Q&A: The starmaker-mentor at ‘American Idol’ shines light on what it takes to succeed after the lights go down

Scott Borchetta, the in-house mentor for "American Idol" and founder of Big Machine Records, talks with contestants Sonika Vaid, left, and La'Porsha Renae, right, at the end of a dress rehearsal for the show at CBS Television City in Hollywood, on March 24, 2016. This is the last year of the landmark series. (Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

Scott Borchetta, the in-house mentor for “American Idol” and founder of Big Machine Records, talks with contestants Sonika Vaid, left, and La’Porsha Renae, right, at the end of a dress rehearsal for the show at CBS Television City in Hollywood, on March 24, 2016. This is the last year of the landmark series. (Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

After “American Idol” names its latest victor on Thursday, the lights will dim on the Fox singing-competition series that broke ground in television and music. Debuting in 2002, it launched multiplatinum stars such as Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Adam Lambert and Chris Daughtry.

But as the landmark series bids farewell, the work will really have just began for Scott Borchetta.

COMPLETE COVERAGE: Saying farewell to the competition show that changed television

For two seasons, the founder of Big Machine Records (home to Taylor Swift and Tim McGraw) has served as “Idol’s” in-house mentor. Borchetta has nurtured the finalists and overseen the launch of the show’s eventual winner on his label thanks to a partnership with 19 Entertainment and Universal Music Group.

During a weeklong visit to “Idol” headquarters at CBS Television City in Los Angeles, The Times sat down with Borchetta in his office to talk winner’s strategy and the influence of singing competitions.


“Idol” has had numerous label partners and mentors. Why did you want to come aboard, and how have you approached the role?

[Big Machine] worked with Cassadee Pope and Danielle Bradbery off of “The Voice,” and we weren’t allowed to even meet them until after they won. And I thought, “What a mistake, if only I could get in there and work with them [early] and really start observing who has what talents.” I wanted to make a difference and help the contestants understand what these shows are.

They don’t anoint you a career; they anoint you an opportunity to have one. This amazing ride called “American Idol,” this year it ends. On April 7 and on April 8 you better be prepared to get up and go back to work because there’s not going to be anybody knocking on your door telling you it’s time to get up and rehearse.

For years the criticism has been that “Idol” is no longer a star maker. How do you respond to that?

Your question is, really, can you properly develop someone within four to six months — and you can’t. This show is screening tens of thousands of kids so there’s a huge A&R job being done. But when you get down to the importance of what this show is, well over 50% of the Top 10 have gone on to have a career in music, TV, film or Broadway. They have gone on to have careers. Why haven’t the other shows done that?

If you look at “The Voice,” it’s been great for Blake [Shelton] and for Adam [Levine] and the other judges — Gwen [Stefani just had] a No. 1 album — but the focus of “Idol” has always been on the next “American Idol.” It’s a different approach from these other shows. If you look at Cassadee Pope [who won “The Voice” in 2012], we have a huge hit, and that’s three years in the making.

Cassadee Pope is a good example of the disconnect that can happen between winning one of these shows and attempting to find success after.

Yeah, she didn’t have all of this [like “Idol”]. She didn’t have the big platform around her to help her, to style her, to do all of those things. She wasn’t ready. When she won “The Voice,” she was great. [But] she wasn’t great outside of “The Voice,” and now she is. But it took years. Cassadee is an extremely hard worker and has a great attitude, and she’s been pounding it, and we haven’t given an inch. It just took this long for her to really find herself. We can arm you with the greatest songs out there, we can make you look like a superstar, and that’s what was missing to me. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to be on the ground.

How have you been preparing to launch the show’s final winner?

I try to be available as much as I can. We headquarter here. It’s better for me too. I’m a hands-on label head, very much involved from zero to delivering the record. We come into this the same way we go into signing any artist. My head of A&R is here more often than not. My head of publicity is here more often than not. We have our digital teams in play. I’m signing one of these people, I want to make sure we give that contestant every chance to understand what their life will look like after “American Idol,” what the work is going to be and how awesome it is to be able to do this for a living.

Do you already have a strategy in place?

Oh, yeah. We are going to premiere whatever singles for the top three, and that will be the first single we work. [Last season’s winner Nick Fradiani’s coronation song] “Beautiful Life” was a Top 20 record at Hot AC, and that’s the most successful single since Phillip Phillips’ “Home,” and we intend to do even better this time. I think without the [annual “Idol”] tour this year, we’ll be able to go right to work. It will give us the chance to go right into the studio.


‘American Idol: Series Finale’

Where: Fox

When: 8 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children, with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)


Who is the best ‘American Idol’?

Kelly Clarkson is still making ‘American Idol’ history

A behind-the-scenes peek as ‘American Idol’ tunes up for its final bow

The end of ‘American Idol’ ripples through pop music, affecting artists, musicians and even the judges