At a free-wheeling panel discussion titled "The Most Creative People in Business" at Fast Company's Creativity Counter Conference in Los Angeles, Scott Borchetta, the CEO and founder of Big Machine Label Group, distinguished himself as one of today's most creative, driven and charismatic chief executives among a room full of innovators and thought leaders. Here, Borchetta discussed the importance of crazy, how failure motivates him and his real-world approach to being a mentor on this season's American Idol.
"On May 13th we are going to announce a winner, on May 14th I'm going to take one of them back to Nashville with me and then the real job starts," Borchetta said about next week's Idol finale. "American Idol is not capable of anointing you a career. American Idol is capable of anointing you an opportunity. What you want to do with that opportunity has been part of my mission, to make them understand what it's going to take."
To that end, Borchetta explained why he flew this season's contestants in a private jet to Big Machine HQ. "I've tried to make it as real as possible for them this season," he said. "I took them all to Nashville a couple of weeks ago and had them meet all of our staff, all the department heads. I did this to show them some of the really nice things that can happen but to also make them understand that while a lot of this is glamorous, if you look at Beyonce's schedule or Taylor's schedule or Katy Perry's or any of the biggest artists in the world, you see how hard they work every day. I wanted to make it as tangible as possible as to what this kind of career could look like."
In his role of identifying weaknesses and strengths in this season's contestants, Borchetta spoke about certain artists' innate talent and of course referenced Big Machine superstar Taylor Swift. "Some people are just gifted with a great voice," he said, "other people are gifted with great emotion, other people are gifted with great engagement -- when you find all of those things in one package you have Taylor Swift."
The panel's energetic moderator Fast Company's Robert Safian, who one panelist accurately compared to hyper talk show host Phil Donahue, kicked off the session noting the conference's location in the former Hughes Aircraft building. The locale, Safian said, made Howard Hughes both rich and crazy, which segued into asking Borchetta if he thought you had to be a little crazy to to be creative.
"We have a mantra at the Big Machine Label Group: Start with crazy and work backward," Borchetta said. "It all started early on in the development of the label. We started off with 13 people and I called it Big Machine because we were anything but a Big Machine. it was the most disruptive middle-finger that I could give to Nashville to just declare us a Big Machine because we were anything but. We were thinking, 'What's the craziest thing we can do?' And when you invite crazy into the room, crazy becomes the reality. We came up with all these crazy ideas that Taylor Swift could be the biggest artist in the world and it came true, and that we could have five labels and become the biggest independent record company in the world and it came true."
With all of Big Machine's well-known successes (Swift, Tim McGraw, the Band Perry, Florida Georgia Line) the label chief executive spoke candidly about how the fear of failure helps motivate him. "We almost lost everything with in the first six months," Borchetta said. "It was that perseverance that finally broke through and we never looked back from that moment. There was literally a few days where I had signed artists, I had executives on payroll, the whole thing, and i was going to lose all of it. It was like get up, get to warrior. I tell all of my crew that. It might be a tough day, but get to warrior."
When PepsiCo vice-chairman Dr. Mehmood Khan's spoke from the audience about the massive problem of hunger and his company's attempt to address the problem, Borchetta noted Big Machine's 4-year old partnership with General Mills on their Outnumber Hunger program. The initiative, which uses the slogan "It takes a Big Machine to outnumber hunger," just surpassed giving some 35 million meals to America's food banks, according to Borchetta.
One of the discussions's more compelling moments came when a scientist by the name of Charles Arntzen, who Fast Company had honored, spoke extemporaneously from the audience. Arntzen, who didn't create an app or form a start-up like many of the conference's attendees, spoke about the gratification he felt in working over the last twelve years to create a protein with plants that has helped stem the Ebola scourge and saved lives. Sometimes, he noted, great ideas take years to come to fruition.
It is interesting to note in the decade since its founding the Big Machine's value has increased exponentially. It's current deal with Universal Music is up for renewal and there here has been much speculation as to whether or not the label might find a home elsewhere (including false reports that the label had been purchased by Apple). While no word has yet to be announced, one can be sure that Borchetta will negotiate a good deal. As he noted during the conference, "I've always thought we've done our best work when everything is on the line."