There is no way to sugar coat it for Scott Borchetta, Big Machine Records, and the two one-way streets just west of downtown Nashville known as Music Row where the heart of the country music industry resides. Taylor Swift choosing to move on from Big Machine—the label she’s been signed to since 2006 when she was 15-years-old—leaves a gaping hole in the country industry, even if Swift officially left the genre two albums ago. The loss of revenue for the music campus and Big Machine specifically will be felt for years to come. They have lost their biggest superstar.
Taylor Swift announced the move on Monday (11-20) about a month after her contract with Big Machine Records had officially expired. She had been negotiating with the label for months, with one big sticking point being the ability to retain ownership of her masters, and gain ownership of the masters she’s already made with the label. Swift specifically stated that one of the reasons she chose to go with Universal Music Group and Republic Records as her new label was due to the partnership allowing her to retain the masters of her music. Without getting too technical, masters are basically the ownership of the music, with labels then paying artists royalties on their work but keeping the rights.
As an independent label, Big Machine and Taylor Swift were already distributed through Universal Music Group, and even though Taylor has moved on from Big Machine, there is still the possibility she may end up reuniting with her previous masters eventually. Just as Taylor Swift was negotiating with Scott Borchetta, Scott Borchetta was negotiating with major record labels to sell the company, including with Universal. Borchetta is still pursuing a sale, even though without Taylor Swift under contract, the prize isn’t as juicy.
The news comes after what can only be characterized as a protracted losing streak for Scott Borchetta and Big Machine Records. Once coined the “Country Music Antichrist” by Saving Country Music for both the way Borchetta was gobbling up market share at an alarming pace, and his propensity to promote artists who had little to do with country music (Florida Georgia Line, et al.), Borchetta hit a rough patch in early 2017, and hasn’t wielded the same amount of power since.
It came as a shock to many when in February of 2017, Tim McGraw chose to move from Big Machine to Sony Music Nashville. Borchetta had worked hard to wrestle McGraw away from Curb Records, including a protracted legal battle. Then just a month later, Big Machine was forced to shutter their Dot Records imprint, which was home to artists such as Maddie & Tae, and Drake White.
After significant growth in Big Machine necessitated Scott Borchetta sprouting imprints left and right, including restarting the legacy Dot imprint in 2014, he now was forced into downsizing as Big Machine’s management structure got so stretched it began to unravel, and too many projects weren’t making the label money. Big Machine’s partnership with Cumulus Media on the NASH Icon imprint meant to offer radio support for older artists such as Hank Williams Jr. and Ronnie Dunn also seems to only be limping along at best. Cumulus is currently in Chapter 11 bankruptcy restructuring itself.
Now you add the loss of Taylor Swift, and it’s another devastating blow to Big Machine, who at one point looked like it might take over Music Row and country music. It still has ownership of Taylor Swift songs that were responsible for selling some 32 million albums just in the United States, but that is an asset of diminishing returns, especially in the streaming era.
But Taylor Swift moving on from Big Machine deserves a deeper reflection than just the financial ramifications for a big Music Row label, and the important, but embellished (as per usual with Swift) benefit other Universal artists may receive, since Swift used her signing to strong arm Universal into agreeing to share the money with the artists if the label sells their stake in Spotify.
If it wasn’t for Taylor Swift, there would be no Big Machine Records. And if it wasn’t for Big Machine Records, there would be no Taylor Swift.
These days you can’t get away from articles showing concern with the lack of women in country music, and for good reason. Championing women in country has become the cause célèbre in many circles, with media outlets well outside the country genre joining the fray. Awareness of the problem is no longer an issue. In fact the case could be made the issue has been run into the ground, resulting in it becoming too adversarial to find any pragmatic solutions for it, while potentially scaring some women away from pursuing a career in country music at all, exacerbating the problem.
You’ll find all kinds of of news stories about how women aren’t played on the radio, women aren’t considered for festivals, women aren’t given equal treatment to their male counterparts, and how women can expect to face sexual harassment and other potentially dangerous scenarios if they choose a career in country music—just like Taylor Swift did when a DJ who groped her. But what you won’t hear are the stories of how women can and have succeeded in the genre, despite the odds and adversity they face. In fact if you attempt to highlight the positive stories, you run the risk of being cast as part of the problem. And there is no greater success story for women in country music than Taylor Swift.
Understand that Taylor Swift was just 14-years-old when Scott Borchetta first saw her perform at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, and he was so enamored, decided to start an entire record label around her. Forget that Swift was a women trying to make it in country, Taylor Swift couldn’t even legally drive at the time. And to make it, Taylor would have to rely on a label with no track record, no clout, and no roster except for Swift herself. Scott was no stranger to the record label business, but he was trying upstage the country music industry and go against the grain of Music Row norms—something that has been tried many times over the decades, and often failed.
Taylor Swift’s odds were impossible, yet her first record has now sold over 5 million copies. Her second record, the aptly-named Fearless, has sold 7 million, and won the Grammy for Album of the Year. Swift’s 2010 Record Speak Now was solely written and co-produced by Swift herself, and also won two Grammy Awards. Not only is Taylor Swift one of only seven women to win the CMA for Entertainer of the Year in its 52 year history, she won it twice.
Yes, we all know that Taylor Swift is not country, and arguably never was, though compared to much of today’s country music, this argument feels irrelevant. And no matter how you feel about her music, true country fans will always owe Taylor Swift a debt of gratitude, however begrudgingly so, for being one of the very few artists in modern country history to come clean about the nature of her music, and move on to pop just as they had requested. She proved why this was not only important, but could be a pathway to even greater success.
Despite incredible, arguably insurmountable odds Taylor Swift faced, she was able to persevere through the Music Row system, and rise to the point of becoming one of the biggest artists in all of popular music, with so much clout and power, she was able to negotiate a contract with some of the most favorable concessions any artist has ever earned, including potentially helping out hundreds of other artists if and when a Spotify sale goes through.
Taylor Swift became so damn big, country music couldn’t contain her. And neither could Music Row. And she did it all while starting in country music as a woman, and as a young woman. And so could others, including artists that actually sound country, if like Taylor Swift they possess unique talents that fit the time and place of their ascent perfectly. But they also have to believe in themselves more than believing it is impossible for a woman to make it in country music, just like Taylor Swift did. Only then will they be fearless enough to succeed.