Our Exclusive interview with Dani Markman, A&R, Disney Music Group.
By Siri Svay
Dani Markman has A&R’ed at Disney’s Hollywood Records for over 19 years and is an integral part of the label’s success. In this exclusive interview she talks to TLL about her early years, her influences and what she looks for in a new signing. She imparts an enormous amount of knowledge. We don’t normally gush here at TLL but we are truly thrilled to publish these words and hope you enjoy reading it as much as we did.
The Early Years
Tell us about the early years, including where you were born, early childhood memories, and how you got into the entertainment business?
I was born in Framingham, Massachusetts in a musical home. My dad loved to sing but my sister was really the performer. She would write music and perform her songs on guitar and I would sit next to her and make up the harmonies. I intended to be a veterinarian when I went to college, Union College in Schenectady, NY but found myself performing more and more and forming a band that performed around campus. It was a cover band that mostly performed songs by Pat Benatar, Fleetwood Mac and the Pretenders. It wasn’t until after college that I found work singing with the Boston Opera Company and that started me down the path of the entertainment business.
What music did you listen to when you were growing up?
As the youngest of three, I found myself listening to everything my sister and brother listened to so that included a lot of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, America, etc…but I listened to broad range of music beyond what my siblings were into.
Who did you look up to or admire when you were growing up?
Musically? I had really diverse interests. I loved everything from Broadway to Standards. Rock to Folk. I really got into 80s New Wave music for a while and went through my “Desperately Seeking Susan” phase. I really looked up to true artists like Billie Holiday but also phenomenal singer/songwriters like James Taylor and Carole King.
You were an opera singer. When did you first get started in music?
It was really a dare. Although I sang harmonies with my sister, I was painfully shy. I never joined choir or glee club but my junior year in high school some friends decided to audition for the school musical. We all thought it would be fun to sing in the chorus. When the casting sheet got posted, I was the only one in my group of friends to not make the chorus. I was devastated until they pointed out I had one of the starring roles! I was terrified. I had never acted before, let alone sing in front of people. I remember seeing my parents in the front row, my mother with her hand in front of her face, praying I wouldn’t embarrass myself. It wasn’t that she wasn’t supportive, it was because even SHE had never heard me sing before and had no idea what would come out. The only person who had ever heard me sing was my sister. Luckily, it was a successful performance and after that, I was constantly asked to audition and perform. That really was the turning point for me.
How do you like working/living in LA & did you ever worked in any other cities?
I’m definitely an East Coast gal but obviously, Los Angeles is where my work is. I work so much that I don’t really take the time to enjoy what people move to California for. Since I moved here in 1995, I think I’ve only been to the beach about 5 times! When I was singing opera I lived in Boston, Pittsburgh, Miami, New York. I’m still not down with earthquakes. Every time one hits I tell my husband, that’s it, we’re leaving. Of course, I’m still here.
The Disney Years
You have worked with Disney for over 19 years. Tell us how you came to work with the company.
I actually started as a temp. I had just moved here and was looking for work. As it so happens, my sister was also in the music business and friends with the man who became my boss. He had an assistant and an A&R Admin manager working for him. They were both about to go out on maternity leave at the same time and he was desperate. I came in claiming to know everything about unions and administration. Of course I didn’t but I WAS in a singers union and thought I could figure it out. Luckily, the woman I was temping for was a great mentor and extended my assignment long after she returned. I knew that I wanted to do something creative and I couldn’t remain as a temp indefinitely. One day I overheard my boss talking about doing an album of sports songs covered by Mickey Mouse and his friends. The next day I presented him with a list of about 50 potential songs that would work for this compilation. I continued to be proactive about involving myself in creative process and shortly after, they created a position for me.
New generations of Disney Channel have gone and passed. How has Disney changed over the years?
When I started there was no Radio Disney and even the Disney Channel was more of a TV Land. There wasn’t the kind of incredible original programming that they now have. A few Disney Channel Original Movies but nothing of the scale of a High School Musical, or Teen Beach Movie. Music wasn’t really an integral part of the programming. Over the years, we’ve had very musical shows like Hannah Montana and Austin and Ally. Movies like High School Musical or Lemonade Mouth. Animated series like Phineas and Ferb and Sofia the First. Not only are these really strong shows in their own right but have included some really phenomenal music that is quickly becoming a modern Disney classic.
You have a lot of successes, working with some of the biggest names in the business. Can you tell us about some of your most successful works/projects and what success has meant to you?
I suppose it depends on how you qualify success. To me, it is those projects that I’ve felt the most satisfaction on. For sure, one of them would have to be “Nightmare Revisited”. I’ve been a big fan of Danny Elfman’s and “Nightmare Before Christmas” since the film originally released. When the idea came up to revisit each and every track, song AND score cue, it seemed somewhat daunting. The songs were one thing but how could you create a new take on Danny’s absolutely perfect score. The answer was to go to interesting EDM and other instrumental artists like Yoshida Brothers, Rjd2 and Rodrigo y Gabriela. When it came to covering “This is Halloween”, there was only one name I wanted – Marilyn Manson. I thought there was no way I would ever be allowed to put out a Walt Disney Records album with Marilyn on it. However, when he turned in his track, it was undeniable. He was perfect.
You worked on various soundtracks for television and film. How was it working on a myriad of projects for Disney?
It’s all I’ve ever known. One of the things I love most about my job is that it is varied. As someone who has always loved and appreciated different genres of music, there could be no more perfect job! Walt Disney Records, in particular, has always put out an extraordinary volume of music so at any given time, I’m juggling about a dozen simultaneously. In the morning, I could be working on a Disney Junior product, mid-morning a live action soundtrack, early afternoon, an EDM album of Disney remixes, late afternoon an artist album for a Hollywood Records artist. You never know what you’re gonna get blasting out of my office at any given time.
Do you have any TV or Film Projects which really stand out for you, & if yes, tells why?
One of the things we’ve done over the years to help support film projects are our “Inspired by” albums. Generally, when a highly anticipated film releases, we release the accompanying soundtrack. In some cases, we have beautiful score to work with but have found that it would help us to be able to release a song album in support of the film. In the case of Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland”, we reached out to artists and asked them to write and perform songs “inspired by” the story or look and feel of the motion picture. This compilation included 16 wonderful tracks by artists like Avril Lavigne, All American Rejects and Owl City. What stands out for me, though, is that I got to work with one of my musical heroes, Robert Smith of The Cure. However, there were so many moments, like Shinedown’s “Her Name is Alice” or Kerli’s “Tea Party”, that so perfectly embodied the idea of an inspired by album.
How do you distinguish different styles for each project and pick songs/material for the projects?
Often, in the case of an “Inspired by” or “Cover” project, the film really drives the tone and musical style. The Muppets really felt like it needed to be quirky so artists like Weezer, OK Go, Sondre Lerche and Andrew Bird felt right. For “Avengers Assemble”, the Inspired by in support of “The Avengers” film, it felt like it needed to be rock so we went for artists like Shinedown, Rise Against, Papa Roach and Scott Weiland. The story, characters and settings often drive the direction. Obviously, for “Nightmare Revisited” we felt we needed darker sounding artists like Marilyn Manson, Korn and Amy Lee.
What were your favorite projects and why?
Well, I already mentioned “Nightmare Revisited” but I also feel passionate about “Muppets Green Album”. As with “Nightmare”, I’ve long been a fan of the Muppets and their iconic music. I was so excited to have the opportunity to get some of those great compositions covered by artists I’ve long been fans of: OK Go, Weezer, The Fray, My Morning Jacket, etc… When the brilliant composer, Paul Williams, who wrote all those classic Muppet songs we all love, reached out to me to tell me how much he loved the release, it was a humbling and magical experience. Our “Inspired by” albums, however, are not only done to support live action films. One of my favorites was done in support of the Animated Feature Film “The Princess and the Frog”. The music created for the film had this incredible New Orleans vibe composed by one of my favorite writers, Randy Newman. When I went about looking to create an Inspired by project, it was a bit different. This was not a Rock/Alt album. It was about staying true to musical integrity of the movie while creating some new songs that felt they could have been written for the film and the characters. We were not copying Randy’s style but rather, paying homage to it. I was lucky enough to be able to engage all the original talent from the film: Anika Noni Rose (Tiana), Michael Leon-Wooley (Louis), Keith David (Dr. Facilier), etc... I had incredible songwriters screen the film and write unbelievable songs for these characters. This album, “Bayou Boogie”, remains one of my favorites to this day. Of course, any time I get to work in the studio with Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Donald and Daisy, it’s a good day.
Tell us about the A&R Process in general, & please elaborate on your incredible team that you work with!
My job is pretty unique because I do not ONLY work on soundtracks or artist albums. Every project is different and demands different skills and functions to be performed. You’re right, I have an incredible team that I work with. There are almost too many to mention but everyone from my legal team, A&R Administration, Marketing, Sales, Production, Art Department, Publicity – we are all a pretty cohesive team that works closely together. As an example, I can give you the process for working on an artist album. Once we determine what the musical sound and direction will be of the artist, I go about looking for songs and setting up writing sessions with him/her if they are actually writers. I start reaching out to publishers and writers with a brief description of who the artist is, what their sound is, what types of songs fit their personality lyrically, etc… Then I begin the process of weeding through the hundreds of submissions I get before I present to the artist. If the artist passes, I start the process all over again. If there are some that we all agree upon, we do a test vocal to make sure it is a fit. With a new developing artist, this can be a long process until you get a feel for who that person is. Once we find the right songs we can finally go about hiring the producers, mixers and recording the album.
Disney Corp. is a Giant in the entertainment business, please tell us about all the different business units that you work/interact with?
Because of the variety of projects I work on, I constantly interact with quite a few business units: Live Action Film, Feature Animated Film, TV Animation, The Disney Channel, Disney XD, Disney Junior, Disney Worldwide Publishing, Disney Toon Studios, Consumer Products, Disney Interactive, Disney Parks and Resorts, the list goes on and on. Music has always been and continues to be an integral part of Disney’s history so if affects almost all divisions within the company.
How has your music background played a role into your current career?
Because I have always been interested in so many musical styles, I have a pretty strong arsenal of music catalog knowledge from rock, alt, pop, opera, classical, broadway, Disney catalog, etc… It certainly has helped over the years in putting together the many compilations I’ve been responsible for. In addition, because I was a singer, I think I’m pretty in tune about how to get the best vocal performance possible from an artist. At least I hope so.
Who is on the Hollywood Records roster?
It is ever growing but right now and in no particular order: Lucy Hale, R5, Bridgit Mendler, Cole Plante, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, ZZ Ward, Redlight King, Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, Bea Miller, Sabrina Carpenter, Bella Thorne, Zendaya. You can check it out at www.hollywoodrecords.com
Do you and Hollywood Records develop artists?
Yes. Particularly, in the case of some of our Disney Channel artists. Many start out as actors on a television series. They know who their character is and when they perform in their shows, it is about performing in character. Our goal is to help them develop into the musical artists they are meant to be - not necessarily the tv characters they are portrayed as.
As an A&R rep, how do you discover new artists?
It usually begins with a manager reaching out to me or word of mouth. Youtube has become a great place to look for talent. You get a snap shot of how the artist performs, what they sound like and who is following them. IS there interest? Do they have any kind of following? How many views do they have? How many subscribers? Obviously, it is far from the only way but it has become an incredibly useful tool. Are they interesting and unique? With some of our younger talent, we often work synergistically with The Disney Channel and Radio Disney
What do you think an artist needs to stand out to A&R reps like yourself?
That’s really hard to define. It sounds cliché to say that “it” factor but it is really true. There is no end to the number of insanely talented people out there. You can spend just an hour on youtube and wonder how some of these people haven’t become huge stars. I’m not sure if you’re a young artist, that it is enough to JUST be that. It seems like every young talent I meet can sing, dance, act, write…It’s so hard out there now to break through. That said, when you see that spark, you know it. I’ll use Sabrina again as an example. When her manager first approached me, she was this adorable 12 year old girl who created youtube covers with her sister. Yet, there was something really special about the quality of her voice and the honesty of her performance. She didn’t come across as trying to be anyone other than who she was. No one really knew who she was but somehow, 8 million people viewed her videos. It was hard not to take notice of that.
Have you ever mentored any young aspiring performers that you were not able to sign?
Yes. There have been several kids over the years who I believed so strongly in but knew they either weren’t right for Disney or weren’t ready in general yet. There is one in particular, a 9 year old girl, who had the voice and soul of a young Amy Winehouse. She wasn’t putting on an act – that is truly who she is, an old soul. However, I knew that right now, there wasn’t much we could do for a young artist like that. She was writing some of her own music but of course, it came from the life experience of a 9 year old. I used some of my friendships in the industry to put her with some great, nurturing songwriters and producers who could help her grow and hone her skills. I think in the next few years, we’re going to see something really special happen with this young singer. Another kid was 5 or 6 at the time. I was told upon introduction that she had won a very prestigious songwriter competition. I really didn’t believe it until I saw her play her compositions on piano with my own eyes. She was miraculous but I knew there was nothing we could do with a 6 year old composer. I subsequently became a friend to her and her family, offering advice and suggestions over the years and watching her career flourish. I’m happy to say she is almost 13 years old now, has a label deal, has released several albums, is scoring music and performs her original compositions with orchestras all over the world.
What advice can you offer to aspiring musicians?
Do it because you love it. Because nothing else compares to the joy you feel when creating music. Never stop growing. Always expose yourself to learning about new music, even if it isn’t your thing. There is always something to be learned. Become a musician for the right reason. If you think you’re getting into it to make money, it can be a long and frustrating road! It’s funny how many young artists tell me that they just want to become rich and famous and be on the Disney Channel. These are not the people who make it. It is such a difficult path and unless you’re very lucky, can take a long time to break through, if ever. I wish it were only about talent. It would make it so much easier. However, we’ve all seen that sometimes, it isn’t the most talented artist who rises to the top. So many factors are involved. So, with that said, you’d better love what you are doing. I would also suggest that there are careers that keep you in music that may not involve being a performer. I’m proof of that. I can’t say I ever thought this was the career I would end up with. Touring and travelling and life on the road was not for me, long-term, and while I miss being on stage at times, I was able to find a career that allows me to still use my skills and creativity. Know who you are and be honest about where your talents truly lie. Truth be told, I wanted to be a rock star. I never set out wanting to be an opera singer. I didn’t go to music school or dream of that particular career. I had to be honest with myself and realize I could love rock and perform it for myself but I wasn’t going to have a career in it. When I accepted that if I wanted to perform, which I loved to do, it would have to be in opera, I began to have a lucrative career and grew to love it.
Do you ever "hang out" with the artist that you work with? If yes, gives us some examples of what you might do with them (go to a movie, have lunch, etc.)?
I have great relationships with the artists I work with but there is a difference between having great relationships and being their friends. They have plenty of friends and don’t really need me as another. Besides, I tend to be somewhat older that the artists I work with J I think it is important to maintain that business relationship but that doesn’t mean it has to be stuffy and formal. Yes, I often have lunches or dinners with many of the artists I work with but I will not be taking a trip with them any time soon. That’s where I draw the line J
Tell us about your current projects including Sabrina Carpenter?
Sabrina is a 15 year old singer/songwriter, who just happens to be one of the featured actors on the hit new Disney Channel series, “Girl Meets World”. Her debut EP released in April and her full length album, later this year. Her musical direction is very organic/acoustic with a Colbie Caillat vibe. Her manager, who is a friend of mine, came to me when she was 12. She was not yet attached to a show but had her own youtube channel of covers with over 8 million views. I thought she something special and we signed her to a singles deal. Shortly after, she landed the role of Maya on GMW and we began working on her EP. As I suspected, she IS something special. She’s a very exciting talent and it has been so much fun working with her and seeing her grow as a singer, songwriter and fabulous person.
When you search for songs for your artist, how do you go about finding them, and how involved do the artist & their teams get during the process?
By the time I start searching for songs, I have a pretty good idea as to what the artist would like and would not like. I know their musical style and who they are and what would connect with them lyrically. The artist and their teams are very involved. The songs have to feel real to the artist and they, as well as their fans, know when they don’t connect to them. In addition, many of our artists are also writers so of course, they are an integral part of the process. Over the years, I’ve developed very strong relationships with writers and publishers so when we start working with an artist, we put the word out that we’re looking. Often, my colleagues in A&R will pass on a song to me that wasn’t right for their artist but is perfect for mine and vice versa.
Do you have specific writers & record producers that you like to work with.
Well of course, over the years, I have built relationships and there is always a sense of loyalty to those who always seem to deliver and with whom I have a strong creative connection. They are the folks that I would first reach out to. With that said, I’m always open to working with and meeting new writers and producers. There are so many insanely talented people out there that it would be foolish to not broaden that roster.
Does the Disney Music Group/Hollywood Records A&R projects by committee, or is each A&R Executive assigned specific projects?
No, each A&R Exec is assigned specific projects they are either passionate about, have a history with or are best able to handle. That said, we have an incredibly collaborative team. There are some projects that 2 or 3 of us will jump on together depending on what we have on our plates or if it is so big it needs several hands on. We share music and opportunities with each other if we feel that it will benefit a project one of us is working on but beyond that it is not project by committee.
What is a typical day like for you? Walk us through a 24-hour period/day.
As I mentioned above, my role at the Disney Music Group is a bit different from that of typical A&R. We do not release just one type of music. We release music for all ages: infants, toddlers, teens, tweens, young adults, adults, basically, everyone who listens to music! A typical day for me is working on about a variety projects at a time: A Disney Junior release, one or 2 soundtracks (from the studio and/or the Disney Channel), an artist album, a Disney compilation, a historic project. For example, right now I’m working on the Disney Legacy Collection. This series celebrates major anniversaries of our classic properties by releasing the soundtracks to the films in their entirety. The most recent release was the 20th Anniversary of the Lion King. We worked with Hans Zimmer and the original creative team on the “Lion King” and were able to release a 2 disc set with about 25 minutes of score from the film that had never been released before, in addition to some wonderful bonus material. For the first time, the soundtrack appears in the same sequence as the film. The next one I’m working on is the 25th Anniversary of “The Little Mermaid” which will be out later this year.
Who is on your team and how important are they to you with regards to your overall success?
Mio Vukovic, Barbara Vanderlinde, Matt Harris, Brandon Kitchen, Mike Daly, Randy Thornton, Ed Reyes, Sarah Yeo and Tiffany Sant’Anselmo are all part of the Disney Music Group’s A&R team. Working with and collaborating with such a talented team has been crucial to my overall success.
Do you have any projects outside of DMG/Hollywood Records?
I don’t know how I’d have any time. My job keeps me extremely busy, which is how I like it.
Any shout outs to anyone?
Wow – too many to mention but for sure, our fearless leader, Ken Bunt. The amazing Captain of our A&R ship, Mio Vukovic. My right hand, Ed Reyes. Everyone at the Disney Music Group and of course, my husband Elliot and daughter, Hailey. After hearing me bring home my work for 18 years, they could probably do my job as well as I do!
What is “next” for Dani Markman?
If I could continue doing what I do for the NEXT 18 years, I’d be very happy, indeed. I work with brilliant people and make music. What could be better?
Record Label: Walt Disney Records/Hollywood Records
Title: Director, A&R
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