Seattle Music Commissioner Tony Kiewel is currently Co-President of Seattle-based Sub Pop Records, where he has worked ever since moving to the city in 2000. Tony began his career at Sub Pop as the Commercial Radio Director but shifted to the A&R (artists and repertoire) department soon after his arrival. While overseeing A&R, he was responsible for bringing dozens of artists to the label, including The Postal Service, Sleater-Kinney, Father John Misty, Flight of the Conchords and David Cross.
Tony has been serving on the Seattle Music Commission since September 2016. We spoke with him about his career, challenges facing the local music industry and how the Commission is rising to meet those challenges.
Tell us about your career so far, and specifically how your career in music started.
My first unpaid gig was as a DJ at a college radio station. That was definitely the gateway to everything that followed. I worked at KXLU in Los Angeles, this still very cool college radio station that was aggressively indie. No major label music allowed, and records were only in rotation for four weeks. These fairly intense rules were meant to push new music and developing artists. They very much embraced the idea that their access to public airwaves meant they had a responsibility to the community, and especially to the local bands. That has informed everything else for me.
At KXLU I learned about an internship at Geffen Records in the college radio department, and that’s where I learned that music could became an actual career for me. I then got my first actual paying job in music at a small indie called Alias Records, where I also worked in their radio promotion department.
Then, the guy who had hired me for that first internship at Geffen got promoted and offered me his old job. For a bunch of boring industry merger type reasons I eventually ended up working at DreamWorks Records. All the while I was still doing a radio program at KXLU called Demolisten that focused on playing demo tapes from local bands. A good friend of mine who worked at Sub Pop signed a few bands I had shared from our radio program, so largely thanks to her, that’s how I started developing the beginning of an A&R reputation up here.
After a while I kind of got dispirited about the culture at DreamWorks, so I took off to Sub Pop in 2000. It was kind of a transitional time for Sub Pop so it was a bit of a daunting move. So initially it was a little bit of a struggle, but it also made for a really unifying and adventurous time. Mostly, I was just really excited to get to work at a place that had a familial quality, and an insurrectionist ethos focused on supporting music we all really loved. That was never really the experience I had at the other places I had worked.
Eventually I evolved out of radio promotion and into A&R, and now, Co-President. Sub Pop has been an incredibly supportive place, and the owner, Jonathan Poneman and our CEO, Megan Jasper, have both been really amazing at helping me grow into different roles and pursue things that I wasn’t remotely qualified for at the time! [laughs] I’m just crazy grateful to them both.
You’ve been working here in Seattle for almost 20 years now. How would you describe Seattle’s music industry, and how have you seen it change during your career?
When I got here, it felt like things were kind of ebbing. Barsuk and Suicide Squeeze were starting to make a name for themselves and Sub Pop was kind of keeping the lights on, more or less. But in general the music scene seemed a bit fragmented and less recognized than in previous years. And the industry as a whole was really nervous about how they would survive online piracy and whatnot.
Now, things feel a lot more united, and thanks to folks like KEXP, there’s a consistent voice trumpeting the local scene to the rest of the world. KEXP almost all by themselves have come to embody an ethic and spirit of engagement and responsibility that I think the rest of us are all trying to live up to, and thanks to their hard work and technological advances, they are transmitting all that to the world.
Of course, we now also have the affordability issue to deal with which is mind-bogglingly awful. We keep losing artists to other cities, and that makes me positively insane.
Why were you interested in being on the Seattle Music Commission?
It goes back to how I feel about what KEXP is doing, and trying to understand where our community needs more support. Our CEO Megan had been involved with the Commission, and I saw the impact that they had by getting local music into the airport. I would hear from folks, “That airport gig is actually a cornerstone of how I’m able to afford to not have a day job right now.” Finding those kinds of opportunities and being able to act on them, and in some cases hopefully making it easier for artists to not only stay in Seattle but thrive.
And as a bonus I’m getting to meet and work with so many great people! I’m so stoked to get to know Daniel [Pak] and Reese [Tanimura]. Everybody in there really is just incredibly remarkable and interesting.
The Music Commission’s mission is to support Seattle as a City of Music. What are the biggest priorities for you in working towards that goal?
I think I’d just reiterate how important I think it is for us to find more revenue sources for artists. There’s an obvious marketing component to performing or having one’s music played in businesses and public spaces, but that can also create actual revenue.
Preserving existing rehearsal spaces and even finding more rehearsal space for bands is something I’m super invested in as well. I came up in the indie rock scene so I very much want to make sure that it still exists, and it’s hard to imagine how those kinds of bands can exist without affordable places to write and rehearse. I want there to be spaces for collaborative music making of all genres. It’s hard to do that if you don’t have places to crank up the volume. So, on a creative level, I think it’s profoundly important to preserve those spaces.
And then, I want to make a general effort to share whatever information, relationships and knowledge that I have more widely. I work with artists who’ve been professional musicians for more than 20 years, and they still have trouble grasping what the differences are between a mechanical royalty, a performance royalty, or a sound exchange royalty. A lot of responsibility has been placed on songwriters and performers to manage their revenue collection and data, and that can be really overwhelming to an artist who’d rather spend time making music or performing. But that stuff has become critically important, and to whatever extent I can share my understanding of that part of the business, I want to be able to.
What advice would you have for someone who’s interested in working in music in Seattle?
My biggest piece of advice would be to try everything. If you see an opportunity, even if it doesn’t seem like your dream job, try it out. You might be surprised what ends up interesting you or leading to the thing that does. I think a lot of people don’t readily grasp how many roles there are in the music industry. Writers, photographers, filmmakers, accountants, lawyers, coders, marketers… All of these people play mammoth roles within the music business. If you have a love of music, chances are that there’s a place for your skill set. I’ve been in a band, been a concert promoter, a DJ, a booking agent, a publicist, an A&R person, a radio promoter, and even made an ill-fated attempt to start my own label. It’s hard to imagine being where I am now without having tried (and mostly failed) at all of those things.
I’m also very much a believer in building your own community. I sometimes worry that a lot of folks get focused on, “How do I kick this door down? How do I get signed to Sub Pop? How do I get airplay on KEXP?” And you should certainly try to figure those things out, but it’s also important to work with your friends, and to try and connect with other like-minded artists and audiences. So many of my most important relationships were made at KXLU, and were my friends who I loved and believed in. Plus, when you achieve something that way it’s just incredibly rewarding.
What are you looking forward to working on in the next year?
As a Music Commissioner, I’m very eager to see how the waterfront plan develops. I think there could be a lot of opportunities for artists down there. I’m hoping we can expand a lot of the City of Music initiatives. There’s a lot of stuff we can work with the Port of Seattle on, and I would love to see that duplicated elsewhere. I’m optimistic about what’s ahead.
At Sub Pop, honestly, after last year’s 30th anniversary festivities, I’m just excited to get back to basics of being a record label. We have a ton of amazing records coming out this year, and I’m really eager for everyone to get to hear them!
You can contact Tony Kiewel and the rest of the Seattle Music Commission at email@example.com.