It’s been a little over a week since it was announced that supermanager Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings would be buying Big Machine Label Group — and Taylor Swift’s masters — thus launching a war of words between Big Machine president Scott Borchetta and the superstar artist that made his label. But Music Row and country music in general are wondering about something more than just who is winning the PR battle: and that’s what the presence of Braun will mean to Nashville and the future of Big Machine itself.
Outside of the sure-bet, insular universe that is Taylor Swift, Big Machine has traditionally only broken artists with the support of country radio — Midland, Carly Pearce, Riley Green, among them. To be fair, that’s not a notable or remarkable pattern for any company within the Nashville ecosystem. Rather, for better or worse, it’s business as usual. But putting all the eggs in radio’s basket is also an approach that has left past Big Machine artists like Drake White and Lauren Jenkins floundering and, in White’s case, without a label home.
There’s no debating that Big Machine has an ear for left-of-center artists, signing the likes of White, Jenkins, trad-country singer Alex Williams, Louisiana songwriter Dan Smalley, and Nashville rock trio the Cadillac Three when other labels might be skittish, but it’s stalled when it comes to effectively fostering their careers. Might Braun be able to help unlock other mechanisms for success?
“Traditionally Big Machine has put its primary focus on success at country radio,” an industry insider tells Rolling Stone Country. “If they can’t make an act work at radio, they tend to lose enthusiasm. I can hope that [Braun] has more risk tolerance at radio or that his platform will open the field and let [artists] try to participate in genres other than mainstream country.”
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Braun is no a stranger to Nashville. His management firm SB Projects represents Dan + Shay and Zac Brown Band, and reportedly has been in partnerships with powerhouse Music Row management firms Sandbox and Morris Higham. For some currently signed to Big Machine, the new ownership carries promise. “[Braun] has always had his eyes on Nashville and is always looking for places to disrupt and elevate,” says Matt Graham, president of BRND MGMT and manager to Midland. “I think country has been a [genre] that he has seen that he can help bridge the gap.”
Nashville has been slow to branch out into avenues that are now second nature for pop artists, and its promotional patterns are standard and predictable: release a single, do radio promo, drop the album (granted the single doesn’t tank), tour, repeat. Braun’s clients, like Ariana Grande and Kanye West, couldn’t exist further from the conveyor belt of a Nashville release. Cross-promotion between artists, heavy online campaigns, streaming, and surprise album drops are commonplace, as are partnerships beyond the United States, leaving many to wonder if Braun will bring this approach to Big Machine and help transition artists out of the status quo. “To have someone as in-the-know as Scooter only helps Nashville artists join more conversations,” says another Nashville insider. “I think that this means more synergy with all genres.”
Midland’s manager hopes that it will bring a freedom to pursue more interdisciplinary projects. “I think everyone in Nashville should be excited about his increased presence in the town and the resources that he brings. And that’s not just financial. It’s creative resources, relationships with film and TV studios, content studios, and with international buyers, opening up markets like China and Korea,” says Graham. “Scooter has done insane big business all over the globe, and his relationships span all over the globe, and that is a big, big leg up.” Braun’s influence has already been felt by Dan + Shay, who managed a pop crossover hit with “Tequila.”
Still, it’s too soon to gauge what specific plans Braun — who has yet to comment publicly on the deal — may have for Big Machine and its current roster. The consensus in Nashville seems to be one of wait and see. “It’s too early to tell, but you don’t invest that kind of capital without a long-term plan for profitability,” says one source.
But for those who fear that Braun might try to intentionally skew country artists away from a more “traditional” sound, Thirty Tigers/Triple Tigers owner David Macias isn’t so sure. It’s more about the bottom line than any sort of “pop agenda,” he thinks.
“My guess is that they are not necessarily coming in with any other agenda,” says Macias. “I feel like with the success of people like Luke Combs and Chris Stapleton and the reemergence of Scotty McCreery there is this slight tilt back towards a little less of the pop sound, and a little more of an organic one. Those supersede Scooter Braun’s power to tilt the market one way or another. He’s too astute of a business person to try to sonically change the landscape, and try to do anything other than read the tea leaves.”
But if more allegiances are made between Big Machine artists and the pop/rock world, it also shouldn’t entirely come as a surprise. “Borchetta is very ambitious,” says John Strohm, president of Rounder Records. “His tastes are not limited to country. He’s a rock guy. And if an artist signs with a major Music Row or big independent like Big Machine, they have to realize what they are signing up for. Which is a company that is going to try to take a shot at the mainstream. They aren’t trying to build a prestige roster.”
Rounder, home to artists like Ruston Kelly and Caroline Spence, is, despite also being an independent label, about as far removed from the Big Machine model as one could get — fostering a country radio hit just isn’t where Strohm is putting his resources. Still, he can recognize the potential benefits of a force like Braun on the industry at large, even if that approach wouldn’t be one he takes with his own artists.
“I like anything that’s going to enrich the Nashville industry,” Strohm says. “The resources that are here benefit all of us.”
[Additional reporting by Joseph Hudak]