What were you doing at age 16?
Chances are it didn’t involve moonlighting as a self-made concert promoter, organizing shows in your backyard with some of the Southern California punk rock scene’s most revered acts. Unless, of course, you are Jason Markey, President of Music at STX Entertainment, in which case it very much did.
Before becoming one of Hollywood’s go-to producers of scores and soundtracks for films such as Bad Moms and The Edge of Seventeen, Markey built a track record as an esteemed A&R (Artists and Repertoire) executive – signing and developing global hit-makers such as 30 Seconds to Mars and Scary Kids Scaring Kids.
But before all that, he was a teenager in Calabasas in the ‘80s, using proceeds from a car detailing business he founded to pay for beer kegs at his homegrown punk rock shows. Some of the headliners he roped in are now legends of the hardcore genre, including the Dickies and the Adolescents.
“I would pay bouncers to stand at the door of my house, and I used to charge guys $4.00 and girls $2.00,” Markey told CreativeFuture. “You could come in and get a cup and drink all the beer you wanted. My friends and I would sit in the window of the kitchen and have the hoses of the kegs going out the window, and that’s how we would pour people’s beer. I was a very enterprising kid.”
While still in college, Markey landed an internship at MCA Records, working alongside Zombies guitarist turned music executive Paul Atkinson. From there, it was a rapid rise up the corporate ladder, with stops along the way at legendary record labels such as Arista, Immortal, and Rick Rubin’s American Recordings before finding a home in the world of scores and soundtracks for STX’s film division – a global studio that produces, acquires, distributes, and markets motion pictures.
At different points in his long and illustrious career, Markey has helped introduce the world to Hoobastank, given Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash the idea to team up with Scott Weiland for Velvet Revolver, and had a hand in producing Santana’s Supernatural album, which has sold over 30 million records to date.
“I’m a workaholic,” he said. “I can never get enough.”
Jason Markey in his office at STX Entertainment.
CreativeFuture: Where are you from originally?
Jason Markey: I was born in a suburb of Detroit but we left when I was in eighth grade to move to California.
I had an older sister who passed away when I was 11. My dad’s dream was to live in California, and a few years after my sister died, he packed up and moved us to San Diego. San Diego was a hurdle for my father, so, he moved us up to Calabasas a year after arriving there and started a computer repair company with his cousin back when PCs were brand new, and a 15mb hard drive cost like $10,000.
CF: When did music enter the picture during your upbringing?
JM: Back in the day, it was mandatory to pick an instrument and be in the band in second or third grade. I picked trumpet and was horrible at it. Michelle, my sister, chose the violin and was beyond a natural – she was a true prodigy. She ended up playing first-chair violin with the Detroit Symphony at age 14. So, at age 7, she was already into music, which meant that by the time I was four years old, I was listening to her play Elton John, the Beatles, Peter Frampton, ELO, and Aerosmith. She was my idol and I was her musical muse.
I remember hearing her play “Bennie and the Jets” from Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and losing my mind. Something connected with me.
Later, when I was 17, I met a girl named Andrea whose dad was a big music producer and A&R guy. I was at their house one day and walked into the living room, and there was a wall with gold and platinum plaques from the top of the ceiling all the way down to the floor.
I said to her, “What are those for?” And Andrea said, “Oh, my dad is a producer, an A&R guy, and he gets awarded those for sales on records.”
I said, “What is an A&R guy?”
She said, “It’s Artists and Repertoire. He goes out and signs artists and bands. He makes their records, and he makes their careers.”
At that very moment, I remember thinking to myself, “This is what I want to do with my life.” I was entering my senior year of high school, and I knew I wanted to go work at a record company.
CF: That is a pretty advanced thought for a teenager to have.
JM: I was a very enterprising kid. My parents had a boat in the marina, and every weekend they would be gone from Friday to Sunday. We had a nice size backyard and I started having little get-togethers at the house. That turned into having some real parties, and that grew into having some friends come and play music.
My friend and I built a stage with four posts and a pavilion over the top, and we would take it apart and put it on the side of the house [during the week]. Another friend who was older would go to the Liquor Barn and get kegs for the parties. I would pay bouncers to stand at the door [of my house], and I used to charge guys $4.00 and girls $2.00. You could come in and get a cup and drink all the beer you wanted. Thinking about this now, I wish we had Uber back then!
I had punk bands like the Grim and the Dickies. My crowning achievement, as far as well-known bands were concerned, was having the Adolescents play. It was a big deal.
One crazy big party that I had, I couldn’t stop it. I finally called the police on myself and before I knew it, there was a helicopter and about 40 police cars. I was standing at our gate and it looked like the end of a concert – that’s how many people were coming out. I was this stupid, drunk, 17-year-old kid and I looked at the cop and was like, “How many people do you think were here?” And he goes (laughs), “Looks like 1,200 to me.” It was insane.
CF: You must have been very popular with your neighbors.
JM: None of the neighbors really hassled us or cared too much about the noise or kids hanging out. Calabasas was quite remote back then, not like it is today. Besides, my friends and I always cleaned up afterward.
CF: What was your first job in the music business?
JM: My first job was as an intern at MCA in 1990, working for Paul Atkinson, who was formerly in the Zombies. He ended up giving me my first “real” job as his assistant. Then I met this guy, Ron Oberman, who became my mentor and took me everywhere, and let me sign my first band to MCA Records, the Dimestore Hoods.
CF: How did you discover the Dimestore Hoods?
JM: I had gone from MCA to working at a company called Left Bank Management, for their vanity record label, Impact Records, which was where I found the Dimestore Hoods. I got a demo tape in the mail and I was like, “What the hell is this?” I played it for the guy I was working for and he literally threw the tape at me, and it hit me in the chest. At that moment I thought, “I’ll show you.”
I went and called the Dimestore Hoods’ manager, Jeff Jampol and said, “Dude, I’m in love with the band you’re managing,” and he said, “Well, we’re going to be at the Whiskey A Go Go on Thursday night,” and he got me on the list. I went and saw the band and they were amazing live, like metal meets punk rock. Ahead of their time.
Then I saw Ron Oberman out one night and had a Dimestore Hoods cassette tape on me. I walked up to him and literally slipped it into the front pocket of his shirt. He listened to it in his car and called me and said, “Who is this band?” He had the same reaction to them that I did.
I brought him down to their sketchy rehearsal space in San Pedro. They did a showcase for him. I remember it was like 120 degrees in that space and Ron said, “I want to sign this band, and when I do, I’m going to give you an A&R job at MCA.
CF: Whatever happened to the Dimestore Hoods?
JM: There was a humongous bidding war to sign them, the biggest in MCA history. It was a $3.5 million record deal. Then the Dimestore Hoods completely failed, but they ended up rebranding [as 3rd Strike] and had a hit, [“No Light,”] in 2002.
CF: And Ron Oberman made good on his promise. What happened after you got your A&R job at MCA?
JM: There was a big regime change at MCA and everyone got fired. Nobody wanted to sign there.
Then I met [music journalist and executive] Lonn Friend and he said to me, “I’m going to work at Arista Records and run the A&R department on the West Coast. You should come work for me. You’ll be my scout.”
They flew me to New York, I met [Arista founder] Clive Davis, and I took this scout job. I went backwards, but it felt like within a year I could bounce back, and I did. Clive gave me a promotion by making me a director after we had a couple of moderate alternative rock hits with the band I signed, Nerf Herder. They were genius, too, ahead of their time – in the vein of Blink 182 before Blink 182 was a big deal.
CF: You were at Arista when the label put out Santana’s 1999 album Supernatural, which would go on to sell more than 30 million records worldwide. What were your contributions to that seminal work?
JM: I worked on [the song] “Put Your Lights On” with Everlast, but the track on the album that I really pushed for was [“Wishing It Was”] with Eagle Eye Cherry. I ended up bringing in the Dust Brothers to produce it and it ended up being the last track to get put on. It wasn’t commercial, but there were so many reviews I read that said that the Eagle Eye Cherry song was the most brilliant song on the record.
CF: What happened after Arista?
JM: I went to work with [producer] Rick Rubin [on his American Recordings label]. I was only there for about two years, but I learned a lot from watching Rick dissect a song and just how his musical brain worked.
CF: Why were you there for only two years?
JM: Rick seemed to love and connect with my musical taste and what I was bringing him, but I felt like I wasn’t going to sign anyone there and I wanted to make and market records badly.
I met up with an executive at Immortal Records, which was founded by Happy Walters. I had heard of Happy because he was friends with Rick, and he had a winner’s track record around the business. I came in to Immortal and became head of A&R. The first thing I did was make a killer tribute album called Straight Up, which was a huge success in honoring Lynn Straight from the band Snot – Straight died in a car accident in 1998.
Then we signed 30 Seconds to Mars.
CF: Whose lead singer is, of course, Oscar®-winning actor Jared Leto. How did you end up signing 30 Seconds to Mars?
JM: Jared came to Los Angeles to be in a band. He didn’t come here to be an actor. Acting paid the bills [for him]. Happy was like, “I really love this guy. Let’s sign him.” So, we did. Then it took two-and-a-half years to make 30 Seconds to Mars’ first record. It was a major challenge. We made it three different times. Jared is very particular about what he wants. He’s very focused and has a very clear vision for his artistry. In the end, it turned out amazing and the rest is history.
CF: You also had a hand in the creation of Slash and Scott Weiland’s hard rock super-group Velvet Revolver while at Immortal. How did that project come together?
JM: [Guns N’ Roses members] Slash, Duff McKagan, and Matt Sorum were trying to find a lead singer for their then unnamed new band. David Codikow, who had recently been working with them at Immortal, came to me and said, “Will you go down and meet with them, help them find a singer?”
So, I met with the guys, and they collectively said to me, “We can’t find anyone who doesn’t want to be Axl Rose. We don’t want Axl Rose. We want to be something different [from Guns N’ Roses]. Can you help us find a singer?”
Slash then asked me to go with him to SXSW to scout for a singer. I laughed and said, “Okay, let’s give it a shot.”
We went down to Austin and nothing came of it except for some great nights at Sugars and the Four Seasons Hotel, (laughs) but that’s a story for another time.
Afterward, when Slash and I were flying back to L.A., I said, “Let me run two names by you, and you tell me yes or no.” The first name I said was Lenny Kravitz. Slash goes, “I love it, but Lenny will never do it because Lenny Kravitz has to be Lenny Kravitz – he’ll never be in a band.”
So, I said, “Okay, I got a tip [on someone else]. I think you can convince him to join this band: Scott Weiland.”
Slash called Scott and he came to practice the next day, out in the Valley. He was completely out of it, but he got up onstage, Slash and the band started playing this riff, and Scott started singing and scatting along – It was f**king magical from moment one. The song he was scatting to became “Slither,” one of Velvet Revolver’s global hits. Then we did a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Money” that ended up in The Italian Job movie and was, again, an enormous hit. Then I got them a colossal record deal with RCA, and that was the “dealing with rock stars” era of my life.
CF: That was around 2004 – as an A&R guy at record labels, whose business was selling records, how did the transition of music to the digital space impact your career?
JM: I really embraced it. When Myspace started, I met their sales guy and told him, “I have this band, Scary Kids Scaring Kids, and we made this video for $1,000 that is the coolest video you’ve ever seen. You guys have 60 million people coming to your home page to sign in every single day. What if we put the music video of this band on the front page of your website?”
Everybody who came to the page had to watch this video, and we had something like 120 million plays in a month, which was an enormous amount of plays back then – remember, there was no YouTube yet.
CF: How did you start transitioning from producing music for the music industry to producing music for the film industry?
JM: Happy Walters decided to close Immortal Records in 2008. My next move was unemployment. I became a miserable person, working at home by myself, managing bands. It sucked.
One afternoon, Happy called me and said, “Will you meet me in Malibu for breakfast tomorrow?”
I went to Malibu and he said, “I’m going to go work with this guy, Ryan Kavanaugh, at a company called Relativity. It’s a new film company in Hollywood and he wants to start a music department. I’m going to be president of the department, but I can’t do it without you.”
I was 16 months into unemployment at this point so I said, “Yes, what do I have to do?” He said, “You have to write a business plan,” and I said, “Okay, what is the company? What am I doing?” He goes, “You’re going to be a music supervisor.”
So, I spent a week writing a business plan. I had no idea how to write a business plan, but I wrote a business plan, and I handed it to Happy. Two days later, he called and said, “Ryan loved it. You’re hired.”
CF: What did your business plan for Relativity entail?
JM: I had no idea what I was doing. I started a record label, doing soundtracks for Relativity. I started soliciting other film companies, saying, “Can I put out your soundtracks?”
I went on to put out soundtracks for NBC, including a 30 Rock box set. I put together a coffee table book with all the music from 30 Rock in it. I started doing stuff for HBO, DreamWorks Animation, Universal Pictures, Paramount, Focus Features, and Showtime – to name some of them. It just took off. In the seven years I was at Relativity, I put out 74 soundtracks. I built a legitimate business over there.
CF: What was your fondest moment at Relativity?
JM: Three particular events come to mind right away.
The first one is that for years I have been going to Nashville – not only because I am a huge fan of the music scene there, but also because I love the city itself. When we worked on the film Act of Valor at Relativity, I reached out to Gary Borman because I knew in my heart that doing something with a Nashville artist/writer would be the key to success on that film. I approached Gary with the intention of asking Keith Urban (whom I was a colossal fan of) to work on the end title song. They both were blown away by the film and Keith ended up writing one of the most amazing and inspiring songs I have ever had the opportunity to work on with an artist. It was called “For You.” We ended up getting a Golden Globe nomination and having a top 5 Billboard country hit. The best part about this whole project was that it raised funds for charity, and we were able to benefit both the Wounded Warrior Project and the Navy SEAL Foundation. That was an incredible feeling.
Secondly, I got to work with Chris Cornell on a film called Machine Gun Preacher. Chris wrote the end title song and we were nominated for a Golden Globe and a Grammy. What an honor it was to work with that guy, who was a childhood hero of mine.
And third, I had the pleasure of working with Diane Warren to write a song for Rita Ora for the film Beyond the Lights. That was the biggie – we got nominated for an Oscar. Super cool honor since it was the only one for Relativity in the company’s history.
CF: Why did you leave Relativity?
JM: It came to a point where I knew Relativity was going to come to an end. At the same time, I had read an article about STX Entertainment. They were a new studio with the same business model as Relativity. STX’s Noah Fogelson and Thomas McGrath asked me to speak with director Gary Ross and help them with the soundtrack for the first movie they were producing there, Free State of Jones. I was just doing it as a favor, hoping it might turn into a job down the road.
I brought up this composer, Nicholas Britell, to Ross. He said, “You’re bringing me someone that nobody knows.” I said, “Yes, but in a year’s time he’s going to win an Academy Award®. He’s brilliant.”
The only thing Britell had done to that point was to write all the fiddle cues in 12 Years a Slave, but my A&R sense told me this guy is going to be the guy. Ross met him, loved him, and it was fantastic.
Then, as Free State of Jones was finishing up, Britell got hired by Adam McKay to do The Big Short, and then last year he got nominated for an Oscar® for scoring Moonlight.
CF: So, your prediction basically came true.
JM: I’m super proud that I beat everyone to the punch on that one.
CF: And, it ushered you fully into the STX fold, where, according to your bio, you now oversee “all aspects of music including production of film scores and development of soundtracks for the studio.” Talk about how this role is unique in the world of film music.
JM: I always thought, “If I’m going to music supervise, I’m going to do it as if I’m making a record.” That’s how I look at it. You have guys that have been at the bigger studios like Fox and Universal, and they came up through the system as film music executives, but they don’t have A&R experience. They don’t have publishing experience. They don’t have experience working with artists in studios. Not only did I do all that, but I was very involved in marketing and product management, too.
When I was making records, the best part for me was signing a band. My second favorite part was making the record – really figuring out who the right person was to produce that band and finding the sound I liked. At STX, it’s not much different. I get to take a director and a composer, and I get to make great music.
CF: What advice would you give someone who wants to do what you want to do?
JM: I always look for someone who has integrity and who has a level-headed personality – who can deal with the craziness of the people we deal with. I’m a workaholic. I can never get enough, and I look for someone who has those same qualities – who puts in the work and who is proud of what they put their name on, and owns it.
Way back when I was interning for Paul Atkinson at MCA Records, he had this organization issue with all of the tapes that they would get from bands. You would have to go through a thousand buckets to find a band’s tape. One weekend, I took it upon myself to go through 1,500 demo submissions and put them all in order using a computer program called Lotus Notes. Atkinson didn’t even know what Lotus Notes was. He was like, “That’s genius,” and hired me full-time, giving me my first break. I will always look to that day as the day I made it into this crazy business forever.
There is always something to do to make your job better, and those are the types of people I want to hire – who will put in the time and desire to develop their own career.
All photographs courtesy of Jason Markey