By Piya Sinha-Roy
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - New ABC television drama "Nashville" takes inspiration from the city's rich history of country music, yet the brightest star may not be the actors but rather a small record label with big ambitions.
"Nashville," seen by some nine million U.S. viewers on its Wednesday night debut, shows veteran country singer Rayna Jaymes (played by Connie Britton) face off against young starlet rival Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere) as she struggles to keep her career together.
But another insight into the industry comes from the show's partnership with one of Nashville's independent success stories.
For Big Machine Records, which landed on the map seven years ago after signing a 15-year-old Taylor Swift as its first artist, "Nashville" presented a rare opportunity for the company to not only distribute the music from the TV series, but to also become part of the fabric of the plot.
The label, which also represents country music stars including Tim McGraw and Rascal Flatts, will exclusively release music sung by cast members in the show each week.
Big Machine Records artists such as rising star Justin Moore will also see some of their songs and performances featured throughout the series.
Scott Borchetta, 50, a former DreamWorks Records executive, who founded Big Machine Records in 2005, said Swift's success gave the label "extraordinary license" to expand into new opportunities.
"Because of the success of Taylor and the momentum of the label and bringing on Rascal Flatts, Tim McGraw, Reba McEntire, and also breaking artists like The Band Perry, we're really fortunate right now. There's not really anywhere that we can't at least get in the door and have a conversation," Borchetta told Reuters in an interview this week.
BEG, BORROW, STEAL
Borchetta said the biggest challenge he came across with his fledgling company was trying to get a foot in the door of an already over-saturated industry.
"We had to go beg, borrow and steal every opportunity and those were the times we couldn't get the door open so we had to kick it down or we had to sneak in the window," he said.
"(Taylor and I) showed up at red carpets we weren't invited to. We were not going to be stopped."
Since then, Swift, now 22, has gone on to sell more than 20 million albums worldwide and won six Grammy awards. Country music is also booming, accounting for 42.9 million albums sold in the U.S. in 2011 - a year which saw Lady Antebellum as the biggest selling band across all genres in the U.S. music industry, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Big Machine Records' collaboration with "Nashville" allowed Borchetta to expand the company across a new, visual platform. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.
"You take the craziest parts of the old TV show 'Dallas' and smash it into the Nashville record industry, and you've got this show that might just end up being a huge hit," Borchetta said.
The label executive added that he didn't have high expectations for "Nashville" when he first was presented with the opportunity, but he soon spotted a chance for the label to make its screen debut.
"I love the ability to weave and intersect what's happening right now today on the ground into the TV show," Borchetta said.
Unlike music-rich TV programs such as "Glee" or "Smash," which feature celebrities in cameo or guest-starring roles, "Nashville" producer R.J. Cutler said his show uses genuine country music artists to serve the story.
"It's not a cameo-driven show...those are real Nashville musicians who are greatly respected there and known to people who know about country music," Cutler told TV reporters while promoting the show in August.
Borchetta said he hoped the partnership would help his label grow even more in the industry.
"It could be the biggest hit from the last several years for ABC, or we could be done in six episodes, and that's exciting because we have a chance to help make it a hit," he said.
"This is our first chance to really do it on a big stage so I hope we don't screw it up."
"Nashville" is a co-production between Walt Disney Co's ABC Studios and Lionsgate Television.
(Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy, editing by Jill Serjeant and Carol Bishopric)