Portsmouth, NH     Sunday, August 24, 2003






Royalty King

By Gina Carbone

Jon Hichborn got into the music industry the old-fashioned way: girls.

"I grew up liking sports mainly," says the Long Island native. "At about 16 a good friend said if I didnít start listening to music girls wouldnít like me. I donít know if it worked...."

It seems to have worked on several levels. Not only was Hichborn turned on to Aerosmith and KISS, he ended up working as a disc jockey; took a job as a music supervisor at Universal Studios in Los Angeles; met his future wife, Lisa, in Beaverís living room on the set of "The New Leave It to Beaver"; and launched with her a royalty tracking company called Records on the Wall Inc., currently operating out of the Exeter home they share with two kids and a friendly dog.

Hichborn doesnít mind being called a bounty hunter, though Lisa rolls her eyes a bit at "Royalty King." What he does is handle music royalty tracking matters for clients like Robert Johnson, Foghat, Wild Cherry, Spiral Staircase, Soupy Sales and Dr. John - fighting through the Byzantine labyrinth of copyright law to make sure his clients get the money they are due.

Itís a job that requires patience, research, legal knowledge and some finessing with record companies - not exactly party-time with Steven Tyler. Why this job?

"First of all, I just love the music business itself," Hichborn says. "Music can take you to a totally different mood depending on the song. It can remind you of happy times and sad times."

But allís not fair in love, lyrics and lullabies.

"The people who deserve the money most are the ones getting it the least. I love nothing more than being able to call one of them and say ĎGuess what I found?í"

The road to royalty

The literal records on the wall of Hichbornís office are five gold and platinum plaques from the Recording Industry Association of America for five of the projects he worked on at Universal Studios: "Back to the Future," "Out of Africa," "The Breakfast Club," "Miami Vice" and "The Blues Brothers."

His Universal job - locating composers and licensing songs for movies and television - came after earning a degree in photography and a BA in Communication from the New York Institute of Technology.

The wall plaques share office space with shelves of CDs, DVDs, Kung Fu fighting hamsters (donít ask), a set of "Planet of the Apes" figures and the all-important computer containing the master database for royalty tracking.

The database emerged after a Universal shake-up left Hichborn without a job. He answered an ad in Billboard magazine looking for someone to help with royalty tracking and ended up working for the estate of blues legend Robert Johnson through the Delta Hayes Corporation. Basically he took a red ledger book of Johnsonís entries from the past 30 years and started from scratch with a computer database.

First the albums are entered into the system, then songs, licenses generated, payments made, who hasnít paid, who should be paying by now and what other companies are paying.

"Itís a huge undertaking," Hichborn says.

Thousands of albums are cataloged in the computer - but those albums also translate into dollars if the money is followed judiciously.

Bounty hunter for hire

Records on the Wall was formed after Hichborn was contacted by the estate of Jimi Hendrix.

"They wanted me to do for them what I did for Robert Johnson," Hichborn says. "Instead, we felt we could do more branching out. We thought we would be the center and bring people to us."

Through word of mouth, Records on the Wall added more clients to the database. But in a world of pop culture crossovers and remastered reissues everywhere, how does one even begin to keep track of what compositions are where?

"A lot of it is a kid in a candy store - you go to the Internet and go through search engines."

For Soupy Sales, Hichborn typed the artistís name in the computer to find new DVDs out, including a Soupy Sales segment on a Beatles DVD.

From a Web search on Eric Clapton, Hichborn found an extended version of a previously recorded song, "Drifting Blues" on the remastered "EC Was Here" album. The original live recording from 1975 was cut at about four minutes. The extended remastered version is over 11 minutes, including a medley of "Driftiní Blues" and Robert Johnsonís "Rambliní on My Mind."

While "Rambliní" was already a separate track on the CD, this medley version was a whole new ballgame and royalties had to be paid for its inclusion on the new release. Hichborn didnít pick up on the royalty issue until 1996, but when he did he called all of the record companies that have the album and explained that they need to pay Johnson again.

Just the facts man

Boba Fett may have been a bounty hunter in "Star Wars," but if he didnít have "This Business of Music" and a copyright handbook, heíd be lost in Hichbornís world.

"Iím not an attorney, but I have to know copyright law inside and out."

And he has to know heís on to something before diving into a new case.

"I wonít take a client that says ĎI think Iím owed moneyí," he says. "I want to go to record companies with facts... If I donít see anything there I say ĎIím sorry I canít help youí."

When one of the guys from Spiral Staircase called and said theyĎve never been paid, well, thatís something to follow up on. Turns out, one of the band members was getting all the money but says he thought everyone else was getting the same amount.

"I donít judge what they tell me. I donít care what the story is - save it for your wife and kids."

Sometimes the staff at record companies are just overworked and underpaid, Hichborn says. Sometimes bands donít ask questions of their handlers, they make deals on a handshake, or donít have the wherewithal to look at statements.

"If you get the run-around enough as an artist, you give up. I donít. Itís my job not to. Iím like a bad rash, I donít go away," Hichborn laughs. "But in a good way - Iím not a car salesman."

Sounds of the Seacoast

Hichborn fell in love with New England after visiting every summer as a kid. He and Lisa wanted to move the family, including Matthew, 10, and Emily, 6, to the area, but if youíre in the entertainment business, what are you going to do up here?

"When this (company) started in 2000 - with the cell phones and e-mail and computers - I thought I donít necessarily have to do this in Los Angeles."

Though they still have an office in Los Angeles and travel to New York, Nashville and beyond, home base is suburban Exeter. This move may even have helped his New York business, Hichborn says. Plus, now he gets to be involved with the local community, coaching little league and serving as a judge in the recent Seacoast Idol competition sponsored by radio station WERZ.

"I loved it - it was a lot of fun."

In addition to royalty tracking, Records on the Wall also helps promote songs or compositions to appear in television or movies, performs licensing and copyright services for record companies and music supervision for production companies such as Guthy-Renker.

Hichborn is also willing to take more clients with established catalogs, especially ones he knows are due money - like Aerosmith. A quick search found "thousands of abuses" in their catalog, but getting to the artists themselves can be difficult when they are surrounded by managers and handlers.

At least heís getting close to Steven Tyler on Monday, bringing his first love of classic rock full circle by taking son Matthew to an Aerosmith/KISS concert. Meanwhile, daughter Emily is poised to be the next rock star - taking singing and dancing lessons and even previously charging her parents a quarter to watch her perform.

"All she wants to do is be on TV - thatís all sheís ever wanted to do is act and sing."

If this artist does hit it big, at least she knows who to call to keep track of those quarters.


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