In 1986, Subterranean Pop fanzine writer Bruce Pavitt released the compilation Sub Pop 100, which featured artists such as Sonic Youth, Wipers, and Scratch Acid. Unknown to Pavitt, this would be the first Sub Pop release and the beginning of a twenty-plus year-long career.
Sub Pop was officially founded in 1988 by Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman, who decided to become a partner in the label when he funded Soundgarden’s début single “Hunted down”. The label was located in Seattle, Washington, which was quickly growing to be the epicenter of the grunge scene. The pair decided to market the label as being the leader of the “Seattle Sound”, which was accomplished by producer Jack Endino who used traditional recording techniques to give the tracks a consistent, but edgy, sound. Pavitt and Poneman also decided to market the label its self as a brand by advertising the label as a whole more frequently than any individual band. This marketing concept allowed the label to become synonymous with the Seattle grunge scene.
Sub Pop achieved fame in 1988 with their release of Nirvana’s début album Bleach. Although the record was not an immediate success, it did begin to generate buzz throughout Seattle and Nirvana was starting to sell out larger venues. Nirvana’s second album Nevermind sold over four million copies, although their contract had been sold to Geffen, Sub Pop still received royalties which pulled the label out of the enormous financial hole that threatened to destroy it.
The label was starting to generate a lot of attention with the majors, who were now scouring Seattle in search of the “next” Nirvana, and in 1995 Warner Bros. made a deal with Sub Pop; Warner would own 49% of the label and in return would fund it’s projects. Now being backed by a major, Sub Pop set out to expand its label by opening more offices around the country, this quickly turned into a financial disaster. In late 1995, Pavitt left the label he had created and Sub Pop’s future was uncertain.
The label struggled until June of 2001 when they released The Shins’ Oh, Inverted World. The album was quickly embraced by the indie crowd and after its placement in Garden State, hit the mainstream. Releases by Hot Hot Heat, The Postal Service, Band of Horses, and Iron and Wine shortly followed and helped solidify Sub Pop’s future. They also released Flight of the Concord’s comedy record which went on to win the label its first Grammy.
The label, which has just celebrated its twenty-second birthday, is now releasing albums from bands such as Foals, David Cross, and Wold Parade and it seems as though the hard times are behind them. Even though Sub Pop has experienced enormous success, they still operate with a small label mentality reminiscent of their grunge beginnings.
“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.’”
The more you know…