After 30 years of pranks, power chords and evolution, Seattle’s big little indie label is poised to thrive in a rapidly changing industry. Concerts, including at an Alki Beach party Saturday, are planned for Aug. 10 and 11.
Sometimes the best plan is not having one.
This bodes well for Sub Pop Records co-founder Jonathan Poneman, who for 30 years has helped steer the company through an increasingly unpredictable industry, rolling with the punches that once nearly knocked Seattle’s big little indie label down for the count.
“The music industry’s in a constant state of transition,” Poneman says. “Once you feel that you have things figured out, there’s a new scheme that comes in and upends everything that you felt that you knew.”
SPF30: Sub Pop’s 30th Anniversary weekend
■ The Afghan Whigs, Mass Gothic, Yuno. 5 p.m. Friday, Aug. 10; Mural Amphitheatre, 305 Harrison St., Seattle; free; subpop.com
■ A Night of Comedy from the Cast of ‘Bob’s Burgers.’ 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 10; Moore Theatre, 1932 Second Ave., Seattle; sold out; stgpresents.org
■ SPF30: Sub Pop’s 30th Anniversary Festival. Noon to 10 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 11; Alki Beach; free; subpop.com
■ Pissed Jeans 15th-anniversary party. 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 11; Crocodile, 2200 Second Ave., Seattle; $16, 206-441-4618, thecrocodile.com
In 1988, when Sub Pop became a full-time endeavor, Poneman was more concerned with jockeying for shelf space at Tower Records than plotting how it would remain one of America’s leading indie labels three decades later.
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“If I’d imagined that I’d be doing this for 30 years, I would have done anything to avoid having a regular job,” jokes Sub Pop’s chief, who’s getting ready to celebrate the label’s 30th birthday with a weekend of events, highlighted by a massive free Aug. 11 concert at Alki Beach featuring Father John Misty, Beach House, Mudhoney and other Sub Pop all stars.
Few could have foreseen a battalion of flannel-clad Seattleites, backed by an upstart zine-turned-label, becoming one of the biggest pop-music disrupters of a generation. Nor could one have predicted that, 30 years later, you could access almost every record ever made from a telephone-computer-camera in your pocket.
Forged around the homegrown grunge scene, Sub Pop became one of America’s most influential indie music labels, helping break bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney, its star rising with theirs.
Sub Pop became as synonymous with Seattle as Starbucks and rain. Even after grunge faded, many of its signature acts were farmed from the region — especially during the 2000s when a new brigade of Northwest bands gave the label its second major wave of commercial success.
“All great indie labels are associated with the place they come from, and Sub Pop absolutely personifies that through its connection to Seattle,” says Zach Fuller, media analyst with MIDiA Research, a London firm that produces an annual indie music biz report.
As symbiotic as its relationship has been with Seattle music, its “sound” has few borders — geographic or otherwise. The Sub Pop logo wears as well on album sleeves from slow-brooding Minnesota rockers Low as it does with off-center L.A. rap crew Clipping. The common thread is music with an “independent spirit,” as Poneman describes it.
That versatility kept Sub Pop evolving after grunge’s death, placing the label in an elite class of American indies with similar longevity and prominence.
“Sub Pop were a huge influence and example to us when we started Merge [Records],” says Mac McCaughan, co-founder of the North Carolina-based label. “In 1989, the summer we started Merge, we literally drove across [the] country, visited the Sub Pop offices — it was a couple rooms at that point — saw the first Lame Fest … and named our label driving back across the country.”
Much has changed since that first Lame Fest — Sub Pop’s legendary coming-out showcase, headlined by Mudhoney — when an under-the-radar opener named Nirvana played its “Bleach” release show at the Moore Theatre.
Streaming has overtaken CDs as the industry’s biggest moneymaker, paying fractions of the returns but kicking down some of the traditional barriers indies faced. The regionally grounded label is navigating an increasingly global world with new challenges and opportunities — which Sub Pop looks uniquely positioned to embrace — while disseminating to the masses the “musical mavericks,” as Poneman calls them, that Sub Pop has always championed.
“They are up against the same forces everyone else in the industry is,” McCaughan says, “but haven’t lost their character or their love of the music as they’ve figured out how to survive and thrive.”
Tightening their belts
Despite a few of its acts hitting it big, Sub Pop weathered financial turbulence in the early ’90s, eventually scoring a $20 million bailout when Warner Music Group purchased a 49 percent stake in the company in 1995. (Co-founder Bruce Pavitt left the following year.)
By 2000, the American recording industry was flush, with the frosted-tipped boy bands and aggro rap-rockers dominating “TRL” moving CDs by the millions. But at the time, Sub Pop was in belt-tightening mode, recalls co-president Tony Kiewel. The label had downsized and relocated to new offices, and corporate checks often took a while to come through, he says.
With the rise of illegal file sharing and iTunes, CD sales gradually started slipping (eventually careening), and industrywide revenues plummeted from $14.3 billion in 2000 to just $7 billion by 2010.
When CDs started nose-diving in the late ’00s, Sub Pop was amid an impressive run, spurred by a new crop of Northwest indie rock and folk bands. That decade, the label went from its top artists — like local garage punks Murder City Devils — selling 15,000 copies, to having a string of gold records (500,000 units) with The Shins, and Seattle’s Fleet Foxes and Band of Horses. The Postal Service’s “Give Up” eventually became Sub Pop’s second platinum record (1 million units), the first being Nirvana’s “Bleach.”
With its outside-the-mainstream artists rarely garnering commercial radio play, new fans primarily found Sub Pop bands via word-of-mouth, a mode of discovery Kiewel says “got a shot of steroids” with social media.
“I think we had always suffered from a top-down music culture,” he says. “I mean, it’s in our name, right? Subterranean pop music. That’s part of our mission, helping shine a spotlight on otherwise unrecognized music scenes and artists we believe in.”
While the money ain’t what it used to be, the shift to streaming services like Spotify, which made its U.S. debut in 2011, has in some ways benefited indies — especially those with catalogs as deep as Sub Pop’s. Though Fuller notes the major labels who control “almost the entire history of recorded music” are better positioned to monetize streaming in the short term, it’s never been easier for fans to find indie-label artists.
Competing with the Sonys and Universals for radio play and shelf space is no longer as important, and Sub Pop bands of yore continue to rack up streams (the defunct band Postal Service still attracts nearly 1 million monthly Spotify listeners).
Even as streaming has become the top revenue source for Sub Pop and the industry at large amid declining physical sales, the label recently expanded to a larger warehouse space, partially spurred by vinyl’s resurgence and because, since 2014, it’s had a Sub Pop Records store at Sea-Tac Airport.
“We were running out of room years ago,” says Mark Arm, Sub Pop’s warehouse manager and the frontman of Mudhoney. “Two years ago we moved here and now we have more stuff than ever.”
Sub Pop has often incorporated a tongue-in-cheek notion of world domination in its sarcastic approach to branding. Poneman even makes the merchandising possibilities of the airport shop sound sorta punk rock.
“That’s one of the more subversive opportunities we have … selling these shirts and different Sub Pop-related items that people are going to fly all over the world wearing and giving as gifts,” he says, adding that some travelers buy armfuls of Sub Pop gear before learning it’s a record label. “Only later, kind of like ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers,’ will they realize that they’ve become a Sub Pop creature.”
In line with his and co-founder Bruce Pavitt’s beginnings running a regionally focused label, Poneman maintains that “the most interesting aspects of culture happen on a regional basis.”
Still, in some ways Sub Pop is increasingly thinking global. Asked about the label’s growth potential, head of sales Jon Strickland noted that for the first time, streaming has made it possible to generate “great income” from markets like Brazil or Indonesia that it previously couldn’t crack. Furthermore, the vinyl uptick that’s hit the U.S. over the past five to 10 years is just beginning to take hold in Eastern markets, he says, mentioning a Seoul record-store owner who orders batches of Sub Pop new releases and T-shirts every month.
“The idea that we might be able to turn kids on in China to Metz or Beach House because they’ve seen people wearing Sub Pop shirts, that’s not such a crazy idea anymore,” Strickland says.
As Strickland sees it, the biggest challenge Sub Pop faces is adapting to a cultural shift in younger fans’ listening habits. While indie labels have traditionally been more album-oriented, the younger generation of playlisting fans is more focused on singles. Even when launching full albums, marketing director Carly Starr notes “the new thing” over the past five years is “jamming out as many tracks as possible” ahead of the release.
Strickland points to breezy indie-pop artist Yuno, who made his Sub Pop debut with the six-track “Moodie” EP this year, as Sub Pop’s initial embrace of a more singles-and-streaming-driven strategy.
“We’ll be doing more of that, but that won’t stop us from putting out great albums by Low or Mudhoney, the artists that want to continue making statements with long-playing albums,” he says.
Perhaps more importantly than evolving with the digital times, Sub Pop’s sonic palate has consistently widened since its early days. Fearful of being typecast, the label became increasingly “broad-minded,” Poneman says, after grunge fans threw out their last pairs of ripped jeans, helping Sub Pop never stay static.
There have been misses, sure. But the label’s greatest feat — more than hustling keychains to clueless business travelers — has been its ability to unite disparately inventive artists under one banner, cohesively sliding Seattle noise-punk oddballs like So Pitted or legacy New Orleans troupe Preservation Hall Jazz Band alongside indie-rock stalwarts Father John Misty and Beach House.
“It’d be one thing if the music we put out was boring and redundant, but it continues to reinvent itself and be thrilling to me,” Poneman says.
Still, some things never change. Asking about his goals for the label, you can practically feel Poneman smirking over the phone.
“One thing that we haven’t done is been a 35-year-old record label or a 40-year-old record label, so to that extent I would like to achieve those goals,” he quips. “Otherwise, it’s wide open.”