When Donna Burke arrived in Japan from Perth, Western Australia, in 1996, she was ready for an adventure. After starting off as an English teacher in Omori, she soon moved on to bigger and better things. Already having been a part-time singer at home, she was confident she could get work in Japan. Armed with a demo tape, she answered ads in magazines from people looking for singers, got introduced to lots of agencies and was soon on her way to a singing career.
In the years since then, Burke has become an accomplished lyricist and has written songs for her own CDs, other recording artists and for anime, movies, TV dramas, game software and TV commercials. She can also be heard some Thursday nights doing the English voiceover for NHK bilingual news, and demonstrates her comedic talents as a regular member of the Tokyo Comedy Store. In October, she sang the Australian national anthem prior to the Australia-New Zealand Bledisloe Cup rugby game in Tokyo.
On top of all that, Burke is president of Dagmusic Ltd, a sound production and talent agency for foreign entertainers, which she co-founded with her husband and collaborator Bill Benfied in 1999. When Burke is not busy filling requests for foreign singers and actors, she is busy with another business she started – Hotteeze, which exports heat-warming pads to Australia, the U.S. and other countries.
Japan Today editor Chris Betros visits Burke at her office-home in Roppongi to hear more.
What was it like when you first arrived in Japan?
I was confident I could get work here. I answered ads in Metropolis from people looking for singers and in a couple of months, I was doing recordings. But it was hard at first. I was basically broke for six months. I used to eat dinner at Yoshinoya and just drink water at What the Dickens.
Why did you decide to start your own company?
Bill and I started it as a record label for our first album which we put out in 1999. The CD publishing company said we needed to have a record label, so we set up a company just for that purpose and called it Dagmusic. Then one of my contacts complained that whenever they needed a singer, the agencies used to always provide them with the same five names. I knew that through my network I could find many more, so I started out by helping him … and he is still one of Dagmusic’s best clients.
Did you have a head for business?
Not then. I like to find talented people. Nothing pleases me more than finding a singer who is better than me. But I wasn’t really interested in the business side of it. I spent 14 months with Bill doing a catch-up course on how to run a business. I didn’t even know how to read a balance sheet or anything about budgeting. I used to think that business was boring, whereas now, I find it to be just as creative as making a CD.
So how’s business?
Last year we were in the red and this year has been challenging but we haven’t laid anyone off or cut salaries. We have spent this year preparing for next year. The work is still there but clients’ budgets have been reduced. We’re in the black mainly due to Hotteeze – our business of exporting head pads overseas. That’s how we have survived.
How many foreigners do you have on your books?
We have maybe 300. There is a big demand now for speakers of Spanish, French, German and Italian, besides English, of course.
Do you get many specific requests for casting?
Yes. For example, a client might want a Spanish speaker, but it has to be someone with a Madrid accent. Nothing else will do. Another time, a client wanted boys aged 5-7 for a German children’s choir. Another request was for a Middle Eastern boy about 9 years old.
What advice would you give any aspiring singer wanting to work in Japan?
Always have the best kick-ass demo tape you can afford. Remember, a demo tape is not work you have actually done; it is a reel of what you can do. I’ve heard too many that don’t sound professional enough. For our part, we want to offer our clients the best singers and the best variety, so it helps both our business and the singers themselves if they good demos.
What else are you involved in?
I do the NHK news on some Thursdays. I’ve been with them as an announcer since 1999. Right now, I am the voice actor for the mother of Little Charo’s mom in the English language learning program. I do a lot of singing for commercials and game software.
How many staff work with you?
I have five: a general manager, a design and casting manager, an events/studio manager, a composer/lyricist and an accountant. Running a business is like being a teacher. You are constantly empowering people and watching them get better. That’s how I feel about my staff.
Tell us about Hotteeze.
We started it in 2004 as a division of Dagmusic. I could not believe that all my family and friends were asking me to bring these heat pads and toe pads back to Australia, so I could see a demand there. I had no business plan, just a gut feeling. I called some distributors in Australia and it worked. Sales grew 20% this year. We did a trial in Woolworth’s and that went well, and we’re now looking at retailers like Coles and K-Mart. Last year, we sold 300,000 pads in Australia and we have started selling them in the U.S., UK and Turkey. In Tokyo, you can buy them at the Tokyo Medical Center pharmacy opposite Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Physio in Hiroo.
What is a typical day for you?
I get up around 7:30 and have the house to myself before the staff come at 10. I read the paper and drink tea and have some quiet time. If I don’t have an early recording, then I have breakfast, check emails and meet with staff.
How do you like to relax?
We like to visit our house in Gunma on weekends. When I get some time here, I crave a bit of quiet and solitude. For that reason, I don’t watch TV. When I am driving, I like to listen to inspirational tapes about business and success.
Do you enjoy the Tokyo Comedy Store?
Yes, it is a fun, fantastic artistic outlet and it is an activity that I don’t have to be in charge of. I absolutely love it. After all, I think I have been an idiot all my life.
For further information, visit www.dagmusic.com or www.donnaburke.com.© Japan Today