Ka-ching With Twang – Scott Borchetta Country, Part Four

In the first two parts, I introduced Scott and the talent he pushed on Big Machine, including Thomas Rhett and Taylor Swift. In the third part, I talked about the variety of acts signed to the group’s labels, including some Legacy Acts. The final part deals with the sale of Big Machine and where the label stands in 2021…

Track 7 Big Machine Today

2021 saw the release of the third album by an act who opened up for Lady A in 2019. Carly Pearce got her start singing Dolly Parton songs at Dollywood and her 29: Written In Stone project has moved her from a so-so artist to a big hitter. Every Little Thing was her first number one in 2017, and in 2019 she took a Luke Combs co-write I Hope You’re Happy Now to the top.

Also in 2021, Big Machine had three successive number ones at radio: Thomas Rhett’s What’s Your Country Song, which hopped on the trend that saw songs name other songtitles to form a new song; Lady by Brett Young, a song dedicated to his daughter and his wife in equal measure; and Long Live, a Florida Georgia Line song by numbers. TR’s album Country Again, like Lady A’s new album, has been delivered in two parts, as Big Machine realise fans like lots of music in bursts rather than waiting too long for them as a full album.

Oddly, for C2C 2022, only Brett Young is on Big Machine of the acts announced for the main stage. Teenage act Callista Clark will, however, play the B-stage in London on the Saturday, so I expect she’ll press flesh and do a lot of gigs onsite for her first C2C. She was born in 2003, the year before Taylor Swift sent her demo to Scott Borchetta, and her song It’s Cause I Am has spent most of 2021 in the Country Airplay chart (as I write this the song is at 25).   

Among current label employees is Flo Myerscough-Harris, daughter of DJ Bob. She works as a Label Assistant in Big Machine’s UK base. It was underreported that Hybe bought the holding company that runs Big Machine in April 2021. Talking business means I must rehearse the argument between Scott and Taylor Swift back in 2019, headlined ‘Let the games begin!’ by Rolling Stone who reported on the feud.

That holding company, Ithaca, was owned by Scooter Braun, the manager of Justin Bieber and Dan + Shay, which is why 10,000 Hours was not as surprising a collaboration as you’d think. In November 2018, Taylor Swift became a free agent after 13 years and six albums with Scott Borchetta, opting for Republic Records who are now helping her re-record those six albums. Following Fearless earlier this year, 1989 comes out in November. This was the album that won Album of the Year at the GRAMMY Awards, her first proper pop album which was mostly a collaboration with Max Martin and Shellback. We’ve already heard the new version of Wildest Dreams which isn’t wildly different from the original but fans are encouraged to listen to that new version.

Scott was forced to defend himself on the Big Machine website with a blogpost in which he confirmed that his offer to extend the deal in 2018 was ‘extraordinary…She chose to leave’. In June 2019, Ithaca bought Big Machine and thus the masters, which means today Taylor Swift’s masters are owned by the guys who run BTS’s career.

As for Big Machine themselves? Their big priorities include the aforementioned Callista Clark, while Bob Harris has been playing tunes by Laci Kaye Booth, former oilfield worker Heath Sanders (basically Luke Combs) and the long-haired ‘retro contemporary’ Brock Gonyea in recent months, who reminds me of former Big Machine act Drake White, another casualty of the Dot Records shuttering. Drake was perhaps a few years ahead of his time. He’d fit right in with Riley Green, whose soppy songs like I Wish Grandpas Never Died and tempo tracks like There Was This Girl are Luke Combs pastiches. Tyler Rich, meanwhile, is Brett Young with a different face.

Realising there needs to be at least one non-white act on the label, Scott has signed the excellent Tiera and the teenage country poppet Kidd G, whose debut album Down Home Boys seems to be targeted at 14-25-year-olds attracted to digital drum loops, as appear on the title track. It is a deal with many hands, including Florida-based Rebel Music and Geffen, the same label that brought the world Olivia Rodrigo. ‘Kidd is a Southern boy who will blur and ultimately stretch format lines,’ gushed Scott on Big Machine’s involvement. Expect to hear Kidd’s music on country radio alongside the likes of 7500 OBO by Tim McGraw – who has returned to Big Machine after a difficult year elsewhere – and the terrific waltz Sunrise Tells The Story by Midland.

Irritatingly for Big Machine, their other teen-targeted band Avenue Beat are bringing out their debut farewell album on October 15, announcing their split before it has even been released. They are best known for F2020, where they complain about the pandemic in a poppy way.

On the Big Machine website, there is a page titled Music Has Value which sends users to the charity arm of the label. Fifteen grants of $10,000 are to be given to people who want a start in the music industry ‘in both rural and urban areas’. One of those went to United Sound, which helps music education for special needs students. I suppose when you have made millions you have to give some of them away.

Scott Borchetta remains one of the most impressive executives in Music City. I am sure when he writes his memoir it will be full of stories which place him side by side with Taylor Swift, the artist who succeeded as music became digital rather than physical. His role as CEO of Big Machine is as much a sinecure as anything else, a position of grandeur which means he can add his expertise as a sort of hyperconsultant. Thomas Rhett is the homegrown star while Tim McGraw and Lady A (as they are now called) are acts who make music that sounds eerily close to their greatest hits.

That, after all, is where the money is made these days: not the recordings, but the performance. Now that the people behind K-Pop ultimately own Nashville’s country stars, expect some terrific music as Music City opens itself up to the world. Scott, of course, is delighted that he still has new worlds to conquer.

You can listen to all four parts in one place here.

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