Alumni Interview: Ken Bunt, President, Disney Music Group
As part of the Wilkinson College, Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences in the Workplace lecture series, Chapman alumnus Ken Bunt ‘93, returned to Chapman University on March 10th to speak to students, faculty, and staff about his transition into the music industry, his current role at Disney Music Group and how his experiences at Chapman have impacted him. Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of sitting down with Ken and asking him a few questions about the ways in which his Liberal Arts degree allowed him to explore a wide range of ideas and gain knowledge in different creative and cultural fields.
Q: What role does Disney Music Group (DMG) play in The Walt Disney Company and what does your position as the President of Disney Music Group entail?
Disney Music Group (DMG), [the music arm of The Walt Disney Company], is home to two record labels– Walt Disney Records and Hollywood Records, that extends to a roster of about fifteen recording artists and twenty songwriters. In addition, the division oversees Disney Music Publishing and Disney Concerts, the company’s concert division.
In my current position as the president of Disney Music Group, I am responsible for the team that handles all the administration, marketing, and monetization of The Walt Disney Company’s’ musical assets. That’s everything from all the [film, television, theater, and theme park] music and all of the Disney soundtracks that are available on audio streaming platforms such as Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, YouTube, etc. Once we create and release the music, we then collect money from the monetization of the songs and pay the different creators behind them. I’ve been in this role for ten years now and have gotten to work with a team of about 180 employees in essentially every area of The Disney Company, which I have really enjoyed.
Q: Tell me about your Liberal Arts degree and how it helped prepare you for a career in the music industry?
I originally came to Chapman as a Business Administration major but very soon I realized that It wasn’t a good fit for me. I knew that I wanted to change my major but at the time I didn’t know what the right path for me was yet, so I changed my major to Liberal Studies, for no other reason than the freedom that it gave me to explore different subjects in different disciplines. Such as the social sciences, natural sciences, humanities, the arts and music–which very quickly became huge interests of mine. My freshman year I became involved in the Chapman Radio Station and as a sophomore ended up serving as the general manager where I became responsible for running the station, booking and scheduling bands and songs, and paying the bills. During that time, I began thinking about pursuing a career in radio, because not only was it a fun job but it offered me the opportunity to work with a variety of talented people.
The rest of my college career I stayed very involved in the station and began interning at several recording companies in Los Angeles. The third company I interned for; now called American Recordings, offered me a job after graduation promoting music videos to networks such as MTV and VH1. Years later, the same person that ran American Recordings was running the label at Disney and hired me as a Music Video Promoter at Disney Music Group.
For my whole life I had always been interested in computers, and one day my manager came up to me and asked “Hey, do you want to change what you’re doing? We need someone to focus on this thing called the internet,” to which I responded “yes, absolutely!” So from 1999 to 2003, I set out to understand what Disney owned in terms of musical assets and what their rights were. Not just from an album perspective but from an individual song perspective. Up until then music was only largely available on CD’s and Vinyl; iTunes and similar media players hadn’t launched yet. However, [given the fast growing nature of the internet], we realized that we needed to know what our rights were on a song to song level–which is a lot when you’re Disney and have a big musical catalog.
I then proceeded to work with young artists like The Jonas Brothers, Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato and Hilary Duff and pushing them to participate on platforms like YouTube. About six years into that role, I was approached by another general manager who turned to me and said, “Hey, what you're doing is basically marketing, why don’t you just run the marketing team since you’re already working with all of these artists pretty closely?” Admittedly that was probably the biggest career shift in my life, even more so than the role that I am in now. At that point I had never been responsible for a team of more than one person. I had never run meetings, set up photoshoots, video shoots, made budgets, decided creative directions with artists, or worked with them and their managers to come up with overall campaign strategies. In this role; as the Senior Vice President of Marketing for Hollywood Records & Disney Music Group, I worked with a variety of departments within the company and gained a well-rounded understanding of the functions that each department performed. Having acquired that brand knowledge, I received the offer to serve as the President of Disney Music Group ten years ago and have been in this role ever since– working with a team of about 180 employees worldwide to create, release, and monetize music to every part of The Disney Company and our audiences.
Q: Are there any skills or lessons you learned in your Liberal Arts degree that have proved to be particularly valuable in your career?
Understanding other disciplines, cultures, and perspectives has become more important in the workplace than ever before. For me, the study of liberal arts; as I’m sure in CCI, has helped me become more curious, patient, empathetic and collaborative–skills that are especially important when working and overseeing a large group of people. Additionally, my major helped to highlight the many different avenues I could explore as a part of my education.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your job?
What I absolutely enjoy about my job is my ability to work with a wide array of colleagues around the company– both nationally and internationally. I work with everyone from filmmakers, musicians, animators, music researchers, and so many others. It's really a lot of fun for me because I’m able to gain insight into different disciplines, creative processes, and learn to collaborate with different groups of people around the world.
Q: In what ways has DMG responded to social issues in the past or present?
As a company we have been through a lot of social change within the last two years. In the aftermath of George Floyd's death, we partnered with ESPN and their media platform Andscape on a music initiative called “Music for the Movement'.” Through this initiative we collaborated with black musicians and visual artists to create a series of EP’s and cover art from a social justice standpoint. Andscape, once known as The Undefeated, started as a news/blog site that highlighted and elevated black culture, sports, entertainment, and voices. The platform has now expanded into publishing, TV and film, live events, and music. We are now in the process of starting a label called Andscape Music, which is something we’re particularly proud of and have really leaned into the past few months.
Q: Is mentorship something that is prevalent within your company, and did you have any mentors throughout your career?
For me, I was very fortunate enough to have people who would let me sit in their offices and observe how they handled business. From those experiences I learned what to do and what not to do and I was very fortunate to have people who weren’t self-conscious about me observing them– particularly at American Recordings and Disney Music Group. I feel like that’s something that’s really missing right now in the remote work environment– especially for young people entering the workforce. Companies have gotten good at setting up mentee/mentor programs and Disney in particular has gotten really good at helping people feel connected in the company.
Q: What advice can you give to students who have similar career aspirations? Or those who aren’t sure what they want to do yet?
My advice not only goes to students that are thinking about pursuing a career in music, but to all students in general. I believe that it’s important to spend as much time figuring out what you don't want to do as it is figuring out what you do want to do. It comes down to taking classes and trying things you think might be interesting, seeing what the environment of a company/industry feels like, and determining what feels like the right fit. It's okay if you try something for a year or two and think to yourself “Let me try something else.” You are allowed to pivot to another path!
I would like to extend a huge thank you to Mr. Ken Bunt for taking the time to speak with me and share some insights on his career in the creative sector, giving our CCI students that were unable to attend his lecture on campus another chance to learn from his experience. It is always exciting to reflect on the journey that those working in the Creative and Cultural Industries have taken. It serves to remind us that every position at every level benefit from someone who can demonstrate and call upon a varied set of skills, experiences and awareness in order to contribute positively to a project or organization.