The Sound and the Fury

June 20, 2018

30 Years of Sub Pop

Sub Pop 1

Sub Pop, the magazine-turned-record-company that launched Nirvana  and Soundgarden has (not) been going out of business since 1988

On April 1, 2018, Sub Pop Records passed a milestone; the label turned 30. Indie music aficionados know that its history goes back much further — the very first Sub Pop release to feature music was Sub Pop 5, a compilation tape released in 1981. And the first vinyl album was the compilation Sub Pop 100, released in 1986. But it was April Fools’ Day, 1988, when Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman officially took over the lease on Sub Pop’s first office, and April 1st has been the label’s designated anniversary date ever since — as seen in one of their early slogans, “Going out of business since 1988.”

In fact, Sub Pop’s business is fine, something Tony Kiewel, Sub Pop’s co-president, attributes to Poneman’s unflagging determination to keep the label afloat against all odds. Since Pavitt resigned from the company in 1996 (he remains a consultant), it’s Poneman who’s undertaken the heavy lifting, pulling the label out of a late ’90s slump, and overseeing its resurgence with a wealth of acts that rival the Nirvanas and Soundgardens of the label’s grunge heyday: the Shins, Postal Service, Fleet Foxes, the Head and the Heart.

Sub Pop started out as a fanzine called Subterranean Pop, issue one released in 1979 by Pavitt, who was attending Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. By issue 3, the name had changed to the snappier Sub Pop, and the zine’s nine issue run included three cassettes; Sub Pop 5Sub Pop 7, and Sub Pop 9. The cassettes featured indie acts from the Pacific Northwest and around the country; some who went on to bigger things include Steve Fisk (Pigeonhed, also the producer of Nirvana and Soundgarden, among many others), Calvin Johnson (Beat Happening, and the founder of K Records), and Jad Fair (Half Japanese).

Sub Pop was a collectable label from the beginning; a recent ebay seller was offering a complete set of Sub Pop 1 – 9 for $3499.99 (“or best offer”). Or you could spend $34.95 and pick up Pavitt’s book, Sub Pop USA: The Subterranean Pop Music Anthology, 1980-1988, which reprints all of zines (including the liner notes of the cassettes), as well as all of Pavitt’s “Sub Pop U.S.A.” columns he wrote for Seattle music magazine The Rocket.

Pavitt moved to Seattle in 1983, where he used the Sub Pop name for his Rocket column, as well as the name of the radio show he hosted on KCMU-FM. Then came Sub Pop 100, which featured up-and-coming indie acts like Sonic Youth, Scratch Acid, Naked Raygun. But Pavitt wanted Sub Pop’s future releases to focus on the Pacific Northwest, which he viewed as a region of undiscovered talent.

Sub Pop 2Accordingly, Sub Pop’s next records, released in 1987 were by Seattle acts; Green River’s Dry as a Bone EP and Soundgarden’s “Hunted Down” single. Pavitt next teamed up with Poneman, another Seattle immigrant (Pavitt was originally from Park Forest, Illinois, Poneman from Toledo, Ohio), who also had a keen interest in Seattle’s music scene. Poneman borrowed $2000 to help with the release of Soundgarden’s 1987 Screaming Life EP, then put up $19,000 to buy a 50 percent share in Sub Pop. The two young men were now officially business partners.

Sub Pop’s founders understood the lure of limited edition releases among collectors, and from the very beginning it was common for the initial run of a record to be released on colored vinyl; the first 600 copies of Screaming Life were pressed on orange vinyl. They also created a series, the Sub Pop Singles Club, specifically designed to whet a collector’s appetite, with subscribers paying a fee to get a year’s worth of limited edition singles, without knowing what they were going to be — what Kiewel calls a “genius” way to generate cash flow. The first Singles Club release was Nirvana’s “Love Buzz,” released in November 1988. It’s the record that still commands the highest prices of any Sub Pop release on the collector’s market, selling for over $2000.

The label also relished making as big a splash as possible with their releases. The 1988 Sub Pop 200 compilation, for example, featured 20 tracks that would have easily fit on two albums. But Pavitt and Poneman wisely deduced that it would make more of an impact if the tracks were spread over three 12-inch EPs, packaged in a box with an LP-sized booklet, and pressed in a limited run of 5000 copies. It became the first release to get some substantial overseas press for Sub Pop; a write up in the London Observer by legendary British DJ John Peel. Sub Pop 200 has since been released on CD; vinyl copies sell for around $100.

Sub Pop still presses runs of on colored vinyl today, as a means of boosting pre-orders on Sub Pop’s website, or to encourage good first week sales at record shops, from collectors who want to be sure to get that lavender-colored edition of Cullen Omori’s upcoming album The Diet before it sells out. Colored vinyl still has a cachet among collectors. Kiewel says when a band member posts a picture of their colored vinyl album on a site like Instagram, “We might see orders double. And that doesn’t happen if you hold up black vinyl!”

And even though most music these days is sold digitally, physical media still holds a strong appeal. Though CDs became the dominant format for Sub Pop in the 1990s, the label never stopped releasing vinyl, which left them well positioned for the vinyl resurgence that began in the 21st century. The company’s even gone back to releasing cassettes, despite having phased them out around the year 2000. “You can do smaller runs and it’s not cost prohibitive,” Kiewel explains. “If you can sell through 200, it’s worth making them.”

Kiewel jokes that a CD resurgence is due, noting that thrift store bins that were once full of cheap used vinyl are now full of cheap used CDs. “Kids are going to figure out that a bunch of that stuff isn’t on Spotify,” he says. “CDs are punk as fuck.”

Sub Pop 3The arrival of digital music upended the music industry, but Sub Pop proved to adapt to an ever-changing landscape. “We’re in a sweet spot,” says Kiewel. “We’re small enough that we can change course pretty quickly. But at the same time we’re an old enough company with a deep enough catalogue that we can also afford to weather some of these moments where things are uncertain. It’s all just making sure that we are reaching potential fans in any way possible and every way possible. And not taking anything for granted in the way that we market these records or the way that we sell this music.”

Recently Sub Pop’s kept busy with releases by Father John Misty (God’s Favorite Customer), and upcoming delights from Luluc (Sculptor), Deaf Wish (Lithium Zion), and Mass Gothic (I’ve Tortured You Long Enough). And if you’re anywhere near Seattle this summer, check out SPF30 (the “F” stands for “Festival”), running August 10 and 11, featuring bands, comedy, and free shows. Come out and celebrate the little label that could, a company whose tongue-in-cheek modesty is reflected in their current slogan: “We’re not the best, but we’re pretty good.”

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