Speaker by Various Artists

5

The road to Songbroker

by Jan Hellriegel

Music has always been part of my life and it’s in my blood – my great, great grandfather came down this way in a travelling orchestra, jumped ship and stayed. A career in music was always on the cards.

It's been more than 30 years now, and I have learned a lot in that time; the equivalent of a few degrees, arguably. I’ve certainly put in more than the magical 10,000 hours. And everything I have done over the course of my career has been directing me towards music publishing.

When I was 24, I signed my publishing over to a mid-sized publisher in Australia. At that time my songs were moving up the charts and everybody loved me. But then my songs weren’t in the charts and nobody loved me, and the publisher and my record label stopped taking my calls. 

When I signed my publishing contract my "business advisors" took the lion’s share of the advance. Even though the deal I signed at the time was pretty standard – with a 10 year retention at the end – I had no idea what I was doing. All I was thinking about at the time was getting the cheque, and I was blissfully unaware of what I had actually signed away, and for how long. 

Now I know that for every dollar I made in royalties, around 35% of it would go back to the publisher. This would have been fine if I was on the radio and paying this off quickly, but I wasn’t – so I would have had that publisher shackled around my neck until after my death. Even if I could have paid off the advance, they would then keep collecting their 35% for a further ten years: the "retention period". In return for that I would have had some accounting and reports sent to me sporadically but probably not a lot of other interaction, because I was just a small number in a very big pond of larger numbers ... which no one was counting. 

My fascination with copyright, which is the foundation of the music industry, started when I was pregnant with my first kid and had to think about what would happen to my child if anything happened to me. 

At that stage of my life I considered myself to be a bit of a loser, and if I’m honest I was pretty depressed about how everything had turned out. After 18 years of trying to be a full-time muso I had thrown in the towel and existed in suburban purgatory – with no career prospects and missing my life as a working musician very much. 

So when I headed to the lawyer to talk about my will, I had a bit of a eureka moment. I didn’t have a lot of assets, but I did have my copyrights in the form of musical works (the songs and the lyrics I had written) as well as master recordings that I had saved up for and recorded over the years. It occurred to me that this was my life’s work and I should be proud of what I had achieved.

Even though I wasn’t so much in the public eye, as my songs hadn’t been on commercial radio since before 2000 – they still existed, they still had value and they had potential. 

I was fortunate to land a job with a very good publishing company, Native Tongue Music, and there I learned all about the music publisher’s role. 

When I got the rights to my songs back I decided that I would never sign a traditional publishing deal again – because no-one knew my catalogue better than I did, and nobody would care about it as much as I would. I thought I may as well work it myself. 

There is nothing worse than knowing that your songs are not being heard. 

Then I started thinking about all the great songwriters I knew, and how they had written amazing songs and the productions were of an international standard, and I thought – hey! I am not alone. There are loads of NZ writers who have great tracks and they are sitting in closets collecting dust – because they’re either unpublished, or their publishers have long ago forgotten they exist. 

And that’s how Songbroker began.

I started Songbroker to help New Zealand musicians profit from their creativity and earn a much-needed income for what they have produced: their music copyrights. It’s nothing to do with culture or being parochial, it is to do with appreciating quality music and knowing there is a market for that.

I am pretty realistic; it’s still not easy, and with commercial radio play of NZ music at an all-time low (yes, it really does still matter) I know that the traditional path that is taught to young musicians isn’t for me or many of my peers. For us, the future of music is playing it live and getting it licensed onto projects. It is using our copyrights to generate income.

Over the last five years I have made a lot more of an income from my music by being placed on films and TV shows than I have through performance royalties and selling recordings.

And that's where Songbroker comes in. The best way to get people along to your restaurant is to be on the street with other restaurants, so that when people think about eating, they are thinking about your street.

I figured if I put loads of great songs in one place, people who were looking would be attracted to visit, look through the catalogue and find something they liked. Or even find an artist they wanted to explore further.

I wanted Songbroker to be a safe and collaborative place for artists as well. A new model for music publishing, without one-sided multi-decade contracts, where songwriters can stay as long as they think it’s working for them and if they want to leave, they can – quickly and easily with no strings or unfair retention clauses.

For music users, Songbroker is the place you can go if you want to find original music for a project. Simple. It is easy-to-clear, high-quality music and it's cost-effective.

If you are thinking about music for an ad campaign, TV show, online video, film, or documentary then call in and check out Songbroker - because not only will you be getting something real that someone has put their heart and soul into, you’ll be supporting the local music industry.

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Songbroker officially launches on Wednesday.

Jan Hellriegel continues to write, record and perform music and her next album, Sportsman of the Year, is in production.

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