Scott Borchetta’s no stranger to handpicking hitmakers — Taylor Swift, case in point — so when it came to selecting which singing competition to adorn with his million-dollar touch, it was a pretty easy choice: go with the one that gives birth to stars. The president and CEO of Big Machine Label Group will join American Idol as the contestants’ mentor for Season 14, which debuted last week on Fox, and he’s pretty certain he’s going to help judge triad Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban and Harry Connick, Jr. find the next Carrie Underwood.
“American Idol is the only show with so many platinum artists and careers,” Borchetta told Rolling Stone Country before the American Country Countdown Awards, where he wore a solid black suit with “Music Has Value” handwritten on it in big block letters. “And that’s not disrespecting other shows, that’s just a fact.”
Borchetta’s not wrong. Despite sinking ratings, American Idol is still the only current televised musical competition to actually spur major stars: even though the last two winners (rocker Caleb Johnson and R&B belter Candice Glover) failed to resonate after they dusted off the finale’s confetti, Underwood, Scotty McCreery, Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson, Jordin Sparks and Chris Daughtry are all proof that the show’s formula does work. The Voice has seen momentum from Cassadee Pope and Danielle Bradbury (who are both, coincidentally, signed to Borchetta’s label), but Javier Colon? Tessanne Chin? Crickets. Those red chairs may turn viewers, but they don’t forecast platinum albums.
With the addition of Urban in Season 12 and now Borchetta, one of Nashville’s best eyes for chart-climbing talent, maybe it’s proof that American Idol is betting on one thing for sure: country wins. It’s certainly been true for The Voice, as its twangy champions have been the only ones to score any significant traction, and is undoubtedly the case for Idol. Underwood, McCreery and Kellie Pickler have all released gold or platinum records, and Clarkson’s Jason Aldean collaboration, “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” was nominated for a Grammy.
Borchetta, who won’t be seen on Idol until February, is eager to help develop the show’s next Grammy-worthy act. “I just want to get in there because it’s what do I every day,” he says. “And the ability for us to work with them now until the show is over instead of, ‘OK, here’s the winner, now do your best,’ is really a chance to get behind the scenes and help identify [talent] and make sure they are ready for what the rest of their life could look like.”
Since the departure of the V-necked wonder, Simon Cowell, American Idol‘s best (and most critical) moments were always when Jimmy Iovine, co-founder of Interscope Records, gave his opinion on the performances. What made Cowell work, beyond his entertainingly acid tongue, was that his views were actually from a label executive — when he said Underwood might be the most successful Idol star if she took the crown, the audience actually believed him. The same words from the man responsible for Swift and rising acts like Maddie & Tae could do wonders to motivate voters and, most importantly, viewers. “You need some element of people that actually sign artists in there,” Borchetta agrees.
Will he ever make the jump from mentor to judge? “I don’t know,” he says. “Let’s take it one season at a time. I don’t want to be in a situation where I can’t be truthful. Next question?”
More proof that the Idol execs are hoping for a country star: the winner will not only receive guidance from Borchetta, but also a deal with Big Machine, in partnership with 19 Entertainment and Universal Music Group.
Whatever the genre, time will tell if Borchetta ultimately lets the winning artist stream their music on services like Spotify, from which Swift notoriously plucked her albums with steadfast support from her label head. “All music shouldn’t be free,” he says. “We have to keep screaming that message. It’s not going to be easy, but this is a fixable problem.” Screaming, and writing it on his suits.