"The name Big Machine is kind of a joke," says Scott Borchetta of the record label he founded in 2005, "because really, were anything but." Indeed, the tiny imprint, which launched with just 13 employees, has taken some of the biggest creative risks in country music, and helped bolster the careers of Rascal Flatts and The Band Perry, among others. Borchetta recently chatted with us about bold marketing, flexible management, and how he discovered a little artist named Taylor Swift. Excerpts below.
Taylor Swift was one of the first artists you signed in 2006. What drew you to her?
I fell in love with her. It's really that simple. We don't sign anyone that we don't think is going to be successful, and Taylor covered so many bases.
But she was barely known—and barely 16—at the time.
She had a really cool website, and she was already was on MySpace—because that's how she and her friends were talking to each other—but that's it. So we found ways to light that up and get people's attention. Everywhere we went, whether it was a red carpet we weren't supposed to be on, or a radio station, or a television interview, or whatever, I would tell people, "You have to talk to this girl. You're going to thank me after you do. She's that good." We'd walk into a radio or TV station and go, "We have you surrounded, and you don't even know it."
How'd that work out?
Early on, we had interest from Great American Country [the cable channel], and we created a program with them called Shortcuts. They were these one-minute vignettes [about Taylor Swift] that ran about 15 times a day. And that's when MySpace hits and plays just started to blow up. It just started snowballing, and that was a great early barometer to see that Taylor was really sticking, that people were really interested in her.
So at Big Machine, promotion and discovery aren't always radio-centric.
It's always funny to me—Internet marketing, social media. I kind of cut those in half: marketing and media. What's the difference? How do we reach people? Forget about how we do it, how we get to them. It doesn't matter if it's social media or radio media or television media—it's all media, and it's all marketing. It's about understanding where your fans are. And when you have infiltrated them, and they're satisfied, and there's demand, how do you grow it from there?
But you approach each artist differently, right? It's not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing?
Right. What we do for Taylor has nothing to do with what we do with Rascal Flatts, which has nothing to do with what we do for Martina McBride. If we're doing our job right, you're not going to hear a Band Perry record and go, "Uh, I'm not sure who that is." I think when we do our job right, our artists don't sound like anybody else. I have a real hard time with voices that sound like other big voices. You're not going to hear a Tim McGraw sound-alike on the Big Machine label group. You're not going to hear a George Strait sound-alike on the Big Machine label group. If I've done that, I've failed in our initial vision.
So you're okay with staying small.
I don't think we'll ever be a label group that has 25 or 30 acts to it. I don't want to worry about someone calling me and going, "You better find a way to get another Taylor Swift record out this quarter." When there's that kind of financial pressure dictating your path, it's hard to take creative risks. Unfortunately, for a lot of my friends [at other labels], those kinds of pressures exist, and it does not encourage them to always do their best work.
How do you encourage creativity among your staff?
Everyone is encouraged and expected to be included. There's no 'You're in promotions so you have to do this,' and 'You're in marketing so you just have to do this,' and 'You're in publicity so you have to do this.' That kind of thinking and paranoia does not work for what we do. It's a culture of participation. In fact, the best idea we had this year came from a guy in the mailroom—and it's not a bad thing!
What's next for Big Machine? Any challenges you're preparing to face?
There are new challenges every day, but we shouldn't be waiting for them. I go by the rule of Gretzky: you gotta be there before the puck gets there, or you're going to get beat. So we're constantly learning—about how to better protect our music [from piracy], how to be better monetize our music, and how to use to all kinds of media to give the right, deserving artists the right, deserving moment at the right, deserving time.
The Disrupters [Slideshow]
A version of this article appeared in the December 2011/January 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.