Seattle Music Commissioner Jennifer Czeisler currently runs Rogue Octopus, a sync licensing company focused on Northwest artists and labels, and previously served as Vice President of Licensing at Sup Pop Records for 16 years. A Seattle native and graduate from the University of Washington School of Law, Jen left her position at Sub Pop in 2012 to create Rogue Octopus. Over her years as a music industry attorney, Jen has negotiated and drafted hundreds of recording contracts, licensing agreements and foreign distribution agreements. Jen’s abilities have showcased themselves in music placements for Sub Pop bands The Shins, The Postal Service, Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses, as well as local indie artists on Rogue Octopus such as Tangerine, Smokey Brights, Hot Bodies In Motion, J. Pinder, Sweet Water and more.
We spoke with Jen about how she got into her career, her perspective on the local industry and her advice for artists who are just starting out.
Tell me about yourself and how your career in music started.
My formative years were spent growing up in Seattle during the late 80s and early 90s, going to high school and college locally and spending time with my friends who were musicians in bands. Music has always been my passion but I never really thought about having a career in music until I saw those friends’ bands getting signed during the grunge heyday. That’s when I realized there was a possibility for a Seattle person to work in the music industry. So I decided being a music attorney representing bands was my calling. Even though I went to law school at University of Washington, I was planning on moving to LA because I figured I wasn’t necessarily going to be able to stay in Seattle for my job, but I ended up getting an internship at Sup Pop Records and that turned into a full time position spanning 16 years. I loved it, and mainly moved on because I hadn’t experienced any other music career opportunities up until that point.
When you went to law school, was it with the goal of then getting a job in the music industry?
Completely. I spent a lot of time going to shows and I’m a musician myself, I’ve played in bands, and music is what I’m most passionate about. So I decided to go to law school rather than try to work my way up the ladder at a record label or music publishing company. I was interested in negotiating and making deals and thought that would be exciting work. I also felt it was a good way for me to get my foot in the door at a little higher level, especially not having grown up in LA, and it was.
What kind of music do you play?
Mostly rock and roll. I was the bass player in a Pixies cover band called No. 13 Baby and co-singer/songwriter in My Favorite Girl. No. 13 Baby had a pretty big following until the Pixies got back together. That kinda put a halt to our popularity but we had a lot of fun!
How would you describe Seattle’s music industry and how have you seen it change over the years?
I think a lot of people realized they could have profitable production studios, record labels and music careers in Seattle after witnessing the grunge era explosion. I think Seattle’s music industry has always been pretty DIY, and that lent itself well to the Internet era that followed. So, unlike the major labels who saw a big crash as a result of the illegal downloading of music, I think the smaller, DIY companies gained the ability to reach an audience worldwide without having to use commercial radio and other infrastructure that a major label would. Because of that, I feel like it was able to blossom.
However, over time the price of music dwindled to almost nothing, so now everyone is really taking a hit. Because recorded music is more of a marketing tool than something to sell, it’s made it challenging for everybody.
Why did you decide to start Rogue Octopus?
One of my main roles at Sup Pop was licensing music for film, TV and commercials. It’s a kind of niche field that I really enjoyed and was very profitable. I really liked the intersection between moving picture, so to speak, and music. So I took the part of my job that I really liked the best at Sup Pop and formed a company around it. One of the things that I also really like is that I now am on the front lines of signing artists and pitching them to music supervisors. When I was at Sub Pop, I was not on the A&R team, so music was given to me that was great, and I loved it, but I didn’t have a very big role in picking it in the first place.
How has your career influenced the perspective you bring to the Music Commission?
I started at Sup Pop in 1996, so I’ve had a very long music industry life. I’ve seen the old school paradigm—the $20 CD and the million-selling first week, and things like that which just don’t really happen anymore. I also work with artists and know firsthand how hard it’s become to make money in the music industry. I also have a thorough understanding of many music industry areas, whether it’s licensing, publishing, recorded sales, live music, working with producers…and I’m on the Grammy Board, so I have perspective from that role as well. I think the fact that I’ve had a varied career has served me well on the Music Commission. And that it’s been over such a long period of time.
The Music Commission’s mission is to build Seattle as a City of Music—what are the biggest priorities for you in working towards that goal?
My biggest priority is to find ways for musicians to be supported financially, whether it’s bigger local companies working with Seattle artists to use their music in commercials or online videos, or to have them perform live at their events. I really feel that as the city grows and becomes more and more expensive, we have to be mindful to make sure that we don’t lose the things that make Seattle special, and one of the things that makes Seattle special is music and our musicians. And if they can’t afford to live here, we won’t have access to that side of Seattle anymore. So that’s my biggest priority. It’s not an easy fix. It’s really about raising awareness and continuing, as leaders in our community, to have conversations with other community leaders to make sure that they’re aware of the problem and are aware that there are things that can be done to help.
What are you looking forward to working on in the next year?
I’m really looking forward to working on the waterfront. They already have a great team in place that’s doing a lot to incorporate music, but I really like the idea of bringing that vibrancy of the live shows and expanding the SeaTac airport initiative to places like the waterfront, the Convention Center and other city-owned properties. To me that’s a really exciting project, to continue to highlight Seattle musicians in our public areas.
Publishing, licensing and collecting revenue are complicated and can be overwhelming for a musician who is just starting. Are there any resources or tips you’d recommend?
The first book I read when I started out at Sup Pop was called All You Need to Know about the Music Business by Donald Passman, who is a well-known music attorney, and I’d say that’s a great resource. The next thing is that I would have every artist register with Sound Exchange, and a company like BMI or ASCAP. There are basically two types of public performance royalty organizations: one that collects royalties on the recordings, Sound Exchange, and the other collects royalties on publishing, BMI, SESAC or ASCAP. It’s important for artists to know they have to register their music to collect those royalties. The websites are very informative and easy to manage, and these companies can also provide artists with additional resources and opportunities.
Anything you want people to know about the Seattle Music Commission?
It’s a super committed group of people who love what they do and are very passionate about the music industry and the people who work in the music industry. And we’re really dedicated to doing the best we can to improve the livelihood and quality of life for the people who are in it. It’s really important work and musicians and others working in music typically don’t have the voice to advocate for themselves, so I’m really proud to be part of an organization that’s doing that on their behalf.