Taylor Swift's Label Boss on Her Future, His Spotify Showdown and 'American Idol'
Scott Borchetta, president and CEO of Big Machine Label Group, talks to THR about whether reality TV can still break artists, Glen Campbell's health and his biggest career regret.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
He may have given up racing cars competitively in 2005, but Scott Borchetta has been in music's fast lane for going on a decade. As president and CEO of Big Machine Label Group, Borchetta, 52, is the executive behind Taylor Swift, whom he signed as his label's first artist when she was just 14, following his stints at Universal's MCA, DreamWorks and Universal Music Nashville. Swift's latest album, 1989, has passed sales of 4 million units in the U.S., according to Nielsen Music, and she's appearing Feb. 8 on the Grammys.
But Swift is far from the Nashville-based company's only success. Also home to such acts as Tim McGraw, Rascal Flatts, The Band Perry, Florida Georgia Line, Reba McEntire and hot newcomers Maddie and Tae (through Big Machine and its sister labels, Valory, Nash Icon, Dot and Republic Nashville, the latter two in partnership with Republic Records), Big Machine was ranked fifth overall among the best-performing labels of 2014.
The Los Angeles native constantly is making innovative moves. In 2012, he sealed a unique deal with Clear Channel (now iHeartMedia) that allows Big Machine artists to participate in terrestrial and digital radio revenue streams. Then he paired with radio chain Cumulus Media to start a record company. Big Machine's publishing arm has created a co-venture with Dr. Luke's Prescription Songs, and early in 2014, Big Machine, Republic and designer John Varvatos joined to sign multiplatinum act Zac Brown Band as the first act on Varvatos' new label. And he and Swift perhaps have been the most vocal critics of how Spotify pays artists for use of their music.
Borchetta, the son of a record promotion man, played in rock bands as a teenager before following his father to Nashville and trading the stage for a desk (he prefers a standing one). It was in Music City that he met his wife, Sandi Spika Borchetta, Big Machine's senior vp creative, after an introduction from McEntire and her husband and manager Narvel Blackstock.
Borchetta, who owns 60 percent of Big Machine (other investors include Toby Keith and Swift's father), denies rumors that the company is for sale for $200 million. But with Swift's contract up after her next album (he doesn't handle her side acting gigs) and Big Machine's distribution deal with Universal Music Group in flux, he has more pressing issues on his plate. Even as he oversees 91 employees, Borchetta is joining American Idol this season as a mentor, succeeding Jimmy Iovine and Randy Jackson. With 19 Entertainment and UMG, Big Machine will release the Idol winner's album.
Your being on Idol will raise Big Machine's profile. How much did that factor into you saying yes?
It has a lot to do with it, because anything that I can do to help raise the profile of the label to give our artists more opportunities I'm always going to strongly consider. It's not going to be, "Ladies and gentlemen, American Idol, and all the Big Machine Label Group artists!" but I think we'll have a few really nice opportunities.
Can reality TV still break artists?
Absolutely. RaeLynn was a top-eight finisher on The Voice, and we have been working with her for two and a half years. Her EP was the No. 2 best-selling country album at iTunes. It's development. Winning American Idol really anoints you the opportunity to have a great career; it does not anoint you a career.
Your distribution deal with UMG is up. What is the status of the renegotiations?
No comment. It's called a nondisclosure agreement.
What are you looking for in a distribution partner?
(Sings U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For.") I'm looking at a deal that makes sense for the future. There are plenty of deals that make sense for today and made a lot more sense yesterday that don't make as much sense for tomorrow.
What does that mean?
There are days where I feel like we're an island and that we're not aligned with a lot of the thought processes of some of the major labels, so I'm trying to make sure that the next move that we make is one I'm going to feel good about tomorrow.
You released Glen Campbell's "I'm Not Gonna Miss You," which received an Oscar nomination and will be performed by Tim McGraw at the Feb. 22 event. With his Alzheimer's, is he aware of the nom?
I don't think he's really aware of too much anymore. The last reports that I have are that he really doesn't speak. So, hopefully, he can still sense caring and warmth, but from what I know, that's where it is now.
Swift has one album left on her Big Machine deal. What is the status of the negotiations?
We have one record left with Taylor Swift, and that's all I can say.
After Swift took her catalog off Spotify, Big Machine acts Brantley Gilbert and Justin Moore pulled releases as well. If you had your way, would all Big Machine artists pull their music?
Yeah. There's not any artist that can go and pull them themselves. We don't have control over Republic Nashville. So I can't do anything right now about Florida Georgia Line or The Band Perry. It's about each individual artist, and the real mission here is to bring … attention to it.
Why start with Swift?
[Taylor's catalog] is arguably the most important current catalog there is. When I went to her and said I want to pull the whole thing, she was completely in. Would I have done it if she didn't want to? No. We want to make sure that the songwriters [and] publishers have a voice in this, that everybody has some acknowledgement of who is being affected by this system, and she was the loudest megaphone.
What will it take to get her catalog back on Spotify?
It will take a company that understands the different needs that we have. I think we have to have the choice to be [on the free, ad-supported tier] or not.
In 2009, the Saving Country Music website jokingly dubbed you the Country Music Antichrist for unleashing pop-leaning acts like Swift on Nashville. Does such criticism hurt?
You can come after me all day long, I don't care. But if you come after Kimberly Perry or Taylor or any of the girls, especially — man, that's not a good day for you if I have anything to say about it. I think probably one of the most well-known was the Grammys with Taylor when she was criticized for her performance with Stevie Nicks. I said, "You're wrong," and jumped on the grenade.
Toby Keith owns 4 percent of Big Machine. Does he provide any input or just collect his check?
Just collects his check. I haven't talked to Toby about business in eight years. It's a good investment. One that a lot more people should have taken.
In 2012, you struck a deal with Clear Channel to get the label and artists paid on terrestrial and digital airplay. How meaningful a revenue stream is that?
When you look at all of the broadcast companies that have come to the platform, it starts to make a difference, so it's been very meaningful. Coming up on three years later, I'm just disappointed more people haven't jumped in. So much time and attention has been spent on streaming that we've really gotten away from some of the things that we could have, energywise, put into working together with radio more closely for terrestrial. With the rates being renegotiated for digital, this conversation will get louder again this year.
Big Machine turns 10 this year. Biggest regret?
Until this year, it was passing on Zac Brown. It wasn't that I didn't believe in it. We were so small I couldn't get to it. It's really neat that that came back around to us.