Tena Clark had it all: a house on a golf course, a BMW and a fancy job at Sunburst Productions, a company that she founded which grew to become one of the largest booking agencies in the south. But she left it all and headed to Nashville to pursue her dreams.
In my last post, we heard about Tena's upbringing and influences. Now, we'll hear from Tena on her career journey after moving back to Nashville and how this led her to where she is today -- producing music for popular television shows, movies and even for Delta Air Lines.
Q: In Nashville, you started a publishing company to sign writers. But your stay there was relatively short, since you moved to Los Angeles to focus on writing and production. What made you change course and give up your dream of playing drums professionally?
I probably quit playing when I was about 26. There was a huge glass ceiling or, really, actually it was a concrete ceiling, for women drummers. I was so driven to be able to express myself musically that [it seemed] there was no ceiling for me. But I kept running into ceilings (and walls) because I was a woman. People would say, "Oh, my God! You're so good for a girl!" But I don't want to be 'good for a girl.' I want to be good! I don't want you to think I'm good for a girl.
I knew there was a bigger and better way for me to express myself and be in the music business rather than the drums because I knew I could not make a living as a drummer. That's the reason I put the drums down. But then as far as writing, it was okay to be a female writer, but you couldn't produce. Only men produce. That's what I hit when I got to Los Angeles.
Throughout my life, I have just knocked down one wall at a time and then you start saying, "Just bring it on." I once had someone very high up in the record business tell me, "Look, you've got three things going against you in the R & B world. You're white, you're a woman and you're from Mississippi. And you're pissing off a lot of black guys, taking their gigs." Anytime anybody's ever said something like that to me -- you can't do this or you can't whatever -- it's just like waving a red flag. You know, it's like, oh, oh, this is going to be fun.
Q: So you got to Los Angeles and started your third company, Tena Clark Productions, which you still own. Tell me about that one.
I was a music production house for Leo Burnett [the advertising agency] out of Chicago. About ten percent of my career was the commercials, but I needed to have a production company to run all these projects through -- the records I was producing, the commercials, TV, film, etc. So I created Tena Clark Productions, which is all my production work and all my commercials.
Q: Your fourth company, DMI Music & Media Solutions is a different kind of company. It connects consumers to brands using music. One example is how United Airlines uses Rhapsody in Blue as its signature "audio logo." You've coined the term, "soundDNA" to create loyalty through emotion and emotion through music. DMI has created music and music programming for Build-A-Bear Workshop, Delta Air Lines, General Mills, Kohl's, Macy's, AMC/Regal and PowerBar, just to name a few. What was the genesis of that company?
To me, music is always the bastard child in most mediums. In the movie industry, I would get phone calls from producers or directors where they just spent millions and millions of dollars on a film and then say, "Okay, we need a score. We need a song here and we've got two weeks and we have no money." It's the same in commercials. They spend a gazillion dollars on some hot director to do a commercial, and then oh, by the way, can you do this music for a thousand bucks?
It's random acts of music. There's no stickiness with what they're doing. They're just chasing the latest and greatest artists or the latest and greatest fad, but it has no brand enhancement or lasting impression with the consumer. Music can be such an amazing and impactful brand extension. The whole genesis of this company was to connect consumers to brands through the emotional power of music. To me this was a great way to keep creating music and to distribute music in places it had never been distributed, or to hear music in places they had never heard it.
DMI was all about breaking that mold. We are a marketing company first, that happened to use music to market to the consumer, as opposed to being a music company that's just selling compilations. We create music strategies for brands, and give them a multi-year plan showing how they can engage and evolve in the music and entertainment space. That's where the audio logo and the soundDNA business came from.
In the beginning, I wanted to sell CDs everywhere they were not sold, which was about 99.999 percent of the world. For example, when we created a lullaby CD for newborns for Sears, we had immunization schedules and health care tips for the new parents printed inside the new package. It was a marketing piece that gave them the bonus of music with valuable information. When we decided we needed to kick it up a notch we started creating enhanced CDs where that visual was not static anymore and we would create interviews, or the commercials would be on there, or maybe it was contests or games. We created a ton of games that were brand-centric on the ECDs and that kept us alive in that world for a very long time when CDs started going down.
Q: soundDNA and the emotional power of music evoke feminine concepts. Do you think that because you're a woman, you were able to identify the connection between music and branding, where other people haven't?
I've never thought of it like that, but I think you're right. I mean, I think women are much more sensitive to those things. They're more sensitive to the environment in a store. "I'm relaxed so I'm going to chill and look around a little bit." If I'm in a store and the music is annoying -- and I know most people feel this way, they can't stand it. They can't wait to get out of there.
But for a brand to create that soundDNA they have to be fearless and be consistent. You can't listen to every person in an agency that walks down the hall. From a female standpoint I think there's a little more emotional sensibility there. It's making those notes mean something to someone and making that connection.
What I love is that with DMI, we're able to get the artists' music played in creative ways through brand distribution. The record labels don't have the money to do promotion like they used to, so I can get somebody's song heard. I can not only create soundDNAs and create great brand recognition with major brands, but also I feel how important it is to give those -- so many, many, many, many artists signed and unsigned, an opportunity to be heard. That is the message and the seed of where I started as a kid in Mississippi. I just wanted my music to be heard. Music crosses all boundaries and it's been my passion as long as I can remember and will be as long as I breathe.
Like virtually all female entrepreneurs I've studied, Tena Clark is also an active contributor to philanthropic causes. She donates all profits from downloads of "I Believed" to Vital Voices. She's written a dance song, "Break the Chain," for the 15th anniversary of V-Day on February 14, 2013, which is to be played wherever One Billion Rising is active in the world that day. And she's also giving back to her roots by helping underprivileged women in Mississippi.
There's no doubt about it, Tena Clark is a force to be reckoned with. So keep an ear out for her and her music.
This post first appeared on Forbes.com.