Twenty years ago, Jonathan Poneman opened Subterranean Pop — soon after shortened to Sub Pop — and released tapes of Northwest bands under the same name.

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At a Queen Anne cafe the other day, four 20-somethings were huddled around a laptop, working on a business plan (“I think we should write something up, in case we get an offer … “).

Twenty years before them, a 28-year-old slacker sat at that very table in Uptown Espresso, writing a business plan — longhand. “It was before laptops,” Jonathan Poneman recalled, with the self-deprecating smirk he often uses.

His brother and mother set him to the business-plan task, a prerequisite to tap into “about $15,000 in savings bonds”; older brother Fred had to first sign off on Poneman’s idea for a record company.

Until then, this Toledo native who came to Seattle in his teens was just another amateur music buff and bar-crawler. The one-time musician had started working behind the scenes, putting on shows at the U District’s modest Fabulous Rainbow Tavern, by now-legendary Seattle bands like Green River and Soundgarden. His take was meager, and Poneman made the rent at day jobs.

As part of the scene, he met Bruce Pavitt, who had moved here from Olympia, where he launched a fanzine called Subterranean Pop — soon after shortened to Sub Pop — and released tapes of Northwest bands under the same name.

“Bruce and I decided we would work together,” Poneman recalled, as a latte started pumping energy into the sleepy-eyed, casually dressed entrepreneur. “We shared the same vision: to create a record label that would document our particular scene.”

And what began as a hobby turned into a business.

“Bruce and I quit our day jobs in March. On April 1, 1988, we signed a lease and moved into an office.”

While he acknowledges Pavitt started using the term “Sub Pop” years prior to that, Poneman is firm about 1988 as “our Year Zero.” That’s the year “Sub Pop became a full-time operation. We went from being a bedroom operation to having an office … . It made us feel legitimate.”

Major-label deals

The pair still had amateur aesthetics, but real money to play with now. Poneman and Pavitt spent some of it flying in British gonzo-journalist Everett True and plying him with drinks — it worked, as he went home and wrote Melody Maker articles on Sub Pop and the Seattle scene. (“They’re speed demons with long hair flaying, whose revivalist, left-of-centre metal is flung in our faces with an enthusiasm and awareness of heritage that’s hard to resist,” True wrote in a 1989 article that praised Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, Tad and Soundgarden.)

It was also 20 years ago that Nirvana’s recording career had its innocuous launch, with Sub Pop releasing its “Love Buzz” cover (with “Big Cheese” as the B-side) as a single. It didn’t cause much of a stir, but Sub Pop released the full-length “Bleach” the following June.

Two years later, Nirvana had a multimillion-selling Geffen album, the ubiquitous “Nevermind.” The almost ridiculous surge of Nirvana from an obscure Sub Pop band to a generation-defining entity led labels to sign all sorts of bands around Seattle, in the vain search for the next big thing.

As for the label, in 1995, Sub Pop signed a deal selling 49 percent ownership to Warner Bros. Records — imitating the “sign with a major label” success of many of its bands.

By 1996, Pavitt had had enough of the music business, and retired from Sub Pop. Poneman rode out some lean years in the late-’90s, a time that many around Seattle predicted the little label would die — just like grunge, which it helped birth.

They’re not dead yet

“Going out of business since 1988” is one of its slogans, but the demise of Sub Pop is yet to happen. Indeed, sales have never been better, as in recent years records by the Postal Service, Iron & Wine, Hot Hot Heat and the Shins became big sellers for Sub Pop. Of course, “big sellers” is relative, as the label has had but one “platinum” seller, Nirvana’s “Bleach.” (See a list of Sup Pop’s top sellers on Page J1.)

Those who still dismiss Sub Pop as “that little grunge thing from back in the day” are missing the boat. In an e-mail interview, Jonathan Cohen, a Billboard senior editor, wrote about Sub Pop’s reputation, old and new.

“I don’t think they’ve been known as a grunge label for a very long time. Sub Pop remains one of the most important American indie-rock labels, regardless of its history with that particular type of music. They’re very in touch with the pulse of the underground scene (as evidenced by signings like Wolf Eyes and No Age) while simultaneously building bands that are selling as many records as some major-label acts (Shins, Postal Service).”

The Billboard editor looks for a banner year from Sub Pop: “The new Helio Sequence record is fantastic, and there’s a huge buzz for some of their new signings, like Blitzen Trapper. The Gutter Twins will also be a big record for them in ’08, as well the Flight of the Conchords disc.”

Rod Moody, of first-generation Sub Pop band Swallow, takes it a step further. Even though Pavitt and Poneman both tried to replace the guitarist years ago (“and even suggested a specific replacement for me”), he calls the Sub Pop founders “marketing geniuses. They took many, many chances, and were able to dig themselves out of a severe financial crisis. … They were responsible, along with Bill Gates and Howard Schultz, for putting Seattle on the map.”

Oh, the irony!

Sub Pop, up there with Microsoft and Starbucks? The record label certainly has to rank as one of Seattle’s most successful startups, standing the test of time. And while larger labels are struggling with diminished sales, Sub Pop had one of its best years ever in 2007.

But it maintains a college-newspaper attitude. From its early “Lamefest” festivals to its wacky sloganeering (“world domination”) to its Web site news section (“Pandering to the Locals”), Sub Pop is addicted to irony, faux grandeur delivered with heavy winks.

After all, this is the place that pulled one of rock’s great pranks: Megan Jasper, then a receptionist, made up terms like “swingin’ on the flippity-flop” (supposedly meaning “hanging out”) when a New York Times reporter called to find out what kind of slang grunge had. At another company, Jasper might have been fired for such a prank. At Sub Pop, she is now general manager. Such is the way Poneman treats his 25 employees.

Poneman, who is 48 and single, might not be out every night, as he once was, but you can still find him lurking in the crowd — often alone, always with a low profile — around Seattle rock clubs. The Crocodile was his favorite venue, and when it closed suddenly in December, he considered buying the club. While at least one other group apparently outbid him (Groupee has applied for the Crocodile’s liquor license), it whet his appetite, and he says he and/or Sub Pop may look at opening a Seattle venue.

Whether or not he opens a new club, Poneman remains a huge player in the Seattle music scene.

Last year, Sub Pop launched Hardly Art, a label-within-a-label that has signed new Seattle bands Arthur & Yu and the Dutchess and the Duke. “It has a ‘laboratory quality’ to it,” Poneman says, indicating the quote marks with his hands, again with that smirk. “It’s a baby label, in the same way that Sub Pop started as a baby label.”

The original baby is now 20, and Poneman has some celebration shows in the works, closer to the April Fools’ Day anniversary. Poneman is holding back details, but it’s a good bet that the Shins, Band of Horses, Mudhoney — singer Mark Arm also works in the Sub Pop warehouse, by the way — and several other bands from its current roster will play at anniversary shows. Don’t be surprised if there’s a reunion, perhaps even Green River.

Sub Pop’s kind of town

Sub Pop long ago earned a national reputation, and in recent years has earned a second one. Yet it remains, in many ways, a Seattle thing.

“Sub Pop would not have been Sub Pop without Seattle,” Poneman says. “Seattle is an essential component to the story. Sub Pop is less geographical [now] — it has less of a regional focus. But Seattle is still home — I can complain about the irresponsible development going on downtown, I can complain about the traffic and real-estate prices, but it’s still my home. And I think I can speak for Sub Pop: The people living in Seattle have always been very supportive of Sub Pop.”

While he cites independent radio station KEXP (and its predecessor, KCMU) and Seattle indie record stores as “amazing partners to Sub Pop through the years,” it again comes down to the bands. While Sub Pop’s signings extend around the country, the most successful have Northwest roots.

And, Poneman flatly states, “We are in the midst of a resurrection” of Seattle music. He cites Band of Horses, new signings Grand Archives (led by Mat Brooke, formerly of Carissa’s Wierd and Band of Horses) and Fleet Floxes, and unsigned (for now) band the Moondoggies as “great, great bands that are coming up — very exciting.”

But Poneman can’t talk too long without that self-deprecating, ironic streak. And here comes that smirk again.

“I’ve signed bands to Sub Pop whose parents used to watch the original Sub Pop bands.”

Tom Scanlon: 206-464-3891 or