Fittingly, our 20th label profile in this series is of one of the most esteemed indie labels of modern times. Fitting because Sub Pop this year celebrates its 20th anniversary.
Founded by Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman in Seattle, Washington in 1986. Sub Pop will forever be synonymous with grunge, the alternative explosion in US music at the turn of the last decade of the 20th century, and most of all signing Nirvana. Add in the likes of Soundgarden and Mudhoney and they pretty much created an entire global movement. Since then, signings of the likes of Postal Service, The Shins and No Age have seen the label expand and prosper into the new millennia.
And duly, we pay our respects and ask Megan Jasper of the label some questions. Here they are: Beneath are her replies. Cool.
Why did you choose to have your birth date in 1988, given that there was a number of dates you could have chosen – such as the start of the Subterranean Pop magazine?
There are a lot of dates that we could have used but Sub Pop started celebrating its birthday once Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman got an office for the label and began focusing on Sub Pop as being their full time job.
Until recently, it’s fair to say that Sub Pop would have been known almost specifically for it’s role in the explosion of American alternative music in the late eighties and early nineties; how important was it to you to set a legacy beyond the likes of Nirvana, Mudhoney and friends?
It was very important to be able to move beyond what happened in the late eighties, early nineties. Although the label worked with incredibly talented musicians, it’s important to be able to always look forward (especially when artists feel that they need to move on). Sub Pop will always be in a state of evolution, constantly redefining itself through its artists and that’s what makes it exciting.
You’re a rather portly record company now, with a staff of around thirty people – was it always your ambition to grow to this level? As you get bigger, how do you successfully maintain your ethos or sense of why you began?
It was never our ambition to grow to a certain size but it has always been our ambition to serve our artists as well as we possibly can and, these days, that means having about 30 people on staff.
I don’t believe that we ever lose sight of our roots or initial intentions simply because the label was started by two guys who loved music. They learned the business as they went along. When we hire a new person for the office, we always look for someone who, we believe, will be a great match with the label and the artists and we look for people who love music. We make a lot of weird decisions (I’m sure that’s no big surprise!) because there are so many aspects to always consider in this business (relationships, our local, national, and international music communities — just to name a couple). Many of these "weird" decisions seem counter-intuitive to a standard "bottom line" way of operating, because it’s important for us to honour the label’s spirit and way. Sometimes it’s a weird balancing act that we we’re always trying to perfect.
During the last decade, you had to restructure both the label and your debts and sold a 49% share to Warner Bros music – how’s that partnership worked out in the past ten or so years? Have the number of positives outweighed any negatives?
I think it took us a little while to figure out how to work together and after 15 years of trying, we just recently figured it out. There are some great people there who have been very supportive of us. Sometimes we work directly with them to license a band’s record overseas. We also work very closely with ADA, our US distributor, but we worked closely with them before so the distribution side was nothing new. We have complete autonomy and get a great deal on our manufacturing so I’d have to say that it’s all good.
Do you think that labels are fetishized too much? Rather than bands, or even just single records?
I think it’s less of a fetish and more of a request to be pointed in a certain direction, if that makes sense. I think that for music buyers, labels have really just become an endorsement. With so much music out there, it’s easier to have a filtering system with a trustworthy source saying, 'you’ll like this one!' We work with artists whose music we love and hope to earn the trust of people out there wanting to discover new music, themselves. If that endorsement can turn someone on to any of our bands, we’re psyched.
How have you approached this era from a technological and business aspect? Are you bucking against the trends in vinyl bunkers, or embracing the perils of the interweb? We gather making money ain’t that easy at the moment...
It’s too difficult to work against the way people want to find or listen to their music. We’ve found that it’s easier and way more fun to find new ways to market music and artists that just sort of go with the flow. Does that make me sound like a hippie?
How little money did you actually have at the start of things? We’ve heard some great stories...
Jonathan managed to borrow (if I remember correctly) $15,000 from his folks. It got the label off to a great start, which lasted about a month.
Nirvana: ‘In Bloom’ (Sub Pop version)
All in all, you’ve released a pretty wide range of records and worked with a whole diaspora of artists; if you were to select four or five records to represent your label to the earthbound aliens, which would you play them and why?
Mudhoney: I mean, c’mon, they built the label and they’re still here. Mark even works in our warehouse.
Nirvana: They took over the world and made it a much better place.
The Shins: We fell in love with these guys and there was no turnin’ back. They led Sub Pop’s most recent ascension.
No Age: They represent the Sub Pop of today and tomorrow.
The Snuggle Rats: Nobody knows them yet, but Jonathan says that they’re going to be 'FUCKING HUGE!' They’re from Worcester, MA. I haven’t heard them yet but JP says that their future with Sub Pop is almost a done deal. You’ll know them soon enough!
You’ll forever be synonymous with Seattle, as fine a city as it is. Is that something you think about often? Do you owe a debt to the city in terms of who and what it made you and Sub Pop? Or do you think that location isn’t as relevant to your story as people imagine?
I think that Sub Pop is the ultimate 'right place, right time' story. Bruce and Jon could have started a label anywhere, but they simply wouldn’t have the same story. They knew that something great existed in this city, that there was a need for it, and they did it. Sub Pop wouldn't be Sub Pop without Seattle. The bands that come from this part of the world are often times a reflection of what the Northwest is or what's happening here at the moment. Sub Pop has been fortunate to work with many of those artists, documenting this area.
You’ve picked up Foals in the States – they’re a pretty noteworthy band in the UK – do you have high hopes for them over there?
Yes! We have high hopes that they’ll absolutely destroy this country and bring us back to a far more respectful place!
What’s your tip for a record label’s longevity?
Are there any other labels around the world that you currently look up to or feel a kinship with?
There are a ton of labels that many of us are fans of. Right now, we’re all pretty excited about another Seattle label, Light In The Attic.
Which company would you rather see Sub Pop acquire by hostile takeover, Starbucks or Microsoft?
Well if Starbucks took over the label we’d be jacked up on coffee beans all day and we’d each gain 25 pounds from their baked goods. With Microsoft, we’d end up with rectangular shaped reading glasses and we’d probably have 'team assignments'. Hmmm... I guess I’d rather just get fat, so maybe Starbucks?
Tell us a secret.
Jonathan won’t use the bathroom at Sub Pop. Nobody knows why and everyone’s afraid to ask him.
Read: Him Tall’s excellent coverage of the Sub Pop 20 event earlier this year here
No Age are touring as part of the SHREDYRFACE tour as sponsored by DiS – details and tickets here.
Previous Label Focus articles:
#16: Chemikal Underground
#15: Moshi Moshi
#14: FatCat Records
#13: Thee SPC
#12: One Little Indian
#11: Big Dada
#9: Holy Roar
#5: Gringo Records
#3: Bella Union
#2: Fierce Panda
#1: Drowned in Sound