Using the slogan “The only thing we take seriously is the music,” country superstar Toby Keith and veteran Nashville record executive Scott Borchetta will kick off their new joint label venture Sept. 1. They have already assembled an A-list staff, signed a handful of artists and secured a major distribution deal.
Running a label may be a novel experience for Keith, but it’s not the only new venture he’s embarking on. He’s also landed a three-picture film deal with Paramount Pictures and will make his acting debut in the first of the films, set to start shooting in October in either Tennessee or Georgia.
The name of Keith’s label and its distribution partner will be unveiled at a press conference in Nashville on Wednesday (Aug. 31), but both Keith and Borchetta spoke exclusively to Billboard.com about their plans.
For Keith, who has sold 21 million albums in the U.S., the new venture marks the end of his long association with DreamWorks Records. After losing its biggest act, major changes are expected at DreamWorks in the next few days.
In an unusual set-up, the new venture will be structured as an umbrella company housing two labels, Keith’s and Borchetta’s. The latter will be known as Big Machine Records. The labels will share office space and resources in a Music Row building Borchetta owns, and will also share most of their staff, including the promotion team.
Each executive will sign acts separately. Keith has already signed his band mate and frequent songwriting partner Scott Emerick, who previously had a deal on DreamWorks. Keith also says he’s received numerous phone calls from other “major artists in play” who are interested in joining his roster. And Keith himself will also record for the label.
Meanwhile, Borchetta has signed Jack Ingram, who previously recorded for Rising Tide and Sony’s Lucky Dog label. Big Machine will release a live album from Ingram, which includes two new studio tracks, on Nov. 1.
Also on the Big Machine roster are singer/songwriters Danielle Peck and Taylor Swift. Peck’s single goes to radio Sept. 26. Swift, a Sony/ATV Music Publishing writer, will debut early next year. Borchetta had previously signed Peck to DreamWorks, but she was dropped from the roster during the label’s 2004 merger with Universal Music Group Nashville (UMGN).
Borchetta predicts that the combined roster for the two labels will eventually top out at seven to 10 acts. And while both Borchetta and Keith say they’ll focus on being a country label, neither rules out the possibility of branching into other genres for the right act. Additionally, Keith has secured the soundtrack rights to any films he does with Paramount.
As for his new acting career, Keith says he’s “signed a deal and agreed to three projects, and discussed as many as six or seven” with Paramount. One such project under discussion is a film based on Keith’s 2003 No. 1 hit “Beer For My Horses.”
As someone who’s had a notoriously stormy relationship with UMGN, it’s fair to wonder what Keith will be like as a label head. “You can’t be hypocritical about it,” he says. “I’ve raged against the machine for a long time, so I’m not going to turn into the person I tried to get away from.”
He’s also planning to cut “fair deals” with artists, and will let his own record sales absorb the cost of working other acts who don’t sell records in the league of Keith’s own multi-platinum volume. “I don’t need other artists to sell millions of records to make sure we keep our doors open as long as I sell my [one new] album every year,” he says. “I’ve got plenty of money.”
“We’re going to be an independent,” adds Keith, “but smell, walk, talk, look and record like a major.”
Until March, Borchetta was senior VP of promotion and artist development at UMGN, overseeing those departments for MCA Nashville, Mercury and DreamWorks. Immediately following his unexpected split from that company he began talking about plans to launch his own label. Keith has also been speaking publicly about starting a label since March, when he announced at Country Radio Seminar that his days at DreamWorks were likely numbered.
Keith says he weighed his options, and decided that in starting his own label, “We could do some groundbreaking stuff in the music industry. We’re looking forward to getting it on,” he says.
Interestingly, Keith still owes DreamWorks one more album under his contract. Asked how he got out of making it, Keith quips, “I made them an offer they couldn’t understand.”