MBW’s Inspiring Women series profiles female executives who have risen through the ranks of the business, highlighting their career journey – from their professional breakthrough to the senior responsibilities they now fulfil. Inspiring Women is supported by Ingrooves.
Kara DioGuardi has had an impressively diverse career across her 20+ years in music — she’s a top songwriter who counts credits with Christina Aquilera, Miley Cyrus and Ricky Martin, a successful A&R exec (she signed Jason Derulo to Warner), publisher under her own Arthouse publishing company, and two time American Idol judge.
She found her way into the creative side of the music industry after pursuing a totally different career path as a lawyer in New York. Being a lawyer, doctor or accountant was an obvious career path in the community she grew up in, but upon studying at Duke University, DioGuardi realised it wasn’t one she was destined to follow.
“I was a creative kid but I had stage fright from a young age so I denied that part of who I was for a long time,” she says. “Then when I went to Duke, I realised that I didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing and that I was more creative than I had admitted to myself.
“I went through a deep depression because I realised that I was in a place where I didn’t connect to any of the people. Even though I’d always fit in, I deep down didn’t feel like I belonged in that circle.”
As a result of that, DioGuardi reconnected with her creative roots and took a risk to pursue a career as an artist and singer instead. She fronted a garage band while working as a waitress, before joining Billboard magazine in ’93 as an assistant to the president and publisher.
While there, she learned a lot about the music business and realised that if you wanted to be an artist and didn’t yet have traction, you needed to write your own material. “Nobody was going to give a 22-year-old girl living at their parent’s [house] with a bad haircut their songs,” she says.
So DioGuardi headed to the studio. During her time working at the magazine, she would often go before she got on the train to work and returned every night.
She then met a manager and producer, who helped her get out of her comfort zone and use songwriting to figure out her identity. “Music became this therapeutic tool for dealing with a lot of the things I’d been through in my life,” she says.
“The more real I got about who I was and what I was going through, the better my songs became.”
“When I first started writing, I could never own the song — it was like ‘she’ ‘he’ ‘you’ and I started to realise that I had to come from a point of ‘I’ and own what I was feeling.
“The more real I got about who I was and what I was going through, the better my songs became. I think that finding my own personal truth sort of saved me and it became a mantra for the next 15 to 20 years of writing songs that I had in the music business.”
Eventually, DioGuardi grew confident enough to show her songs — presented as her friend’s songs to save face in case they weren’t well-received — to the then dance editor at Billboard, Larry Flick (now a host at SiriusXM).
He loved the music and connected her with a few people, which resulted in a short-lived deal with MCA after the guy who signed her got fired. Then, British singer and actress Martine McCutcheon cut DioGuardi’s “I’ve Got You,” which became a #6 hit in the UK.
Her next success was “Spinning Around” for Kylie Minogue (a #1 in Australia and the UK) and she left her job at Billboard to pursue a career as a full-time songwriter.
However, after a lonely trip to the UK when all her co-writing sessions got cancelled, DioGuardi came back to the US where she realised that no-one cared about the hit she’d just had overseas.
After a year of trying, she was on the verge of giving up but gave it one last shot by calling producer Steve Morales, planning on returning to Billboard if he didn’t call her back. Thankfully, the phone rang at 11.59 on a Sunday night and DioGuardi was summoned to LA that next morning.
There, she met Morales who was the conduit to working with Ricky Martin, Enrique Iglesias, Celine Dion and Jessica Simpson. “Just when you’re ready to give up, sometimes the universe sends you a sign and that was my sign that I was supposed to be in the music business,” DioGuardi says.
Since then, she’s written with a wealth of high profile names, including Ashlee Simpson, Kelly Clarkson, Colbie Caillat and Darius Rucker, as well as those mentioned above.
Alongside her songwriting, DioGuardi works on the business side as owner of Arthouse Publishing, whose writers have written songs for the likes of Selena Gomez, Normani, Chris Brown, 30 Seconds to Mars, Maroon 5, Justin Bieber and Halsey.
She also spent time at Warner Bros. Records as EVP of talent development, which is where she signed Jason Derulo, and was a judge on the eighth and ninth seasons of American Idol. In addition, DioGuardi teaches at Berklee College of Music where her students have included Charlie Puth, Betty Who and Ingrid Andress.
Today, she continues to run Arthouse and has a JV with Atlantic Records, under which she’s currently developing Nashville-based pop artist and songwriter Gayle. In 2016, DioGuardi co-founded non-profit Inspired Nation, which aims to redefine vocal competitions not just as a way to celebrate talent and foster confidence, but as a conduit for youth appreciation and community activism.
You’ve had a very diverse career — are there any big lessons that have stayed with you?
The biggest lessons that I’ve learned are what I’m good at, trying to concentrate on that, and what I’m not good at.
I’m really not good at politics — I can’t really say things to people just to get what I want from them. I have to be very forthcoming and honest in my conversations with however I’m feeling or else it becomes toxic for me, and the music business isn’t really a place for truth-tellers, in a strange way.
“I’m not good at politics — I can’t really say things to people just to get what I want from them.
“In the music business, People want to hear what they want to hear and people play all kinds of games to get what they want. For a creative person, that’s a toxic situation.”
People want to hear what they want to hear and people play all kinds of games to get what they want. For a creative person, that’s a toxic situation. So I always say that I’m a creative first and if I can be true to that side of myself, then I can handle any business situation.
I’ve also learned that life — living and having more than just the music business is crucial to being fulfilled. My best friends have nothing to do with the music business and that separation has really been holy for me.
Also, to try not to take things personally, which is very hard to do, but to understand that artists are complicated, I’m complicated, and sometimes I’m going to be disappointed by choices that are made but I have to honour their paths.
Do you have any tips for songwriting and working with artists in the studio?
It’s always great to come prepared with an idea that you can present to an artist but understand that they have to feel a connection to it. If they don’t love your idea, try to listen to their story and ask questions so they feel comfortable with you and find that common denominator.
If they are going through a breakup, try to give a piece of your history that makes them feel like you understand what they are going through, for example. Once you find that common denominator, you can write from that place.
“[artists] want to feel safe, they want to feel like they are heard and like you are going to honor their truth.”
People want to feel safe in the room, they want to feel like they are heard and like you are going to honor their truth and not just be there for your own ideas. Stay open and don’t get offended if they don’t love everything you’re doing.
Just do your best and come from a place of truth, compassion and honesty. I think most artists will gravitate towards that.
Do you have any most memorable studio sessions or artists that you’ve worked with?
I have so many stories! Working with Enrique Iglesias stands out. I’d been hired by Steve Morales to cut some vocals on a song he was working with — this is before we started writing together — for his first English-speaking record.
After the record was written, I had six songs on the album, and he was about to play Madison Square Garden. I’m from New York and my dream had been to play the garden, which I told him, and he said, ‘Why don’t you come on the stage and sing the backgrounds? You wrote all the parts, you can sing with the background singers.’
I was like, ‘Really?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, you just go up there, sing all the parts, we’ll put another mic on the stage.’ I said, ‘I’m not really dressed for that,’ he said, ‘Ah it’s fine, the [background singers] have jackets on.’ I was like, ‘All right, just cut the mic — I don’t know if I’ll remember all the parts.’
So he goes to do his set and I walk up there with the background singers. The song starts and all of a sudden, they drop their jackets and they are wearing these skimpy little outfits and they start doing a choreographed dance.
I’m standing there, freaking out, trying to keep up with them, and dying in front of all of these people. After the first song, I ran off the stage and the security guard grabbed me and was like, ‘Mam, what were you doing on that stage?’ I’m like, ‘I’m the songwriter, Enrique said I could sing on the backgrounds’ they are like just, ‘Stay here until Mr Iglesias gets off the stage.’
He gets off stage and they are like, ‘Mr Iglesias, do you know this woman?’ and he’s like ‘No, I’ve never seen her before.’ He was the ultimate prankster!
What would you change about the music industry and why?
It’s being changed right now and it’s amazing that artists anywhere in the world can find an audience without having to go through the traditional gatekeepers. I think that’s really healthy for the market.
It allows incredible talent to surface that maybe isn’t made for the hustle of dealing with the music industry in terms of meeting different A&Rs and trying to play that game, or a manager or getting to the right lawyer. They can just put their music out there and fans are reacting.
Instead of having to find someone inside the music industry to help put your music out, you can put it out and someone inside the music industry will find you and want to help you.
At the same time, I also feel like we as an industry can’t just rely on metrics, we can’t just sign things because they are doing well on TikTok. We also have to be out there looking for the talent that may not be having its social media moment but still deserves mentorship and support.
I also think it’s great that there are so many more women getting into production and songwriting. When I came up, there were practically no women. I was always writing with guys.
Speaking as a publisher and a songwriter, where do you stand on the songwriting streaming royalty rate debate?
I think it’s awful. I’m a board member for the Mechanical Licensing Collective, which is a historical vehicle for making sure that songwriters get money from the streaming companies.
I’m very excited about being a part of that. It’s history in the making. You can’t play or stream a song 500m times and the songwriter gets $5k or whatever it is, that’s just way below what they should be compensated.
We have to change the legislation around that. We’ve been basically putting a band-aid on legislation that was created years and years ago and the market has changed so much.
“When songs are on the radio, traditionally, the songwriter was paid and not the producer and now with Spotify, the artist is paid and not the songwriter.”
When songs are on the radio, traditionally, the songwriter was paid and not the producer and now with Spotify, the artist is paid and not the songwriter.
Really, it all begins with the song. If you don’t have a great song, it’s very hard for an artist to have an impact. That is something we are fighting and we will continue to fight for.
Are you confident that it’s going to change?
If it doesn’t change, you’re going to have a really hard time sustaining a market where there are songwriters that are out there flourishing and thriving. I don’t know how you can go into the field of being a songwriter if you are reliant upon streaming income.
It makes it so that you have to have singles, you have to have radio songs because that is the only way you’ll get paid, as well as big syncs. Not every songwriter has that luxury and it means the market is getting smaller and smaller. There are fewer and fewer groups of songwriters that are getting those big singles.
I also think it’s not great for music because then everybody is writing for hits. What about just writing songs that are meaningful with artists to have on their album?
If you get the chance to work with Camila Cabello, you’re not going to want to do a song that’s not going to be a hit. So if she wants to talk about something that is important to her, but you as a songwriter think ‘I could never hear that on the radio,’ you may take her away from expressing something that she wants to because you know this is your moment, you have to make the best of it and create a big radio song. I’m not sure that’s great for art.
Do you have any future ambitions you’d like to tick off?
I’m working on something right now but it’s a little too early to tell. I’d really like to see a world where young creatives in their teens can connect with other young creatives easily because I think that community for them is very important.
A lot of young teenage artists feel very disenfranchised and not understood. I think we’d have a healthier young population if we could figure out a way to care for them at an early age.
Does that relate to the mission for the new thing that you’re working on?
Yeah, it’s sort of been inspired by that.
MBW’s ongoing Inspiring Women series is supported by Ingrooves, which powers creativity by providing distribution, marketing and rights management tools and services to content creators and owners. Ingrooves is a leader in the independent music distribution and marketing industry, provides independent labels, established artists and other content owners with the most transparent and scalable distribution tools including analytics, rights management services, and thoughtful marketing solutions to maximize sales in today’s dynamic global marketplace.Music Business Worldwide