By Isabelle Speerin
When Peter Jansson played Disney’s most popular songs on his piano as a child, he never imagined that one day he would be on Disney Music Publishing’s management team. “I loved those songs so much, I memorized them back to front and at the end of every practice session my mother would always ask me to play ‘Feed the birds’ from Mary Poppins,” he said.
Jansson grew up in Wollongong, a coastal city surrounded by beautiful beaches just south of Sydney, Australia. An early fascination with his great aunt’s piano, which she willed to him, led to lessons at age five. “Nobody had to pressure me to practice, I loved playing piano,” he said. “I was completely captivated by music and that was really what my life was all about from that age onwards.”
Jansson spent twelve years studying classical music at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, one of the oldest and most prestigious music schools in Australia. In addition to mastering the piano, he learned a different brass, woodwind, or stringed instrument each year to gain an appreciation for the entire spectrum of the orchestra.
While studying for his Bachelor of Music, he simultaneously studied law at the University of Sydney but chose to not take the bar as he knew he would never practice. It wasn’t long before classical music gave way to rock ‘n’ roll. After Jansson graduated he started playing keyboards in small clubs and arenas for several Australian bands.
“I didn’t enjoy playing live, so I gravitated towards studio work because I was so proficient at piano and keyboards,” he said. “I started getting a lot of session work in the studio.”
In the early 80s, Australia’s largest independent music publisher, Festival Music Publishing, invited Jansson to join their team. “I went directly from playing sessions headlong into music publishing, where I was asked to find writers and bands and artists,” he said. “That’s how I fell into music publishing.”
Jansson soon developed a rapport with many well-known songwriters and artists and eventually caught the eye of EMI Music Publishing, who brought him on as Creative Director in 1984. As one of the first participants in EMI’s executive exchange program, he spent the next twelve years living and working in Tokyo, Hamburg, Paris, London, Los Angeles, Nashville and New York.
Jansson eventually returned to Australia when EMI was sold and established a joint venture with PolyGram Music to start his own publishing company, Janssongs Inc. “Running my own company really taught me about different types of revenue streams, like sync licensing, that I hadn’t particularly thought of as a major source of income at the time,” he said.
Jansson moved the operation to Los Angeles in 1996 and built a notable roster that included Grammy-nominated writers and producers. He sold the company to a New York investment group in 2004. That same year, Jansson entered into a joint venture with the Chinese government to create the very first legitimate music operation in mainland China, China Music Management, home to almost two million copyrights spanning 5,000 years of Chinese musical history.
He joined Disney Music Publishing in 2016 as Senior Manager of Music Publishing International and was tasked with protecting and enforcing global rights and collecting all revenue types for the Disney Music Publishing catalogue globally. “Each day I deal with queries from all over the world to approve usages for our songs, samples, and arrangements,” he said. “I also handle disputes where someone is claiming a Disney song incorrectly.”
Headquartered in Burbank, California, Disney Music Group (DMG) comprises Disney’s recorded music labels, including Hollywood Records and Walt Disney Records, as well as Disney Music Publishing and Disney Concerts. Over 240 employees work for DMG in offices around the world.
“Disney is unique because we’re not only a publisher, we’re a record label, we’re a film studio, we’re a broadcast network, we’re a theme park, we’re a cruise line, we’re a resort, we’re a theatrical producer [Lion King, Aladdin, Frozen], we’re a multinational cable sports channel [ESPN] and now we’re a digital service provider [Disney+ and Hulu],” he said. “No other music group can say that.”
Such breadth and scope can present unique opportunities and unique challenges, one of which is content translation.
“Our feature films are translated into about 44 languages, Frozen was 54 languages, and Moana was translated into 56 languages,” he explained. “I have to ensure that each one is registered with all the different societies around the world as an alternate title to the original song so we’re able to capture everything from YouTube to Facebook.”
The value of a song has a special meaning in the context of one of popular culture’s most well-known and beloved catalogues filled with songs that inspired countless Walt Disney movie musicals. “It’s in the long tail for us at Disney,” he said. “For our entire classic core catalogue, the revenues that were generated initially back in the 40s and 50s are still very significant today.”
Long tail is a term often used in music publishing that speaks to items that have a low sales volume but that could collectively earn a market share value exceeding that of the comparatively few high-volume items. In the case of Disney, many of their songs created and published many years ago are still generating revenue steadily because they are considered classics and are well-loved by audiences.
“Our newer songs from Frozen or Moana will absolutely have a spike but those songs will again continue with the long tail for the life of copyright and that’s a significant area for us at Disney.”
According to Jansson, his favourite part of the job is working with the catalogs of some of the greatest songwriters and composers and meeting his childhood hero, Richard Sherman. “It’s also such a delight to work with our newer artists and be able to see them develop to become established songwriters and performers,” he said.
Jansson is a guest lecturer at the UCLA Music Extension course in Los Angeles, and a frequent guest of many songwriting associations, radio shows and print publications. He is fluent in English and French and lives with his wife Kristen, also a gifted pianist, in Los Angeles.
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