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How Big Machine’s Scott Borchetta Paved a New Country Road in Nashville

Back around the turn of the millennium the record industry was still riding high, but the smart folks could see dark clouds gathering. So when a young industry veteran named Scott Borchetta decided to challenge the major labels with a serious new independent label that he called Big Machine, there were some raised eyebrows around Nashville’s Music Row.

“There was a lot of negativity about starting a new label. Everybody knew that change was coming,” he recalls.

“Now we can make pretty good projections on where we’re going, (but) what was a wild west 10 years ago is a wilder west now.” And yet, he says, “There’s still an expectation within the industry that we’re gonna wake up one morning and everything’s gonna be fixed. That’s not gonna happen.”

By now the story of Taylor Swift’s success is a part of industry legend. After meeting Borchetta at age 14, she had Big Machine’s first hit, “Tim McGraw,” and went on to become an omnipresent superstar. It’s always fun to read about a record executive’s hopes and dreams during the early days of his biggest superstar, but the truth is, while a label head may believe that the artist is headed for stardom, nobody can predict who will have the impact of a Garth Brooks or a Taylor Swift.

At the time, Borchetta says, “I felt a huge opportunity for a young female artist to break through.”

That sounds simple enough, but country music has gone through long periods when radio wasn’t interested in playing new female artists. That history didn’t bother Borchetta. He had already seen grass-roots response to Jessica Andrews at DreamWorks Records, and, given Swift’s talent and personality, “I always thought she would be successful. I thought she might be on the cover of Rolling Stone or hosting ‘Saturday Night Live.’”

“There was a lot of negativity about starting a new label. Everybody knew that change was coming.”
Scott Borchetta

Borchetta is old school in that he can remember from his years at MCA and DreamWorks when the record industry was about getting songs played on the radio and seeing to it that all the record stores had enough product. Radio is still out there, but a lot of music spreads by word-of-mouth, and today that means social media.

Big Machine and its imprints boast a varied and powerful roster that includes, in addition to the redoubtable Swift, the Zac Brown Band, Tim McGraw, Rascal Flatts, the Band Perry, Florida Georgia Line, Brantley Gilbert, Thomas Rhett, the Mavericks, Steven Tyler, Maddie & Tae, Ronnie Dunn, Martina McBride, Reba McEntire and Hank Williams Jr.

“When you break an artist you learn a lot,” Borchetta says. “This was part of a continuum in my career. (Taylor) helped us achieve momentum, so we could land Garth and Rascal Flatts and Reba and break new acts.”

Over the past decade, on the coasts, and in Nashville, publishers and label executives have watched their bottom line diminish year after year, and the outlook has been less than brilliant. Does Borchetta find the future of the recording industry a little brighter than that?

“Yes,” he says, simply. And he means it, because up to now, nothing has stood in the way of Big Machine.

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