Scott Borchetta’s iPhone rings.
The Nashville music exec, who founded the indie record company Big Machine in 2005, flashes the screen at me: Taylor Swift.
“Hey there! How are you?” he says as he darts into the bathroom connected to his office. He’s still chatting with Swift as he emerges a few minutes later and glances at his email inbox. “Since we’ve been talking, this came in on email: You have three songs on the A List in the U.K.!” he tells his label’s superstar, referring to the BBC’s top airplay ratings. “It’s worldwide, my friend!” Delighted laughter bursts from his phone, and his voice softens. “Remember the first time you played ’22’ for me?”
After he ends the call, he says to me: “One of my rules is, if Jesus or Taylor calls, I take the call.” Jesus hasn’t called yet, but it’s easy to understand Borchetta’s devotion to Swift. She and Big Machine have skyrocketed in tandem. One of the first artists to sign with the nascent label, she has become its–and one of music’s–biggest recent success story, selling more than 30 million albums. That and Borchetta’s unorthodox brand-building approach have helped him assemble Nashville’s most glittering constellation of artists, including veterans Tim McGraw, Martina McBride, Reba McEntire, and Rascal Flatts, and newer acts The Band Perry and Florida-Georgia Line.
The Band Perry frontwoman Kimberly Perry says Borchetta’s workaholism attracted the Grammy-nominated trio to Big Machine in 2009. “One night we were driving down Music Row after being in the studio, and the Big Machine lights were the only ones still on,” she says. “That work ethic is huge, because we like to think of ourselves as a blue-collar, hardworking country band.”
But it’s less about the long hours than what the California-born Borchetta, 50, spends those hours doing. Fittingly for a guy from a promotions background, he has focused on multiplatform marketing to a degree that’s unique in country music. As Big Machine COO Andrew Kautz explains, “Our goal is not to be a record company. It’s to be a branding company.”
When I mention this to Borchetta, he’s driving us–in his Ferrari–to a recording session; he bristles, and the car speeds up. After a moment’s thought, he says: “That’s partly accurate. If we don’t have great music, we’re not any company.” He adds that he prefers to see Big Machine “as a content company.” He sees Big Machine’s future as reaching beyond music. Already, it’s collaborating with ABC on the music for Nashville; he’s working on a reality-TV show for The Voice winner Cassadee Pope; and he’s thinking about movies. Swift is looking at more acting possibilities (she played the love-crazed “Felicia” in Garry Marshall’s Valentine’s Day), and Borchetta says, “I’m not going to tell you today that we’re starting a studio, but if Taylor called and said, ‘I want to do it ourselves,’ I’m open to that creative process.” A key part of his creative process is to ask the right questions–which are rarely the questions that others on Music Row are asking. “What’s on the edge? What’s next? That’s where I think I do my best work–if I push my whole team to the edge.”
“The edge” to Borchetta means pushing his inquisitiveness–and himself–hard. Go-to Nashville producer Dann Huff, who has known Borchetta for years and is currently working with Cassadee Pope, traces Borchetta’s drive to his own band days. “Scott is a bass player at the core, which makes him lethal,” he says. “Other people love music and like to win, but the bass is the core of the band–and maybe there’s a little frustration because they always wanted to be the lead musician.”
To feed his competitive drive, Borchetta finds inspiration outside of music. He’s a student of political campaigns, for example. “We’re big fans of how they do their messaging,” he says. “Did they get it right? How did they engage?” Old-school whistle-stop campaigns led to Martina McBride’s 2011 train tour of America to launch her album Eleven. Borchetta negotiated a reasonable price with Amtrak, then convinced General Mills to sponsor the tour as part of its anti-breast-cancer partnership with McBride. He grins: “That was a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign we didn’t have to pay for.” The album went platinum.
He also likes to ponder the lessons of America’s biggest corporations: “What companies are in more places than we are? Who has better distribution than we do?” A couple of years ago, that led him back to General Mills’s Minnesota offices, and this spring, consumers will see the results on 90 million boxes of Wheaties and Lucky Charms, Hamburger Helper, and other General Mills products, which will feature a host of Big Machine artists–most prominently, the Band Perry, which just released a new album, Pioneer–and Big Machine’s logo as part of the Outnumber Hunger campaign, which supports U.S. food banks and the not-for-profit Feeding America. Big Machine will deliver talent for a few campaign events, but other than that, it will cost the company $0. “There’s no reason people should be hungry in our country. It’s not acceptable. So we’re giving back,” Borchetta says. “At the same time, The Band Perry and the other acts will be in millions of people’s houses. People read the backs of their cereal boxes!”
Last year, Borchetta scored perhaps his biggest coup by forging an unprecedented agreement with Clear Channel to get his performers royalties for radio airplay. Previously, only songwriters have received royalties–artists do get them for digital play–and singers have griped about this for generations; Frank Sinatra memorably tried to rally musicians to fight for them in the 1980s.
Borchetta’s deal gives his artists what they wanted–in the form of percentage of the radio giant’s ad revenue on all platforms (neither company will say exactly how much)–and it gives Clear Channel an insurance policy of sorts. Radio still accounts for 98% of its revenue, but digital is growing, and Clear Channel negotiated what amounts to a cap on what it will owe Big Machine artists. “We found a great way to have a seat at the table. Everybody knows we’re in the midst of a massive sea change. It’s not if but when,” Borchetta says. “The last thing we want is for radio to say that they can’t afford to play our artists and turn off the pipe.”
The deal, which still hasn’t been duplicated by any other record company, cemented Borchetta’s reputation as a fierce advocate for his artists, a creative problem-solver who can get things done when nobody else can, and a titan who holds Nashville’s future in his hands. His success calls to mind a line from Tim McGraw’s latest album, Two Lanes of Freedom, which pays homage to Nashville’s most celebrated artists, including Johnny Cash. It’s McGraw’s first album with Big Machine and Borchetta following an acrimonious split with his previous label, Curb Records, and on “Nashville Without You,” McGraw sings, “Hey fire, burnin’ round the ring/ Hey, Crazy, you know it’s true/ That Nashville wouldn’t be Nashville without you.”
[Photos by Andres Gonzalez]