I first used the phrase “Country Music Antichrist” in reference to Big Machine Records CEO Scott Borchetta about 2 1/2 years ago. I’d like to hold my chin high and say I was being prophetic, but in truth at the time I just thought it was a nasty way to label the guy primarily responsible for the rise of Taylor Swift and the biggest perversion of the term “country” the genre has ever seen. And hey, he has the evil goatee. But little did I know a few short years down the road, Borchetta would become one of the most powerful men in all of music.
The reason I coined the nickname had to do with the purity of genre terms. Borchetta calls Taylor Swift country when she’s clearly pop, and Justin Moore has been the primary culprit in the corruption of another important country term, “Outlaw”. We can argue back and forth if we should even care about the purity of these terms any more. This was a much more salient discussion when Taylor Swift was winning her first CMA for Entertainer of the Year in 2009. At this point that battle has been lost. The only question is if these terms are worth fighting to reclaim.
But disgruntled country music purists are not the only ones who look at Borchetta as the Antichrist of their music world. His rival label executives on Music Row must see Borchetta as just as much of a threat, if not even more of one to their way of life. If the prototypical Music Row executive can be visualized as the gray-haired man with a steak-and-potatoes gut spilling out of his navy suit, then Borchetta is the in-shape, sleek guy in a tight-fitting black spandex shirt taking office Yoga breaks and ordering in sushi. As the traditional labels in Nashville have been lethargic in their attempt to keep up with trends, Borchetta has been running circles around them, pilfering their talent rosters and penning historic deals that will re-shape the music industry for years to come.
It hasn’t even been a month since I claimed Scott Borchetta was the new “King of Nashville” after signing Tim McGraw, and since then Borchetta has been at the helm for two more huge decisions. First at the beginning of June, Big Machine expanded into the music publishing business, the one calm port in the calamitously-recessive music industry in the last decade. As sales decline, rights for the use of songs in TV shows, movies, commercials, etc. has remained steady. And then just last week, he inked a deal with Clear Channel that will earn performance rights for his artists when they are played on the radio, a deal that will likely shape how music rights are handled as radio expands and morphs into a more digital format.
The Clear Channel deal is a huge win for Borchetta. “The Big Machine Label Group is the first United States record company in history to have performance rights for our artists,” he told The Tennessean. The deal points out the other dichotomy about Scott Borchetta and his Antichrist identity: his rise to power has in part been the fault of Big Machine’s culture to actually take care of artists and extend to them a measure of creative freedom, ironically the thing same some traditionalists who hate Borchetta for his perversion of country terms and been clamoring about for years.
Scott Borchetta is just what Nashville and country music needed, while also being the sum of all of its fears. His gamble with Taylor Swift paid off in the sweetest run of spades one could possibly imagine, and now he’s not just a big player in the country music world, he is the biggest, and with the Clear Channel deal his influence stretches way beyond the country music realm. The Tim McGraw signing and the Clear Channel deal may not be the culmination of Borchetta’s rise, it may be the beginning of it, as all ties to the old oligarchy that governed Nashville since the time of RCA, Acuff/Rose, and Studio B, slip away from the market power amassed from the success of Taylor Swift.
So yes, though the term “Country Music Antichrist” feels wholly immature and unfair, it also feels expertly a propos.
Timeline of Scott Borchetta’s Rise
- Scott Borchetta starts Big Machine Records after DreamWorks Records dissolves where he was a top executive. It begins as a joint venture with Toby Keith, and is distributed by Universal Music Group.
- Borchetta sees Taylor Swift perform at The Bluebird Cafe in Nashville during an artists showcase, and decides to sign her, making Swift the first Big Machine artist.
- Big Machine signs Jack Ingram and releases the album Live: Wherever You Are.
- Toby Keith leaves Big Machine to start his own record label, Show Dog.
- Taylor Swift releases her debut album, Taylor Swift, which would go on to be certified platinum 5 times over, was #1 on the Top Country Albums chart for 24 non-consecutive weeks, and was the longest album to stay in the Billboard 200 in the decade.
- Big Machine launches a subsidiary label called Valory Music Group, signing Jewel and Justin Moore among others.
- Sunny Sweeny signs with Big Machine and releases Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame in March.
- Trisha Yearwood signs with Big Machine and releases Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love in November.
- Taylor Swift releases Fearless, selling a total of 8.6 million copies worldwide, and 6.5 million in the United States, making it the second best selling album in the last decade, and the best selling album in all of music in 2009. It is the only album that has ever remained in the Billboard 200 Top 10 for a full year. It also wins the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2009.
- Big Machine begins promoting Canadian acts Adam Gregory and Emerson Drive.
- Valory Music Group signs Reba McEntire.
- Steel Magnolia signs to Big Machine Records.
- Big Machine joins with Universal Republic to create a new record label imprint, Republic Records Nashville. Sunny Sweeny becomes a Republic Nashville artist.
- Republic Nashville signs The Band Perry.
- Taylor Swift wins first CMA for Artist of the Year, the youngest artist to ever do so.
- Rascal Flatts signs to Big Machine, releasing Nothing Like This in November.
- Brantley Gilbert leaves label Average Joes for Borchetta’s Valory Music Group.
- Taylor Swift releases album Speak Now, which has so far been certified quadruple platinum with over 4 million albums sold. The single “Mean” went on to win two Grammy’s in 2011.
- Scott Borchetta partners with Live Nation Entertainment chairman/Front Line Management Group CEO Irving Azoff to form B.A.D. Management.
- Big Machine signs Thomas Rhett.
- Martina McBride signs with Republic Nashville from RCA.
- Eli Young Band is signed by Republic Nashville, and releases Life at Best.
- Taylor Swift wins second CMA for Artist of the Year.
- Valory Music Group signs The Maverics in Februrary.
- Big Machine Records Signs Tim McGraw in May.
- Big Machine sets up its own music publishing division.
- Scott Borchetta crafts a historic deal with Clear Channel to pay performance rights for Big Machine artists played on radio, while setting the stage for how digital rights and online radio will be managed moving forward.