Disney Music Group President Ken Bunt on the 'Star Wars' Soundtrack and Harnessing the Force for the House of Mouse

Austin Hargrave
"We're pretty well-positioned for where the environment's going," says Bunt, photographed on Nov. 3 at his Disney Music Group office in Burbank. "We're in the concert business, the publishing business, and we partner with all of our artists' businesses in various ways."

Of all the memorabilia lining Disney Music Group president Ken Bunt's office walls, his favorite is a large-scale illustration from a 1935 Silly Symphonies cartoon short called "Music Land." It depicts two warring musical islands: the "Land of Symphony" and the "Isle of Jazz." "Jazz was encroaching [on classical music]," he says, "and it's a constant reminder that the winds of change are going to blow, so be prepared."

Bunt, 45, is better prepared for change than most thanks to years of experience as a digital marketer at Def American and at Hollywood Records beginning in 1998. His division's recent pop successes include Breaking Benjamin's No. 1 album Dark Before Dawn and a healthy second-place debut for Demi Lovato's Confident. Hollywood also scored with Andy Grammer's triple-platinum single "Honey, I'm Good" and the Frozen and Guardians of the Galaxy soundtracks.

Bunt talked to Billboard about DMG's new wave of young talent and John Williams' score for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, out Dec. 18.

Of all the "legacy artists" that came up through the Disney Channel to Hollywood Records, like Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez, Lovato is the one still at Hollywood. But you have at least a half-dozen young artists on the roster now who've come up that same way, including Olivia Holt, Martina Stoessel and Sophia Carson. Will they all get a shot at that kind of career? 

They'll all get a huge push from us. They're all our children, and so we love all of them… Martina Stoessel is not known to most people in the United States. She was the star of a show called Violetta, a telenovela that's incredibly popular in Latin America and all across Europe. It's bigger than Hannah Montana ever was, which is hard to imagine, because people in the States or the UK just don't know the show. It's produced out of Argentina but is maybe even bigger in countries like France, Spain, Italy, and now Germany and Poland. The dialogue is dubbed in the local language, but when they break into song, it's in Spanish. We've sold a million concert tickets in the last year for the tour, and millions of albums. We will be doing a theatrical film that will be coming out next year in those territories. The show wouldn't work here, because we're not used to dubbed programming. But I think she's going to be a global superstar, not just in those territories, but around the world. 

So you think Stoessel could work as an artist in America, even if her show wouldn't?

Absolutely. We're making a record that will work in America. And Sophia Carson was in Disney's Descendants (TV movie). She's American, but speaks fluent Spanish and grew up in a Spanish household in Miami. I don't think there are many stars like Sophia, in their early 20s or millennials, that (people growing up in the same culture) can identify with. (For comparison) here's Becky G, and I think you have some artists that are slightly older, like a J.Lo or a Pitbull. But I don't think there's anybody really for this new generation that has grown up in that kind of household environment and is a tremendous singer. Sophia will have new music out in the spring.

Getting to some of the young female artists who didn't come from the TV side: You have 16-year-old Bea Miller, who came from X-Factor and writes empowering songs. And then it seems like Zella Day is poised to break. Compared to Miller, she is on the older — and maybe more sexual — side, with sort of a Lana Del Rey thing going on.

People like to compare Zella to Lana Del Rey. She reminds me more of Fiona Apple, though I'm not sure Zella knows who Fiona Apple is. Zella's been playing music since she was 12 or 13, playing in her mom's diner, and has a pretty clear vision of what type of music she wants to create. She writes about a variety of things -- I don't think it's overtly sexual. Her lyrics are very relatable to a lot of young women. She has sold less than 20,000 albums worldwide, but she's selling out 500- to 1,000-seat concert venues now and has had 65 million audio streams of her debut album. That would have been unfathomable three years ago. You're not going to have 65 million streams if you're not talking about something that people care about.

Miley Cyrus cut her ties from Disney more than four years ago. You might not have minded having a "Wrecking Ball," but it would have been hard explaining what she's doing to people who associate the label with the Disney image. Do you ever look at what she's doing now and think, "At least we don't have to deal with that"?

People probably think we sit around talking about it, but we really don't talk about it at all. I had a lovely experience working with her. She's off doing her own thing, and we kind of watch it a little bit, but really, we're so focused on our own artists.

Demi and Selena came up around the same time and are often mentioned in the same breath. Their new albums came out a week apart. What makes the difference between one staying and one leaving? Is there any element of the town not being big enough for the both of ‘em?

No, it's not that the town isn't big enough for both of them. They're two different artists that made their own decisions. It's really as simple as that, to be honest with you.

Demi Lovato's album debuted at No. 2, in a true squeaker, just hundreds of units behind Pentatonix.

Very close. We just missed out on No. 1. It's been by far her biggest global debut worldwide. She's put in a lot of work around the world, so we've had more top 10 or top 5 debuts internationally than we've ever had for her.

Demi Lovato turned around a lot of people's perceptions when she did Saturday Night Live. She'd been just meh on the MTV Awards pre-telecast, which seemed very tailored to her core demographic, and then after SNL, you suddenly had a lot of people her parents' age and older going on social media to express their surprise.

She's 23 now and this is her fifth album. With any artist that young, there's a preconceived notion about who they are. People have to remember, they're still learning and still growing. Saturday Night Live is just such a great forum for people to see her outside of what their preconceived notions of her. The MTV Awards are a different type of show. She's doing the American Music Awards, and that'll be a different type of performance from SNL. It also has to with different songs. With "Stone Cold," the ballad she did on SNL, the album hadn't come out yet, and that was a really powerful song we hadn't unveiled yet.

Lovato's album has three imprints. How does it work, with Smokehouse and Island? People get confused when it comes to Disney and Universal working together beyond just the distribution side.

[Lovato's album] is a joint venture with us and Island. Safehouse, Demi and Nick (Jonas)'s label, has a deal with Island, so they're involved as well. Obviously they're not staffed up yet, so it's really a collaboration between us and Island.

We already work so closely with Universal in so many ways, with other joint ventures and projects together. The relationship has never been better. Lucian (Grange) has really installed a lot of entrepreneurial thinking. There's a lot of people that have joined the company that have that spirit. David Massey at Island, he's a music manager, not a typical suit or whatever you would want to call it. He thinks about music 24/7… I don't think there are a lot of music managers that have run labels. When I came in to Disney, Bob Cavallo was running things, and he had an entrepreneurial background as a manager, so he really brought that spirit to the music group.

With Universal, we just released We Love Disney, with Arianna Grande, Rascal Flatts, Jessie J, Ne-Yo, Gwen Stefani, and Jason Derulo all doing Disney songs, and that's a joint venture between our two companies. [It debuted at No. 8 on the Billboard 200.] Universal is selling it, but we're working together arm in arm. We're co-marketing it; we're co-A&Ring it together. We just released the English version, but it started in France quite a few years ago, and that first album went double platinum. We've localized it. We've done a French version, a German version, a version for Australia and New Zealand -- obviously in English but with local artists  -- and we're working on a Chinese version, an Indonesian version, and a Latin American version. We even have a jazz version coming out next year.

Since Lyric Street went away, you haven't had any country, until what seemed like it might be a one-off with Lucy Hale. Is that something you think you'll just dabble in occasionally?

We're committed to being back in the country music business. In addition to Lucy, we have quite a few songwriters on the (publishing) roster, but we will be back in the recorded country music business, for sure, and we anticipate that to happen in 2016. It's a good fit here.

Have you heard any of the Star Wars music yet?

Yeah, we just finished scoring. It's obvious what I'm going to say, right? It's incredible; it's [composer] John Williams. It matches the tone of the film and what the fans expect. We'll release the soundtrack with the movie, day-and-date. That's where the [new Friday] global street date is nice, because you don't want any of the [song] titles to be spoilers for the movie.

Any special plans for collectibles? 

We haven't announced it yet, but there'll be a whole series of collectible vinyl releases through 2016. It's hard to announce a date, because the limited capacity of the manufacturing plants, but we can say spring. The vinyl manufacturing takes so long. They score the movie so late, it's tight to make the (CD) release as it is.

Are there any differences in how you handle the catalog music since you took it over from Lucasfilm?

Streaming platforms didn't exist for the [previous] movies, so that's something that we'll be rolling out, along with character-driven playlists with sounds and dialogue from the movie. People love to hear dialogue and sound effects, so we're working on some ideas now that will incorporate some of that into playlisting. We did already launch three playlists on Spotify -- not of new music, certainly. We'll be working with all the DSPs as far as the new Star Wars music.

Every label group has quirks, but there may be none quite as peculiar as Disney. It seems like you have at least a trifold focus: the legacy and contemporary soundtracks; the kids who come in straight from the Disney Channel; and, finally, the types of act every company is looking for, who don't cross over from a film or TV career, like a Breaking Benjamin or Zella Day. 

You're thinking about it right, but there are two other things most people aren't aware of: the concert and publishing pieces. We have a very robust concert business where we do over 300 shows a year now. That's a mix of self-produced concerts and licensed concerts like the Nightmare Before Christmas shows we just did with Bill Silva at the Hollywood Bowl. Our most popular concerts are Pixar in Concert, Fantasia in concert with local symphonies, and the Disney on Classics show in Japan. We're on our 14th year and up to 60 dates a year now with that Japan tour-- a philharmonic show with American singers, narrated in Japanese. We do Pirates of the Caribbean movie nights, showing the movie with a live orchestra. It's something that we don't really go around talking about a lot, but unless you know something I don't, there are no other music labels that are doing that.

And then music publishing business is part of the music group, Besides all the classic songs you know from Disney films, we have publishing for most of the artists that we sign, as well as other songwriters that write either externally or internally for our artists or film and TV projects. We feel like we're pretty well positioned for where the environment's going. We're in the concert business, in the publishing business, and we partner with all of our artists in various ways with their businesses.

Do you mean 360 deals, essentially?

We call them more partnership deals than 360, because we're partners in the deals.

Your A&R head, Mio, gets featured billing on most or all of your back covers. That's unusual to see on an album cover.

Is it? I didn't think an A&R credit on the back was unusual. 

Well, maybe unusual since the days when John David Kalodner got a credit on every Geffen album.

[Laughs.] Right. Something that is unusual is that Mio oversees A&R for all music creative, including music publishing. So whether it's a songwriter or an artist, Mio oversees that department. We don't have the music publishing people over on one side and the recorded music people over on another side. They all work together and it's one A&R team, and Mio oversees that. Everybody has their disciplines; maybe they're a little bit more focused on songwriters, but if they find an artist, they can sign an artist. There are artists we've signed we haven't announced yet, like a new group called Forever In Your Mind. On the artist side, we're probably close to 30, and on the writers' side we've gone up from five or six at one point to around 15 or 17 now.

You just re-released elaborately packaged soundtracks for the most beloved animated films, individually and in a boxed set. Aren't there diminishing returns on what you can do with The Lion King or Lady and the Tramp?

No, we're very bullish. There's a huge market for it. It's not just "we're gonna change some colors around and say it's remastered." We're taking the time to go clean up the masters and add historical liner notes and original artwork. We've created a destination online called DisneyMusicEmporium.com, where you can go and get a lot of these collectible materials. And we were selling these at D23, the expo/fan convention we have that's similar to ComicCon. It was fascinating because we had a booth. Maybe some of us started working at record stores back in the day, but if you forget what it's like to work retail, you remember really quickly working a booth all day for 8-9 hours and talking to fans about the questions they have. It was fantastic on multiple levels. You're at a record company all day, working with retailers like Apple or Target or Wal-Mart or Best Buy and Hastings, but to actually be running a store and collecting cash and credit cards yourself, you learn things that maybe you've forgotten when you're in an office.

You weren't actually running the cash register, were you?

They didn't let me run the cash register. But I worked the booth a bit, and other people from our team were working the cash register. It was very energizing.

So have you ever really gotten over the culture shock of coming from working with Rick Rubin at Def American to the house that Walt built?

That actually prepared me for this. At Def American, you had Danzig, Slayer, The Jayhawks -- Hollywood Town Hall is still one of my favorite albums -- and Johnny Cash. I knew I was getting an education in diversity, but I didn't realize how handy it would come in, because every day I'm dealing with everything from Grace Potter to a Tron soundtrack to music for a theme park in Shanghai.

A version of this article first appeared in the Nov. 28 issue of Billboard.


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