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Sunday, August 31, 2003 E-mail This Article
The tune cop: Collecting music royalties is this Exeter guyís business


Sunday Citizen Correspondent

Jon Hichborn, pictured, owns Exeter Records on the Wall, a business that polices the use of recorded music for an impressive list of clients. (Courtesy photo/Lisa Hichborn)

Jon Hichbornís Exeter Records on the Wall office is as hip as they come.

Planet of the Apes figurines look down at his desk with frozen plastic primate eyes (characters from the original í60ís series, that is, not the excessively unhip remake, he notes). Backstage passes from various concerts flutter in front of the air conditioner. There are framed pictures of Twisted Sister in performance, and signed pictures of a couple younger acts Hichborn promises will be "huge one day very, very soon," on the wall. Literally thousands of CDs and DVDs are stacked neatly in bookcases.

But Hichborn also has something most people donít have: Gold and Platinum records hanging on the wall. And he didnít get them on eBay, either. The records are from his years as a music supervisor at Universal Studios, where he oversaw the selection of music that made its way onto the soundtracks of such seminal TV shows and films as "Miami Vice," "Knight Rider," "Back to the Future," and "The Breakfast Club."

At Universal Studios Hichborn tracked down artists whose music he wanted to use, and bought the rights allowing him to do so. The payment, a "royalty" in music industry parlance, gives artists a small percentage of every sale of a project in which their music appears.

Hichborn learned the royalty system inside and out during his four years at Universal Studios. And today this former insider uses his knowledge on the outside to help musicians, often unsavvy businessmen, get their due.

His fierce advocacy on behalf of artists has earned him the nickname "the royalty bounty hunter."

"You have to be in this because you love the music, otherwise youíd go crazy with the details of it all," said Hichborn, whose wife Lisa is part owner of the business. "Itís incredibly sad that so often the artists who create the music have the least to show for it. If I can help, in any way, an artist get what is due them, I will do it."

To many musicians, Hichborn has become a heroic figure, the one person who has taken their plight seriously. Take for example the case of Allen Wentz, former member of the band Wild Cherry, whose 1976 "Play that Funky Music" continues to this day to be a staple on the radio and at Vanilla Ice concerts. (Yes, Vanilla Ice still tours, even if heís only playing to eight very confused people.)

"Basically we got screwed, and saw very little money from that song," Wentz said. "We were young and stupid and signed bad contracts. You want to be a rock star all your life, and somebody who can make it happen puts a piece of paper in front of you. Youíre not going to read the fine print."

With statute of limitations laws being what they are, Hichborn cannot really go back much further than three years. But moving forward, "Play that Funky Music" continues to be a popular song on compilations and in film.

"It was amazing luck that we found Jon," Wentz said. "Heís really fought for us, and for the first time Iím actually seeing some money."

Hichborn said the problem of unpaid royalties goes unnoticed, at least in part, because it goes against the grain of what most people believe about celebrities.

"People generally believe that everyone in entertainment is filthy rich," he said. "What most people donít realize is that eventually the artist is expected to pay for everything. They get big advances, but the record company expects to be paid back for the recording, the advertising, tour expenses, everything. Every penny they put out, the band eventually has to put back in.

"And when itís all said and done, the record company owns the rights to the finished products," he said. "It just seems so unfair. How many things do you buy and donít own?"

To understand the present, you must first revisit the past.

"When I was 16 a very good friend of mine told me if I didnít know anything about music, no girl would ever have anything to do with me," he said. "He gave me an Aerosmith record and a Kiss record, and I was just blown away."

(In a case of things really coming full circle, Hichborn recently took his 10-year-old son to his first concert ó An Aerosmith-Kiss double bill.)

During high school and throughout college Hichborn, stayed as close to the music as he could, playing DJ at frat parties, weddings, anywhere people would pay him to spin records, really. Connections made during those days led to the job with Universal Studios, where he was immediately thrust into the strange, exciting world of entertainment.

On one of his first days he went to meet with a client, who turned out to be Burt Reynolds.

"I had a lot of fun putting music to movies and television," Hichborn said. "But music is the last thing that gets put on a project. So the budget is always running out, and time is always running out, and you really just have to be able to work well under pressure."

All good things must come to an end, however. In 1988 Universal Studios brought in a new president with a new staff, and Hichborn found himself beating the streets for a job. After a short, unfulfilling foray into the world of talent management, Hichborn answered a music publisherís ad in Billboard Magazine. That man, Stephen LaVere, was a former insurance agent and a blues and jazz fanatic.

LaVere had a "gut feeling" that blues legend Robert Johnsonís songs were not in a part of the public domain as everyone thought at the time. And if the songs werenít public domain, a lot of money was owed to Johnsonís heirs.

"It turned out LaVereís hunch was right," Hichborn said. "It was quite a task, but we eventually collected in the neighborhood of seven figures for the Johnson estate."

Hichborn learned a lot from the experience, and believed there were probably a lot of artists out there facing similar problems. He decided to start his own business and based on word of mouth he has picked such luminous clients as Dr. John, Foghat, Bob Welch, one-time member of Fleetwood Mac, and Spiral Starecase.

"I feel like you canít go forward without fixing the past," Hichborn said. "Musicians and publishers donít have the time to search for discrepancies in their royalty reports. If they did, I wouldnít have this business. Iíd probably be working somewhere as a florist or something."

Hichborn has created a huge database of his clients, their songs and who those songs are licensed out to. Then he scours the Internet, magazines and movies for music his clients arenít being paid for.

Hichbornís prey may be an obscure Robert Johnson cover on an Eric Clapton record, or a clientís song used as background music for a video game.

"Itís a lot of detective work," he said. "Itís very gratifying when I uncover something a client isnít being paid for. Sometimes itís just dumb luck, a fluke, being in the right place at the right time ó like seeing a commercial when I should be sleeping with a clientís song in it. Youíve got to always keep your eyes open."

Hichborn then calls the distributor or record company and asks them to rectify the problem. It takes persistence and firmness, but in the end most people want to do the right thing, Hichborn said. Not that it matters much to him.

"Whatever the reason, it goes in one ear and out the other," he said. "IĎm not here to judge them. I donĎt care if it was an honest mistake, or if they were trying to rip my client off. I just want to get someone on the phone and get my client paid."

Hichborn maintains an office in Los Angles and keeps himself a presence in Nashville and New York City, as well. But when it came time to find a place to base Records on the Wall, Hichborn came back to New Hampshire where he had spent summers as a child with his grandmother in Andover.

"California is just such a transient culture," he said. "Everyone you meet is in the entertainment business. You donít want to raise children in Los Angeles, thatís for sure. So we came here. We love it here. And with communications technology being what it is, being here has not hurt business one iota."

The community has embraced Hichborn, as well, making him a panel judge for last yearís Seacoast Idol contest. As for future plans, Hichborn hopes to continue working with musicians and enjoying the fringe benefits of his trade ó free concerts and CDs. He would also like to work with a certain rock group from Boston.

"Thereís so much money Aerosmith isnít collecting, I just know it," he said. "Steven Tyler talks about all the bootlegs of their stuff he sees on tour. But thereís a lot of layers to get through to present an idea to that group. Managers and all sorts of people.

"Iím just going to have to wait for an opportunity to arise for me to make my case personally," he said fancifully, obviously relishing the idea. "You know what? One day Iím going to sign those bad boys from Boston."

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