For the better part of 12 years, much of the chatter among Nashville industry insiders has been about the stupefying success of Big Machine Label Group (BMLG). Home to Taylor Swift (purportedly for just one more album), Florida Georgia Line and, until recently, The Band Perry and Tim McGraw, the super-indie leaped ahead of competitors Sony Nashville and Warner Nashville in market share. In 2016, it claimed the three top singles on Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart, led by FGL’s “H.O.L.Y.” And as recently as February, programmers attending the 2017 Country Radio Seminar (CRS) voted Big Machine the format’s top label.
So when word quietly slipped out in early March about the shuttering of Dot Records, one of BMLG’s five imprints, on the heels of several longtime executives departing for new gigs (among them: senior vp sales Kelly Rich to Amazon, senior vp partnership marketing and promotion strategy John Zarling to Sony and senior vp promotion Jack Purcell to management company EM.Co), Music Row watchers began wondering whether BMLG had run into some growing pains after expanding into a major.
It’s a question founder/CEO Scott Borchetta, whose renown has grown beyond the industry (the 54-year-old was a mentor for three seasons on American Idol), is happy to tackle head on. “It really started at the 10-year turn — knowing that we became this big label by taking chances and saying, ‘Wait a minute: We’re starting to do a lot of the things that I didn’t like about major labels,’ ” Borchetta tells Billboard.
A bloated roster was one of those traits, and BMLG began by dropping “probably 12 or 13 artists over the last 16 to 17 months,” says Borchetta, along with voluntary exits by The Band Perry (to take a shot at pop success) and McGraw (who, partnered with wife Faith Hill, got a richer deal at Sony).
Shuttering Dot, he defends, was a necessary consolidation, since “whether we had three or four labels didn’t affect our chart share.” Dot also represented the last of the company’s jointly owned ventures with Universal; BMLG bought out Universal’s half of the Republic Nashville label (since renamed BMLG Records) in 2015, and the two companies’ three-year deal for Dot was up for renewal in March. Borchetta transferred all the employees that had been jointly funded by BMLG and Universal to other Big Machine imprints, except for departing label GM Chris Stacey. As for Dot’s artists, Carly Pearce (the label group’s next big freshman push) and Tucker Beathard were already signed to BMLG labels and being worked through Dot because of available “oxygen” at that imprint, he explains. Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler‘s stab at a solo country record, says Borchetta, was always a one-album deal.
Things are more complicated for the acts that were joint signees. At press time, it was in Universal’s hands to decide whether Dot acts Maddie & Tae, Drake White, Aaron Lewis and Idol season 15 winner Trent Harmon end up on Big Machine, a Universal label or none of the above.
And what of that wave of staff departures? Borchetta recognizes strong competing opportunities exist. “I experienced it when I was at MCA and DreamWorks, and it’s why I started my own label,” he says. “You get to that point where there’s no more headroom, and it’s like, ‘Look, there’s nothing more that we can offer you at this point.’ John Zarling [the partnership guru who left after a 10-year run] is like my son. He had this incredible opportunity with Sony. I said, ‘I can’t offer you that.’ ” Of Rich, he says, “now I have one of my own at Amazon, which is one of the biggest opportunities in country retail. They all left on great terms. I’m really proud that we communicated. It didn’t get to a point where I had to fire anybody. It was, ‘Let’s talk about the future — yours and ours,’ and we came to this great place.” (Sources say Borchetta fought to keep Zarling.)
Borchetta has more reasons to be optimistic — and they don’t all have the last name Swift (“The first rule of Taylor Club is don’t talk about Taylor Club,” he cracks when asked to confirm a widely expected 2017 release). “We’ve introduced three new [arena] headliners into the marketplace — Florida Georgia Line, Brantley Gilbert and Thomas Rhett — and you look across the other [Nashville] labels, and how many of them in the last several years have created even one bona fide headliner?”
BMLG also claims two of the fastest-rising freshman acts on the charts at the moment, country trio Midland and Brett Young. Borchetta credits the fresh vp blood for being quicker to enact his ideas about “tearing down the walls to create a supermarketing department with no territorialism. It’s not just a promotion game anymore; it’s a marketing/data attack.”
Indeed, metrics about early fan reaction on Shazam, satellite radio and even BMLG’s one-time seeming adversary, Spotify — more than radio input — signaled to “push all the faders up” on Young and Midland and, adds Borchetta, “to pull away from a couple others that were stiffs, which probably saved the company a half-million dollars last year.”
Leslie Fram, CMT senior vp music strategy and a champion of new artists, says she was “blown away” watching Midland, Pearce, Harmon and Delta Rae (a freshly signed co-ed band) at Big Machine’s February CRS showcase. She praises Borchetta for not resting on flagship-act laurels but being “one of the best at developing our future stars.” Brett Young, she notes, has the hallmarks of “true A&R … and, much like Thomas Rhett, shows every sign of becoming a superstar.”
What will Nashville say then? Borchetta’s done it again.
This article originally appeared in the April 1 issue of Billboard.