Big Hat, Lots Of Cattle: How Big Machine Records' Scott Borchetta Rides Herd On Country Superstars

Scott Borchetta, founder and CEO of Big Machine Records—musical home of Taylor Swift and Tim McGraw—dishes about how to manage creative types who've lost their way, why "fine" should be considered a four-letter word, and how to ensure divas continue to top the charts.

Forget serial entrepreneur. Scott Borchetta’s a serial risk taker, one of Nashville's most notorious.

Borchetta is the man behind Big Machine, the country music label he founded in 2005. The first act he signed? An unknown teenage singer/songwriter named Taylor Swift.

We all know how that turned out. Swift’s gone on to churn out a slew of chart-topping hits and snag a heap of industry accolades, including becoming the youngest performer to ever win album of the year at the Grammy awards. Now, with the release of her latest effort, Red, Swift appears poised to hit even higher notes with fans. She already set records with the track We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together. It digital copies back in August, making it the best week ever for a female artist on Billboard’s digital songs chart.

Scott Borchetta

Swift’s meteoric rise to success was due in large part to Borchetta’s initial leap of faith, and the two still maintain a special connection. Swift told Fast Company via email: "Not many artists have a good relationship with their record label president. I’m lucky—we have a great one."

Borchetta has described the moment of discovery as simply as falling in love. But sustaining a creative relationship beyond the first lightning bolt of recognition takes hard work. And that doesn’t just rest on the artists’ shoulders.

Borchetta believes his success in the volatile music industry has come because he isn’t afraid to be honest when something isn’t working. Even to powerful stars like Taylor Swift.

"We decided when we were building Big Machine that we wanted to be a Harley or a Ferrari," he explains. "We are not in this to have one billion served." According to Borchetta, great music and passion feeds the bottom line, while "fine" has become his personal "F" word.

Though he says he "doesn’t like to be that person" to deliver the crushing blow when an artist is high on their own work, Borchetta maintains he would be "a complete hypocrite" if he let his performers run aground. "We had that situation [recently] and I had to say stop the madness," he says. "I can’t say who it is but they’ll know when they read it," he adds with a chuckle.

On a more serious note, Borchetta believes that it’s easy for an artist to get stuck in their own world while writing and recording albums. He points out some of the tracks on Swift’s Speak Now album "that are the furthest from center" were the ones she was working on right after Fearless. Right then Borchetta knew it she was missing the boat, but recalls it was not time for him to step in. "I trusted it because it was very early in the process and she’s always writing," he says. Instead, he held back and observed until an opportunity presented itself to suggest she wasn’t there yet.

That moment came in 2009, when Swift had gone back to her acoustic roots and presented three new songs to Borchetta. "I said, ‘Now, that’s the center,’ and she looked at me and said 'You are telling me I’m not done.’" Far from it, Borchetta knew, but he wasn’t nervous. "We had eight months so there was no reason to freak," he says, and just told her he trusted her songwriting. "That is our job," Borchetta maintains. "We’ve got to provide the arena but understand the clock is ticking. There is momentum, strategy, and opportunity."

When he sees an artist starts getting to the end of their rope, he says it’s important not to bring everything to a grinding halt. "You don’t walk into a studio and stop recording," says Borchetta. Rather, he holds a specific session with key executives, the artist, and their manager where he listens and points out what might be right and offer some solutions. "You just say we are heading in the wrong direction and here’s how we are going to fix it."

That may be as simple as finding someone else for the artist to collaborate with. For Swift’s latest release, Red, Borchetta says it was just the two of them in the studio when he recognized a chorus wasn’t getting the proper "lift." Borchetta recommended the Swedish producer and songwriter Max Martin, who worked with Katy Perry and Britney Spears. "The conversation just elevated from there," Borchetta says.

If he sounds confident, Borchetta’s got good reason. He grew up in the music business; his father Mike Borchetta worked in promotions at Mercury and RCA records in L.A. before moving to Nashville to start his own record promotions business. Borchetta cut his teeth working for his dad by day and playing bass guitar in bands at night.

When he hears something that’s not right, "it’s not me," he insists. "This is a lifetime of information, of experience and of results." Though he says he’s never planning for failure, Borchetta’s decades in the business allow him to lay out likely scenarios for how things can go wrong. "If it fails, don’t come to me and say you didn’t get the job done," he says, "Because as a promotion person you have to deliver every day."

It doesn’t always work, though. During his tenure at MCA Nashville, Borchetta tried that tactic with country legend George Strait and was promptly dismissed. "That was a big part of the learning curve," Borchetta says ruefully.

Luckily, Borchetta’s had many more hits than misses to engender trust from such established stars as Martina McBride and Tim McGraw and up-and-comers Florida Georgia Line and Brantley Gilbert. Yet he says that in music, as it is in any business, if you don’t have a great product you may as well pack it in.

"Most of our artists are songwriters, so the songs are still central to all this," he underscores. "If you don’t have great songs it doesn’t matter the marketing or how many times you are on TV, you can only polish it so much."

The true test is in the field with the fans—the customers. "They have to stay engaged at live shows," he says. "If you choose to ignore that you are in great peril."

[Image: Flickr user Ronald Woan]

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