Like so many young Canadians in the 1980s, I spent way too much time sitting in front of a television watching Much Music. My musical tastes were quite avant-garde back then, but this didn’t stop me from enduring hours of curated music videos praying to see an eclectic video from some of the weirder bands I truly enjoyed. Watching interviewers like Denise Donlon, Christopher Ward, Steve Anthony and Erica Ehm churned up numerous daydreams in my then late teenage imagination, most of them coveting the opportunity to spend time and ask similar questions of musical celebrity. From the outside looking in, Denise Donlon and company always seemed like they had the best jobs in the world.
Donlon is truly one of Canada’s most successful broadcasters and corporate leaders. She has been a co-host and producer of The NewMusic; A Director of Programming and VP/General Manager of MuchMusic/CityTV; President of Sony Music Canada at the worst possible time to be a president of a music company; A General Manager and Executive Director of CBC English Radio; and co-producer and co-host of The Zoomer (with Conrad Black).
She has also devoted herself to numerous charitable initiatives, working with organizations such as WarChild Canada, MusiCounts, and the Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership. She sits on a number of boards and has been honoured with the Humanitarian Spirit Award and the Trailblazer Award at Canadian Music Week, Woman of the Year from Canadian Women in Communications, Woman of Vision from Wired Women, and was inducted in the Broadcast Hall of Fame. She is a Fellow of the Royal Conservatory of Music and a Member of the Order of Canada.
Donlon took two years out of her life to write a book of non-fiction entitled Fearless as Possible (Under the Circumstances), which saw release at the end of 2016. Fearless… is a wonderful memoir of her life journey. In it, Donlon details navigating corporate culture with authority, ethics, and a driven passion that is a genuine inspiration.
Donlon was one of the celebrity interviews at Canadian Music Music a few weeks back, and she took the time to field a few interviews around her CMW appearance. This interview was conducted at the Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel on the afternoon after her guest speaking engagement. We spent a few minutes talking about her book release and Christopher Ward’s book, both of which came out within weeks of each other.
I enjoyed Chris Ward’s Book, which I got for Christmas. Yours, I’m just getting through now.
Denise Donlon: They are very different books. I loved Chris’s book. It’s so fun. I wanted to get a little more into the history of CHUM. I think it’s important to the Canadian Cultural Industries that those things are actually documented. Even my perspective of things, which may be a bit skewed.
I immediately liked that you admitted that you saved your concert stubs in Fearless as Possible.
Donlon: I do.
There’s two types of people in this world. People who save their stubs and people who don’t. I’m with you. To me, it’s a monument of the event.
Donlon: Right? Yeah. I actually laid them all out at one point and thought what the hell do I do with them? I just took a picture of them. It didn’t make the book. I wanted to put about three times as many photos into the book, but oh well.
When you get into the industry, you start getting onto guest lists and through the back door. There aren’t as many physical tickets anymore.
Donlon: Right. Yeah. But then I save the laminates I get. Like my Whitesnake Slide It In tour laminate. That’s a keeper. (laughs) That was a funny one.
You detail a few concerts you went to in Fearless as Possible. Is there a concert that you can pinpoint that broke the doors open for you when you were younger?
Donlon: There’s so many for so many different reasons. There are concerts that are transcendent. Those shows where you are one with the artist. Like watching Gord Downie on stage. Or Neil Young. Where they are just gone – lost in their music. Their eyes roll up into the back of their head and they are in the moment. Artists that work really hard to deliver an emotional collective experience for the audience like Springsteen? That guy has performed four and a half hour shows. There’s always that one guy in the room that he hasn’t got yet, right? (laughs) And he’s gonna get him even if it breaks him. But I can be equally as happy with an acoustic show with a single performer. Like watching John Prine or Joni Mitchell with her guitar. it depends on the show. They are all transformative. That’s why you keep going, right? Especially these days. We are trying to find that communal, collective, social experience, which is dampened a little by our devices.
That’s true. I enjoy going to shows where bands ask for fans to abstain with their phones. Some bands like TOOL will have you ejected from the venue if fans repeatedly try and photograph them.
Donlon: Yeah. True. I’m interested to see what happens when Midnight Oil comes. It’s May 20th and I can’t go. I’m upset about that but I have a conflict and can’t see it. Peter Garrett is another one of those amazing performers and he is also one of those performers who won’t take any crap from the audience. I’ve seen him stop shows and point out people for being jerks. I have no idea how he is going to deal with that phone thing.
Is there a particular moment in time you recall that you knew you were going to work in or around music?
Yeah, I think early on in the book I mentioned doing a CANO concert at the University of Waterloo (Coopérative des Artistes de Nouvel-Ontario). I remember it really clued me in as to what this business was about for the right reasons and what it was about for the wrong reasons. They were a beautiful, moving, transportive band. Etherial, gorgeous, great musicians. They had three records out, one of them went gold. And there they are packing their rider up in cling wrap at the end of the night, and I just thought, what is wrong with this business that these amazing musicians are still hand-to-mouth? That was the point where I thought that I love music so much that I knew. I knew it wouldn’t be ME mangling John Prine myself on stage. But that I would do everything I could to learn as much about it so that if I was ever in a position to see great talent that needed a hole plugged, that maybe I could be of some use. That was really the moment.
I too have DJ’d at CKMS.
You’re kidding me. What year?
1991-1992. I went to Conestoga College. A pal of mine, who is very like-minded and into music somehow got in the door there. And we had the 2 am to 6 am slot on Fridays. Well Saturday early morning.
Oh my God. So you could do anything you wanted then? There would be no rules at that hour.
That’s kind of what it was.
I loved that. I loved being in a DJ Booth with your records and your microphone and you would plot a show out and go with it. You know you’re talking to somebody. One person at least. Maybe a few somebodies. But there is nothing like it.
You are creating an experience by curating music. Which you went on to do live on camera at Much Music. Different of course, bring on camera and all, but still similar. How did you find your first week or two at Much?
Bedlam. Total bedlam. I would do anything not to see myself on camera. I was self-conscious. I had a big lisp. I had someone call me an ‘angular giantess’ once in a review. And there was no training, right? They just sort of threw you on the air. And Much Music was bedlam. Lights were falling out of the sky on top of you. Artists were walking in through your shots. Nobody was paying attention. So on one hand, I don’t think I ever would have gone on the air in any other broadcast environment, ever, on the planet. Only Much Music would have taken somebody like me and put me in front of a camera and then said: “learn”. And I learned in front of the nation.
I liked that it was honest. Even with the gaffs, mistakes and unintentional comedy, it was an honest presentation of talent, and people interviewing that talent.
Absolutely. And I do distil a little bit in my book about what the difference was between Much Music and MTV. How we treated the artists and how we treated the audience. And how we populated the channel. Because it was really an example of taking ordinary regular people and pushing this onto them. Even when I was hiring, it was not about much more than that. “Thou shalt not be bigger than the star.” You are a vehicle for the artist. That was always a big difference between us and MTV. They had Downtown Julie Brown. All of their VJ stars were stars. It was a different approach.
I remember your interview with Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden. You got him to the Science Centre and you got his hair standing up when he touched the Van de Graaff ball. I remember having this incredulous feeling of unbelief mixed with a desire to be you – doing interviews like that. You got a lot of good content out of that interview. You asked some cool questions. And it was funny. It was a good segment.
Yeah. He was fun. He was open for everything too. He wanted to play with the race cars there. That Van de Graaff machine was hilarious. I remember that we got him up there and I thought it would be funny to make his hair go up because his hair was down to his waist back then. So the technician said “Ok Bruce. You put your hand on the Van de Graaff machine, and then Denise, you have to hold his hand so that the electrical current can go through both of you.” He asked if we were wearing any metal and I had forgotten about the RCA cable plug that was behind me and plugged his mic into my mic. I’d just put it in my back pocket. So as soon as we started talking and his hair started going up and the electricity started stabbing me in the ass. It was shocking me in the ass through these RCA cables and as his hair was going up and was saying “Stop stop stop.” I think my ass was bruised after that interview. And I had on some bad acid wash pleated pants. God. Horrible. But it was a hilarious interview. And Bruce was so sweet. He was cool. He was very much his own guide too. He was very much about hoeing his own row. He didn’t want to really be seen in the same genre as the Poisons and Warrants and all the rest of that scene. He was very much his own deal. And he’s an author himself. (The Adventures of) Lord Iffy Boatrace, right? I’ve got his book.
It’s a kids book, isn’t it? I’ve never read it.
Well, I thought it was a kid’s book, but there’s too much sex in it for it to be a kids book. (laughs)
You weren’t worried about his fillings on the Van de Graaff? British metal – British teeth. He’s totally got fillings.
Nope. You’re right. That’s a good thought. Me too. I had a mouth full of metal as well. (laughs) That could have gone horribly.
How about an artist that utterly surprised you once you were put in front of him or her? An instance where you were expecting one thing and got another?
You know, there’s good ones and bad ones. I think a bad one was Mick Hucknall (Simply Red). I loved his music so much. That Picture Book record was just ethereal. I loved it. And then I met him and he was just off. He didn’t want to be there. A terrible mood. An arsehole, really. And I couldn’t listen to that album after I’d done the interview. He’d ruined the music for me. It’s always tough when you get to interview people that you idolize. Joni Mitchell was like that for me. She was amazing. First of all, she can’t say hello in under twenty minutes, right? She’s like a butterfly. She’s free-associative. She’s off the charts smart. I don’t call a lot of people genius, but I’d call her a genius. The more she talked, the more I felt like I wanted to keep talking with her forever. She amazing. I’ve been blessed, really, to be at her 60th birthday party and at her house. She’s one of the people that really impressed me. It’s a blessing, to be able to get a glimpse into their world and travel with them a bit.
Have you ever started a job with an inclining as to what that job is going to be, and have it actually BE the thing you thought it was going to be? Because that doesn’t seem to happen to you a lot, right? Maybe it’s because you seem to find a way to make something better or different once you get into that job? I don’t know.
(laughs) Hmm. I don’t know. Or the bottom falls out of it. Right? Like Sony? Walking in there with the beginning of Napster and the whole reorganization of the industry? Yeah. That was a struggle. Trying to learn the business while at the same time trying to reinvent the business.
Such a struggle. And still going on, really, right?
True. 2016 was the first year that the sales of pre-recorded music actually went up by 3.2%. Which is a rounding error in any other business? That’s interesting. I know that some of the labels here, particularly the Canadian major labels have activity in their department now. They are signing again and that is all great. My challenge with the industry is that it’s never been harder for the artist to get paid or make a living. It just isn’t easy. And they have to be everything now. They have to be their own hustlers. They do their own crowdsourcing and audience building and Youtubing and Twittering. I talk about that a fair bit in the book. Because I don’t think it serves the art. I don’t think all of this grinding that they have to do actually serves the art.
Most artists are typically introverts. They were the back of the classroom quiet ones in school. Introspective. That’s where their art comes from, most of the time. So to have these people be their own marketers, and do interviews and always having to be ‘ON’, there’s just a lot of expectations and pressure put on them. It feels like a lot of them are struggling right now.
Well, they do. I spend a couple of pages in my book on that, actually. This Yin/Yang thing. It’s right brain and left brain. They have to be, as you said, they have to hone their craft, they have to be solitary, they have to be osmotic so that they can feel the news and translate it and they also have to be equally good at being an extrovert. They have to go out and sell it. Because the business is inherently anti-art. It’s commercial. The ones I worry about are the celestials. The ones that find themselves back in their room after thousands of people are out in the audience and they are watching the walls close in on them. If they don’t have a good support structure around them, that’s the 27 club, right? It’s got way too many members. It’s tough. Especially if you can’t seem to make a living doing it, right? HMV just closed hundreds of stores. The CD piece has been sucked out of the middle of this equation. The streaming music piece isn’t paying what it should. Those artists will die of exposure before the whole start-to-scale thing happens. And I worry about that because Canada has punched above our weight for generations now. And I think we are going to see a real dearth in music. There’s going to be a real trough where the artists that couldn’t afford to do it full time (and they HAVE to do it full time currently) will have to choose another career. And we will be the worse for it, right?
For the past decade or so, I’ve described a CD as a business card for a band. The perception is that music is free anyway – it’s something they hand out to draw interest now. The idea being that you might come to the tour and buy a shirt or an LP.
Yes. It’s totally flipped. There are all kinds of great tools and I’m certainly an optimist about access to the market and the democratization of music. But at the end of the day you have to be able to monetize it. And it seems the only way to monetize it is YouTube or through a sponsor. The number of social networking hits that you are going to get often means being salacious or extreme for the wrong reasons – reasons that don’t serve the art. Because that’s how you get the attention. That’s how you bust through the noise. Artists like Radiohead or Van Morrison? They would never have careers in this day and age if they were starting from scratch.
It’s amazing that Radiohead has been able to do what they have done. They have tried some different things. And I applaud them all. But they are doing them already established as Radiohead. Their chance of failure is lessened for that. They can surprise everyone with an album because they have a built-in audience.
Many of them have brand identity first. To be able to do that. The ones who are starting from scratch who need to be noticed and who have to constantly feed the maw of expectation that is out there – it’s tough, right?
Trent Reznor is doing the same: Direct marketing to his fans. Offering them things online first before anywhere else. I do enjoy that aspect of right now.
Well Trent was one of the examples, right? He was one of the artists who said “I don’t need the middleman anymore. I have all of these amazing new tools and I’m just going to go direct to market.” He tried that for a year and a half or two, and then he went back to a label. And I think the reason is that it lets him concentrate on the art. And that’s what HAS to happen.
I know this is something you are still working out. But I’m going to ask anyway. What’s next for Denise Donlon? You’ve done the book. It’s turned out great. What next?
Thank you. Yes. It’s out there. It’s not being ignored. I don’t know. I think I’m open hearted about it. I’m thinking it’s going to be in the cultural industries. But it could as easily be in the NGO world. I talk a lot in the book about going to work with the War Child Foundation and going to these conflict areas. And I think the charity world is intriguing. I have a lot of business experience now. And I think there is room for me to be able to apply the business piece of it to the charitable NGO world. So I don’t know what it is yet, But I am just now looking around to see what’s out there. I’ve been blessed, there have been some great opportunities in the past couple of years, but I made a commitment to the book and I saw that through to finish.
I understand that Fearless as Possible was over double the size in it’s first draft.
(laughs) It was.
How did you find the editing process on that? Did it hurt? Watching 50% of your writing get chopped?
Well, I adopt the Geddy Lee mantra. Geddy would always say about Rush records that they never actually finished them, someone always came along and took them away from the band. So, I wish I’d had another month. Because I think I would have re-worked some of the longer sections for sure, and shortened them up. I also would have balanced it out a little better I think. The one criticism I read about the book was that I shouldn’t have spent the seventy pages I did on the CBC. As a Canadian Flag raising nationalist (laughs)…
Seventy isn’t enough. Right?
Right. It may have been too Inside Baseball, so I accept that. But on the other hand, there are people who are a little pissed at me that they aren’t actually in the book. And they were originally. So I could have balanced that a bit better maybe. The editing process was hilarious actually. Because I thought naively that I would just write. My publisher said that to me when I professed that I couldn’t write a book. She said, “just write and let’s see what happens.” So I overwrote, of course. And at the end of the day, I thought the editor would turn it into magic for me. But no. That’s not the process. You give it to your editor and they give you back these notes. And Janie (Yoon) was fantastic. But she would send me back notes like “I strongly suggest that you delete this entire chapter.” (laughs) Or even better, “I strongly suggest that you rewrite this entire chapter.” It really did become me tying myself to my desk for two years, writing this book. Which was interesting for me. Because I have a lot of energy. So just sitting down for five hours a day, that was tough.
What was your output like Denise? Would you get ten pages a day? Five?
No, it would really depend. I would spend four or five hours every day. I’d get up, do yoga for 20 minutes and then I’d go straight to the computer. I found I was fresher in the mornings. And I would just put in that amount of time regardless of what came out. Because sometimes crap came out. Sometimes I would just spend it researching or fact checking or whatever. And then after about 1 pm, I was just useless. Words were falling out of my ears and I was a mess. So, I could still do research in the afternoons but it had to be that amount of time and that was kind of my limit.
I’m going to go to totemism here. Was there something that worked for you for output? A thing, or combination of things, that you found yourself doing as the weeks went by that brought you good luck? Whether it was walking around in a circle before sitting down, having a stretch session half way through the morning, types of foods you were eating? Anything like that you found?
Um, I was good at the cottage. Because I could be by myself. And there I could spend more hours writing. Scotch helped. (laughs) And what I would do is I would have to find structure. At the beginning, the first few months were just a feminist polemic. And none of it made the book. At the beginning, I thought I was writing celebrity stories. And then I thought “well that’s a hollow pursuit. Who wants to hear my celebrity stories?” So the three months that I wrote about feminism it primed the pump it seems. Because there were a lot of those themes that run their way through the book anyway without me being a screaming maniac about it – but still themes important to include I think. So I’d write, and then I would pull back from it and look at it and ask “ok, what did I just write?.” Then I would try and organize it subject wise so that it had some kind of structure. But I didn’t write an outline at the beginning at all.
That probably is a good thing. I hear it’s hard to adhere to them.
Yeah. The book was willful. It was telling me what I wanted to write about for much of the writing process. And every word had to be polished. Like, every word. It was interesting.
There was a line that I dig. It was a short one. You were talking about being out of work and that you were going to have to interview. It was “Hello. I used to matter.” You still matter. With everything that you have done over the years and the companies that you have worked with, I keep thinking mentoring for you. There has to be a bevy of companies out there who can benefit from the wealth of knowledge that you have – and would be eager to have you lend that knowledge to them.
Well, thank you. I try. Especially with young women. To try and support and mentor and inspire and motivate the best I can. But that said, I don’t know what the future is going to be. No. Eye. Deah. But I’m open hearted. Bring it on. I’ve certainly made some mistakes. hopefully, I’ve learned from those.