It’s 9:30 in the morning, and–surprise!–all across Seattle the coffee is brewing. The sun has barely risen over America’s newest rock capital, and I’m already late for my appointment with Sub Pop Records copresident Jonathan Poneman. Cranes are whirring outside the 11th-story windows of the label’s downtown offices, in the Terminal Sales Building, across from which a new set of waterfront condo towers that will overlook Puget Sound are under construction, but that’s the only activity in sight.
After a few minutes of my nosing around, Sub Pop product manager Dave Rosencrans appears, explaining that Poneman would like me to join him in the office’s conference room. Great, I think, here’s my chance to witness real business being transacted–the hammering-out of the final details of the label’s impending multimillion-dollar deal with Warner Music, or the fateful moment when another young band of noisemakers signs the dotted line. Rosencrans leads me to the conference room, throws open the doors, and there, underneath a large, rustic oil painting of grazing moose is Poneman…face down on a table, half-naked under a towel, receiving a massage from a plump, moon-faced woman with a goddess figure amulet hanging from her neck. “Buy low, sell high!,” he offers as a greeting, his voice muffled by a pillow. “I want you to think about whether Gerard Cosloy or Corey Rusk would let you witness this.”
No, it’s indeed unlikely that the honchos behind either Matador or Touch and Go would allow themselves to be seen splayed upon a table in the middle of their offices, getting an expensive rubdown. Too conspicuous, too embarrassing, too, well, corporate. But that’s exactly the kind of old-school business image for which Poneman, 35, and his partner Bruce Pavitt, 36, have sarcastically striven since they scraped $20,000 together and started up Sub Pop on April 1, 1988. With one eye on the bottom line and one tongue firmly in cheek, they’ve merged savvy self-promotion with shameless hucksterism, and it’s paid off even better than teenage angst.
Having had the good sense and great ears to release the early recordings of bands such as Soundgarden, Green River (two of whose members are now in Pearl Jam), Nirvana, and Mudhoney, to name a few, Poneman and Pavitt exploited–their term–Seattle’s homegrown musical community and helped to develop it into a national and worldwide phenomenon. Though Sub Pop might not have coined the term, it helped make “grunge” a household detergent, and while a dozen of the label’s discoveries left the fold for other labels and enjoyed their greatest success elsewhere, Sub Pop’s foresight helped to shape the course of music history over the last five years. With visions of Marshall stacks dancing in their heads, Pavitt and Poneman jump-started a geographically based musical happening that has proven to be a cash cow worthy of religious worship: the seven best-selling Seattle bands in 1994 provided their major labels with over $200 million in gross revenue.
Sub Pop’s faux Fortune 500 identity has long been the label’s running joke, from the suits and ties “Supervisory Chairman of Executive Management” Pavitt and “Executive Chairman of Supervisory Management” Poneman wore in their photos inside the landmark 1988 Sub Pop 200 compilation, to the “limited edition of 500,000″ label sampler, The Grunge Years, that pictured on its cover two pinstriped businessmen in the back seat of a limo getting cellular about sales. But fantasy has now become reality. As recently as the summer of ’91 , the label teetered on the verge of bankruptcy, burdened with tremendous debt and bad press–Seattle’s music paper the Rocket even proclaimed their demise in a cover story titled “SUB PLOP.” Pavitt and Poneman, however, rebounded remarkably, reaping the multimillion-dollar benefits from an unllkey set of circumstances; namely, the 2 percent of royalties from Nirvana’s Nevermind that the label receives from DGC.
But Pavitt and Poneman’s greatest rock’n’roll swindle is still to come: Just this past December, the duo reached a deal with Warner Music Group in which the conglomerate will purchase 49 percent of Sub Pop for $20 million–a thousandfold return on their initial investment, with Pavitt and Poneman maintaining complete artistic control. In the role of mogul, Poneman is doing everything except puffing on a cigar. Oh yeah, he also bought a massage for me.
Along First Avenue, just a few blocks from Sub Pop, the Seattle Art Museum and its towering “Hammering Man” sculpture by Jonathan Borofsky sit directly across the street from the Lusty Lady peep-show theater, while the Sub Pop offices face the triple-X Midtown Theatre (currently playing: Bi and Busty), adjacent to the Cafe Sophie and a couple doors down from the American Institute of Architects. Such are the strange contradictions that arise when a medium-size port city built around the fishing and lumber trades is suddenly blessed with an economic boom brought on by computer software and coffee culture. Which, come to think of it, is not unlike the shotgun marriage of ’70s riff-rock and ’80s hardcore punk pioneered by the best of the early Sub Pop bands.
Up in Sub Pop headquarters, a crew is busy installing an alarm system, presumably to prevent interlopers from cracking the safe containing the $20 million. Three years ago. Sub Pop’s phones were on the verge of being cut off; today the label has expanded to cover much of the third floor of the building as well, with separate suites for business, sales, and the warehouse. Where once Poneman and Pavitt’s “office” was actually boxes of records kept underneath their respective beds, they now employ over 35 staffers in the Seattle office, another three in the Sub Pop East Coast office in Boston, and six in Europe.
Visitors to the 11th floor are greeted immediately by a reception desk covered with a crazy quilt of rock stickers, with only “I hate your band” standing out, and a nine-foot-high thrift-store style painting by Maura Jasper (who did the covers for Dinosaur Jr.‘s first three albums) depicting a wide-eyed waif with spiky blue hair, a pink spiked collar, green boots, and a red sweater bearing the message “Punk Lives”; quite naturally, the kid is flipping viewers the finger. While Arcwelder blasts out of the office boom box, accountants hired by Warners to audit Sub Pop’s books flit about wordlessly, as out of place with their starched white shirts, power ties, and PowerBooks as Sebadoh and Six Finger Satellite will be in the gaping maw of the Warner Music Group.
Once upon a time, the music released by Pavitt and Poneman was strictly the secret of a small audience, in some cases limited to the few thousand subscribers to the Sub Pop Singles Club. Although the “Seattle sound” actually began on Homestead Records with Green River’s Come on Down in 1985, the sonic mixture of Blacks Sabbath and Flag soon became synonymous with Sub Pop. Bands who had spent their formative years practicing the between-song routines from Kiss Alive hit the stage with beer in their bellies, angst in their pants, and Aerosmith’s Rocks in their heads; this synthesis of heavy and heady, overbite and underground, made for a confrontational yet commercial final product that pleased adherents from both rock and punk camps. Essentially, it was only sped-up, fuzzed-out arena rock minus the light show, but what the men didn’t know, the little girts understood.
Back when Beck was still sampling beats from Fraggle Rock, Sub Poppers were hyping their “loser” status on T-shirts, a smirky explanation of how socioeconomic forces were squeezing young people’s prospects like grapes. The self-deprecation was less “No Future” than “Future? Nah”–too jokey to be serious, and too serious to ignore. The world’s a mess, it’s in my riff, the guitars seemed to say, so take my job and I’ll just crank “Shove.” While African-American youth were turning on to nation-building via Public Enemy, disaffected white kids were dropping the needle on grunge vinyl (unfortunately, some were just dropping the needle), although it would take a nation of millions to pull Sub Pop’s accounts into the black.
Kurt Cobain would help provide that, because he knew how to deliver his cri de coeur with a pop hook as well as a rusty cage. Honest and direct, yet hardly pompous or preachy, Cobain wrapped his pain within melodies that other Sub Pop bands couldn’t–or wouldn’t–write. Nirvana’s platinum explosion made sense, even if impossible under the terms of the previously existing biz paradigm, and paved the way for much of the Emerald City chart witchcraft that followed, from Pearl Jam to Candlebox to Soundgarden (or for that matter many of 1994’s breakthroughs, such as the Offspring, Green Day, and Hole). As far as indie rock was concerned, Cobain really was the man who sold the world.
Nirvana’s DGC success became Sub Pop’s Lotto ticket. In addition to the Nevermind royalties, Nirvana’s debut album, Bleach, has sold approximately 800,000 copies, netting Sub Pop nearly $3 million in profits; there’s no telling how things might have turned out if Cobain’s favorite label, Touch and Go, hadn’t passed on the Nirvana demo, or if a drunken Krist Novoselic hadn’t pounded on Pavitt’s window in 1989 demanding Sub Pop’s first multirecord contract. Pavitt expects the label to achieve sales of $7 million in ’94. When I ask Pavitt who Sub Pop’s rival labels are, he shoots back immediately “Sony, Interscope, Elektra.” While his response is a bit facetious–Sub Pop successfully competed against major labels to sign both Sebadoh and Velocity Girl, but Pavitt insists there’s still not enough money to regularly outbid them–there is enough in the coffers to be able to reissue out-of-print obscurities from groups such as Poison 13 or early Sub Pop flops such as to Blood Circus, as well as distribute four other Northwest indies: Olympia’s K and Seattle’s Flydaddy, Super Electro, and Up.
Despite the windfall, a seat-of-the-pants approach still carries the day, with the label sometimes operating in the disorganized but intimate fashion of a small family business. The week of my visit coincides with the Seattle arrival of Jale, a band of four women from Halifax, Nova Scotia, who are in town to support their Sub Pop debut LP, Dreamcake, and they get hands-on treatment. Dan Trager, publicist Nils Bernstein’s assistant, has been pressed into service as soundman, tour manager, and van driver for Jale’s West Coast swing. When the band end up with a few extra days in Seattle but don’t have enough money to continue their stay at a hotel, Bernstein volunteers his apartment. Bernstein even sets Jale up with his mom for a tarot card reading. No sooner are the women packed up and ready to return to Nova Scotia than the Vancouver group Zumpano arrives in town, and oh yeah, they need a place to stay….
Pavitt calls Bernstein “the heart of the scene” and “a one-man support system,” and it seems that the publicist has almost as much to do with the daily functioning of the label as the big men themselves. Pavitt and Poneman constantly emphasize their devotion to their staff, and do their damnedest to turn them into celebrities, from picturing staff members inside Sub Pop 200 to putting wholesale accounts guy Curtis Pitts on the cover of a label sampler CD. “Jon always says ‘my coworkers,’ not ‘my employees,'” reports Kerri Harrop, shopkeeper at the recently opened Sub Pop Mega Mart retail outlet. “Simple things like that make you convinced you’re not getting the shaft.”
The employees–excuse me, coworkers–at Sub Pop’s third floor operations include Fastbacks singer-bassist Kim Warnick, who works on wholesale accounts, and Beat Happening’s Heather Lewis, who answers the 1-800 sales line. “It’s like working for Victoria’s Secret,” says Lewis, “except that the most frequently asked question is, ‘He’s only 14, can he wear that to school?'”
One of the other 1-800 operators, Nicky Thomas, has just gotten off the phone with an irate customer from whom she had taken an order a few weeks before. The woman had requested some Sebadoh and Fastbacks records and a Sebadoh T-shirt and had asked if there was any profanity or devil worship on the merchandise. Thomas told her no. Unfortunately the Sebadoh shirt she was sent–one of a series which feature the band logo screened over a previously owned, randomly chosen rock concert shirt–happened to have the word “fuck” on the back, and according to Thomas, “she’s now convinced that the band is singing about Satan.” Next door in the warehouse, orders are still coming in steadily for those Sebadoh shirts–with or without the “fuck”–but the staff has run out of the used shirts. “So we took our least popular shirt and screened over them,” explains shipper Veronica Martin, pointing out a pile of now-defaced Les Thugs tees. “They’re in France so they’ll never know.”
Flush with funding, the label has branched outside the office for both profit and pleasure. Across the street from the Terminal Sales Building, the Sub Pop Mega Mart became necessary when the steady stream of uninvited visitors traipsing through the office proved a nuisance. “It’s like going to the Psychedelic Shop in San Francisco 20 years after Haight-Ashbury,” laughs Pavitt. Linda’s Tavern, the Capitol Hill bar in which Pavitt and Poneman are investors, has become the label’s de facto watering hole. “I take a lot of pride in this place,” asserts Pavitt. “It’s just a tavern, it’s just beer, but there’s tons of community here. The history of bohemian life always centers around cafes and taverns. It’s where people meet, exchange ideas. It’s where communication happens. Some people come here every fucking day, they live here. It’s their shelter.”
Pavitt programs the singles in the bar’s jukebox, from the Meters’ “Sophisticated Cissy” to Pylon’s “Dub”/”Cool” to Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” to Zumpano’s “Wraparound Shades.” “The most pleasurable thing I do in my life,” says Pavitt, “is pulling all these black vinyl singles, mixing them up, and putting them into the jukebox. I don’t have to think about the marketing, I don’t have to think about the editor at such and such magazine. I can just deal with music.”
Pavitt has given up his office at Sub Pop and now works out of his home, a three-story wood house he shares with his wife Hannah and 18-month-old daughter Iris in Seattle’s Central District, an ethnically diverse neighborhood just blocks from Garfield High School, which Jimi Hendrix once attended but failed to graduate. It’s a comfortable dwelling, with plenty of room for the assorted memorabilia accumulated over his 15 years in the underground–Frank Kozik posters for various gigs by Sub Pop bands, Charles Burns’s illustration for the Sub Pop 5 cassette, Peter Bagge’s original black-and-white cover art of an issue of Hate–but it’s hardly the spread one might expect of a multimillionaire record company boss. Not to worry, though: Pavitt is building a second home in the environmental preserve of the San Juan Islands off the Washington coast, which he’s designing as “an experiment in independent living,” with a self-recycling water system and solar power. “But it’s going to be hooked to the Internet, of course.”
Upstairs in his office, the cartridge from Pavitt’s computer printer has run out of ink, so Sub Pop network administrator Ian Dickson, who Pavitt introduces as “the man who will lead Sub Pop into the 21st century,” is helping him e-mail the 52-page Warner deal over to Poneman at the office. While Dickson futzes with the modem, Pavitt, barefoot and sporting a T-shirt from the Olympia, Washington, label Kill Rock Stars, walks over to his wall of vinyl and pulls out records by rappers Too Short, Ice-T, and Eric B. and Rakim, and reggae artists Hugh Mundell and Augustus Pablo. “I could listen to Augustus Pablo all day long,” he declares.
Pavitt grabs a copy of rapper Schooly D’s 1985 12-inch “PSK.” “Look at this cover,” he demands, pointing out the small photograph of Schooly and DJ Code Money plopped square in the middle of the back cover, surrounded by a sea of white space and some crudely scrawled lettering. “This is folk art. This is punk. Image is so much of the whole picture, and indie rock refuses to understand this.
“I look at things in terms of story and media and drama and what initiates folklore. Tad is folklore. He’s like a modern Paul Bunyan or something. Reverend Horton Heat is larger than life. If the Reverend was from Newark instead of Dallas, his story wouldn’t resonate as much.” He pauses for effect. “I knew that Sub Pop and Seattle sound good together: the Seattle Sub Pop, the Seattle sound, it’s almost like this alliteration. And then there’s this small label from the middle of nowhere and it makes great music. That’s a story.”
With his bald head and long, thick beard, Pavitt resembles a religious ascetic. When his daughter toddies up and plops a gray wool hunting cap on his head, he’s transformed into a punk-rock Fidel Castro, a revolutionary warrior fighting a guerrilla insurgency against the corrupt old guard of corporate rock. Except that unlike Castro, Pavitt has aligned himself squarely with the running dogs of capitalism. “The history of indie rock is the history of failure,” insists Pavitt, citing the demise or decline of seminal labels from Rough Trade to Factory to SST. “It’s better to make a deal now from a position of strength than to wait two years when we’re hemorrhaging money.”
No matter what the rationale, an alliance with “the devil” is quite a leap to make for an iconoclast who’s used to doing things for himself. Pavitt grew up in Park Forest, Illinois, an upper-middle-class suburb of Chicago. “A lot of my interest in regional culture stems from the desire to escape the homogenization of my suburban upbringing. Punk rock was the door that led me out of that,” says Pavitt.
Not that Pavitt was always a punk. “He had long hair, slightly cocky,” says Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil, who has known Pavitt since junior high. “He was on the basketball team in junior high and he did track or something. Really popular. Girls were always talking about him: ‘Bruce Pavitt, he’s a sixth grader.'”
Pavitt and Thayil attended the Active Learning Process Center, a progressive high school, where their fellow classmates also included original Soundgarden bassist Hiro Yamamoto and DGC A&R rep Tom Zutaut, the scout who signed Guns N’ Roses. After high school, Pavitt headed west to Olympia, Washington, to attend Evergreen State College, the alternative education institution founded in 1967 to put the “liberal” back in liberal arts. While there from 1979 to 1981, Pavitt “majored in punk rock,” DJing at the college radio station KAOS, and working as an intern at Olympia-based OP magazine, where he used his access to the information they received from tiny independent labels all over the country to begin publishing his own xeroxed fanzine, Subterranean Pop.
“Hi there, my name is Bruce and we have to decentralize our society and encourage local art and things and music,” reads the editor’s note from the spring 1981 issue, Sub Pop 3, which featured back cover art by Jad Fair, sales “charts” boosting local bands such as the Beakers and the Blackouts, and plugs for records on labels such as Armageddon, Lust/Unlust, and Upsetter, all crucially important to the evolution of independent music and all now defunct and largely forgotten. Says Pavitt, “I think the essence of ‘alternative rock’ when you really break it down is, ‘Hey! How about that? There’s culture beyond New York and L.A.’ Labels can exist outside of that culture.”
Inspired by this “network of hobbyists and enthusiasts” pressing their own records before the channels of distribution were in place, Pavitt decided to turn his printed matter into an audio experience, via cassette compilations of bands from different cities. The first release, Sub Pop 5, sold 2,000 copies at $5 a tape, “which at the time was amazing. I paid my rent and electric bill for a year just off these cassettes.”
In 1981, Pavitt moved to Seattle, eventually snagging a local music column in the Rocket and a radio show on the University of Washington’s KCMU. After helping open a local independent record shop, Pavitt found work at Yesco, a “foreground music” company that had been purchased by Muzak and pioneered the practice of “James Taylor originals being sent to yuppie restaurants.” Also employed at the Muzak headquarters were Mark Arm (of Green River and later, Mudhoney), Tad Doyle (later of Tad), and Ron Nine (later of Love Battery). “When we finally got the label off the ground, I had already established relationships with people like Tad and Mark,” notes Pavitt. “The comradery kept the label going for a couple of years, because we certainly didn’t have any money.”
In 1986, Pavitt scraped together enough cash to press one of his compilations onto vinyl. Endowing his record label with the name of his fanzine and cassette series, Sub Pop 100 included tracks by Sonic Youth, Scratch Acid, the Wipers, and a spoken-word rant by Big Black’s Steve Albini. Pavitt ran Sub Pop out of the Muzak offices, and as with most DIY enterprises, funding soon became a major issue. Pavitt put out a Green River single and EP, but if he was going to make a real stab at releasing records, he’d have to find an investor. Thayil, then a DJ at KCMU, knew another station jock who had a local music show and booked bands at a Seattle bar, and suggested he might be good with money.
Jonathan Poneman, like Pavitt, was a Midwesterner, born in Toledo, Ohio. His father was a cardiologist, his mother a political operative and nurse. In 1977, he followed a girlfriend out to Bellingham, Washington; when the relationship fell apart, he moved to Seattle in August of 1979 and attended the University of Washington. During the next few years, Penman pumped gas, tested Corningware at JC Penney, priced nylon stockings in the basement at Sears, inhaled carcinogens while putting together synthetic yarn, worked for Yesco prior to Pavitt’s hiring, and guarded the backstage door at Seattle’s Paramount Theater, where he would later see Green River open for Public Image Ltd. But the show that changed Poneman’s life was a Chavo-era (pre-Rollins) Black Flag gig, his first American punk rock experience. “The best rock music is obviously always a very physical experience, and that was like a total,” recalls Poneman.
Poneman tried his own hand at simulating that physical experience by playing bass and keyboards in Seattle bands the Rockefellers and the Treeclimbers. His fervor to spread “Treeclimbermania” led him to host the “Audioasis” local music show at KCMU. which in turn led to a gig booking local groups at a bar called the Rainbow Tavern. For one of his first bills, he programmed the bands of two other KCMU DJs, Ben McMillan’s Skin Yard and Thayil’s Soundgarden. Poneman missed Skin Yard, but arrived in the middle of Soundgarden’s set. Completely floored, Poneman decided immediately he wanted to release a Soundgarden record, but wasn’t quite sure how. Thayil suggested to Poneman that he hook up with Pavitt, whom Poneman knew from a positive review Pavitt had written of the Treeclimbers in his Rocket column. The idea, however, was met with initial resistance. “I was very aware of Sub Pop,” says Poneman of Pavitt’s profile in the Seattle scene at the time, “but I always saw him as the competition. I always thought Bruce was a real slick business guy and had his shit together. Why would he need me?”
Well, for one thing, cash flow. As Poneman boasts, “One of the gifts I’ve always had, in all modesty, is the ability to bullshit people out of their money.” With Poneman’s financial input and acumen, Sub Pop released Soundgarden’s Screaming Life. By April 1, 1988, after records by Swallow, Blood Circus, and Green River’s posthumous album Rehab Doll, they were convinced that the venture was more of a business than a hobby, so they pooled their savings, rented office space, and quit their day jobs.
“To be honest, we did a few mildly dishonest things to stay in business,” admits Pavitt, recalling a conversation Poneman had with the phone company in August 1988. “AT&T was saying, ‘We’re going to disconnect your service,’ and face it, a record company without a phone is fucked. I remember going for a walk, and I could hardly breathe, just thinking, ‘it’s just so harsh, so harsh. Four months and we’re out of business. Fuck it. Fuck it. That’s it.’ But instead, when I got back to the office, we both decided that we were going to write a rubber check to the phone company, and that kept our phone on for another seven days. We would do stuff like that once in a while. To this day I don’t balance my checkbook, and I don’t think Jon balances his….It’s a totally unprofessional way to run a business.
“We were in a constant state of denial,” continues Pavitt. “We were going on pure gut instinct and a fanaticism for the music that defied rational thinking. My parents pleaded, ‘Get a real job.’ “
But Sub Pop became a real job, and almost seven years down the road, it’s finally become a living. While Pavitt and Poneman’s fanaticism has certainly ebbed, their admiration for each other remains strong. Pavitt calls Poneman “a classic A&R person,” while Poneman gushes that Pavitt “is the best partner a guy could have. We have a complementary though very different way of hearing things. Bruce is the sub, I am the pop.” Pavitt championed Mudhoney, Poneman Nirvana; Pavitt the Dwarves, Poneman the Afghan Whigs; Pavitt the Supersuckers, Poneman Velocity Girl.
When he’s not trawling for talent, Poneman practices transcendental meditation, likes to cook, and lives in an apartment he describes as “a drab marriage between Brezhnev-era Soviet architecture and early ’70s California.” A boom box serves as his stereo system; when he has to listen to test pressings he borrows the office turntable. His greatest passion isn’t for music but books, despite his dyslexia; he’s more likely to strike up a conversation on the works of William T. Vollmann than on the work of Will Oldham.
Pavitt has taken advantage of his recent prosperity to indulge a barbecue jones; he proudly shows off a $2,000 smoker from Texas he’s installed on his patio. He’s also formulated an analogy between barbecue and punk rock. “People essentially create something from nothing,” he posits. “Look at ribs. Here’s a guy, all he’s got is some logs and some bones, and a small room with a couple of chairs, and he creates a work of art. It’s like a young punk in his basement: He’s got a $10 Japanese guitar and creates a work of art. To me, that’s a really beautiful thing.” The Internet has also become a muse for Pavitt, ever eager to relate culture back to the community it springs from. Sub Pop has had a World Wide Web site for a year now, and one of the benefits of the Warner deal is the monetary resources it provides to upgrade their hardware.
When Pavitt waxes visionary about cyber utopias, punk iconography, or barbecue semiotics, a glint flashes in his eyes; sometimes the grandness of the ideas seems overwhelming, and he needs to squint to get his concepts out. Pavitt’s passion for outside projects coincides with his retreat from an active role in the company. Wearying of the bitter realities of the industry, he has receded into the background to become more of a spiritual figurehead, letting Poneman handle the daily task of helming Sub Pop. “When Nirvana left, I cried for a long time,” says Pavitt. “I was in public places, and it was really embarrassing. But to be honest, that’s one of the reasons I kind of dropped out of doing A&R, because I take it really personally, and I know Jon does too. It’s turned me more cynical and less trusting of people, and that’s one of the reasons I chose to focus on my family. My wife and daughter aren’t going to leave me for a major label. They’re going to be here tomorrow.”
By now, Dickson has located a new cartridge and printed out a copy of the contract. As if on cue, little Iris notices that her mother is no longer home and starts to cry. Pavitt rolls the printout into a cone as he scoops up his daughter and holds her close to his chest, bouncing her slightly to soothe her tears. “Well, kid,” he coos into her ear as the bawling subsides, “this paper is gonna pay for your college education.”
Sub Pop’s ascendancy was a triumph in media manipulation and marketing prowess; in its prime, the label delivered one masterstroke after another. In November 1988, for example, it launched the Sub Pop Singles Club, a monthly series of limited-edition 45s that restricted supply in order to drive up demand. Kicking off with 1,000 copies of Nirvana’s debut, “Love Buzz”/”Big Cheese,” the club became the indie-rock equivalent of a gold star of hepness on a band’s forehead and helped usher in a vinyl revival.
In December 1988 came Sub Pop 200. While they could have simply fit the compilation’s 71 minutes of music on a single CD or a double album, Pavitt and Poneman instead packaged the sampler as a three-EP boxed set in a limited edition of 5,000, complete with a 16-page booklet of Charles Peterson’s photographs. Peterson’s work–always streaked with the blurred motion of hair throwing, guitar battering, or stage-diving–emphasized the dynamic energy of the scene, conveying a physicality too cathartic to be captured by a mere shutter speed. While the music-making may have lagged behind the image-making, the project’s hubris proclaimed that something truly monumental was erupting in the Northwest. Seattle had indeed become, as Soundgarden sang, “Sub Pop Rock City.”
By his own count Pavitt boasts that he and Poneman did interviews every day for over a year. As sales of Nevermind spiraled up the charts in 1991 and ’92, the switchboard lit up like the Space Needle at night. Poneman penned a piece for Vogue that accompanied a photo spread of emaciated models who looked like heroin addicts. Flannel-clad celebrities such as Joan Rivers posed in Vanity Fair. The most ridiculous media event of all came when a New York Times reporter called the office looking for tips on hipster slang, and Sub Pop receptionist Megan Jasper made up a bunch of nonsense terms on the spot; her “Grunge Lexicon,” with expressions such as “cob nobbier” (loser) and “swingin’ on the flippity-flop” (hanging out) ran in the Times in November 1992 without anyone at the paper bothering to corroborate It.
Sub Pop developed the commercial potential of the underground until it wasn’t underground anymore. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is now played by the organist at the Seattle Kingdome, and was adapted to strings for a Muzak version. Yesco wound up putting out a “Seattle Sounds” tape using a number of Sub Pop songs. Displayed in the window of the Seattle Shirt Co., a tourist boutique a few blocks from Sub Pop, are T-shirts for Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Citizen Dick, the grunge-by-numbers group from Cameron Crowe’s Singles. The Sub Pop Mega Mart is included on walking-tour maps given to visitors of Seattle. In the span of less than seven years, Sub Pop’s great discovery exploded from the province of tiny, sweaty shithole clubs to Larry “Bud” Melman 1-800 Collect commercials. Can you find it in your heart to forgive them, dude?
Not everyone can. Pavitt once described grunge as “the sound and look of fresh money, the sound of the underground finally getting paid”; unfortunately, even at the height of their media blitz, Sub Pop was in dire financial straits. Throughout 1991, the label had all the stability of a Charles Keating-run savings and loan. “Everybody was bad at their finances,” says Jenny Boddy, Sub Pop publicist at the time. “That’s why we all got along so well.” There wasn’t enough money to print up press kits for their bands, so the staff had to go the local Kinko’s during their “Happy Hour” when copies were three cents instead of five. With characteristic Sub Pop sarcasm, the label printed up T-shirts reading “What part of ‘WE HAVE NO MONEY’ don’t you understand?” Checks for $100 bounced, and much of the staff had to be laid off. “There were some black Mondays,” remembers Boddy. Eventually, everyone got paid–all involved insist it was only a matter of when, not if–but Pavitt remembers that summer bitterly. “I don’t think I’ve ever reached a lower point in my life,” he says.
Pavitt and Poneman both insist that today the company is debt-free, and Pavitt adds that “if by chance somebody did not get paid, they should give me a call and–” he snaps his fingers. Karmic debts are another story, however. Most of the bands affiliated with the label at that time can recount a financial nightmare. Members of Dwarves even broke into the office and spray-painted “You Owe Dwarves $” on the floor.
Certainly, disgruntled musicians are nothing new in indiedom. Scratch the back catalog of almost any indie label and you’ll find a litany of familiar complaints such as undersized staffs and fiscal inexperience. Sub Pop’s rap sheet, however, includes allegations of prioritizing certain acts at the expense of others, signing too many artists, becoming hard to reach, dropping bands–in short, all the cold, clinical practices usually associated with major labels.
Part of the musicians’ dissatisfaction comes with the limited resources of the territory, and in many ways Sub Pop is no different from other indies. In Sub Pop’s infancy, the label was basically a couple of friends putting out music by other friends. “Bruce didn’t even know what we sounded like, and he gave us money to go in and record ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’ and ‘Sweet Young Thing,'” remembers Mudhoney’s Mark Arm. “We hadn’t even played a live show yet.” “We did everything on ladies’ agreement,” says Jennifer Finch of L7, whose “Shove” single and Smell the Magic EP helped pave the way for equal-opportunity mosh pits.
But Sub Pop’s increasing profile and big-ticket earnings introduced the idea of profit and dividends to the indie equation, and as Cyndi Lauper used to say (or maybe it was Karl Marx?), money changes everything. “They’ve amassed their fortune with all the finesse of a blind man tripping over money in the street,” says Barry Henssler, singer of Big Chief, who left Sub Pop for Capitol. “I can’t see how they could possibly squander the funds they’ve now been blessed with, but I’m sure they’ll have a fine time doing it.”
Even when they were benefiting from the buzz that the label nametag provided, bands have been less than fully enchanted. “They were constantly having control right away,” Kurt Cobain told writer Michael Azerrad in his book Come As You Are, about Pavitt editing down a sound collage on Nirvana’s first single against Cobain’s wishes. “Doing exactly what a major label would do and claiming to be such an independent label.” Cobain even wrote “Big Cheese” about Poneman’s string-pulling.
“We got lost in the shuffle,” says Chris Slusarenko of Sprinkler, one of the bands Sub Pop signed in the great Portland Invasion of 1991. “I thought since they had been so close to being bankrupt they’d be a little more careful or selective, but instead it seems like they’ve gotten tons of bands.” When an impoverished Pavitt and Poneman came down to Portland, Slusarenko had to buy them dinner; six months later it was a different story. “It’s a big change from having Jonathan or Bruce sleep on your floor to not being able to get them on the phone,” says Slusarenko.
“We never felt we were a Sub Pop priority,” says Ron Nine of Love Battery, now signed to Atlas/A&M Records. According to Nine, once Sub Pop learned that Love Battery was exploring other label options, they soft-pedaled the release of the band’s new album, Far Gone, despite the record’s considerable production cost. “Jon mentioned to our manager that it would be ‘buried’ because we were signing to another label,” says Nine, who remains friendly with the pair despite the bad business blood.
“I never said anything of the sort,” says Poneman, emphatically denying that Sub Pop prioritizes bands. “‘Buried’ is not part of my lexicon. As far as I’m concerned, we did our part. The whole idea that I am going to take a record and forget about it is absurd. It is up to the band and it is up to the marketplace. We’re a record label, and we do the same things other record labels do. We try to maintain a certain amount of humanity, decency, intimacy, and flexibility in what we do, but at the end of the day it’s a business, and I don’t have any apologies for that. I think that a lot of times bands have a skewed way of looking at things….People have to take accountability for their own careers. I’ve had to. Everybody does. You can’t blame one party or the other for why you’re not a rock star. I don’t sit there and throw darts and say, ‘Well, the bull’s-eye will be Love Battery and the outer ring will be Mudhoney.’ That’s counterproductive, unprofessional, and ultimately it’s preposterous.”
The fact remains that Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman are multimillionaires, and most of the musicians associated with their label are not. By and large, the artists are grateful for the opportunities the indie kingpins have provided them. Still, no matter how familial things get, no matter how touchy-feely the managment-labor relations appear to be, Pavitt and Poneman run a record company, and their last line of defense is invariably the bottom one.
It’s the week before the signing of the Warner deal and Pavitt has just returned from Los Angeles, where he and Poneman saw Sunny Day Real Estate play a show at the Viper Room. With a video in rotation at MTV and sales of over 65,000 for its debut album Diary, SDRE is Sub Pop’s hottest band right now, but it’s also on the verge of breaking up. Singer-guitarist Jeremy Enigk announced in an Internet posting that he has given his life to Jesus Christ, and wants to devote his future music to spreading the gospel, a career move which isn’t completely shared by his bandmates or by Pavitt. While he respects Enigk’s beliefs, Pavitt isn’t comfortable with a record whose content might endorse the agenda of the religious right. At least initially. After a moment’s pause, Pavitt has devised another marketing plan. “It could be a brilliant new direction for Sub Pop,” muses Pavitt about a Christian emo-core album. “Get the full-on endorsement from Newt.”
Wooing the architect of the Contract With America is just a joke, but these days anything seems possible given the label’s aesthetic flux. As Pavitt has assumed more of a background role at Sub Pop, so too has the raucous high-energy rock he used to champion. Where once Pavitt and Poneman promoted the music of Northwest bands with an almost jingoistic fervor, now there are as many bands from the Canadian Maritime provinces on the label as there are from Seattle. Where once Sub Pop stood for lighter-flickin’, hair-swingin’, bong-hittin’ rock, now the label’s major export is light, melodic, college radio pop. Where once the label’s attitude was embodied by the leviathan lumberings of Tad or the (quite literally) naked aggression of the Dwarves, now the label pinups are more likely to be the terminally bland Velocity Girl, a band so freshly scrubbed you want to pinch their cheeks more than tap your feet. The label even boasts an ersatz lounge band, Combustible Edison, playing homage to the glorified cocktail Muzak of yesteryear. What in the name of teen spirit is going on?
“A lot of people who appreciate the early records might be disappointed in some of the stuff we work with now,” says Pavitt, “but in a lot of ways it’s just us saying, ‘We’re not one-dimensional dudes who put out grunge rock.'”
Case in point: Sub Pop night at Seattle’s Crocodile Club. For this evening’s showcase, Poneman has flown in Glasgow’s Painkillers, the new band of former Vaseline Frances McKee. Performing as a duo, their amateurish charm barely gets them by. Next up is Vancouver’s Zumpano, a youthful quartet who attempt to evoke prepsychedelic West Coast ’60s pop groups like the Turtles; unfortunately, they sound more like the Partridge Family. The band all wear sportcoats, but not matching ones, which distinguishes them from the evening’s headliner, Combustible Edison. Combustible’s urbane renewal grooves with all the schmaltz and none of the conviction of a bar mitzvah band, playing soft and saying nothing. When bandleader the Millionaire announces, “This next number is reminiscent of mysterious foreign lands we’ve never been to; it’s called ‘Breakfast at Denny’s,'” there’s enough irony in the room to take all the wrinkles out of your clothes.
It’s admirable that Sub Pop moved away from its signature sound before it grew stale, but for a label that made its mark stressing its identity above all else, it’s quite a turnabout to be without one. Company sales may be up, and Sebadoh, for one, enjoys substantial critical and underground credibility, but a Sub Pop release is no longer a subcultural event. A few years back it released a label compilation called Revolution Come and Gone–wink wink, grunge grunge–but it’s turned out to be more confession than sarcasm. Having rewritten history, Sub Pop’s mission may have run its course. “We live in such an accelerated culture it’s almost weird to think of something that happened four years ago as being historical,” says L7’s Finch. “But I don’t think that the kind of presence Sub Pop had still exists.”
“When it comes to pop culture, timing is everything,” says Pavitt. “Sure, a lot of people could say we were in the right place in the right time, but if we weren’t there and Sub Pop wasn’t there, none of that shit would have happened. Nirvana would be playing the Evergreen dorms right now. Seriously.”
For now, Pavitt and Poneman are content reveling in the contradictions of their status, and their scene. Such is the Sub Pop way. “Fake indie or fake major,” muses Pavitt. “I still haven’t it figured it out.”