At the CMA Festival, you're used to seeing artists making personal appearances on the convention center floor. Executives? Not so much. But Big Machine founder/president/CEO Scott Borchetta isn't exactly your traditional "suit," and given his unusual level of visibility at the consumer level, hardly anyone batted an eye when he did a two-hour session with a rapt crowd of country music fans over the weekend.
A good number showed up wanting advice on how to get their demos to the right people, naturally. Others fell into the what's-Taylor-really-like category, of course. Borchetta delivered on all counts in an hour's worth of Q&A with the attendees and Twitter questioners. Among the label chief's observations and revelations:
* The label is "hoping" that Taylor Swift's fourth studio album will be out in October, though she's still in the thick of writing as well as recording. And unlike the solely Swift-written Speak Now, this one's all about the collaborations. "She is writing with more writers than ever before," he said. "You can take everything she's ever done before as far as co-writes and this blows it out of the water. She's working with different producers, too." On top of all that, he added, "I think you're going to hear some other voices on the record."
* He credits Swift, to some extent, for Tim McGraw recently signing with Big Machine, and not just because her first hit was named after him. "After the CMA Awards last year, it came back to me from a friend of mine who was in Tim's dressing room that Taylor had come in and they were talking and Taylor said, 'You need to come over here with me and Scott.' That's all I need from her. Thanks, pal!"
* Reba McEntire has been too busy working on her new ABC sit-com to work on anything unrelated to the show. Which doesn't necessarily mean she won't be putting out music. "We were waiting to see if the TV show got picked up," he said. Now that it has, Borchetta pointed out, "There is music on the show, [since] she plays a singer. So I think our next music from Reba is going to be tied to the TV show."
* Asked if he's interested in signing any rock acts, Borchetta mentioned Cheap Trick, then held up an iPhone case Rick Nielsen had given him, featuring the black-and-white checkerboard pattern that's been part of Cheap Trick's iconography since the mid-'70s.
* He talked about getting Martina McBride to make some changes to her working method when she came to Big Machine. "She had gotten in a very comfortable groove about what she was doing, and it wasn't working for her," he told the crowd. "Her husband John McBride has one of the nicest studios in the world, and they had recorded most of their albums there. So I went to them in a creative meeting and said 'I want you to cut this new album out of town. Not in your comfort zone, not in your studio.' We talked through the reasons why he should do it, and she went and cut this album in Atlanta. When she came back she said 'I can't thank you enough because we went in and were totally focused on the record.' She wasn't worried about '3 p.m., where are the kids, what are we having for dinner?' She needed to go and live as an artist like she did 20 years ago."
For hopefuls, he said, "Do as much as you can do on your own. Build up a buzz in your town. Get your social media happening. But it's not about your numbers, it's about the music… This is going to sound a little bit arrogant, but you don't want my attention till you're ready. Because there's no minor league here. When you put your record out, you're up against Taylor, Tim, Rascal Flatts, and the Band Perry—and if you're on another label, we want to kill you! This is a zero sum game. There is a winner and a loser. It's a very hard business. So do your homework. There's not really shortcuts. Forget about Taylor. She's the anomaly. Look at everybody else. Brantley Gilbert, before I met him, had been out there pounding it for three or four years… He already had such a great following, all we had to do was help him make the right record, get him on the right tours, get him on radio. Now we're two weeks away from his second No. 1 in a row, but he had done a lot of the work. Those are some of the things the record company cannot anoint you."
"Give me that artist that has something to say that I haven't heard before—where you haven't heard anybody say 'I love you' this way before. That's the fascinating thing about Taylor and any great songwriters: Every day life comes in, and extraordinary comes out. 'I've never heard that before' (is key). When she walked in my office and I heard the line 'People throw rocks at things that shine,' I stopped it and said 'Where does this come from?' When I got to hear 'If I Die Young' the first time, I hit play again, and hit play again, and after the fifth time I called Allison (Jones, head of A&R) who had been watching this band and said 'Get them in here today if you can.'… Thomas Rhett's next single is called 'Beer With Jesus.' You see that title and say, what in the world is this song about? It will probably be up for song of the year next year. I look for something that excites me—it's that simple. There's not a list, like 'How to do they look?' If we didn't sign it, we didn't love it. When we signed it, we loved it. Right or wrong, it was probably my fault. If we missed, sorry—I thought it was good."
After the fan Q&A, I asked Borchetta a little more about the status of some upcoming projects. Of course, Swift was at the top of my interest list, as was the case with the CMA Fest crowd. "Obviously Nathan Chapman is the lead producer, if you will," Borchetta told us. "But she's having a blast working with all these different people… What I think is, she had so many special guests on the road on the Speak Now tour that it really inspired her to work with more people this time and bounce off ideas and really kind of expand her musical base. The tour really got her excited about working with other artists, really for the first time… as well as songwriters and producers."
Swift's album may be tentatively slated for October, but you'll have to wait till the first quarter of 2013 for the Band Perry's, though he expects to have a first single from their sophomore project "by the end of the year." As for the just-announced news that TBP's album is being produced by Rick Rubin:
"When you look at what he's done, whether it was the Dixie Chicks or the Johnny Cash records, even his rock records are very organic. So after we dig a little deeper, it wasn't that odd of a mix… If they're great songs, you're not gonna go 'Well, it's too rock" or 'too country.' You're going to go 'That's a great song.' So I don't think Rick is going to take them anywhere that's not inside them. But there's rock influences in there. There's bluegrass influences. I don't think we're in a moment where you've got to be so genre-intensive. I've heard four things so far that are really good. There's one song that I literally could take to radio today that's a smash."
Was he surprised that the Mavericks, with whom he worked at MCA Nashville in the '90s, got back together? That reunion was supposed to be in the "hell freezes over" category.
"I never expected them to get back together," Borchetta allowed. "So when they came in and said they were going to do it… it's a really special moment. Whether they are together (just) for this record or they decide to try to tag on another 10 years, it's really up to them. When Raul (Malo) came to see me last fall, he said 'Do you realize that next year is the 20-year anniversary of our first MCA album?' He said they were gonna get together and do some dates in 2012, and were thinking about maybe recording, and if they did, was I interested? And I said 'If you're making a record, I want to hear it, period.' We went in and recorded in February, and it was brilliant. The music came together so fast. It was putting the train right back on the track. It may be their best record."
Besides digging the Mavericks' music, and having a long business history with them, you get the feeling that Borchetta might just really identify with their name.
A label topper going down to the convention center to spend hours talking with (and signing autographs for) attendees at the event formerly known as Fan Fair? A maverick thing to do. When I told Borchetta after the session that it was hard to imagine the Music Row titans who came before him, like Joe Galante and Luke Lewis, ever coming down to the convention center to engage fans, he agreed. "Yeah, I don't think you'd ever see Joe or Luke or any of those other guys down here," Borchetta said, laughing. "No way."
"For me, the engagement"—which also includes Borchetta actively tweeting—"has come out of requests and demand from the fans. So, that's always fun to get their perspective on things and get the questions and what's important to them. So it's really grown very organically. It's not something that we set out to do." But, he added, "The very first year that we came down here, in 2006, we walked through the convention center here, and no labels were set up," he told me. "And I'm like, my God. I look around and see thousands of fans and think, why are we not here? So we've been here every year since. It's like, how can you not engage with your fans? Because you ask them a question, they'll tell you what they don't like, they'll tell you what they like. It's a great research project… It's always fun to get their perspective on things and get the questions and what's important to them."
Big Machine may be pushing the envelope as far as brand awareness—and, yes, even executive awareness—goes. Certainly you won't find the established major labels trying to sell consumers on the idea that their imprints represent "Quality You Can Trust" in any significant way. Bring up Big Machine's branding with people at some other labels in Nashville and they'll assure you that it's sheer hubris to think that somebody might buy a Mavericks or Thomas Rhett record just because they were signed by the same guy who discovered Swift... or that any fans really notice or care what label any artist might be on, at all.
"Well, I just talked to a couple of hundred fans, and they all knew," Borchetta told me. "Obviously, these are the super-fans. But there's a huge awareness of who is on the label. And I think the fans of other acts on the label kind of check 'em out early and go 'All right, what are they doing now?' So I think they know more than we think they know." In terms of historic precedents for label awareness, he pointed out, "Windham Hill used to kind of have that. too. And when you go through the years, there were Sire and a handful of brands that people did trust and go 'Okay, I like this label.' And I think organically we have built that kind of reputation of 'You know what? It's on Big Machine, I'm gonna give it a shot.' Which is really incredible."
It's been said that what consumers crave most in this era of fragmentation and too many entertainment options is a sense of curation. That mostly comes through valued Internet radio stations or opinionated websites. But can a label provide that sense of trust? There hasn't been a lot of suckage in the label group's six-year run of success, whether they've been signing valuable newcomers (Swift, the Band Perry, Steel Magnolia, Thomas Rhett, Brantley Gilbert) or re-breaking adopted veterans (McGraw, Reba, Rascal Flatts, Martina, the Mavericks). And by assuring the public that nothing gets signed that doesn't personally "excite" him, Borchetta is, in a way, putting himself out there as a curator as well as CEO. Does that have any effect? When you think Tim McGraw, will you think of them—Big Machine, that is—and also be inspired to give Thomas Rhett a shot? We may have a better sense in a few years... or a few beers with Jesus from now.
In the meantime, fans will continue to be most curious about why Big Machine's relationship with Swift has been so magical. He related a story that he thinks speaks to that.
"She doesn't give me gifts so to speak. She gives me music," he told the CMA crowd. "We were doing soemthng to set up the Fearless record, a Clear Channel online (event). The hardcore Taylor fans know what I'm talking about. There was this beautiful acoustic setting, and she was doing a few new songs, but she had to do a cover song... So a couple weeks out, I'm like 'Taylor, I need to know what cover song you're going to do because we need to clear the publishing.' 'All right.' 'You got a title for me?' 'No.' A week before: 'Hey pal!' 'Hi!' 'This Clear Channel thing's coming up next week.' 'I know, it's gonna be great.' 'You know you have to do a cover song, right?' 'Yeah!' 'Any hints?' 'I'm working on it, I'll get back to you.' Click. So the day of... she's getting her hair done and playing around with the guitar, and I'm like 'All right ,what song are you gonna do?' She doesn't say anything, she just flips her computer open. And she knows that I love this rock band, Luna Halo, that I helped to get signed out of Nashville. They're friends of mine. And she starts playing 'Untouchable'—[and] if you've heard the original, it's this crunching rock song, and she turned it into this extraordinarily beautiful, touching piece of music. That's what she gives to me, those kind of moments. She knew that I loved that band and she took that song and said 'I'm doing this one for you.'
"The gift of music—there's nothing like it."