Jan Hellriegel’s warning for young musicians: always read the fine print

Business is Boring is a weekly podcast series presented by The Spinoff in association with Callaghan Innovation. Host Simon Pound speaks with innovators and commentators focused on the future of New Zealand, with the interview available as both audio and a transcribed excerpt.

To be a musician today you need a lot more than musical talent. You need a marketable angle, a niche, a crowd, following and live act to perform, merchandise, licensing. You need to be a whiz in brand, marketing, legal, business strategy, pop culture, technology, networking and small business accounting. Record labels are no longer the gatekeepers or laying on the massive earn-backs, but they’re also not doing all the marketing. How does this all work? One artist that has moved with the times is Jan Hellriegel, from major label star, supporting Jeff Buckley, releasing 5 star albums through to owner and runner of an independent publishing company Songbroker.

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When you tagged out of the major [record label] structure, it wasn’t something that gave you total autonomy and control because you were already experiencing it. What did you have to upskill on to be able to do the rest of the roles apart from the musicianship?

The interesting thing about my career is that I’ve actually never really made enough money to sustain a lifestyle from making music, so I’ve always worked part time. I’ve got a lot of credentials. I’ve got 30 years of credentials. I’ve worked in so many different business – I’ve worked for charitable trusts, I’ve sold jewellery – I just know business really well and I did that to sustain my art and it was fine. A lot of my songs today have got thematic material from those jobs and I’m really glad I had them because I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today if I didn’t. I think the reason I learned all these things is music is my job. If you’re a plumber or a dentist or a doctor, you know how your industry or business works. You don’t leave it to somebody else to learn how it works for you. And I get very frustrated with young musicians because they’re not learning how the business runs and they should. Because they will know the best way to handle their own music.

What advice do you give to young musicians now who get approached with some kind of music deal. Do you say ‘hold on to your publishing, hold on to your masters’? What do you tell people?

I don’t really get asked that often but if I do I always say look at the small print and look at the deal. Do the math, and if you’re not good at math get someone to do the math for you.

Where’s the money in the future? What should people be holding on to?

The most important part is the idea. And I think this the future of all economy, the ideas. It’s always ideas. So it’s musical IP [Intellectual Property], that’s where the money always is. If you are an artist that writes music then you protect those rights. Those are the ones that you need. Songbroker has an awesome deal with its writers. Pretty much you can leave us if you want to. Because we believe that we do a really good job and therefore people will stay with us. But I don’t have anyone think that they have to stay with Songbroker so we just say you can opt out of our service. And I will not sign any of those long term deals. As an artist who’s just come out of a long publishing deal, I would never sign a deal like that ever again.



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