LIVINGSTON, NJ — Although the winter holidays are nearing their end for 2020, Livingston native Austin Zudeck, a 2013 graduate of Livingston High School, is already looking ahead to the 2021 holiday season after a song he co-wrote and produced for Disney’s 2020 holiday campaign prompted the company to hire him back for the composition and production of next year’s ad.
The 2020 campaign, which depicts the story of Lola, her granddaughter and their Filipino holiday traditions, has reached the hearts of millions across the world—bringing both smiles and tears to the faces of viewers during a time when family gatherings have been a challenge.
Although Disney Music Publishing (DMP) heard dozens of submissions before selecting Zudeck and co-writer Justin Thunstrom’s song, “Love is a Compass,” to accompany the inspiring storyline, the popularity of the ad has convinced DMP that there is no better duo for the job in 2021.
“We got the opportunity to write based on a little storyboard of the ad, but they also sent it to the 14 other writers on the [DMP] roster, and some of those people pull in outside writers and outside producers—so we were competing against anywhere from 20-to-100 songs to get the project,” said Zudeck. “This was the first time Disney has ever done an ad like this, and it turns out it’s the most popular ad since Mickey's 90th birthday and has a 99-percent positivity approval rating. So it's one of the most successful ads of Disney's history, which is awesome.”
After receiving the storyboard in May, Zudeck and Thunstrom—known professionally as Parkwild—instantly “locked in on the concept of love being a guidance,” which conveniently blended with a song title Zudeck had been saving in his phone called “Compass.” Joining forces with Sofia Quinn, a fellow DMP artist who provided the vocals for the demo, Parkwild quickly penned an initial draft and became the first artist to submit music for the holiday campaign.
“Lyrically, especially because COVID had just hit about two months prior, something we had already been talking about was missing our families,” said Zudeck. “I was supposed to have seen my family at that point and ultimately didn't end up seeing them for like 10 months; so when we wrote this song, it was all about family. We found that at the core of family is love and guidance and just tried to take that concept and see it through the lens of [the characters]…
“It was actually the second song we wrote that day because we tried to write a back-to-school ad for Office Depot, which was a totally different note, and we just weren't on it; but then we started this one and it was just a whole different ballgame. It just connected for all of us…Our A&R (the artists and repertoire division of DMP) was telling us that because they had never done an ad like this, they didn't think that they would get it right on literally the first submission, but we got it right, which is amazing.”
Thunstrom also expressed pride in the success of the campaign, stating that reading the thousands of positive comments being posted on Disney’s Facebook pages and YouTube channels has been one of the most rewarding experiences of his musical career.
“A large part of what we do and why we do this is the fact that we can create things that affect people,” he said. “Music, in the way it affects people, is so powerful, and just having the ability to be a part of that process—I don't even know how to put it…Not every song we write gets heard, and a lot of times you don't ever get to see that direct reaction. So to have that super positive response and just have that positive effect on people is just such a cool feeling.
“This is one that I wanted to land so badly—and I don't know why, but I just knew we could write the right song. I was worried because if you play the wrong chord or go in the wrong direction, something so small can just take it all away; but with this one, it just felt very organic and effortless. From the chords, to the words, to the melody—everything just fell into place really organically and it all just felt right.”
Prior to the campaign’s official debut, Zudeck explained that Parkwild's journey included five months of “tweaks and rewrites” to create more than a dozen versions of the song for different commercials that would be playing around the world. He noted, for example, that an instrumental version of the song had to be created in the style of John Williams for a “Star Wars” ad.
“The coolest part about the whole process was that every week we would get an update from the animation team because the animatic we wrote the song to was basically all just sketches and drawings—so we slowly got to see that fill in with real animation and the actual characters,” said Thunstrom. “It was so cool because we had been watching it so many times that we would notice every little change every week. And then on our part, that required us to go in and adjust the music a little bit to fit the new timing of the scenes and to make it better and better until we got to the final product.”
The closer the team came to a final product, the more rewarding the project became for all those involved, including the animators and Griff, the artist who performs "Love is a Compass" on the official recording.
“Everybody was able to find attachment to the story in their own way, so it was really cool to see the interpersonal connections,” said Zudeck. “Griff ended up being the obvious choice [for the vocals] because not only was her performance insane and amazing, but her story so closely relates to the actual ad. She comes from two parents of completely different cultures, and during the holiday season she has talked about how she has to bring those two cultures together and use old traditions."
DMP was so confident in Parkwild's performance over the last several months that the company is planning a more collaborative effort for the 2021 campaign. Rather than completing a storyboard upfront, Disney has already provided the duo with basic points on which to compose the music and lyrics and will ultimately create a new storyline based around the song.
According to Zudeck, DMP has been an outstanding employer, setting Parkwild up with “major-label sessions for artists all over the spectrum” and providing various writing opportunities for Disney parks, films, TV programs and more.
“The best part is we get free tickets to the parks,” said Zudeck, adding that Parkwild signed a publishing deal as a full-time writer/producer artist for Disney in February 2019. “We were actually about to sign a deal with Universal and were also talking to Sony at the time when Disney invited us to their holiday party. We had a meeting after that, and it just kind of blew us out of the water how everybody on the team was so on board and involved. They've given us so many opportunities, so it’s been amazing.”
The road to where Parkwild is now was not an easy one, however. As a senior at New York University (NYU) in 2016, Zudeck convinced Thunstrom to move from Minnesota to New York and found a small studio on the border of Livingston and Roseland, where they spent time writing for anyone they could—from small local artists to a worldwide advertising campaign with Quaker Oats.
For six months in 2017, they found themselves spending nearly 70 percent of their time traveling to and from Los Angeles, where a publishing company had shown a heavy interest in their music. When they finally decided to move cross-country full time in 2018, the company had already moved on—leaving Zudeck and Thunstrom to take on “any little odd jobs [they] had to” to pay the bills.
Their dedication to their craft eventually led to several major label placements, including assignments with a few bands signed by Hollywood Records, and their current position with DMP.
Zudeck’s love for the music business was sparked at a young age while he was working professionally as a child actor. Although he was never involved in the musical theater program at Livingston Public Schools (LPS), Zudeck specifically recalled former LPS music teacher Paul Stefany as being the one to inspire his career in music.
"Paul Stefany is definitely one of the most influential people in my musical existence because he just really opened up the whole world for me in that regard,” he said. “He was the type of person that was willing to go above and beyond for his students. Obviously, we butted heads at times, but he was always patient, he would always help me prep for auditions, and he really pushed me…He’s what I would call my first champion in the music field, and I still talk to him to this day probably once a month.”
While studying songwriting and music business at NYU, Zudeck discovered that his true passion lies in the creative aspects of music, such as writing and producing. Although he continued to pursue his music business degree, feeling that the business knowledge gained through this program would be essential for a successful career in music, Zudeck began to stack his classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays so that he could focus on recording during his days off.
Now living in North Hollywood, Zudeck is finding his stride in the industry alongside Thunstrom and looks forward to working on future projects through DMP.
Below is the full 2020 Disney Holiday Campaign featuring Parkwild's “Love is a Compass,” which can also be downloaded on most streaming services. The video can be viewed at any time on Disney Plus, YouTube and Facebook.
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