunities, but you just have to remember the reality of what that is going to look like when it becomes successful,” he says.
“And the word you’re always going to come back to is scale. Can a label group by itself scale to make a sensible business? I don’t think so. We literally need tens of millions of people to make this work, and we’re on our way. We all know what the future is, or at least we all have a really good idea. So as long as we continue to not forget how to properly monetize as we build this, it could be the biggest and most profound change since we migrated from cassettes to CDs. We’ve just got to be smart about it and make these premium services so robust that you want them.”
While the streaming business continues to spread its tendrils into the traditional music industry, Borchetta identifies another old-school arena that he sees as primed to embrace digital content technology: car racing. A lifelong fan of the sport — and once a participant, until Swift persuaded him to stop — Borchetta’s label has long had a hands-on approach to the sport, this season sponsoring the Chip Ganassi Racing Team.
“We’re trying to help a lot of our teams re-imagine what auto racing means to this younger generation,” Borchetta says. “One of the things that’s challenging is that (younger demographics) have this utilitarian perspective as far as cars go. When we grew up, we couldn’t wait to get our hands on cars, work with them, change the look of them. Now you see kids being like, ‘I’ll just take the Uber,’ or ‘Oh, I don’t even have my driver’s license yet.’ I’m like, ‘Ugh, who are you people?’
“So I think we have a huge challenge in racing, and I think the only way we can do it successfully is to get them into some kind of engagement on their devices. Where they’re literally part of the race, whether it’s fantasy racing, or where you’re in a digital car out on the track, whatever it is, it’s going to have be on that level to get them interested.”