Kara DioGuardi: The Billboard Cover Story
Let's coin a new term to describe Kara DioGuardi: Instead of a multihyphenate, she's a mega-hyphenate. The songwriter-producer-publisher-A&R executive-"American Idol" judge starts 2010 with a slate of songs to write, artists to develop and exasperated sighs to give fellow "AI" panelist Simon Cowell.
In 2009, DioGuardi wrote songs for new albums from Carrie Underwood, Adam Lambert, Miley Cyrus and Cobra Starship; in addition, as senior VP of A&R at Warner Bros. Records she added J.R. Rotem's Beluga Heights imprint to the Warner roster. All of this came on top of her ongoing duties as co-owner of music publisher/management shop Arthouse Entertainment, which just signed hitmaker Mike Elizondo.
One reason for the stuffed-to-the-gills résumé is DioGuardi's voracious interest in the music industry -- she started out as an administrative assistant at Billboard 10 years ago -- but it's also a reflection of the ever-changing dynamics in the industry. Music executives now need vast reserves of business acumen to survive and a willingness to adapt to new opportunities. "Music has never been bigger," she says. "Music is huge. But the business is in trouble."
Billboard: What are your songwriting sessions like?
DioGuardi: I have such a strange job. The other day I was in Nashville and I worked with Darius Rucker -- I've never met him -- and we had that commonality because he's seen me on TV and he can be like, "Oh, you're cool," and I can be like, "I love your records." But it's basically, "Hey, nice to meet you, now take your clothes off."
You have to look for where we can come together as two people who have experienced similar things. There isn't a person in this world that hasn't had their heart broken, or fallen in love, or been hurt by or helped a friend. So you find that common denominator and you build from that.
You went from writing songs for yourself to perform to writing songs for others to perform. What kind of transition was that?
When I first started writing it was not personalized. It was always kind of telling the person what they were doing instead of looking at what I was feeling. And as time went on, part of what drove me was that with music I could almost heal myself and figure out what I was going through in my life. My mom had been sick for years and my parents had kind of a wacky marriage. It really became my therapy. And that became a really important skill later on when I had to work with other people because what I would have to do is help them pull out their stuff.
I'm not the greatest player -- I'm definitely not technically brilliant by any means in terms of the musicality, writing notes or anything like that. But I'm really good at the feel of it, knowing when it's right and knowing when somebody I'm working with isn't telling the truth.
It's lyrically heavy in a way pop music isn't. It's got to be the perfect way to put it, but it's also got to have emotion [that resonates]. It's poetic in a way that pop music isn't. It really tests me. It makes me go back to songwriting 101. It's not just describing an emotion at face value, it's more like, "Here's the emotion -- how do I say it in a way that's interesting, so that someone gets what I'm trying to put across but it's also a twist on it?"
[For instance], "I Hope You Dance"? What an incredible metaphor. I hope you take that risk, I hope you take that chance, I hope you live life to the fullest. The way they paint that picture, when they get to the chorus you know exactly what they're talking about. I'm very drawn to the genre because I feel like I've become a better writer by going down there, and I'm always learning in the sessions.
What was your big break in songwriting?
I went through years of rejection, and my first thing was Kylie [Minogue recording "Spinning Around" in 2000]. I didn't know who Kylie was, and I was heartbroken that Paula Abdul wasn't going to do it. I was thinking, "Kylie Minogue? Who's Kylie Minogue? I got to make some money or I'm going to have to go back to my real job."
And then I saw her ass in the video -- she had these hot pants on and the video was sick -- and I was like, "OK, I like Kylie Minogue. I'm going to make some money here."
You kept your own publishing instead of signing a deal with an outside company. Why?
The key was that I had enough money to live. If I hadn't, I probably would have done a publishing deal.
I saved up money from Billboard to leave my job -- I calculated [it would take] about two years so I think at the time I left I had $150,000. Because my mother was ill, I lived at home with her and my grandmother, and I'd been working there almost six years and I really saved money. What I didn't know was that "Spinning Around" would become a hit, so I had that money too, so I had some security.
Since I had worked at Billboard I had some understanding of the business, and I thought, "I'm not going to do a publishing deal. I'm just going to do this myself." It just sort of seeped into my brain through osmosis from being in the magazine.
Back in the day, publishing was very unsexy. It's not as unsexy now because you have record labels doing 360s where they are taking a piece. [But then] it was very much a pennies game and record labels pooh-poohed it, but I figured out very quickly that I was not going to be an artist because I was getting more traction on my songs than I was on my voice.
How did your A&R post at Warner come about?
[Warner Bros. Records chairman/CEO] Tom Whalley saw me on this crazy "Access Hollywood" thing where David Foster and I tried to prove you can make anybody a singer. We took ["Access Hollywood" host] Billy Bush. I guess [Whalley] liked me because I stood up to David Foster and he's like, "Who is that girl? Get her in this office."
I went over there and he said, "I'd like to offer you an A&R position." Me? An A&R position? Why? Why would I do A&R? It makes no sense. But I really liked Tom -- beyond being a really great music guy, he was a good person and I was drawn to that. They are one of the last record labels, I think, that really does support artists and nurture them and keep them out there and keep spending money to break them. I liked his philosophy.
The one thing I don't know about is how to break acts. I know how to write the songs, I know the production, but I never have really seen what happens once I deliver my record. I also liked the fact that Warner doesn't have a huge strength in pop music. I felt like, "Well, this could be really good, because we could help each other." The successful thing we've done together is I brought over the J.R. Rotem deal with Beluga Heights, so essentially we're responsible for Jason Derulo and Iyaz. To have Warner break two pop acts in the fourth quarter of 2009 is pretty crazy.
Are record labels willing to take risks now?
The only risks they will take are very calculated -- and that's going to be a problem for music in the long run if they don't take risks. What's going to happen is that you're going to have every song sound like a single. And when you really think back to those records you love, the more obscure songs, the songs maybe where the melody wasn't as mainstream -- those are the ones that you fall in love with. It's very dangerous, to me, to have that [singles] mentality. You want to have the balance.
The [singles strategy] may be a reaction to the fact that record sales are so down. You had the industry sending the message, "We only have to put two or three good songs on a record, the rest can be shit, but we're going to charge you $16." And people went, "You know what? Fuck you. We're not doing that. Why am I paying $16 for crap when I just want those two songs that I like?"
People will buy records if they are great. For instance, if there are four or five singles, you're going to get people to buy albums. People are going to think, "You know, I can trust that if I buy this record, I'm going to like it." So you better have six singles deep, and if you don't, it better be such an incredible record that people buy it by word-of-mouth. And you can have those records that don't have big radio singles that people buy, whether it's Josh Groban or Michael Bublé.
And, overarching all this, is the little thing called "American Idol."
It's an honor to be on that judging panel. It's kind of like winning a Grammy. Of all the people they could have picked, I can't believe they picked me.
Last year was really difficult. I don't think people understood what it took to go from the back of the studio, writing, to "Lights! Camera! Action!" I was wearing Gap sweat pants and a wife beater up until six months ago. I look back on last year and I see bad hair and the wrong accessories. I was moving as fast as anyone could move and learning as I went. You know, "Maybe I'll try a ponytail this week?" Oh, no. "Maybe I'll tease it up like Peg Bundy?" Uh, that doesn't look good.
There were moments when we were doing the show and I'd forget I was on television. I remember some guy was heckling me and I said, "You know, shut the f...oh, wait a minute, I'm on national television." I think towards the end I got more feisty and opinionated. In the beginning I was like, "That's great! Paula? What do you think?" Because I wanted the camera off me.
This year I got to really engage and do more with the contestants and really concentrate on them, whereas last year they'd be speaking or singing and I would be, "Holy shit. What am I going to say?"
What are the contestants like this year?
I would say that there were more than a few times this season that someone walked in and sang and I was shocked that they didn't have the appearance to have that voice. It was just kind of a "Whoa, where did that come from? Hold up." It's like Susan Boyle.
Do you ever have any qualms about the water-cooler elements of the show? Do you think it's the best way to find a recording artist?
I can remember when I was trying to break in, and I knew nobody until I got to Billboard. What this does is bypasses a bunch of that footwork that you would have to do. It says to somebody, "If you're great, we're going to find out."
And let's be honest -- traditional A&R is not what it was, especially with the way the economy is. People are not going out into the middle of the country. This show is picking up where A&R from record labels is not being able to do it right now because they can't hire the scouts. It's able to go into a small town and find Carrie Underwood or to Arkansas where Kris [Allen] was from.
Is it a TV show? One hundred percent it is a TV show. You can be a big celebrity on the show, but at the end of the day, you're entering into the music business afterward. You're going to compete with Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Dierks Bentley -- whatever genre you're in. So yes, there's a water-cooler thing going on because it's a TV show, but it's also enabling people who would never have the opportunity to showcase their voice. It's giving them that chance, and I think that's why people respond to it. It's that American dream -- if you have it, someone will recognize it.