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Songbroker, building industry resilience

Jan Hellriegel on the drive behind setting up Songbroker.

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Jan Hellriegel is a music publisher, singer, songwriter and advocate for New Zealand musicians. She was born in Auckland and has been driven by her desire to create and play music ever since she can remember. She has carved out a career as a musician in New Zealand and Australia where (at the envy of all of us) she opened for Jeff Buckley in the ‘90s. Jan has recently launched Songbroker, a music publishing company representing NZ music that specialises in licensing original music by New Zealand songwriters. She spoke to The Big Idea about the drive behind establishing Songbroker.

“I challenge the challenges, and find a way to use them to an advantage.  I believe the only thing holding back the creative industry (including music) is expectations. We should expect the best from creative careers. Expect the best and you will get it.”

This is the attitude that Jan Hellriegel brings to the New Zealand music industry, and she is using that gutsy drive to create opportunities for musicians across the country. “The most important thing for a musician is knowing that your music is being heard and appreciated – why else would you do it?  It’s certainly not for the fame, money or glory as the odds of that happening are slight indeed.” Jan has a music career that spans over 30 years. It appears that she never questioned the fact that she would become a musician, and has held steadfast to walking that path, doing what she needs to support her goals. “Over the years, in order to support my music career, I have always worked part-time. The skills I picked up in these part-time positions have all helped me with the complexity of being a music publisher and business owner today.”

Jan focuses her lens of the world on creating opportunities and this has undoubtedly been a key part of her success as a musician and now as a music publisher. “I wasn’t thinking about challenges when I set up Songbroker, I was thinking more of opportunities for musicians and their music.” Songbroker has opened a space for musicians to have their music heard and appreciated, and also has created a very necessary income opportunity. Jan says that the small size of the New Zealand market means that few musicians get a chance to be in the advantageous position of having a publisher that works for them. This coupled with a shift in traditional earning opportunities in the last few years has mounted pressure on New Zealand musicians. “Record sales are at an all time low and the income coming in from streaming has changed the business of producing and releasing records so what Songbroker is doing is taking released songs and finding new audiences as well as new ways of finding incomes for local musicians.”

Building up business nous in the music industry has become a focus for Jan, and ultimately led to her establishing Songbroker. She reflects on her lack of business knowledge in the earlier days of her career as a limitation she has had to overcome. “Sometimes I think if I had known how to manage the business side of things, I would have done a lot better in the early part of my career.” She was aware that as a young woman in the music industry there was a real risk of being taken advantage of and so she took it upon herself to learn everything she could about business. This determination to understand the business side of the music world is what has led her to where she is today - working in music publishing and still recording and producing her own music. “The biggest thing I have learned on the way is ‘mistakes happen’ so it’s what you get out of the situation that counts. A creative career is never an easy one so you have to learn resilience and grit.”

Jan has found that Songbroker is popular with musicians and there is a waitlist for artists and writers wanting to register. From an industry perspective, the response has been mixed. “I have had a lot of positive feedback from some parts of the industry, and not so much from others. I guess we are working in a different side of the traditional industry. Songbroker is a challenger brand in that we want to do something differently and doing it differently can make some people uncomfortable.” Doing things differently is what ultimately creates new opportunities within industries and Songbroker provides a great example of breaking outside the traditional industry practices to open new possiblities for musicians.

For Jan, this is representative of some larger issues within the industry. She believes that the creative community would benefit from a better culture of support that actively builds alliances. An important aspect to supporting the industry is to back it financially. At Songbroker they advocate that every artist should be paid for their work. While she won’t stop artists from supporting projects by giving license for their music to be used for free, the philosophy behind the organisation is that the work of artists should be paid for, even if the project has a low budget. “There is method in my madness there because I have a theory that by paying for services or contributing to art projects not only are you validating someone’s work you are also validating your own work by acknowledging the creative industries have a value.”

The core of this theory revolves around building financial resilience  into the industry. Jan leads by example in her personal life too. She will pay for gigs even if her name is on the door, offer to pay a higher price for tickets and vows never to undercut her fellow artists. She comes from a philosophy that generosity creates more. “Trust that there is enough to go around; respect the craft and the business you are in so you can resource more works.” She advocates for the use of social media to promote artists making the most of personal networks to amplify the voices of artists.

And her advice to others seeking a career in the music industry:

“Never give up – simple.  Ask yourself if you have grit and determination to follow it through because you will get where you are going in the end – it’s just that sometimes the journey isn’t quite what you were expecting. Sometimes a wave of success is followed by years of troughs. It may be corny but it is true – hard times make us stronger.  There is no way I could manage what I am doing now if it wasn’t for the many disappointments and failures I have had over the years.”

Written by

Hannah Mackintosh

10 Apr 2017

Hannah is a Wellington-based writer, community organiser and lover of stories.