Helen Jane Long is a composer, musician and pianist and the first billion streaming pianist in the world! Originally signing with Warner Music she now writes under her own label and released her 8th album last year with a virtual performance replacing her American 2020 tour. Whilst she knew from a young age she wanted to work in music, it was not an easy path and in this Q&A she shows how resilience to rejection and constantly pushing at doors have been essential to her success. Helen also explains how her confidence and approach to work has changed as she’s moved through life, had a family and negotiated a pandemic!
Was performing and writing music always something you wanted to do? It wasn’t until I was at University. A Television composer came in to do a speech about music in film and TV and then it was a lightning bolt moment for me thinking ‘that’s what I want to do!’.
How did you originally get into it?
The short answer is…. Resilience to rejection! I started playing the piano when I was five and spent a lot of time playing on a little keyboard my grandad had in his spare room. This progressed to messing about with tape machines and layering up music sounds and multi tracking. I played in orchestras, did music exams and was put into music competitions by my piano teacher. I got very nervous performing and didn’t see myself being a performer as a career! I liked to be behind the scenes instead..hiding…At college I was heavily involved with music and music production. I then went to Bristol university to study music.
After my degree I got unpaid work experience at the BBC for a few weeks. It gave me the opportunity to search out a proper job there which I did working in the Children’s Programmes Department for Blue Peter! Whilst at the BBC I used to go on errands and would stop by the recording studios where I would meet composers, directors and producers and I got to understand the relationship between them all. Away from the BBC I would spend my time composing, sending lots of demos, pitching for any music related job (never getting any of them) but also never giving up! I was spending a lot of time and money commuting back and forth and decided to leave the BBC and find a local job so I could save money for my studio and have time to send demos.
My first break came…
A friend at university was getting married and she asked me to compose music for her to walk down the aisle. At the wedding I had been introduced to her cousin who was an up and coming Director and producer. My first job came when he called me as they needed music for a TV series and the original composer had let them down. I was given the chance which paid off. This was my first official music credit on my CV!
What happened with your career in your 20s and then your 30s?
In my 20s I left university, went to the BBC in London for work experience and managed to get a job working within the Children’s Programmes department. I used to spend as much time as I could walking past the music studios to see who was recording and to learn as much as I could. What little money I had was being spent on train fares to London and back and so I decided to work locally so that I could save time and money and use it on studio equipment and have more time to compose.
My 20s really was up until 2am composing, up at 7am to the swimming pool (helped with creativity and excess energy!), sending lots of demos, pitching for any music related job (never getting any of them) but just never giving up! In my early 30s through pitching a demo, I won my first big advert. After that, I took the decision to go to Los Angeles on my own. I booked a flight, organised meetings with music agents and soaked up the exciting world around me. I came home with a lot of inspiration and the drive to keep going. Did I come back with work? No. But I did come back with hope. I moved my focus to piano music rather than pitching for film at a time when MySpace had just become a way of interacting online. The feedback I received from music fans was brilliant and so I carried on writing piano music. A month or so later I decided to send a demo to Warner Music. Within two days they had called me and invited me in for a meeting. I was asked to bring my lawyer with me. I didn’t have a lawyer! I took my mum. It was the very same day I knew I was pregnant with my first son. When they offered me a record deal I was speechless and in shock. It was totally unexpected. The baby was planned, the record deal was not! I didn’t tell them I was pregnant for six months because I was worried they might change their mind. I waited until a photoshoot to tell them.
How does your working pattern compare to before you had a family?
Having a family has brought a different regimented time focus to my life. It has also changed the hours I am creative. When you know you only have a window of time to compose or score something, it’s amazing what you can get done when you need to. My crazy 2am music creativity is now between 9am-2:30pm!
What’s your typical day?
Get up at 7am and take my eldest son to the bus stop for school. Come back and organise pack lunch and breakfast for my youngest son and then take him to school. Come back and have a coffee with my husband and talk about anything and everything. Followed by quick tidy around the house and general things. I alternate either jumping straight into work, whether composing, emails, scoring etc and on the other days I’ll jump on my mountain bike or go for a swim. Allowing time away from work and family makes me a better mum and better composer. The rest of the day is work based and then school pick-ups, homework, football clubs, family dinner which we all have together, no gadgets, no phones, just food and conversation.
How does this compare to a typical day in your 20s?
No nappy changing or pack lunches in my 20s! Composing, meetings, sending demos, rejection letters, composing more, sending more letters, more meetings, more demos, more meetings… separated by mealtimes, sport and catching up with friends and family. On reflection….although I had more time to myself, I wouldn’t say it was as productive as my 30s or even 40s.
How has covid affected your typical day/year?
It has changed the structure of my day completely. Life is about adapting and I’ve seen this as a positive change. In early March 2020, when there was talk of lockdown I tried to get as many recording sessions done before it happened. It meant that when home-schooling started I was ready to take on the challenge. I had always worked mainly on my own and so having family around during the day was really lovely. I don’t think my children would agree from a home-schooling point of view!
Are things starting to get back to normal?
Yes. In terms of career. I was mostly unaffected because a lot of my music career is through international streaming and as people worked from home, they played more music! I did a live streamed show in December 2020 which replaced the American tour I was supposed to be doing that year. It made me change my performance style and made me think differently about my approach to concerts and that was also a positive transition.
Do you find it easier or harder now that you’re in your 40s to do your job – be it performing, writing music, dealing with record companies etc?
I find it much easier to deal with everything. I am confident with my business; I have had the years of experience to trust my instincts. After my first album with a major record label, I made a decision to set up my own record label instead and have released a further eight albums under my own label. In the past 18 months I have been approached by two of the worlds largest record labels offering me multi-album deals.
What are you career highlights?
1) My first ever paid music job.
2) Being offered my record deal in 2006 by Warner.
3) Discovering I had become the first billion streaming pianist in the world.
4) Winning my first major TV advertising campaign for British Airways which 10 years on is still one of the most streamed music advertising pieces in the world.
5) Walking through Philadelphia Airport and hearing my music playing from a shop.
What’s next for you?
2021 is an exciting year. I have two new albums in the pipeline, an audiobook soundtrack being released for a beautiful book called ‘Ravelled’ by an American author. I have a USA tour planned for this October and shows in London too. I am a believer in saying yes to any new opportunities and so I might be doing a road bike adventure trip across France later in the year. As a family, we have a summer holiday booked which will be lovely to unwind and spend time together in the UK.
For me, life is about making the most of every day and never taking anything for granted.