The Next Chapter

Denise Donlon on activist musicians and breaking the glass ceiling

Shelagh Rogers chats with former MuchMusic and Sony Music Canada executive Denise Donlon about her new memoir.
Denise Donlon has served as an executive at MuchMusic, Sony Music Canada and the CBC. (House of Anansi)

On Denise Donlon's first day live on air at MuchMusic, the station was young and had a "make it up as you go along" mentality. She remembers doing OK that first day, but she went on to greater success — hosting, and eventually becoming VP of the company. She later headed up Sony Music Canada and spent time at the CBC. Her new memoir is titled Fearless as Possible (Under the Circumstances).

Denise Donlon spoke to Shelagh Rogers from Toronto.

On the early days of MuchMusic

When I started at The New Music, it was a time of great artist activism. Sting was in the rainforest, REM was campaigning for Greenpeace and there was Live Aid and all that stuff. So for me, the whole equation of "music plus meaning equals magic" was at the forefront. We were able to follow the artists' lead, and not only talk to them about music and art and culture, but also about racism and violence and gender issues and the environment. For me, it was a very exciting time.

On working with Leonard Cohen

Leonard hadn't done a record in 10 years, and I was at Sony Music Canada when he put out Ten New Songs. It renewed attention on the world stage, and Sony wanted what they called an "essentials" collection. Leonard didn't want to do it, and I begged and pleaded and promised we could remix everything and do all the artwork and he finally relented. He went into the studio, and a few weeks later he presented me with the track list, and it didn't have "So Long, Marianne" on it. We argued for weeks and he would say things like "Well, it was never as good in reality as it was in memory." Finally, I had to insist.  

On impostor syndrome and the female executive

Right now impostor syndrome is sort of particular to women, from Tina Fey to Emma Watson to Maya Angelou, but more and more men are starting to own up to it. It's the idea that you're going to be found out as a fraud, and it's a pernicious little stalker. It can attack in boardrooms, or behind the podium when you're thanking the Academy. For me, it made me work harder. We're still in a situation in this day and age where the numbers of women in politics, on boards, as CEOs of companies — they're not good. We need to get that equal viewpoint and that perspective out there. It's particularly important for young girls around the world. It's been shown by all kinds of studies that if you educate a woman and if you lift a girl up, it's good for the GDP, it's good for men, it's good for everybody. We've got another generation to go for sure, but I hope we're going to get there.

Denise Donlon's comments have been edited and condensed.