Licensing and the American Songbook: Sunflower Entertainment Advances the Chess Legacy

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MIDTOWN, MANHATTAN: It’s not just artists that need a niche. Publishing and licensing companies have to have a strong idea of who they are, as well – a fact that NYC’s Sunflower Entertainment has a firm hold on.

Jamar Chess and Sunflower Entertainment keep on top of the recorded music canon.

Co-founded in 2002 by Jamar Chess, Juan Carlos Barguil and Marshall Chess, Sunflower’s seeds are sown in one of America’s most musically influential family trees: the legendary Chess Records which paved the way for blues, R&B, and yes – rock and roll itself. Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters are just a few of the seminal artists who were on the Chess Records label.

Sunflower’s catalog is a mix of iconic American songbook recordings and up-to-the-minute independent Latin music – imagine having recordings by Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Ike Turner, Jackie Wilson, Otis Redding, Frank Sinatra, Thelonious Monk, Marvin Gaye, Duke Ellington, and Charles Stepney under your aegis. We checked in with Jamar Chess on the rewards and challenges of representing his charges in 2011, and find out why snagging synch licenses from music supervisors today is never a cakewalk – even if you’ve got ole’ Blue Eyes on the roster.

What types of music does Sunflower Entertainment work with, and what do you do for the music you represent?
We are a global music publishing and licensing company with two distinct areas of specialty. The first is our Latin side of things: Many years ago we saw a need for a genuine music company in the independent Latin music business and saw the Latin demographic as being a major power.

Our first Latin deal was with the largest and oldest independent label in South America, Discos Fuentes, whom we still represent. We took over the administration of their publishing arm, Edimusica — 25,000 classic salsa, cumbia, vallenato and tropical titles — and master recordings as well. Within the first year we increased revenues by 300% by meticulous copyright detail, hands-on administration and aggressive exploitation in film, TV and new media areas. Now we represent quality catalogs, artists and songwriters from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba and Mexico.

The other side is our classic publishing catalogs, which has about 7,500 titles — they date back to Tin Pan Alley times. We administer classic jazz works by Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Django Reinhardt and Thelenious Monk to soul and R&B from Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson and Jerry Butler and some great Christmas songs like “Do You Hear What I Hear” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”. We have classics and treat them like that. That’s what we do best.

We’re an old school-style music company where the music comes first — not how many songs are in my catalog. We’re music lovers and the best music usually earns the best money. I don’t want to become a major conglomerate that looks at songs only as numbers!

An important part of Sunflower’s story stems from your very notable family history. For those who may not be familiar, please explain the Chess’ role in modern music.
My father Marshall is a living legend, although he is still Dad to me. He has had an amazing career spanning over 50 years in the business, from growing up in the family business, Chess Records, to starting Rolling Stones Records — with the tongue and lip logo — in 1970, executive producing and managing seven classic Stones’ albums (Sticky Fingers through Black and Blue) to the birth of hip hop with Sugar Hill Records and most recently running a successful publishing company.

But, I want to say it was my grandfather Leonard and great uncle Phil who are the real innovators and legends. They came from a poor Jewish village from Poland to America for a better life, and they went from first working in a scrap metal yard to owning a liquor store, then a nightclub to starting Chess Records. They discovered and produced Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Etta James, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf,and on and on and on. They changed what America listened to; the artists they promoted planted the seeds of rock ‘n’ roll that still influence music today. They made history, it’s an amazing story…it still amazes me all the time, I am deeply humbled.

When you started Sunflower Entertainment in 2002, along with Marshall and Juan Carlos Barguil, what was the licensing and publishing landscape like? What you’re your primary strengths in the market at that time, and what were the most effective ways to capitalize on those strengths?
We founded Sunflower out of my family’s publishing company Arc Music (the publishing arm of Chess Records, which we recently sold). First, we solely concentrated in the Latin market, signing independent artists, catalogs and producers. As we started paying royalties and providing proper administration, our reputation started to build as the place to come to if you did Salsa, Merengue, Bachata, Tropical, and Reggaeton and want your songs in TV, films, compilations, digital distribution and copyright protection.

Fast forward to 2011 – what are the most notable ways that the licensing/publishing marketplace has evolved? You mentioned to me, for example, that you believe licensing has become much more competitive.
Yes, I mean, who doesn’t want to be on next week’s episode of “Gossip Girl” or “Dancing With The Stars”? So, we’re all competing for those placements much more intensely now. You can break a new artist with a fantastic synch – 10, 15 years that wasn’t happening.

We have to be on our toes with new technology and new media. Wherever music can be consumed, used or streamed we as content owners have to be there to monetize effectively. Read Wired magazine every month.

Always stay five minutes ahead! What are some notable synch licenses that Sunflower has helped line up in the last couple of years that you think were an especially good use of your songs?

"Mad Men" tapped Sunflower Entertainment to close an Xmas episode with "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

There are a bunch of great uses but personally I like the end credit use on “Mad Men” last year – it was the Christmas episode, and the song was “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”. We also had one of our big Dominican acts, Vakero, in an excellent foreign film, Sin Nombre. It won a couple of awards at Sundance, an amazing film, watch it on Netflix.

What have you learned about working a niche catalog like yours with music supervisors?
What I try to do is let them know that if you’re looking for great Latin, jazz from the ‘40s, or some ‘60s soul from Memphis call me, that’s all — not try to shove music down the supervisors. It’s “We’re here, what’s the scene and feel? I’ll send you a link in a few hours.” You have to be quick.

Being based out of New York is the best, but for synch it’s mostly happening in LA. I go out there a handful of times a year to keep up the relationships. It’s still about personal relationships in this business.

Pop quiz! If you could obtain the catalog of any recording artist ever for Sunflower — cost not a factor — who would it be?

Anything historic…that will always be valuable no matter what.

Last but not least: What are the trends to watch out for next?

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