Indie Labels Hit Country Music

The news that country singer Garth Brooks has just dethroned Elvis as the best-selling solo artist in history should come as no surprise: turn on the radio and you'll hear country artists on the pop stations. "Carnival Ride," the latest album from "American Idol" alum Carrie Underwood hit No. 1 on the country charts—as well as the Billboard Top 200. And little Reba McEntire kicked Kanye West right out of the top spot there last month. There is no doubt that country is hotter than a pepper sprout—but it's also, apparently, very hip. Independent labels in rock and pop music from Seattle to Boston have always had a certain amount of DIY cachet. Now it's country's turn to declare its independents, and the little guys are already starting to look like Goliath-killers. The American Association of Independent Music reports that indies now make up a hefty 30 percent of the music sector, which is larger than the share of any one of the majors, and at the Country Music Awards last week, four of the five nominees for the Horizon Award (best new artist, essentially) were on independent labels, something that wouldn't have happened just a few years ago. The winner, 17-year-old Taylor Swift, is signed to Big Machine Records, run by former MCA and Dreamworks vet Scott Borchetta.

Borchetta is from Southern California, not Nashville, and even after living in Music City for more than 20 years he still considers himself an "outsider." But he is very much in, thanks to a long history as a promotions executive helping artists like McEntire, Trisha Yearwood and Toby Keith reach superstar status. (It must be in his DNA, as his father, Mike Borchetta, worked in pop music at labels like Capitol and Mercury in the '60s and runs Lofton Creek Records, another hot Nashville indie, which really must make for some interesting Thanksgiving dinners.) Big Machine, which is distributed by Universal, had its first No. 1 hit only eight months after opening its doors in 2005, with singer Jack Ingram, who hadn't been able to break through on any other labels. Next came Swift, who is country music's answer to Avril Lavigne and is up for the award for favorite female country artist at the American Music Awards on Sunday. Her debut has sold over a million copies and spent eight consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the country charts. She even writes her own songs.

Yearwood, also known as Mrs. Garth Brooks, has known Borchetta from the neighborhood for years (he helped launch her debut single "She's in Love With the Boy" to the top of the charts in 1991), but it wasn't just goodwill that made her sign on the dotted line. "I have a lot of good friends who aren't necessarily good at what they do," says Yearwood, "but the reason that I chose to work with him is that he's very focused, and the things that he believes in he will die for." That bulldog in the record shop is in keeping with the indie spirit, and it's that attitude—as well as a more collaborative partnership in which the artist is seen as more than just a product on the big, corporate conveyer belt—that appeals to artists, whether they are established stars like Yearwood or up-and-comers like Swift.

And as much as Big Machine uses 21st-century marketing tactics—Swift's massive and age-appropriate MySpace presence, for example—it's also employing an old-school technique now relegated to tales of the days of yore: artist development. This strategy was in place back in the day, when artists like Fleetwood Mac were given years to grow as a band, but, as Yearwood says, "now, if your first single doesn't go to No. 1, they drop you … Also, with the advent of shows like 'American Idol' you're famous before you have a single out. That's enormous pressure." Borchetta's business plans are for an unusually long 18 months, so instead of the artist being on her own the day after their record drops, he makes sure she knows that he—and his staff of 15—has her back. "Everybody knows that they have rope here and I let them run," says Borchetta. "But I tell them when they have about 10 feet of rope left."

Yearwood had her pick of labels after her 16-year contract with MCA was up earlier this year, but it's Big Machine that's releasing her new album, "Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love," this week. "When I signed with MCA back in 1991, the word independent was not a positive word," says Yearwood. "If you were on an independent label you really had a hard road ahead of you. You didn't have the marketing, the promotion, and the money to compete with the big boys."

Other indies have also hit it big in Nashville: Curb, home to LeAnn Rimes, and Clint Black's Equity Music Group, which boasts platinum-selling Little Big Town, among them. Two more Nashville indies were announced this week, including John Michael Montgomery's Stringtown Records, but it's Big Machine that is clearly out ahead. Just two weeks ago Big Machine announced the launch of a sister imprint, the Valory Music Co. (The name is a variation on June Carter Cash's first name, Valerie, just spelled a little … manlier.)

One of Valory's first artists is Jewel, the 30-million-album-selling pop songstress, who says she has waited years for the chance to put out a country album. But don't think she's just being trendy, or that it's all those years of living with her rodeo-cowboy boyfriend, Ty Murray, in Texas that have rubbed off. Jewel has always been more than a little bit country; while she was growing up on a homestead in Alaska without running water or electricity, she was singing and playing country music. "We never bought groceries except for sugar and salt," she says. "It was all gardening and vegetables and canning and jamming. In the pop world, I really had to quit talking about my childhood, because they didn't understand any of it," says Jewel. "They'd be like, 'Was it a hippie commune?'" But in the country world the same stories could make for the perfect hit song.

In fact, the very themes in the songs of country music—hard-luck living, risk-taking, love, and blind faith—are often the same attributes needed in the business of country music. Jewel recognizes the risk of turning down lucrative direct-distribution deals from Wal-Mart, Starbucks and Target. "I took a gamble. I went for the long-term thing and took a risk on it," she says. "Only time will tell if I was foolish or not. But as far as any of the labels go, Scott's was the one that I was most excited about. We're both hungry and trying to make this work." Her new album was recorded over two days in Nashville and will be released in June next year. And just how deep are those country roots? "Some of these I wrote when I was 16," she says of the songs. "Old cowboy waltz music that has yodeling in it."

While each new week brings either alarm ("the death of the record industry!") or the next "new" business model (like Madonna's $120 million deal with Live Nation or Radiohead's pay-what-you-feel strategy), the only the real constant in all of this is that there isn't one. Borchetta knows it sounds earnest, or, in his words, a bit "Pollyanna," but what's working for him in the business of independent music is the same skill needed in music in general. "If you listen," Borchetta says, "people will tell you exactly what they want—whether it's a business relationship or a consumer relationship. It's pretty obvious when somebody likes one of our songs or they don't."