What links these songs: Highway Don’t Care by Tim McGraw, Mean by Taylor Swift, In Case You Didn’t Know by Brett Young, Cruise by Florida Georgia Line, Die a Happy Man by Thomas Rhett and Rewind by Rascal Flatts?
They were all released on Big Machine Records.
One man is responsible for a genre which I am naming after him. It’s at the intersection point of pop, rock, country and even blues, and which he has monetised to an astronomical level. He even became the story at one point, when his star artist complained about selling on the masters of her recordings.
He is the music business equivalent of someone like Bill Belichick, the football coach who was behind the success of the New England Patriots, or Scott Rudin, the man who produced all the great movies of the last 40 years (The Social Network, Wes Anderson’s movies) and helped bring The Book of Mormon to Broadway. Let us not mention the allegations of very poor behaviour to his staff.
This series, which is also available to listen to here, comes in four parts.
Track 1 Who is Scott Borchetta?
Scott Borchetta grew up around the record business in California. His dad Mike was a plugger for acts on Capitol, Mercury and RCA Records, working with the Beach Boys among others. Given that those three labels had branches in Nashville, it was easy for Mike to move across to Music City in the late 1970s, especially because he had separated from Scott’s mum.
In a 2011 essay for the New York Times, Scott described how college ‘was not for me’ and ‘I was looking for a way out’ from playing in rock bands in LA. He visited his dad in Nashville and was briefly the bassist in a country band (‘almost as a dare’) before quitting because they were ‘going nowhere’. In the daytime he was a mailroom boy at his dad’s company, while coming up against club owners ‘who didn’t know the music business’.
Mary Tyler Moore had set up her own label, MTM Records, and Scott worked there for three years in the late 1980s. Like his dad he hopped between labels, working with Universal, MCA and DreamWorks. Scott tells his story in a Youtube video interview in conversation for the 2018 Canadian Music Week. At MCA Nashville ‘we did a billion dollars’ breaking acts like Vince Gill and working with ‘edgier’ acts like Marty Stuart, kd lang and Dwight Yoakam. At DreamWorks, he helped Randy Travis have some hit records.
Ultimately Scott grew ‘too involved in the creative process’ for some executives and was frustrated with the egotism of the discrete parts of a record company: ‘This executive can’t talk to you about publishing because they’re in marketing.’ Scott pats himself on the back for doing the grunt work on the road while his bosses stayed in the office: ‘You have to be on the street and see what moves people,’ he notes sagely.
Thus in 2005, following his dad’s example again, Scott went solo, with help from the money and influence of Toby Keith. He met the teenage Taylor Swift in 2004, having opened her demo package and having seen her at the Bluebird Café, ‘just completely knocked out at how smart she was at 15’ and how good the songs were.
She had a development deal with RCA but Scott convinced Taylor (‘the Michaelangelo of the era’) to sign with him a year later, after he had left Universal and set up his own label. He heard hit single potential in her song Picture To Burn, which made the tracklist of her debut album.
Alongside Taylor he took Danielle Peck with him after she was dropped from DreamWorks. She had three country hits including I Don’t and Findin’ A Good Man. The former is a power ballad produced by Tim McGraw’s longtime producer Byron Gallimore, who surrounds her twanging voice with middle of the dirt road acoustic-pop country. The latter is a tempo track with some insistent riffs, which had an accompanying music video that is very much within the mid-2000s style of hot girls and guys in a bar. The line ‘if you hear me, girls, raise your hand’ positions her in the Gretchen Wilson mould, because that was making a lot of money in around 2004.
Track 2 The Big Machine Cranks Into Gear
As Scott was developing teenage Taylor, he worked Jack Ingram at radio. Jack had put out six albums while touring the bars of Texas and was able to come to market in Nashville with a live greatest hits set which included a studio version of a new song called Wherever You Are. The music video makes clear that it’s a driving song because Jack is either in or leaning on a car while complaining that ‘I’m missing you’ as the desert wind blows. It’s the sort of alt-rock that made the charts in 2000, now pushed to a country audience. It worked, and the song was a number one in May 2006.
The charts that summer included songs by Jason Aldean (Why), Rodney Atkins (If You’re Going Through Hell), Brad Paisley (The World), Kenny Chesney (six-week number one Summertime), Dierks Bentley (Settle For a Slowdown) and, intriguingly, a version of Who Says You Can’t Go Home by Bon Jovi featuring Jennifer Nettles, whose band Sugarland would one day sign to Big Machine. The Wreckers had a smash with Leave The Pieces; they were a duo featuring one of those alt-rock acts from around 2000, Michelle Branch. Carrie Underwood was preparing her smash hit Before He Cheats, and Scott was preparing to launch his own Carrie. He also worked with Trisha Yearwood, Sunny Sweeney and Jewel.
I remember being up at Edinburgh in my second-year flat and hearing Our Song being played on the radio as the current country music number one. Our Song, Taylor’s ode to ‘riding shotgun in the front seat’ of her beau’s car, topped the chart over Christmas 2006 into January 2007. It is a 100% Swift tune, with music and lyrics by her. It followed the ballads Tim McGraw and Teardrops On My Guitar onto the radio and persuaded kids to listen to her debut album, which came out to little fanfare in October 2006.
Quite incredibly, it would sell so well that it made the top 20 of the US Country Album chart’s end-year list in 2007 (number three behind Carrie Underwood and Rascal Flatts), 2008 (second only to the Eagles comeback album), 2009 (number six, when her follow-up LP Fearless was number one) and 2010, when it was still in the top 20 bestsellers. It is a measure of her success that Speak Now finished third after being released in late October, while Fearless was beaten only by Lady Antebellum’s Need You Now.
In 2007 and 2008 Taylor was not yet starry enough to headline her own shows, so in country music style she went out on the road with several A-Listers; first Rascal Flatts, then George Strait (the most successful singer on radio in recorded music), Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley and Tim McGraw/Faith Hill. Nobody could escape Taylor and, by 2009, she was entrusted with her own tour, where Justin Bieber played eight songs as an opening act.
How many executives would allow their star signing to write their third album with no outside help? Scott Borchetta allowed Taylor to produce Speak Now, which was rolled out with six singles to country radio in a period of eighteen months. Only Garth Brooks and Shania Twain could do something similar before her, although Luke Bryan and Luke Combs would also get lots of success from a single album.
Speak Now went platinum in its first week, debuting right at the top of the Billboard album chart in a very good year for country music. New albums by Zac Brown Band, Toby Keith, Kenny Chesney and Lady Antebellum did well in an era dominated by Eminem, the cast of Glee and, incredibly, Susan Boyle. Propelled by the Grammy nominations, Speak Now returned to the top of the charts for the four weeks at the start of 2011, and it must have impressed secret indie kid Taylor that cult band Cake knocked her off the top.
The fact that Kanye West, another act with a chart-topping album, had interrupted her MTV Video Awards acceptance speech in September 2009 was also useful at getting her name out to the general public. All the same, he was right about Single Ladies being a more memorable video than You Belong With Me.
The setlist for her Fearless and Speak Now tours between 2009 and 2012 was already a Greatest Hits set: You Belong With Me, The Story Of Us, Mean, Our Song, Teardrops on My Guitar, Love Story, White Horse, Fifteen, Fearless, Picture To Burn and Should’ve Said No all featured, as did interpolations of songs by One Republic, Train and Jason Mraz, all of which were played alongside Taylor’s tunes on pop radio. This was all the more fascinating because Taylor was still a country act first and foremost, though those days were soon to finish.
Part Two takes us through the pop career of Taylor Swift and the acts who replace her on country radio, including Justin Moore and Thomas Rhett, who are pushed by Scott.