Scott Borchetta: Behind the Curtain (Part 1) - From Nekst
Updated: Aug 27, 2019
By David M Ross
Scott Borchetta: Behind The Curtain PART 1 go to www.nekst.biz/behind-the-curtain/ for part 2.
Big Machine President/CEO Scott Borchetta spoke to an intimate group of business leaders on behalf of Capitol One at Inc Magazine’s Grow Your Company Conferenceheld in Nashville May 20-22 at the Omni Hotel.
Interviewed by Senior Inc. writer Burt Helm, Borchetta offered attendees an inside look at his successful BMLG label and artists, plus some extremely personal insights. Helm arrived prepared and asked the self-made entrepreneur a wide range of questions tracing his career trajectory from MCA in the ’90s to the present day. Borchetta offered inside details about working with his Dad, getting “unceremoniously” fired from MCA, working with Toby Keith, scrambling for funding to start Big Machine, finding Taylor Swift and recognizing her potential, sealing the deals with Clear Channel and Cumulus, why Big Machine holds new music back from Spotify and more.
At the start of the interview Helm asked, “Why form Big Machine in 2005 when sales were falling and it looked like a terrible time to start a new label?” Borchetta’s response reveals his competitive personality as he quietly replied, “It’s easy to say the sky is falling, and if enough leaders say it then everybody starts to believe it. It was absolutely an opportunity. Every time I saw these companies getting smaller and giving up space I thought, great, we’re going to take that space. Keep retreating because we’re going to keep charging.” And that’s just what he’s done…
The following questions and answers have been edited for focus.
Helm: Big Machine began with help from Toby Keith. How did you convince him to put in an equity stake?
Scott Borchetta:From 1991-1997 I was at MCA Nashville which was part of Universal Music Group. I was unceremoniously fired in March 1997. Literally the next day we started making plans for Dreamworks Nashville which started in 1997 and Toby was one of our early signings. He had some prior success, but never really went all the way. We got him at Dreamworks and reimagined what he was doing and what he should be doing. It was really us shutting up and listening to him, going out to his shows. We realized this guy is a redneck, badass, raucous, beer drinking guy, not a crooner like the prior label tried to image him. I remember my very first meeting with Toby. He didn’t trust anyone because the previous label wouldn’t let him put out the music he wanted. So I said, “Pal, we can continue like this or you can trust me. You lead, I will follow, I have your back. Run like hell.” We started putting out these raucous songs like “How Do You Like Me Now?” and “Who’s Your Daddy?” and Toby went from a B player to one of the biggest artists in country music. It was just us doing what we are supposed to do. Provide an arena for our artists to do their best work. We were having massive success at Dreamworks Nashville which was a joint venture with Universal, but in January of 2004 Universal picked up its option and Dreamworks became a wholly owned company of Universal Music Group. I literally was pulled back into the place that had fired me and ironically it was also the place where Toby had been unhappy. So we both returned with trepidation. Soon afterwards, Toby dropped the bomb on everybody and made a famous announcement at Radio Seminar in March 2005 that he was leaving Universal. I made it clear I didn’t want to stay. So Toby called me and said, “Why don’t we do this together?” I said, “You have more money than I do and I’ve got the staff building experience. Maybe it could work.” It was never designed to be a long term thing, just a great way for us to use each other’s leverage to get in the game.
Helm: What was your plan for the first year?
Borchetta: Just to stay alive. There were a lot of hurdles and broken promises. I had an investor who said he would fund the label with $10 million. On that handshake Toby and I started. Then I got a call in June 2005, (we were planning to open in Sept. 05), and he says, “Wanted to let you know I’ve invested your $10 million in Morocco.” “Does that mean you aren’t in?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. That guy is still around and unfortunately he lost everything on that Morocco deal.
Helm: How did you recognize that Taylor was star material?
Borchetta: My Dad has been a promotion guy from the late ‘50s to today. In the ‘60s he worked for Mercury, RCA and Capitol; then in 1969 he started his own independent business. I was always around him. I never realized until later in life how much I had learned from his successes and his failures. I got the most valuable education possible and didn’t even realize it. The answer is it’s a gut feeling. I can’t put it into words or tell you that a multiple of this number and this letter equals Taylor Swift. But when I met her, I knew.
Helm: No doubts at all?
Borchetta: Our world doesn’t allow for doubt. The minute you doubt is the minute you start to lose. Taylor is an absolute world class rock star, my Mick Jagger. I look at the crazy things I wrote down Nov. 2, 2004 like ‘Taylor takes Japan.’ It was kind of an odd Nostradamus moment. I knew this artist could be on the cover of Rolling Stone or host Saturday Night Live. I’ve been around big stars my whole life so whatever that chemistry is, whatever kind of juice they have more of than us mere mortals, I’ve been able to recognize it. Helm: Has technology changed your ideas about artist marketing?
Borchetta: There’s one thing we really can’t afford to do—what I call hope marketing. That’s where you say, “I hope they saw it.” So more and more we are investing in one-to-one engagement from band-to-fan. Justin Moore did almost 100k units first week earlier this year because his fans knew the record was coming out. Brantley Gilbert is going to sell well over a 100k units this week because his fan base knows. Brantley is going blow for blow against Coldplay for first week sales. ColdPlay will probably win, but they didn’t even see us coming. It’s our job to continue to build those individual data bases.
Go to http://www.nekst.biz/behind-the-curtain/ for the rest of the article! Thanks David Ross for the great article!