Q&A: David Leonard #1061

by TJ Armour

David Leonard’s extensive career in the entertainment industry spans more than two decades. Soon after getting his Bachelor’s Degree in Liberal Arts from Columbia College Chicago, the young upstart got his first gig in entertainment working on several major feature films as a Production Assistant.

Because his passion was initially in the music business he soon began work as a producer in radio at famed Chicago station 106JAMZ before transitioning over to the digital music start-up FullAudio/Music Now. Shortly thereafter, David held positions as the National Director of Mixshow Promotion with the Chicago-based music marketing company, Jeff McClusky & Associates and as Regional Promotion Director with Interscope/Geffen/A&M Records where he promoted and marketed major recording artists such as Eminem, 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg, Lady Gaga, The Pussycat Dolls, Common and Gwen Stefani resulting in millions of record sales.

In 2010, David returned to his film and television roots as part of the production team of the highly acclaimed documentary series “Season 25: Oprah – Behind The Scenes” for the Oprah Winfrey Network and the heralded drama series “Boss” on the STARZ network. From there, David segued into Locations as the manager for the independent feature dramedy, “Warren” and followed that up scouting locations for television series such as ABC’s “Betrayal”, and “The Steve Harvey Show”.

David has also assisted as a Location representative on the blockbuster film, “Divergent” and the edgy Showtime television series, “Shameless”. When not working behind the scenes, David is in front of the camera as an actor, who has appeared in several television commercials, independent films, web series and stage productions. Most recently, David has scouted locations for the Spike Lee drama, “Chi-Raq” and as one of the Assistant Location Managers of the
highly successful FOX television drama “Empire”.


Did you have any early influences that made you want to be involved in the entertainment industry?

AAt an early age, I watched a lot of television, listened to lots of music and always had a creative imagination, but I was first exposed to entertainment by my mom who was a successful playwright.  I grew up in and around the theater, so watching her create something on paper, then bring it to life on stage left a huge impression on me.



How did you finally get your start in the industry?

AAfter high school, my goal was to break into the music industry and work in A&R at a major record label, so I got a taste of that interning at several indie labels and a brief stint in radio while attending Columbia College in Chicago. My first big break came in 1998 when I was given an opportunity to work on a feature film that was filming in Chicago. It initially started as a security job that later transitioned into a production assistant gig. I continued working in film & television for several years after that, but returned to the music business later.


Who has been your biggest mentor and what did you they teach you?

AI’ve had so many mentors in the entertainment industry…probably too many to name all of them, but a lot of my mentors have been people who I worked for or directly with. When I first got into the music business, my early mentors were Tammy Tisdell who worked for Sony/550 Music and Virgin Records and Sean Lynch who was a radio Program Director/On-Air Personality and VP of Record Promotion. They both taught me the ins and outs of music marketing and promotion. In more recent years, my mentors in television and film have been my current boss Brady Breen and Natasha Parker, both of whom are longtime Location Managers here in Chicago. They walked me through my first Location Manager gig which I would have been completely lost without their guidance and encouragement.


As a recording artist and a professional with radio experience, what are your views on contemporary music and the model for getting music to the masses?

AI’m probably a little bias when it comes to today’s contemporary music and music from my generation which is now considered “old school” *laughs*  I don’t necessarily listen to a lot of the popular music that’s played on the radio these days, but there are a lot of new, young artists that still get me excited about music. I listen to more R&B and Jazz now, but artists like Kendrick Lamar, Phonte and Drake keep my faith in Hip-Hop restored. As far as the model for how music is delivered to the masses, I feel the playing field is definitely more level. Today’s technology has created the opportunity for independent artists to deliver more content and create their own rules and marketing strategies without having to depend on the “gatekeepers” and I think that’s a good thing.


Tell us about your time spent working in record promotion?

AI started out doing record promotion while still at Columbia when I was hired by Tammy Tisdell, who was running her own street marketing company and working for Sony/550 Music simultaneously. I worked projects at the street level for various labels including Capitol Records, Tommy Boy and BMG Distribution. Several years later I promoted artists to Rhythm/Crossover radio stations with a company based out of Chicago called JMA Marketing & Promotions. I worked my way up at JMA over a five year period which led to my dream job at Interscope/Geffen/A&M Records in 2004 where I served as one of the Midwest Regional Promotion Directors until 2009. I got to work with some of the biggest artists in music at the time including 50 Cent, Mary J. Blige, Eminem, Gwen Stefani, Common and Lady Gaga just to name a few.


As a lifelong resident, to what do you attribute Chicago’s total embrace of “Empire” and the outpouring of support for the show?

AI think the “Empire” phenomenon is a huge deal for Chicago because even though the show is set in New York, the fact that it is filmed in Chicago puts a big spotlight on our city and it creates a lot of job opportunities. At least half of our crew is locally based and many local actors have been given an opportunity to showcase their talent to a national audience on one of the hottest shows on television, so that also keeps Chicagoans tuned in to support their friends and family. As long as viewers keep tuning in, I think it shows the world that a hugely successful television series doesn’t have to be shot in Los Angeles or New York. We finally have the infrastructure to make it happen in the “Windy City”.


Can you share any funny behind the scenes stories or interesting tidbits that the viewing public may not be aware of?

AOne thing I can say is that “Empire” fans are the greatest. If I had a dollar for every time somebody walks by set and asks “where’s Cookie?” or “where’s Luscious?”, I’d be a millionaire. Sometimes if fans find out where we are filming on location they will show up to try and get a peek at the action. There was one time we were filming on the West side in a busy shopping district and we were filming the scenes in the soul food restaurant with Taraji, Vivica A. Fox and Tasha Smith. Large crowds started to gather, but fortunately we had extra police and security detail on set that day. Later in the day large groups of kids got wind of where the cast trailers were parked and all of a sudden our basecamp almost got bumrushed by the fans trying to get an up close and personal look at the actors. We were able to keep everything locked down and safe before things got out of hand, but it was scary for a second.


Film, Music, or TV….what’s been your favorite sector of entertainment to work in?

AI don’t know if I necessarily have a favorite. All three have elements that I can appreciate, but I have been away from the music scene for about 7 years and I bounce between film and television all the time. Most of my recent work has been in TV, so I would say that’s where the majority of my experience lies.


Who was your celebrity crush as a teen?

AIn my pre-teens, Kim Fields was my first celebrity crush and held it down for a long time.  “Tootie” from “The Facts Of Life” will always hold a special place in my heart *laughs* By the time I was in my teens, my hormones were raging so I had MANY celebrity crushes *laughs* .  I can’t narrow it down to just one…I went through a Lisa Bonet phase…Lark Voorhies aka “Lisa Turtle” was in the mix back then…Nia Long…and don’t get me started on T-Boz from TLC. They all had a unique quality that drew me to them in particular, but T-Boz’s mystique and sex appeal while still looking like the “tomboy” did something to me.


Name something people to would be surprised to know about you?

AI am an extroverted introvert. You would think that working in entertainment and being around celebrities and “Hollywood types” that I would be the social butterfly, but I tend to be very quiet and definitely enjoy my alone time. I was always a shy kid growing up, but I think that’s another reason why I was so drawn to entertainment because it broke me out of my shell.



Favorite motto or affirmation that you live by?

ADon’t be afraid of change. If you’re not living life to your fullest potential, you’re just existing. God has definitely blessed me and opened doors that I never would have opened if I didn’t take that first step. Now that I know where I want to go in life, I’m attacking those goals relentlessly.


What’s on the horizon for David Leonard?

ANext up, I’m working as a Location Scout on a new Amazon series called “Patriot” which will be filming in Chicago this Summer into the early Fall. I’m also doing some voiceover work and continuing to audition for television and commercial projects. I have a couple of short film projects that I’m appearing in later this year…”Just Another Summer” and “Paradigm Grey” and I’m also starting to develop a new web-series project that’s loosely based on my life.

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