To date, the most significant day in the career of Big Machine Records chief Scott Borchetta was Nov. 2, 2004, when he met 14-year-old Taylor Swift, who signed with his then-fledgling label and has become one of the 21st century’s most successful and influential recording stars.
But as with all “overnight” success stories, Borchetta’s preparation for that encounter began decades earlier. Born into the business, he’s the son of Mike Borchetta, one of the record industry’s top promotion men, who worked for such labels as Capitol, RCA and Mercury.
Early in life, Scott was a bass player in country and rock bands; it was only the warm-up for a career in the field of record promotion. His public image skyrocketed when became an in-house mentor on “American Idol,” leading Rolling Stone to profile him as “Nashville’s Most Powerful Record Exec.” Today, Borchetta’s Big Machine operation boasts a steady flow of hits from a dynamic roster that includes Swift, Florida Georgia Line, Midland, Reba McEntire, Rascal Flatts, Thomas Rhett and many more. Borchetta first caught Variety’s attention Sept. 2, 1987, when he was named rock radio promo chief of the short-lived MTM records operation in Nashville.
MTM Records was a blip in the history of Nashville. Was that an ill-fated venture or was the label launched during one of Nashville’s long-ago downturns?
Country music had this interesting moment in 1987. At MTM we had Holly Dunn who was charting. Foster & Lloyd were making an impact. There was a lot of crossover between rock, country and New Wave bands, so culturally you had Rosanne Cash, Dave Alvin, Jason & the Scorchers. And we had an act, Hege V, who was George Hamilton IV’s son and who had a strong record called “Burial Ground of the Broken Hearted.” We didn’t know it then, but we were on the cusp of a real breakthrough in country. But the label folded in 1988. I like to say we stopped digging one foot from the gold mine.
So you went from label promo to independent?
Yes, and there was an interesting change in the business that was important to my success. Billboard magazine had an archaic, goofy points system for its charts. But Radio & Records had a different system that measured light, medium and heavy radio play. The industry went to that system, and I had studied it and I had it wired. It helped identify big hits quicker. So all of a sudden we were in the era of Travis Tritt, Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, Clint Black. We could feel the change happening all around us. I kind of grew up in the Nashville business at the loudest time you could imagine.
It’s amazing to remember how Nashville was minting so many major stars at the same time. Are there any that impressed you the most?
Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam were the two freshest guys on the scene. Dwight had that bad boy rock star thing that was new for Nashville and it helped him stand out.
You were fighting for your artists and their records at a time of incredible competition.
The best thing about those days was taking advantage of every minute of every day. We always worked around the clock, recording till three in the morning, and I spent all my time learning how to produce records.
But you were a California kid. Los Angeles was always a bigger pond.
Coming from California, I saw Nashville as a fresh land-grab opportunity. The town was still so young. You could walk to every label meeting. I think it was a time when it was easier to dream big. For some reason, people were intimidated by skateboard punks and motocross kids from California!