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Meet Dan Kanter, one of this year's Searchlight judges

Jesse Kinos-Goodin

Dan Kanter has worked with a who’s who of musicians, from living legends and personal heroes (Stevie Wonder and Carlos Santana) to some Canadian legends in the making, such as Drake, Shawn Mendes and Justin Bieber. Kanter has served as music director, lead guitarist and co-producer for Bieber.

“Justin is an amazing success story because he started off with so much raw talent,” says Kanter of working with Bieber as he grew into the megastar he is today. “When I met him he had already played. He was a multiple instrumentalist, a dancer, so aside from directing his band, a lot of it was helping him speak to the audience. He had a natural charisma, anyway. In his show, it was all about showcasing that he can play all these instruments. Sing, do an amazing dance move, go to the drums and do a solo. Truly an amazing experience to start off with him.… Now I think Justin is as good a frontman as Mick Jagger.”

He's now bringing that knowledge and experience to Searchlight as one of our celebrity judges. Below, five things on Kanter, from his musical background, working with the Justins (Bieber and Timberlake) and the best way for a musician to standout.

1. He was born into musical theatre

Kanter was exposed to live music at an early age because his father actually directed a number of Canadian productions of big-ticket musicals: The Who’s Tommy, Les Miserables, Chicago, Little Shop of Horrors.

“My dad opened up my eyes to the bigger picture of music,” he says. “Not just the music, but the whole show of music. I just looked at it in a bigger way. As far as the live show, it really got me thinking about the presentation of the music. So when I started playing for different artists, I couldn't help but coach them on performing, singing, speaking to the audience, working the stage, things like that.”

2. Working with Justin Bieber was an eye-opener

“Justin needed a music director, someone who could accompany him, a mentor to join his small circle,” Kanter says of Bieber's early days. “He was only travelling with his manager and his mom, and he was only really in Canada at the time, so they asked the Canadian label for someone and God bless, they recommended me.”

Kanter signed on early, but even then, Bieber fever was in full swing.

“I remember going to MuchMusic with Justin. I had never heard of him, but there were 10- to 20,000 kids there,” he says. “It was like that all over the world really, everywhere we went. The people at the radio stations had never heard of him and there were 10,000 kids there. It very quickly became a mania. Justin's Beliebers are the greatest fans in the world. I truly love them with all my heart.”

3. Before Bieber, he learned everything on the road with another Justin — Timberlake

“My career started with Fefe Dobson, I was her guitar player and became her music director,” he says. “From there I began to work with a lot of the Canadian acts, a lot of teen acts, just doing a lot of performance coaching.… I had a lot of luck but I worked really hard, too. I studied music at York University and learned a lot there by collaborating with film students, dance students, whoever. It really prepared me to be not just a session player but be a part of a team. Fefe got to open for Justin Timberlake’s Justified European tour, so I spent two months with him and I was like 18, 19 at the time. His music director really took me under his wings and I learned a lot about making a pop show.”

It taught him that no matter how big or small the artist, it starts with the song.

“I always think about the audience. I always think about the fan in back row of the 300 level, or the kid in their bedroom with the headphones on. That’s always driven me. A lot of that also came from watching my dad’s musicals. That’s the full circle of music. Writing a song, connecting with someone and then connecting with them when performing live."

4. The trick to standing out is to be original — and to put on a killer live show

“While I love seeing an artist’s influences seep into that music — that’s inevitable — but to separate an artist it takes something truly original as well as just taking a chance,” he says. “It’s like, here’s Ed Sheeran and five other Ed Sheeran wannabees. The ones who are succeeding are original. And it’s authentic. That’s the best advice I could give.”

5. That, and to put everything you have into your live show

“These days it’s incredibly important to have a killer live show. It’s hard to make a living playing music, so the artists are forced to play live. It’s the ones who know how put on a great show that can make a living. A great example is the Arkells. One of the hottest bands right now. Anybody who goes and sees them live, it’s a special experience.”

For more on Searchlight 2017, go to