When Big Machine Records hit the scene in 2005, founder Scott Borchetta was a renegade. He intended for Big Machine to be bold and disruptive in the record label world.
And he succeeded. In more ways than one.
Not even considering Taylor Swift’s massive success and influence in the modern country world, Big Machine disrupted the common notion of what an independent label could be. What started out ironically small grew into a music industry monster befitting of its name.
But in 2014, Big Machine made a move bold even by Borchetta’s standards. They partnered directly with a network of radio stations.
The Nash Icon Experiment
In May 2014, Big Machine Label Group partnered with radio giant Cumulus Media to form the Nash Icon label imprint. The idea came from a great sentiment: legacy artists like Reba McEntire and Martina McBride shouldn’t have to compete with new acts for radio play.
“These artists have already done it and had the highest highs, and we were able to create a different game board where they don’t have to try to compete with the 20-year-olds,” Borchetta told Billboard last year.
Borchetta uses McEntire as an example. “She wasn’t going to make records anymore!” he says. “So for us to be able to say, ‘We’ve created a lane where your fan base and your peer group is,’ it’s so liberating. They’re having so much fun doing that and not having to worry about, ‘Am I going to fall out of the top 30 this week?'”
It’s a noble concept. But does it hold up?
What It Really Means
The partnership essentially means a Nash Icon artist automatically gets radio play. The lines between labels and radio were always fuzzy, but that’s a dangerous concept, regardless of the iconic status of an artist.
Borchetta openly lobbies for stronger connections between radios and labels. But given the already limited amount of music on major labels and large indies, such a relationship further threatens the growth of the overall industry.
The Nash Icon network spans 35 radio stations in mostly large markets. Despite the rise of streaming, radio is still hugely important in the country and pop worlds. Having music in 35 markets positions those legacy artists for better tours. But the partnership also ruffled some feathers in the radio world, and Nash Icon artist Ronnie Dunn hinted at that hidden dynamic in a recent interview.
As Billboard notes, “While there would be the certainty of airplay on Cumulus’ Nash Icon-branded stations, airplay elsewhere was less certain since programmers at some competing chains think spinning a song from that label is akin to putting money in the pocket of a radio rival.”
Radio stations survive by building a following, just like artists. The Nash Icon partnership is kind of like an artist promising to always include at least one song by a certain songwriter on every record they release, regardless of the quality or fit.
Addressing a Problem It Created
Ultimately, Big Machine and the current data-heavy approach to music promotion created the problem Nash Icon attempted to address. And that is, labels with lots of resources decide what is popular by using data they kind of created in the first place.
In other words, while incentivizing Florida Georgia Line’s continued success, Big Machine created and sustained an audience that had significantly less interest in hearing Reba in between the millionth spin of “Cruise.”
Here’s a quick (and entertaining) video further explaining how saturating the radio stations with a song eventually creates demand.
But is Florida Georgia Line’s fan base actively larger than Reba’s? Not even close. So why is it so hard to get Reba (or any other legendary country artist) on the radio?
Lord knows it isn’t talent.
In today’s music economy, everybody acknowledges the importance of data. It’s the first thing even Borchetta can get on board with when it comes to streaming. He and Swift famously went to war with the “free” platform Spotify offers. And they’re not wrong; free streaming is doomed. But subscription streaming is the future of the industry. Why?
Because it creates instantaneously accessible data about who listeners are, where they are and what they’re listening to most. Speaking at the RAIN Summit in Nashville, Borchetta said he “can’t get enough data.” He also said it probably saved the label $1 million in identifying “underperforming” songs and artists.
Meaning they judge a song and an artist by their Spotify and Apple Music statistics. They then decide what to pay to promote at radio based off those metrics, and in some cases, which artists to axe from their roster.
And who uses streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music? The young’uns. The 13-24 age range represents a whopping 47% of all Spotify users in 2015. You know whose fans also fall in that category? Florida Georgia Line. Meanwhile, the 18-24 age range represents less than 13% of radio listeners.
But Spotify still represents a very small portion of the listening public. People didn’t just stop liking Reba. Poor charting performance doesn’t indicate an artist’s success in the market, it indicates a label’s willingness to invest in it.
Oh, and a vast number of streaming users discover content through playlists. Who curates some of the most popular playlists? Major labels.
It’s a classic case of the tail wagging the dog. The music-consuming world has never wanted more variety, yet mainstream radio has never offered fewer songs. While Borchetta probably really loves the classic artists he’s signed to Nash Icon, the deal sure comes across more as positioning his label for further power at radio.
There are a million bits and pieces to examine. It’s impossible to really analyze the problem in one sitting.
But the Nash Icon experiment, at its heart, represents a dangerous premise: intertwining labels and radio even more. It’s a power play that, in effort to adapt to the market and save the labels, monopolizes the industry further.
And if the free market has taught us anything, it’s that the biggest loser in a monopoly is the consumer.