The WiMN’s Front and Center is a weekly column that showcases accomplished women who work in the music and audio industries. We spotlight successful female performers, manufacturers, retailers, educators, managers, publicists, and everyone else in between. Want to be featured? Learn how here.

Front and Center: Dani Markman, Director of A&R for Disney Music Group

By Laura B. Whitmore

Think of your favorite Disney artist or song from the last 20 years. Chances are Dani Markman had something to do with that. As the Director of A&R for the Disney Music Group, she has her hand in guiding the music and artists of this fabulously creative company.

Before coming to Disney, Dani was a professional opera singer, performing with opera companies around the country, especially Boston Opera and Pittsburgh Opera. Over the years, she has A&R’d almost every genre of music possible, and has been involved with every soundtrack that comes out of the Disney studio.

A lover of all music, Ms. Markman has worked in almost every genre of music: Country (Best of Country Sing the Best of Disney), Adult Contemporary (Michael Crawford Sings Disney), Tween Pop (Disneymania Series), Alternative (Muppets: The Green Album), Rock (Nightmare Revisited, Avengers Assemble), EDM (DConstructed), Jazz (Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat), and more.

In her long career, Ms. Markman has truly enjoyed working with and mentoring artists, writers, producers, and musicians of every age. Helping them define who they are as artists and working with them to craft their careers is perhaps one of her greatest joys. Her current projects include Sabrina Carpenter’s album EVOLution and Jordan Fisher’s self titled EP as well as his upcoming debut album, releasing in 2017.

Dani is also a recipient of a 2017 She Rocks Award, and here we share her story and insight.

The WiMN: What sparked your love for music?

DM: I was lucky enough to have grown up at a time when there was still music education as part of the public school curriculum. I grew up in a home where there was always music and as the youngest of three children, I listened to everything from the standards that my father loved, to the ‘60s and ‘70s music my older siblings loved. I privately studied piano, but frankly, was a fairly lazy kid. I would practice 30 minutes before my teacher would come over and fooled no one. Finally, my teacher told my parents that although he thought I had talent, it was waste of his time and their money to continue if I was unwilling to put in the work. He was right, of course, and it is one of my biggest regrets. I can read music and accompany myself, but just barely.

The WiMN: I understand you were a professional opera singer. How did you get into opera?

DM: Really by accident. I was a pretty shy kid with a small group of close friends. They were all in choir, but I was not. We all decided we would audition for our Senior Class play, which was “Oliver,” to enjoy one final activity together before we all went off to college. We all auditioned, hoping to be in the chorus together. When the call sheet went up, I was devastated to learn that I was the only one to not get into the ensemble. I was horrified to learn that instead, I had the major role of Nancy. I had only sung in the shower and in my room. My family hadn’t even heard me sing.

On opening night, as I sang “As Long As He Needs Me” alone on stage with just a spotlight, I looked out at the audience and saw my mother with her hands over her eyes. Of course, none of them had ever heard me sing, so she was praying I wouldn’t embarrass myself. As I sang, I remember seeing the look of awe on all of my family’s faces as well as the standing ovation.

After the show, a very successful voice teacher came over to me and told me how special she thought I was. I started training with her and before I knew it, I was singing with Boston Opera and later Pittsburgh Opera, Florida Grand Opera, etc… All of a sudden, I was singing for Pavarotti and working with Leonard Bernstein. I had no intention of being an opera singer. I planned to be a veterinarian and had a rock band in college. If anything, I wanted to be a rock singer, but if I’m being honest, I was a far better classical performer and became a reluctant, rebel opera singer who listened to the Beatles, David Bowie, Heart, etc…far more than I ever listened to opera. I really only sing now for fun around the house.

The WiMN: I’m not sure our readers fully understand what the role is of A&R. Can you give it to us in a nutshell?

DM: A&R stands for Artists and Repertoire. In a nutshell, it is about working with artists and working with repertoire to create new recordings, singles and albums as well as creating music for other divisions within Disney to use in their projects. Because Disney has such a robust catalog of music, A&R in the Disney Music Group could be finding appropriate artists to cover our classic catalog (as in our Disneymania series or the Muppets Green Album) or it could be about creating new Disney repertoire for our Disney characters (Princess and the Frog Inspired by album, Toy Story Inspired by album “Woody’s Roundup,” etc.) It could be finding outside repertoire for some of our Disney characters (as in many of our Mickey and Gang Christmas albums or the Phineas and Ferb Christmas albums).

Finally, it involves signing and developing our artists. This requires working with the artist to determine their musical style and looking for repertoire for them to record. Sometimes, it involves finding outside songs for them that could be hits. Sometimes, if they are writers themselves, it involves putting them in appropriate writing sessions so they can write their own potential hits and express themselves as artists. Of course, this is all dependent on their skills as writers. Luckily, all of my artists are pretty great writers as well as singers.

The WiMN: Tell us what a typical day is like for you (if there is such a thing as typical!).

DM: Ha! Well working for the Disney Music Group is anything but typical. A&R for the Disney Music Group is unlike A&R at any other label. It is not genre or age demo specific. On any given day, I could be working on a lullaby album, an EDM record, a soundtrack, a pop record, a toddler record, a rock record, etc…

I love it because as a music lover, I am able to work on a huge variety of music genres. In fact, that IS a typical day. In the morning I may start with a children’s album, followed by some work on my artists’ records, then a Feature Film soundtrack – sometimes animated and sometimes Live Action. That is often followed by work on a TV soundtrack. There is never a dull moment.

The WiMN:: Do you have some career highlights you can share? Projects that were really meaningful to you?

DM: Two of my all time favorite records to make were Nightmare Revisited and Muppets: The Green Album. Nightmare was challenging because I needed to reinvent EVERY track from the original soundtrack, including the score tracks. This is particularly daunting because Danny Elfman is such a genius that at first, every artist tried to replicate his score. I needed to find artists who were unafraid to make it their own and was beyond thrilled with the brilliant contributions from all of the artists including Marilyn Manson, Korn, Amy Lee, Devotchka, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Yoshida Brothers, Rise Against, the list goes on and on. The genres are all over the place, but somehow, I think it worked!

With the Muppets Green Album, I was able to marry some of my favorite artists at the time with some of my all time favorite Muppets songs and who doesn’t love the Muppets?? I’m very proud of this record and getting a note from genius songwriter, Paul Williams, responsible for some of the most iconic Muppets songs ever, telling me how much he loved the album was something I’ll never forget.

Finally, I love working with and developing my current artists, Sabrina Carpenter and Jordan Fisher. It is so meaningful to help them pursue their dreams and to watch them grow into really special and talented individuals.

The WiMN: The music industry has changed a lot during your career… and I’m guessing the role of A&R has as well. What have been the most significant developments?

DM: When I started at Disney, it was for Walt Disney Records. I started right after The Lion King, and we were pretty flush with money and able to grow the division. At the time, we were NOT part of the studio or the Disney Music Group but a part of Consumer Products. In those days, we were cranking out an insane number of only children’s records and a few soundtracks a year. There was no Radio Disney and Disney Channel really had just launched but had very little original programming. Retail stores were the only way to get our music out and it was about quantity.

Now, with all the digital and streaming services available and retail stores going away in terms of physical product, it still is about quantity but it is also gives us the ability to get music out as soon as it is ready. We don’t necessarily have to wait for an album to be done before we launch an artist. If we have a great single or several singles, we can start working them. It gives us the time to see if they are connecting or if we need to rethink a direction before investing the time and money in a full album. It also allows us to take more chances with artists. We can get into a singles deal without making an enormous financial commitment of a multi or even single record deal.

Obviously, the internet has been a huge development as well. Seeing huge numbers of video views or enormous social numbers are one way labels are finding today’s talent. It really is amazing to see the number of stars who have been launched or created from YouTube or Facebook.

The WiMN: You’ve been with Disney for a long time…Have you seen the role of women in Disney’s offerings evolve?

DM: In many roles, yes, but it still remains a challenge in the world of A&R, both at Disney and at other labels. That said, I certainly see a growth in diversity at the Disney company and have seen continued growth in the 20 years that I have been working here.

The WiMN: Have you ever faced challenges in your role because you are a woman? How did you address them?

Absolutely. Especially in the early days of working for the company. As a woman in a male dominated field, I always felt excluded from the “boys club.” I still do sometimes. Instead of feeling beaten down, it made me work even harder. As a woman, you have to be careful because if you complain about inequities, no matter how valid the complaint, there is often the perception of being “emotional” or “hard to get along with.”

Early in my career, I worked for quite a few bullies who would scream at me and berate me – something I never saw done with my male counterparts. I wouldn’t let them see me cry but my husband sure did. On many occasions he told me to quit and that life was too short. I loved my job and was good at it. I resolved that I wouldn’t let ANYONE force me out of a job I loved and so, worked harder. This, of course, made it impossible for them to get rid of me, because no one can justify getting rid of someone who consistently delivers.

I also believed in karma and knew eventually, I’d outlast every one of the men, and yes they were men, who bullied me. I’m happy to say that I did! I’m here, they are gone, and I now am fortunate to work with a tremendous team of people who value and support me.

The WiMN: Can you offer some advice for artists or songwriters who think their work is the perfect fit for Disney?

DM: I can’t tell you how many submissions I receive every day stating just that. Firstly, one should know that we have corporate rules regarding accepting unsolicited material, so unless it comes from an established manager, lawyer or publisher, I am unable to even listen to it.

Secondly, the first question I would ask is, “What makes you think it is perfect for Disney?” “What do you think Disney is in terms of their musical vision?” Disney has become many things. The Disney Music Group is Pop, Rock, Alt, Children’s Music, Score, Tween Music, etc. So what I’d rather hear is that, “I have a great song, project idea, or a great artist” I’d love for you to consider.

I cringe a little when I hear “perfect for Disney” because I sometimes think there is an antiquated view about what Disney is: the high pitched falsetto voice of Snow White or a repetitive children’s ditty. Yes, that is a PART of Disney and our history but today, the truth is, Disney is about one thing: quality. Even our current children’s releases/shows are about making great music. Listen to the songs from Disney Junior’s The Lion Guard. They are simply GREAT songs! We are just one division that makes music. We have extremely talented music execs that work for the studio in Animation, Live Action, Disney Channel, TV Animation, ABC, the list goes on and on.

So, my advice at the end of the day is to work on your craft and find a reputable, trustworthy manager, lawyer or publisher to represent you. Although there are so many positives about the technical advancements in getting your talent out there via YouTube, Facebook, etc., this also means the competition has become even fiercer. It is even harder to rise above the fray. That said, the good news is that if you DO, if you are that unsigned, unknown talent who somehow has amassed millions of views and social media subscribers, believe me, we’ll find YOU!

The WiMN:What does it mean to you to be honored at the She Rocks Awards?

DM: I am incredibly humbled by this honor and to be honored along with this incredible group of women. Honestly, I am such an uber fan of Lita, Shirley and Esperanza, not to mention all of the other insanely talented and successful women. Truthfully, when I received the email, I thought there had to be some kind of mistake! I came to California from Boston over 20 years ago. I had no idea what I wanted to do. Like many people, I grew up loving Disney but working for this fantastic company was never on my radar. Being able to do what I love and to be honored at the She Rocks Awards means the world to me and I feel so grateful to have even been considered. Thank YOU, She Rocks!