Sub Pop Records is a record label that has had some extreme highs and extreme lows, but it is a company that has without a doubt stood the test of time in the recording industry for more than twenty years. In the 1980’s, a music fanatic by the name of Bruce Pavitt ran a fanzine called Subterranean Pop, which was an independent music publication created to earn college credit. The name was shortened to Sub Pop by the 4th issue, at which point Pavitt began alternating issues with mix tapes containing tracks from the underground bands of the time. In 1989, Pavitt moved the operation to Seattle, WA and released the 9th and final issue of Sub Pop
The first official Sub Pop release was 1986’s Sub Pop 100, which was a compilation LP featuring bands such as Sonic Youth, Naked Raygun, Scratch Acid and The Wipers. Following the success of this LP, Sub Pop agreed to do a record for Green River. To promote the album, it was described as “ultra-loose grunge that destroyed the morals of a generation”. This surely caught someones eye, as Sub Pop only kept growing. 1987 marked a milestone for this young label with the introduction of financial investor Jonathan Poneman. Poneman’s initial investment was $20,000 for the promotion and release of Soundgarden single “Hunted Down”/”Nothing to Say” in July 1987, followed by the band’s first EP Screaming Life that October. At this point, Pavitt focused on the A&R aspect of the label, while Poneman handles the finances and legal affairs.
Soon enough, Sub Pop Records became a full time gig for both of these individuals. Studying the successes of other labels such as Motown Records or SST Records, the co-owners realized that they all had one thing in common: they promoted and grew on a regional basis. That’s when they sought after establishing what we know today as “The Seattle Sound”, which can be categorized as dirty, grungy rock covered in flannel and holes in your jeans. Their most notable aggregate of this genre by far is Nirvana. Their first contribution to the label was in 1988 with the first entry for the Sub Pop Singles Club which was a monthly subscription service that enabled its’ members to receive singles every month in the mail from the label. Nirvana remained a mainstay with Sub Pop through the release of Bleach, a surprise breakout hit that was the catalyst for the grunge explosion. With their signing to a major label, Sub Pop kept afloat for many years banking on Nirvana album sales alone.
In terms of promotion, from day one Sub Pop was all about branding, and not the kind of branding you think about today. In most current music business ventures, it’s all about branding the artists. But Bruce and Jonathan were much more adamant about branding the label as a whole. Instead of placing advertisements for their albums, they promoted the label instead. They became known for a certain style and a certain sound, and before long, they were simply a go to label if you cared for anything grunge.
However, regardless of the huge successes of their artists, Sub Pop was broke. With their extreme expenditures on their artists albums, royalties/advances going through the roof because of the addition of major labels in the picture, and many other factors, Sub Pop was barely bringing in enough money to keep going. To help dig themselves out, they signed a deal with Warner Brothers, signing over 49% of the label’s ownership.
This deal and many other factors brought Sub Pop into a completely new direction. While trying to figure out their place in the music industry in the late 90’s/early 00’s, Sub Pop discovered the Shins. Their first album “Oh, Inverted World” was an immediate success, but did not propel them into super stardom until two of their tracks were used in the Garden State soundtrack in 2004. This was the beginning in a series of extreme hits for Sub Pop. Artists like The Postal Service, Hot Hot Heat, Iron and Wine and Band of Horses brought Sub Pop back on the map, but not as the same “grunge” label we knew in the 80s and early 90’s. They became a leader in indie pop music. Currently, Sub Pop has even expanded into non-musical works, specifically comedy. They released hit albums by both David Cross and Flight of the Concords.
While Sub Pop artists may sound a little different than they did back in the day, the label still discovers artists and operates in the same way. “We react solely from a place of, ‘This is fucking great,’” Poneman says. “The world may react differently, but we start from the premise of, ‘This rules.’”
You can read more about Sub Pop, purchase Sub Pop’s entire catalog and merchandise and more at http://www.subpop.com